‘Our Modern Ailment’

For over a hundred years, Western writers have bemoaned a condition they have called various things, perhaps most often ‘our modern ailment.’ As we export modern, Western life to the rest of the world,  people working in international development have been wrestling with this for the last 50 years, as well. Simply put, ‘our modern ailment’ is the idea that alongside the good things that technology and the modern life have brought us, we have lost something of our humanity, community and soul. Important parts of our former ways of life have faded away, and people are the worse for it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of serious writers and thinkers have looked at society and remarked about this in the last 100-150 years.

The last couple of years reading agrarian philosophers Henry Beston and Wendell Berry have stirred up my thoughts on this issue, although I always noticed it. My shorthand definition of agrarianism is the idea that people are better off more in touch with the earth in small farming communities where human relationships are close and there is a connection to the rhythms of life connected to the land. An addendum would include saying that many modern conveniences have stolen away the formative benefits of many tasks, including the relational and creational aspects of them.

Example: Four people raking leaves together talking, is better than one person alone with a leafblower and earbuds. Five people in a kitchen canning peaches, laughing and enjoying one another is better than one person buying a can of peaches at a store. The growing interest I have observed among 20 and 30-something year olds today in doing things the old way, from making apple cider together to gardening antique varieties of produce to cooking parties or learning to woodwork, blacksmith, hunt, raise chickens, you name it – all indicate people are yearning for a more tactile and Creation-connected life than the hyper-modern world has delivered. Mother Earth News and its ilk remain for a reason.

There are a variety of ways in which “modern conveniences” have backfired sociologically and  in the human psyche. Can we learn to live a life of joy, connectedness, and wholeness? Can we recover some of the things our great-grandparents knew brought meaning to life? And does Christian faith have a valuable contribution to bring to the table in being connected to one another and the natural world God made? If it does, we will have to rediscover the broader world of the Bible in place of the narrow, modern consumer version of  evangelicalism so common in the West.

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Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

Slow Ways and Means

If you are a practicing Christian investing your energy in the Kingdom of God, or a person working for the betterment of the world, maybe you should realize this will not be quick.  Almost every image Scripture (and Jesus!) used – seeds, trees, vineyards –  are images of slow.

I am pastoring again. I thought that phase of my life was over, but it is not. I am on the shores of Lake Erie with wonderful folk in an exciting church. And lots of snow.

Pastoring is slow business. Church growth sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t – it depends on lots of factors – and I’ve known it both ways. But pastoring is slow. It requires patience, to do it well. It involves a long obedience in the same direction, and you walk slowly through the years with people in their lives. As I said, it requires patience, because most of its best outcomes require time to germinate and come to fruition. It’s probably good I’m a gardener and tree-planter, fisherman and hunter too, as these things propagate patience in the soul. Having pastored some 22 years, I’ve become much more patient about these things than I used to be. And patience is a cousin to wisdom. Hard-charging isn’t the answer to every problem, though our culture certainly likes it, and it can cause outcomes you didn’t foresee, because you are rushing in – something Solomon said about fools.

So the ways and means of pastoring – and Christian spirituality for that matter – are slow. God is inefficient, one person quipped, just look at the Old and New Testament story – long and winding. I am thinking about this because I am reading Northern Farm by the great American naturalist Henry Beston. Whether you are working in International Development or something else, these words probably apply. At one spot, Beston says this:

“There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this – that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.

 In our barn the larger beams were worked over and squared by someone using what was probably an old-fashioned ship builder’s axe. They are honestly and carefully made, and something of the humanity of the past is in them to this day. Certain other beams have been sawed out, and they are good beams, too, though quite different in look and feeling. The means used in making have marked each kind of beam for all time.

 But I do not wish to labor the point. It is enough to say that prophets of expediency who are careless of the means they use and who work outside the human and moral values, have never been able to build anything humanly worth while.” (Henry Beston, Northern Farm; 1948. Pgs 70-71).

Evangelicals resisting environmental concern

In Genesis, man’s first vocation and directive is to be a steward of the Earth. It’s his job description – tend the garden and take care of it. Manage God’s creatures. It seems ironic that evangelicals, a group with a large number of people clamoring to take the whole Bible literally, (and especially Genesis 1 & 2), have a vocal and popular set of leaders who distance themselves from, and denigrate the idea, of deep concern for climate change or the environment. This is likely in part due to the fact that American evangelicals (and especially their leaders) wedded themselves to the Republican Party machine, and that platform is concerned that overly restrictive environmental regulations would crush American businesses and the economy, jobs, etc.

