nature and civilization :: of dirt and dangerous divisions

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Scraped together out of dirt, humanity is creation rearranged. Our atoms are interchangable with those of birds, bees, monkeys and mollusks. Theologically, no less than biologically or chemically, humanity is continuous with creation. Whatever is going on in the show here, humanity is a part of the scenery.

Some complexity is introduced when God leans down to breathe into the muddled mud-ling he’s put together. Dirt that shows something about God, “images” Him. Humanity has a unique role on the planet we are a part of.

Somewhere along the line, we became civilized. This is mostly measured by the fact that we are no longer dependent on nature in our day to day lives. Signs of civilization include the light bulbs that enable us to read late into the night (a much more convenient form of light than fire…), and the fact that we can live in rediculously uninhabitable places like Antarctica or Alberta. If you are a human being reading this, give your self a pat on the back–you are civilized!

As wealthy Westerners, it is tempting to interpret this functional impervious-ness from “nature” as independence, as a mark of real distinction between us and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. I will be the last one to deride technology and all the benefits of human creativity. That said, independence from nature is a destructive myth, dangerous both ecologically and theologically. Our “civilization” fuels this myth and enables a noxious self-misunderstanding.

Because, whatever the extent of our control, we are still absolutely dependent on “nature.” In other words, the ground we stand on (even if it is paved) is creation. We have learned ways to shield ourselves from surprises, to smooth out the bumps and inconsistencies. We have learned to make ourselves comfortable and at home even in the midst of harsh conditions. But we have not separated ourselves from creation. Even if we dominate and drive it away, we are a part of nature.

Every bite of Twinkie is a bite of creation (however mutilated); with every breath we suck created air into created bodies and expel it again. To tender a more visceral example, every piece of steak or chicken on your shish-kebab was cut from a once-living creature. We are all connected–inextricably related in birth, death and everything in between.

The point may seem mundane. But that is part of the point–we are, all of us, mundane. Seeing creation/nature as “other” than ourselves sets up a competitive dynamic–the “Man vs. Nature” bit. When we set ourselves apart from creation, our control and domination becomes the vehicle by which we “stick it” to nature before we get stuck; we conquer nature, lest we find ourselves conquered.

It’s an old story, but I think that it manifests a false and destructive view of creation. Pay attention to Genesis’ creation story, and watch the way that Adam and Eve’s relationship to creation changes with the Fall. (I’m more interested in the theological points than whatever history the text may or may not present).

At the beginning they find themselves in God’s garden–a place of plenty where their needs are met. They walk naked and unafraid. Their interactions with other creatures involve things like naming (bringing meaning), tending, and serving. Creation is a gift, a place of abundance, a seedbed of life and living things. There is an economy of plenty, and a corresponding lack of fear.

After their disobedience, the first thing that Adam and Eve do is rip off a couple fig leaves and stitch them together. I’d suggest that this action has powerful symbolic significance. We human beings have been trying to cover our asses with creation ever since–and just as with the fig leaves, that hasn’t been very good for creation.

I suggest that our fear and shame toward creation is not the best part of us, and that our “independence” and the myth of the “battle” with Nature are destructive echoes of a really bad day in Eden. Furthermore, while we have changed inside and out, I suggest that creation has not changed fundamentally. We no longer live in the garden that God planted for us, but creation is still a place of plenty. Good dirt launches green skyward–alleluia! We are the ones out of whack.

Our instincts to cover our asses with fig leaves and protect ourselves from creation (and use bits of creation to protect ourselves from one another) belie an assumption of competition and corresponding fear. They function to create an economy of scarcity, of hoarding, of locked doors and walled cities.

The gospel’s good news is ecological as much as it is spiritual. If “all things” are reconciled to Christ through his death, then there can be no more enmity amongst the ta panta running around here. May we live out that redemption, and recognize our place as a part of the new creation.

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