Some of my friends, only half-jokingly, refer to me as “the theologian of dirt.” I quite like that description. It puts me in a good location and in good company, particularly if we remember the scene in Genesis 2 where God is in the garden with hands in the dirt, holding the soil so close as to breathe the warmth of life into it. What a shocking and profound picture of God. What a contrast to other ancient pictures of the divine as aloof or violent. God the gardener loves soil, enriches and waters it, and blesses its growth so that our years might be crowned with bounty (Psalm 65). As a matter of ecological order, if God didn’t love soil, along with all the plants and animals that depend on it, God couldn’t love you or me–because there would be no you or me to love. We come out of the ground, depend on it daily for nurture and support, and will eventually return to it. The day God ceases to cherish and breathe life into the soil is also the day we all cease to exist (Psalm 104).
Scripture is clear that we are supposed to share in God’s love for the ground. Adam is created from out of the soil (adamah) and then is promptly told to take care of it (Genesis 2:15). Human identity and vocation center on the work of gardening, because it is through gardening that we learn who we are (dependent on and nurtured by soil), where we are (in a vulnerable world in need of protection and care), and what the goal of our living is (sharing God’s delight for a garden-world that is beautifully and wonderfully made). By becoming gardeners we are given the opportunity to participate in–and thus learn to appreciate, even if only minimally–God’s attentive, patient, weeding, and watering ways with the world. The “garden of delight”–for this is what the Garden of Eden literally means–is our first home. It is the place where we discover God’s creating love made fragrant, tactile, audible, visible, and delectable.
Today’s widespread, systematic destruction of forests, fields, wetlands, and waters indicates that we have refused, sometimes even held in contempt, our gardening responsibilities. We have denied our origin in and dependence on soil. We have forgotten that soil matters deeply to God, and that it is the medium through which God daily shows love for creatures.
In what can be described as a fit of ecological amnesia and plain stupidity–or perhaps rebellion against our condition of exile–we allow soil to erode or be poisoned to death by the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and increasingly toxic herbicides. Rather than living in sympathetic and harmonious relation with the earth and its creatures, we have often opted for neglect, exploitation, and war.
How this has come to be makes for a very complex story. One crucial and highly influential strand centers on a centuries-old disdain for materiality and embodiment. According to this worldview, what really matters about us is our souls. Embodied life, along with the dependence on soil and fellow creatures such embodiment always presupposes, is morally inferior as we make our way to a spiritual, otherworldly heaven. The philosophers Pythagoras and Socrates taught this view in their concept of dualism. For them, death is a happy moment because it marks the moment when the soul is finally freed from the pain, imperfection, and decrepitude of the body. It marks the beginning of the immortal soul’s eternal life of bliss.
Christians have long been tempted by various versions of dualism. They have been attracted to the idea that we can finally be rid of the fragility, vulnerability, and the mess–the dirtiness!–of life when we flee this old world for the bliss of heaven. But Socrates’ teaching is profoundly anti-Christian. Not only does it violate God’s original and continuing affirmation of the goodness of the created material order, it also runs directly counter to the Christian affirmation of the resurrection of the body. Even if we do not know all the implications of the teaching of resurrection, as Christians we are not permitted to hold that salvation amounts to either flight or escape from embodiment or our creation home. God did not become incarnate in the body of Jesus Christ in order to then condemn bodies and leave them behind. He came to heal, touch, and feed them; and in doing so he leads the whole of creation into redeemed, reconciled, and resurrection life.
No passage in Scripture describes this as well as the early Christian hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 that describes Jesus as the icon (eikon) of God. Here we are told “all things in heaven and on earth ... visible and invisible,” were created in him, through him, and for him. All the creatures of the world “hold together” only because Jesus, who is “the fullness (pleroma) of God,” is intimately present to every creature. Literally nothing–no sparrow, no blade of grass, no earthworm, no patch of ground–escapes God’s notice or concern. And then, in words that ought to shock us, we are told that God is reconciling “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
For the early Christian community to speak in this radical way they had to have seen from the beginning that God’s redemptive plan cannot stop with the rescue, and then ethereal flight, of a few individual souls. God’s redemption extends to the whole of material creation because all of it has been loved since time began. God does not ever abandon the bodies of creatures because to do so would amount to a reversal and rejection of the divine love that brought them into being in the first place. It is for this reason that Scripture ends with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and with the New Jerusalem descending to earth, because “the home of God is among mortals” (Revelation 21:3). How disappointing–and frustrating–it will be for the Socratic soul to think it has arrived in heaven by going up and away, only to discover that the true God has come down and here, bringing heaven–the very life and love of God–to earth!
