Recently I had the privilege of teaching a seminar at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) entitled “Nature Writing in Theological Perspective,” which was the follow-up to a previous year’s seminar on “Theologies of Creation.” Where the first class had focused on constructive theological texts by academic theologians, the second course gave us the opportunity to broaden the scope of genres being considered. With that in mind, we spent an intense two weeks reading such authors as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and others whose work generally receives the label “nature writing.” The goal was to read these classic works of literature and discuss together how theological concepts could shed light on them (and vice versa).
As is always the case with upper-level seminars, the students had various reasons for electing to take the course. However, when I opened the first class meeting by asking why each student had chosen the course, one suspicion of mine quickly was confirmed: many of the students were self-identified “nature lovers,” people who found deep meaning (including spiritual meaning) in the outdoors. They named woods, mountains, national parks, oceans, and beaches as examples of places where they felt they encountered nature as God created it, and felt closer to God as a result.
When people at the seminary tell me these things, I often have the sense that they expect me to share enthusiastic stories of my own about encountering God on camping trips, hikes, etc. And it’s a reasonable expectation — after all, I’ve spent much of the last two years working with ecological issues at both the seminary and with the new website, Lutherans Restoring Creation, a resource designed to help bring attention to environmental concerns to the forefront of the ELCA’s ministry. While I certainly did not begin seminary with the thought of becoming a go-to person for “green” issues, my responding (however imperfectly) to what I have considered to be the clear needs of God’s people in this day and age has resulted in my taking on that role.
However, when faced with testimonies like those of these seminar students, accounts of the sublime spiritual treasures of natural landscapes, I am always tempted to make a confession. The confession would be this: as a city-dwelling library rat for the last decade or so of my life, my spiritually meaningful encounters with the beauty of God’s creation have tended to occur either in locales of tall buildings and concrete, or when my mind has been stuck firmly between the pages of a book. In other words, I am a city lover, and have been for a long time.
That’s not to say that I haven’t earned my bona fides vis-à-vis the landscapes that most consider close to nature in its more pristine state. I grew up in southern Illinois, deep in agricultural country and three hours away from the nearest city. I have hiked in the Rockies, spent several meaningful days camping in Arches National Park in Utah (made famous by Edward Abbey in his classic Desert Solitaire), walked a good portion of the verdant trails of southern Ireland, and currently reside less than five minutes from the Indiana Dunes lakeshore (where my wife and I routinely have to wait patiently for families of deer to pass along out of our way as we jog along the trails where they feed). While my accumulation of mosquito bites, muddied hiking boots, and memories of mountaintop vistas may not rival that of the most committed “outdoorsy” seminarians, I feel like I’ve put in my time in when it comes to those landscapes where many have found a deeper sense of connection with God the Creator.
But the truth remains: I have a deep love for urban landscapes, for architectural achievements, and for the fragile, ambiguous, and tentatively realized rhythms by which city dwellers live and work together. I am well aware of the perils to both the earth and to human happiness present in urban and suburban life; cities are deeply mixed bags, ecologically speaking. But as we in the seminar read such marvelous authors as Annie Dillard, whose piercing and unsentimental gaze at the interactions of insects and stream beds in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek leaves readers feeling like they’ve done a few rounds with God’s angel at the Jabbok, and Wendell Berry, whose straightforward yet unsparing depictions of fidelity to earth stand among the most unsettling bodies of contemporary Christian social critique of which I am aware, I found myself wondering: who is there to sing the praises of encountering God in “creation,” that is, the artificial/artefactual structures that humans have built in our relatively short time on this planet? Where are the “nature writers” of Belmont Avenue?
Such questions may seem “anthropocentric,” disastrously human-centered. And they do run that risk. However, as literary critic Timothy Morton has argued in his provocative book Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Harvard, 2007), there is a parallel danger — endemic to nature writers in particular — of rhapsodizing “pure” nature, putting it on pedestal to where we suddenly realize that the pristine landscapes of which we speak do not exist in real space — only in our fantasies.
After all, as Bill McKibben has famously argued, if we define “nature” as a space that exists apart from human influence, that bears the fingerprints of God but not humanity, then for all intents and purposes “nature” is no more. No part of the planet, from the farthest reaches of Antarctica to the most arid desert, is unaffected by humanity’s actions; the science of global climate change is only the most recent (and perhaps most vivid) reminder of this. On a large scale, the splitting of the atom with its resultant technology has rendered nature plastic to human whims on a scale terrible to comprehend. On a smaller scale, Cabel King, an ecological theologian who along with David Albertson recently edited the collection Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology (Fordham, 2009), recently reminded me that even trips to such “natural” vistas as Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon are highly choreographed affairs — visitors are ushered along carefully tested routes to ensure both safety and scenery.
