This article continues the Rootedness series. You can read the first article here, or the immediately preceding article here.
There are two things you should know about me: both my parents are trained biologists, and I myself am wary of any theology that implies humanity is somehow greater than, or in charge of the fate of, all the rest of this fabulous reality.
So it might not surprise you to find out I ended up in a heated argument with a Christian theologian and ethicist about evolution. Oh, not whether or not it exists, we both agree on that. His argument was that survival of the fittest and evolution itself only exist because of The Fall, and human sin. (The Fall is a Christian doctrine that posits that the whole of creation was corrupted when Adam and Eve took a bite of the forbidding fruit in the Garden of Eden and introduced sin into the world.)
After all, he said, survival of the fittest is cruel and therefore must be the result of sin. His argument was a good bit more complex than that, but it boiled down to this: death is the ultimate enemy and exists because of human sin. Which requires some mind bending logic if you also believe in evolution and the ancientness of life on Earth (predating humanity by billions of years), and some really human centric thinking when you also can agree that living creatures existed, lived, and died billions of years before humans evolved.
But the conversation also revealed to me just how removed from the life of the natural world human theology and spirituality has become, especially in the Christian dominated West. Once you agree that Jewish and Christian scriptures are not literal history the question becomes: when did sin and death begin, was it with Lucy? Homo neanderthalensis? Homo Erectus?
The strangeness goes deep. If death is the Ultimate Enemy then predators are evil. But any biologist will tell you that without healthy predation prey species die horrific deaths of starvation and disease brought on by over population. And one only has to look at the ways wolves, reintroduced to Yellowstone, healed the whole ecosystem to begin to wonder if maybe death and predation isn’t the problem.
Western Christianity has placed human beings at the center of creation, we’ve tied the fate of the whole world to ourselves, and in our own sinfulness have condemned all of creation as “fallen” or broken. It never seems to have occurred to us that perhaps our sinfulness is our break from the rest of creation.
It contributes to the idea that we can and should exploit the created world (since it is broken and “fallen” anyway and needs to be remade), that we are somehow above or beyond its concerns and it further alienates us from relationship with the whole rest of creation.
We remake nature in our image and for our preference. Instead of learning from the natural world we assume it is inherently broken and therefore has nothing to teach us. It becomes a resource to be exploited, perhaps even a tool (in its destruction) of being about “end times” and forcing God to remake it (and us) into perfected versions of ourselves. (Enter capitalism and eventually the tendency to see not only the natural world, but even other humans, as resource to exploit.)
But none of that makes sense in a world where the universe is billions of years old, where life (on this planet) has existed for a mind boggling 3.5 billion years, where countless species have risen and vanished long before the earliest recognizable ancestors of humans evolved.
It doesn’t even make sense from the meaning making stories (myths) on which our Western culture rests. The creation stories in Genesis don’t anywhere say that creation has “fallen” with human beings. Human beings aren’t even “fallen,” just changed. There’s a great deal of cultural assumption that’s been layered on top of those old stories. But at their base the creation stories in Genesis (sacred to Jews and Christians both) has God call creation good. And that appellation is never retracted.
What if the world is not something we must transcend, or escape, but reenter? What if the natural world is the blueprint, and we the wandering children who have rebelled against the web of relationship and care, life and death, all around us?
I think about the indigenous story of First Woman (as retold by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass). How First Woman had no land to stand on, and the animals one by one dove down into the dark water to bring up mud to make land for her. How muskrat gave his life diving for that paw full of mud that she might have a place to stand (on turtles back).
There is no fall, no brokenness in this particular indigenous story of how the world came to be. There is only the way that life is: gift, and life and death walking hand in hand.
From death, life.
It is the story of all life, even herbivores require death (partial or whole) for their own life to continue. The death of an apple, eaten by a hungry doe eventually leads to a new apple tree miles away where her droppings fall, transport and fertilizer, and food in a sacrificial gift.
When we talk about rootedness, belonging, place, and our relationship with the natural world we need to interrogate our starting place. We need to examine the messages we’ve been raised with, and the stories we exist within. What do those stories say about the natural world, about the places we live, about the beings we share this world with? What do they say about us? And especially what do they say about our relationship with one another? (We, the world, all the living things in it.)
We have learned to acknowledge that the society in which we exist is racist, whether or not we ourselves are working to dismantle racism or not. And we need to acknowledge similar issues around our understanding of land, the natural world, and our place in them.
If you live in the West you live in a society shaped by Christianity, colonialism, and capitalism. And the values and teachings of those systems are baked in. That isn’t to say the Christianity is all bad or must be thrown away. But we must become aware, we must ask questions, we must search for the answers that help us heal what is fractured.
We need to examine the ways Christian readings of scripture have shaped the way we relate to the natural world, we need to become aware that Jewish people read those same scriptures differently. And we desperately need to listen to the stories of indigenous peoples, which can give us an entirely new lenses to view ourselves, our world, and the Divine.
That is not just the work of all of us, but each of us.
Next article here.