Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. The whole concoction is hilariously fun. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

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Evolution and Our Kids

I was driving down the road the other day with a couple teenage boys. So I asked them “What do you think? Did God make humans in a day or use evolution?” They talked about Genesis 1 being a poem, not a modern scientific essay on biological origins; they talked about its meaning (God is the Creator of everything) rather than taking it literally; they talked about various fossil records and the presence of new species; they talked about DNA, but they didn’t pick a side. “So what do you think – we’re from apes (I know, I know, ramapithecines) or not?” “It doesn’t matter,” they said, “Either way, God did it.” “Really?” I pushed, “Don’t you lean either way? Our skeletons sure look like chimps. And we can tell bears and dogs both came from amphicylines…”

“And raccoons. But, nope,” they said. “I don’t lean either way – it doesn’t matter. Either way, God did it.”

How about that? Those boys are two of my sons. They are passionate, committed Christians who care about the things Jesus cares about. The older one is a ministry leader. The younger one is coming on strong. Neither of them feels a sense of angst facing scientific discovery or theory. “Either way, God did it.”

I’ve often thought that the “crisis of faith” so many American evangelical kids experience in college, when they run up against the theory of evolution, is a crisis created at home and church, and not by the university. By planting our feet and getting set for a fight, forcing an either/or decision regarding evolution or a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2, I think we forced our kids to have to choose between which position seemed to have the most evidence to support it. To the sorrow of many families, their kids not only landed on the side of evolution, they landed somewhere outside of church. Permanently.

But I wonder if we had positioned them more like my sons, would they have fared better, and perhaps been able to hang on to their Christian faith? If we had taught them that however God did it, He did it and we don’t have to be afraid of scientific discovery – whatever we learn is part of God’s amazing creativity (the Nazarene Manual says that). If we had ever mentioned that forms of literature 3,000 years ago were not written as  scientific textbooks… (Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley called Genesis 1 a hymn), maybe we could have cast a vision for a Christian faith big enough for science.

In 1616 the Roman Catholic Church announced that you were not allowed to be a Christian if you thought the earth revolved around the sun. They felt that that idea struck at the root of Christian faith and undermined the whole thing. They had Scripture to back them up: “the sun rises and sets”. We now look back and think that’s silly: obviously we can be Christian and realize the earth revolves around the sun.

But today there are Christian voices telling us that if you believe in evolution you are not allowed to be a Christian. They say you can’t love Jesus, can’t ask him to forgive your sins, can’t live His ways, can’t go to heaven when you die, etc etc. I’m not sure where they ever go the idea that they had the authority to tell me if I am allowed to love Jesus or not.

I haven’t kept up enough with physical anthropology since grad school to make hard and fast conclusions as to what I think about the viability of the evolutionary hypothesis in regards to human origins. But I do believe we need to stop fighting useless battles with science. It just undermines Christian faith and makes us look like you have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian. And it forces our kids to decide between science and Christianity when they go to university – and that’s sadly destructive. Christian faith has always been, and still is, robust enough to include what we learn from science.

Incidentally, I pastor quite a few people who are exemplary Christians, love God deeply, are working in the world in the name of Jesus, loving people and inviting them into relationship with Christ – and they figure the theory of evolution is true.  When they were first being drawn into faith in Christ, the issue of evolution was a huge hurdle for them. They had only met Christians who said you couldn’t be Christian and believe in that scientific theory – and it made them feel like they had to pretend to live in the Middle Ages if they were going to be Christian – and they weren’t ready to be that intellectually dishonest  with themselves. When I told them it was fine – go ahead and love Jesus and put their hope and faith in him – it was within the scope of Christian faith to think God perhaps used evolution in the created order, the relief on their faces was visible.

This isn’t going away. Humans are going to continue to try and understand God’s creation. Thank God, because polio and other dread things are gone because of this curiosity. As we continue to try to understand the world God placed us in, and utilize it in ways that bless and promote human thriving, scientific  theories are going to come and go. Perhaps a less antagonistic stance toward some scientific theories will help us promote a Christian faith that doesn’t needlessly repel people. Or, what I’m trying to say is that perhaps some of the fights we’ve picked with science have hurt the cause of the Kingdom rather than helped it. Some of those fights may have been very unnecessary and counter-productive. It’s something to consider.

Tom Oord has written a nice little article about why Christians should care about science. Here’s the link: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/whole-life/features/27064-10-reasons-christians-should-care-about-science