‘Theology of dirt’ can stem ecological devastation

By  Sara Stratton, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2013

Sacred Acts: How ChurchesAre Working to Protect Earth’sClimate, edited by Mallory McDuff(New Society Publishers, 288pages, softcover, $17.95).

I recently was on a short study leave from my job co-ordinating ecological campaigns at the ecumenical social justice coalition KAIROS. I half-jokingly referred to my study as “theology of dirt.” So imagine my surprise when I picked up my review copy of Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate and found within it an essay by a self-described “theologian of dirt,” Norman Wirzba of the Duke Divinity School.

Wirzba’s essay, “In God’s Garden: Living the Good News in a Changing Climate,” and Brian Cole’s “The Birds of the Air: Preaching, Climate Change and Anxiety,” are the rich theological humus of this rather curious collection of essays. The book focuses not so much on climate change as it does on the larger question of how Christians are called to live our faith in an industrialized world.

Wirzba takes seriously both the notion that creation began in a garden and the covenantal relationship that we have with the garden’s Creator.

“We have given up on our gardening responsibilities. What we fail to recognize is that in refusing the gardening requirements of attention and care we also condemn the whole world to a place of desolation and want,” he writes.

This demands an agrarian reading of the Bible. It demands a practical theology of dirt.

For his part, Cole asserts that a faith or theology rooted in love of nature to go with love of God “is a wise choice, a sustainable choice … What motivates us is not an avoidance of the fear placed before us, but rather the essential goodness of the life we share in the world.”

The remainder of the essays explore our options for living out such a theology through prayer and reflection, practical tasks and advocacy.

The acts may be intensely personal, as McDuff reveals in her essay on natural burial. With its use of exotic woods, concrete, steel and noxious substances, the funeral industry is no friend of the climate. Large, manicured cemeteries render viable land useless. But as McDuff demonstrates, bypassing the death industry does far more than conserve land and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste. Burying a body so that it can truly return to and feed the earth is a sacramental act. “Our worship and rituals have the power to influence our relationship with the land around us,” she writes. This is perhaps one of the most scared acts that the Church — which remains present in death despite its decline elsewhere on the social landscape — can undertake.

The Church can also continue to witness. Fr. John S. Rausch, a Glenmary priest from Kentucky, offers the example of Appalachian churches opposing the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. The similarities with Canada’s open pit oil sands mines are numerous. Both leave deep scars on the landscape, disrupt the migratory and breeding zones of wildlife and raise questions of how well the disturbed land can be reclaimed. Both are particularly greenhouse gas-intensive.

According to Rausch, the Kentucky Coal Association responded to the churches’ criticism of this practice with a creative quotation from Scripture. The miners encouraged reflection on the meaning of Isaiah 40:4-5: “Every mountain valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Is this the assertion of a biblical call to ecological devastation or an unintentionally ironic vision of the industrial apocalypse?

Rausch’s mode of witness — a prayer vigil at the site of destruction — is part of a long tradition. While it alone will not achieve the desired goal, it is an essential and unique part of what Christians can offer the struggle against ecological devastation. But it must also be accompanied by action.

Other essays offer examples of what such action can be, ranging from offering land for community gardens, increasing energy efficiency in church buildings, becoming active participants in building the renewable energy sector, to seeking legislative change on the use of coal or advocating for the rights of climate refugees. While there is scattered acknowledgement of advocacy on international climate negotiations, readers will get little sense that the global Church has been an active participant in this process, and that is a notable omission.

(Stratton is the education and campaigns co-ordinator on issues of ecological justice for KAIROS.)

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