The loss of “nature” as a “pure” space unblemished by human intervention rightfully induces a melancholy feeling in those who care for God’s earth. But such sadness should not tempt us to retreat into too-easy rhetoric exhorting environmental activism on behalf of a nature so “pure” that it has been stripped of any resemblance to the real spaces in which we carry out our lives. Morton’s favorite example is the wind farm landscape dominated by power-generating windmills: where eyes seeking only purity would look upon those windmills as unsightly human interference in the landscape, eyes that truly love the earth as it currently exists might well perceive a different kind of beauty at work in such “artificial” structures. Indeed, Morton offers his critique of “nature” largely to call us to responsibility for real spaces: the places on this planet where humanity and that which is not human intersect, interact, and mutually determine each other’s fate. Real ecology must proceed on the basis of that responsibility, or it is doomed to irrelevance.
Christians, I believe, are already in a good position to give theological voice to exactly this sort of responsibility. We speak of nature properly as “creation,” the beloved product of God’s benevolent artistry. And many of us, following the work of theologian Philip Hefner, have come to regard humans as “created co-creators,” creatures endowed with God-given abilities to bring new technologies into being. These technologies, be they as winsome as the pacemaker or as threatening as the hydrogen bomb, have in the course of just a few generations transformed the experience of much of the human race from a state where nature stands as a terrifying force from which we need protection (as reflected prominently in Luther’s writings) to one where the natural world is vulnerable to our interventions. Care of God’s creation must be accompanied by a theology that encompasses both “Creation” as God’s work apart from humans and “creation” as our acts of exercising our capacities to shape what God has made.
Joseph Sittler, the theologian whose work first convinced me of the centrality of ecological matters to Christian thinking about both God and the church’s mission, spent several decades crafting the outlines of what such a theology might look like. For Sittler, bearing witness to the effects of God’s grace in a world threatened by human arrogance towards the environment is a necessary theological task that must be carried out, not only in the writings of professional theologians, but in the actions of congregations and church bodies. As he was fond of pointing out, “stewardship” as we often conceive and practice it is not enough; it is an insufficiently ecological concept in that it does not capture how deeply our own fate is implicated in that of our surroundings. In fact, since much of the audience for Let’s Talk is in the Chicago area, I would strongly commend the chance to take advantage of the Joseph Sittler Archives housed at LSTC (more information available at josephsittler.org). While Sittler is often thought of as a historical precursor to today’s ecological theology, I believe that he continues to think far ahead of us. A day or two spent with his writings, including the numerous unpublished pieces housed in the Chicago collection, is food for the soul.
And speaking of Chicago: it seems to me that the Metropolitan Chicago Synod is in a prime position to think about what the church can do in spaces where the human fingerprints upon the landscape are all too clear. Unlike our sisters and brothers in the coastal or mountainous regions, most of us in the Chicagoland area cannot appeal to grand “natural” vistas to fire the environmental imaginations of our congregations. Our mission work on behalf of God’s people and God’s creation must embrace a different sort of ecological — indeed, theological — imagination. Fortunately, many congregations in the Metro Chicago synod have taken up this task with powerful results; in fact, there is reason to think that these efforts might be instrumental in provoking further possibilities in other urban areas. City and suburban landscapes are on the front lines of ecological ministry; if we cannot reverence nature here, then we cannot reverence it anywhere.
I conclude with one last classroom story. In class, I sometimes lead the students through an exercise where we read some of the worship documents that were produced as precursors to the newest hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In most of those writings, the sections dealing with materials to be used in worship often have harsh things to say about the use of artificial, as opposed to “natural,” flowers in the worship space. The documents convey the sense — sometimes by means of explicit argumentation — that only what is purely “natural” can properly reflect God’s glory. While I have no great love for plastic flowers per se, I do seek to challenge the students: whether it’s with flowers or something else, how do we honor the products of human “creation” in such a way that honors their God-gifted character? What altars, so to speak, are appropriate spaces for such creations? How can the churches themselves be spaces that celebrate the ecological intersection of Creation and creativity, both within and beyond their walls? A world currently longing for a word of hope about the bygone “nature” of years past may well be blessed by the possibilities that come about when the church, in its preaching and in its actions, brings the full resonance of “creation” to our common future.