Dirt, Bodies, and Food: Our Reconciliation with Creation
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