Genesis tells us humankind was made from the dirt of the ground. Science agrees. My Huron friend has said to me, ‘Calling the Earth our Mother, as my people do, is biblically sound.’ But modern American Christianity seems to have lost our sense of connectedness to the Earth, and acts as if, aside from utilitarian value, Earth is a place that doesn’t matter overmuch because our goal is to leave. (When actually the story that the Bible tells ends here on earth – with God living here with us – not us leaving to live somewhere else with God. Pay attention.)

Today I find it very common among evangelicals to downplay concern over the planet as a waste of time, since our main job should be converting people to Christianity. Considering this is the same group of people who often clamor for us to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, I find it ironic that they don’t have much to say about  –literally – the only job description for humanity found in those two chapters: caring for the Earth, tending the garden. How in the world did we get to this point?

More, modern evangelicalism has actually spoken quite directly against environmental activism, calling it nature worship. I recently read a comment on a website where someone said ‘I will never send my kid to that Nazarene college because they have embraced environmentalism.’ Fascinating.  Being evangelical has been correlating to thinking human-caused Global Warming is a hoax – which I suspect means a healthy dose of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  Evangelicals, of course, are people who often appreciate and enjoy the natural world in various ways, but have lost the sense that there is something theological and central regarding humanity and earth. They need to read the Christian farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to help them regain the Biblical sense of living in Creation. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning.  I don’t doubt that a few generations from now, Christians will look back on evangelicalism’s distancing itself from concern for the planet and view us as something strange and immoral like Holocaust deniers or Southern slave owners.

In 1928 Henry Beston spent a year living in solitude in a small one room cottage on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Reflecting on his experience, he said this:

“It is the meditative perception of the relation of ‘Nature’ (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last the more dread” (The Outermost House, 1928; pg. x).

The Zen of Surf Fishing

Every year my family takes a pilgrimage for a week or two to one of two barrier islands on the North Carolina coast.  Topsail Island and Holden Beach are quiet places with mostly just houses. This is not your boardwalk kind of beach. Instead of T-shirt shops and noise, this is a tranquil juncture of sand and water, sky, dune, sun, the sound of waves, gulls and the wind. We go in the off season (bring wetsuits!) so we mostly have the place to ourselves. We can set out surf rods, swim, snorkel, hunt for shells and shark’s teeth, swim, surf and cast spoons all at the same time without worrying about crowding anyone.  The houses we rent sit right on the dunes themselves, you walk off the back porch and onto the sand.  Paradise. Oftentimes we go with my wife’s extended family, all of us great friends, so it’s also a reunion event.

One of my chief pursuits while there is the surf fishing. Mullet, pompano, flounder, redfish, drum, blues, sea trout, and shark cruise the shorebreak. I could do this from morning til night and never get bored. Sheer delight. And although I love the fish, both on the line and in the skillet, the experience isn’t dependent on the catch.

It’s the zen. The rituals of preparing the rods and tying rigs are done slowly, meditatively. “Like a samurai putting on his armor,” my teenage son intones. He understands it. Standing  at the edge of the continent I am totally peaceful, my mind at ease, I am just there. The wet sand underfoot, the sound of the waves, the view out to sea, sunlight on my body, the sound of gulls, terns, kittywakes,  there is a quiet that settles in on me. And God is all around. Calm, my mind empties. I am in this place of sun, water and sky, just God and myself. Totally immersed in the natural world that God made. Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House in the 1920s after spending a year living in a shack on a remote stretch of Cape Cod, captures better than I can the soothing solitude and natural rhythms of this part of Creation. I cannot summon the words to adequately describe the experience. After years of doing it, it takes only a moment for my mind to unwind once I am standing there with the Daiwa rod in hand, finger on that 17 lb. test Cajun Red.

The things needed for me to do in my regular daily life mean I couldn’t live this way 24-7. However, like Isaac out in the fields meditating (Genesis  24:63), I recommend getting alone on a regular basis, daily if you can,  and calming yourself, getting centered in God; praying without hurry. Surf-fishing for a week  gives me a long, wonderful, luxurious dose of that. It is an example of the long Christian tradition of ‘retreat’.