Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Lutheran Theology of the Land

I've just begun research for an independent study I'm doing this winter at LTSP, studying how we collectively create identities for the places we live in and how those identities affect our faith.  You can find a more detailed proposal for the project here.  While I'm only just beginning my research, I figured it would be worthwhile to briefly share my initial observations, largely developed while reading The Land by Walter Brueggemann.

For quite a while now I've said that in a Lutheran perspective we care for God's creation "from a free and merry spirit."  The idea goes that we want to clean up our environment and cut down on waste not because we're guilt tripped into doing it but rather as a voluntary response to the sense of joy we experience in creation...  Simply put, the more we experience the beauty of nature, the better we want to take care of it.  At this point in my research (and mostly because of Brueggemann) I need to modify that idea.

In his book Brueggemann makes a distinction between the Biblical concepts of "earth/ creation" and "land," particularly in the Old Testament.  I'm only about halfway through the book, but basically "earth/ creation" is an idealization, something that's absolutely perfect, only existing in the Garden of Eden and thereby something outside of human history.  It's not that "earth/ creation" doesn't exist... it's not quite an abstraction, but simply something that is fleeting in its perfect potentiality.  We can only experience "earth/ creation" for a moment... think of beautiful mountaintops, pristine lakes and lush jungles... that sort of thing.  Those places exist, but pretty soon a storm blows over the mountain, the lake floods and a jungle monkey throws poop at you.  "Earth/ creation" is fleeting and is accordingly referred to in the Bible mainly in the initial creation stories.

"The land" however is something entirely different... it's not only a central character in human history, it is the central character through which God reaches God's people.  Land is something partially defined by our human relationship to it, and is therefore not just made up of perfect "natural" settings.  For instance, I'm currently moving out of my childhood home, and the place definitely has certain connotations for me... I grew up there, I experienced great joys there, my mother died there.  When a new family eventually moves in, they will develop a whole new conceptualization of place or "the land" for my old home. "The land" was always changing for the Israelites as well.  For folks like Abraham and Moses "the land" was a promise not yet fulfilled.  For folks like Deborah and King David, "the land" was both a gift and a set of responsibilities.  For Ezra and Nehemiah, "the land" represented a new covenant, another chance and hope for the future.

While "earth/creation" is a beautiful idea, and a gift I do believe we all can occasionally experience through the eyes of grace, it's also not something concrete... Even the few of us who live in absolutely pristine spaces cannot experience the perfection of "earth/ creation" all the time.  For me the most beautiful place in the world is Camp Calumet in New Hampshire, but what about black fly season or slipping and falling on the ice?  "The land" however is something we can all relate to all the time... it includes dirty city streets, upper class subdivisions and even the town dump.  I was a bit off when I formerly told folks that we care for the environment "out of a free and merry spirit" once we experience the beauty of the earth.  I was asking people to go out and try to experience something that is at best fleeting, and also pretty rare.  Rather, as we learn more about "the land" around us, learn about its history, its joys and sorrows, and the sense of gift and responsibility that goes with it, perhaps then we will be encouraged to better care for the planet.

God's peace,

No comments:

Post a Comment