Of course it is one thing to say that God’s reconciling and redeeming ways include the land and all its creatures. It is quite another to figure out what this teaching might practically mean. What does the cross have to say about peace and reconciliation with the land?
One helpful way to get some clarity on it, I think, is to turn our attention to food: what it is, how we get it, and how we eat it. Food joins us to each other, the world, and God. It is the great connector, for as the Cambridge dean William Ralph Inge once put it, “The whole of nature ... is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and in the passive.”
For many people, food registers primarily as fuel to get us through the day. Neither where it comes from nor how it came to be engages our attention or inspires our love. The average American eater spends relatively little time producing or preparing it. How else should we account for the countless drive-thru lines at fast food restaurants and the thousands of microwaveable, precooked food items available in grocery stores? In contexts like these, food is a commodity that we want to get as cheaply, conveniently, and copiously as possible.
This is not how food appears in Scripture. Here we find that food is one of God’s basic ways of nurturing creatures into life and of providing for their most basic needs. It is God’s love made delectable. In Jesus it is God’s love made into the bread that nurtures us into the life of heaven (John 6). This is why the hospitable sharing of food is so important. When we share food we share life and love. When we welcome and feed others in need we also welcome and feed Jesus (Matthew 25). We participate in and extend to others the hospitality that God first and always shows to us.
God’s hospitality is comprehensive. It can be seen at all levels of eating, beginning with the hospitable soil that welcomes organic and mineral matter, transforming death into fresh fertility. It includes the care of all the creatures in the garden, making room for them to grow into strong and healthy beings that can be a source of nurture and help. Reading the prophets, we see that it demands the transformation of economic and political systems that are unjust in their treatment of farmers, workers, and eaters. And it challenges the social expectations that keep eaters segregated from each other or that neatly divide eaters into the welcome and the unwelcome. We need to remember that Jesus was known and despised by religious leaders as the fellow who “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
Relatively little in the way we eat today reflects or extends this divine hospitality. To be sure, we are producing more “cheap” calories than the world has ever seen. But these calories are being provided at a very high cost: the destruction of agricultural land, degradation of water, poisoning of plants, abuse of domestic animals, exploitation of agricultural and food service workers, and ill-health of our own bodies. Remembering that God’s word is to be preached to every living creature under heaven (Colossians 1:23), what would it look like to be good news in contexts like these?
For Christians the nurture of gospel life happens as we are fed at the eucharistic table. Coming to this table with open hands, we receive and eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation so that Jesus can enter into the stomach and heart of our being and transform the eating we do. Christ takes over from the inside so that the growing, harvesting, preparing, sharing, and cleaning up of food can reflect God’s hospitable love for all creatures. Eucharistic eating is not confined to a table in a church building. It includes every kitchen and dining room table, and by implication every garden, field, forest, and watershed.
It is not easy to eat in a just, merciful, and hospitable manner, especially when we see how industrial patterns of production and consumption depend upon and encourage exploitation, anxiety, and ingratitude. Moreover, personal eating habits are very difficult to change (making it all the more important that we be merciful with each other). But churches can bear witness to a better way, joining with Jesus and becoming active participants in God’s soil and food business. Some Christians I know are already doing remarkable things: they are setting up community gardens in abandoned lots, training young people in the arts of gardening, and teaching them to share the gifts of God with others in need. Some are tearing up parking lots or turning over lawns so that church grounds can grow flowers and food. Others are partnering with local farmers to provide fresh, nutritious food to those who do not have enough to eat. The scientists and farmers at ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) are developing innovative ways to grow crops in a world with less soil and water, growing poverty, and rising temperatures.
Eating has never simply been about the filling of a gustatory hole. It is about sharing in God’s feeding, cherishing, reconciling, and hospitable ways with the world. As my students often like to say, “Food is fellowship!” When we eat well we enjoy a taste of the communion life that God wants for us and has been calling us to since the beginning of time. In this mundane but also (potentially) delectable daily act we are invited to bear witness to the wide scope of God’s reconciliation.