Humans and Humus: In Search of a Christian Ecology

Dhruva Reddy,

The history of humanity is the history of the adam. God took good dirt (adamah), and from it, fashioned very good humans (adam), Adam and Eve. These humans were free to eat and enjoy God’s creation but were given limits. This history is the history of a creature that could not abide by the given limits of God’s creation, the consequences of which are spelled out in Genesis 3. There was enmity between humans and other creatures, and the ground refused to yield its bounty. The humans’ efforts to overcome this curse by force of will or technological prowess did not prevail.
Eventually, some of the humans of Genesis were known as the Children of Israel. The covenant relationship between God and Israel, far from being an abstract legal arrangement, was to be the restoration of humanity in a particular place on earth. The relationship between God and Israel was to be in the Promised Land, a place where the rain would come, and the crops and livestock would grow according to the grace of God, not the technological impositions of empire. Life in the land of God’s covenant love was to be characterized by care for creatures, rest for the land, mercy to the marginalized, and inclusion of the foreigner.
Unfortunately, the realization of this covenant was never to be achieved. Israel slaughtered the original inhabitants of that land, oppressed the poor, and feared and mistreated the foreigner. In the end, Jeremiah could only cry out in despair as he looked upon this blasted land, and “lo, it was waste and void” (Jeremiah 4:23).
According to a recent study, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” the Indigenous population of the Americas was around 60.5 million in 1492. Over the next century, 90 percent would die of disease, warfare, and slavery, leading to a general societal collapse. This act of genocide had a surprising side-effect; with the sudden collapse of anthropogenic activity on the land, new plant life quickly established itself and carbon was sequestered in the soil at unprecedented rates. By the turn of the 17th century, this mass removal of carbon from the atmosphere triggered a two-degree period of cooling at the beginning of the Modern Period called the “little ice-age.”
In 1750, the Industrial Revolution began in earnest, and with it came a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere. By the turn of the 20th century, scientists began wondering if the earth was beginning to rapidly heat up and if that warming was due to human causes. By the end of the century, a broad consensus had been reached that yes, the earth is warming at a precipitous rate, and that it is largely human activity driving it.
There’s a lot of ecological discourse that leans on concepts like “untrammeled wilderness” and dichotomizes between nature and culture. In this discourse, humanity is separate from and antagonistic to “pristine” nature. This discourse hides the great act of erasure I noted above, the mass genocide of Indigenous peoples who were deeply implicated in the life and well-being of these lands for millennia prior to settler contact. Calls to “let nature take its course” are the result of a fragmented ecological perception that has first secured an ugly ditch between humanity and the earth, and then closed its ears to the crying voices in soil that are the blood of our siblings (Genesis 4:10).
Considering these missteps, Pope Francis’ advocacy for an “integral ecology” in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, is an invaluable resource for the Church today. Francis notes that, when we speak of the environment, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (Francis, §139).
Francis’ call for an integral ecology is nothing less than a fresh articulation of the ancient wisdom our scriptures have for us. Humans are deeply implicated in the life and well-being of all created things. This is not, as some have assumed, because of some paternalistic obligation humans have to other creatures. Rather, we are implicated precisely because from the humus come humans. We are creatures of this earth, our relationship with the other creatures of this earth is deeper even than our shared DNA. The history of our sin is the history of our denial of our place within this integrated creation. As Paul Kingsnorth notes in his article, “Life versus the Machine” in Orion Magazine, our sin is to declare that:

“we are as gods, but we have failed to get good at it, and now we have run out of time. And we are not the gods we thought we would be. We are Loki, killing the beautiful for fun. We are Saturn, devouring our children. We are Moloch: come, feed your newborn into our fires.”

We have run out of time to be gods, but in Christ we have all the time in the world to be humans. Humanity seeks to overcome its own placed particularity, but in Jesus, all the glory of deity is clothed in fleshly intimacy with creation. Jesus’ life does not take place just anywhere, it takes place precisely in the hill-country of Galilee. Jesus does not minister in general, but appears to this woman, at that well (John 4). He appears to those disciples, on that road (Luke 24). Jesus is intimately present within the limitations of creation in exactly those ways that humanity violently rebels against.
For the Church to adopt the integral ecology of Laudato Si’ is to learn to consider the sparrow of the field and the lilies of the field. It is to greet Sister Moon and Brother Sun with thanksgiving. But it is more than this; it is to acknowledge that the way we treat our young is tied into the logic of how we regard the health of our soil. That caring for the old is related to how we care for our forests. That recognizing Indigenous sovereignty and creating room for new immigrants is reflected in our decisions around managing our watersheds. That the “wild” places of this vast country represent home for an interconnected web of plants, animals, and people.
Our ascent to divinity failed, but divinity came down and gave us a chance to live humanely again. To live humanely is to accept the limits of creation. It is to learn the grammar of “enough.” It is to draw our attention to the presence of absences, the bees that have stopped humming, the birds that have stopped singing, and the people who have been silenced, excluded, or erased. A Christian integral ecology is an invitation into a life of creaturely intimacy made possible in the fleshly particularity of Jesus of Nazareth.
Ryan Turnbull is the Director of CHAI Immigrant Centre, an ecumenical Christian organization that provides friendship and social supports for newcomers. Having grown up on a cattle ranch in western Manitoba, Ryan has a deep interest in the intersection of theology, ecology, place, and friendship. Ryan worships at St. Margaret’s Anglican, where he occasionally lay-reads and preaches.

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