Thursday, May 17, 2012

Creation's Goodness: Everything that Lives is Holy

"If we read the Bible, . . . we are apt to discover several things about which modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet or to which they have paid little attention.

We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: 'The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein' (Psalm 24:1). There is our human law, undeniably, the concept and right of 'land ownership.' But this, I think, is merely an expedient to safeguard the mutual belonging of people and places without which there can be no lasting and conserving human communities. This right of human ownership is limited by mortality and by natural constraints on human attention and responsibility; it quickly becomes abusive when used to justify large accumulations of 'real estate,' and perhaps for that reason such large accumulations are forbidden in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In biblical terms, the 'landowner' is the guest and steward of God: 'The land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me' (Leviticus 25:23).

We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve but all of it: 'All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made' (John 1:3). . . .

We will discover that God found the world, as He made it, to be good, that He made it for His pleasure, and that He continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world- not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus dependent on prior belief in the inherent goodness- the lovability- of the world.

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God 'gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; all flesh shall perish together' (Job 34:14,15). And Psalm 104 says, 'Though sendest forth thy spirit, they are created." Creation is thus God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that 'Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God's hidden Being." This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet George Herbert put it:

Thou art in small things great, not small in any . . .
For thou art infinite in one and all.

We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, 'despising Nature and her goodness' was a violence against God. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more, which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations of property. The usurer, Dante said, 'condemns Nature . . . for he puts his hope elsewhere.'

William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that 'everything that lives is holy.' And Blake's great commentator Kathleen Raine was correct both biblically and historically when she said that 'the sense of the holiness of life is the human norm.'

The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows it all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?"

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 96-9

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