Today is the second of four Sundays in our annual observance of the Season of Creation. In helping to plan these four weeks, the St. Aidan’s eco-spirituality committee recommended the theme of “Connecting with the Land.” So, in keeping with that, we heard last week from Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo about the importance of place, and how the Indian Act in particular has harmed the connection of First Nations people to the land. Next week Lucy will explore what it might mean for us to be connected to the earth, and in the fourth week Grace Rockett will share how she is involved in efforts to make peace with the earth.
Today, however, the focus is on land, especially as it relates to the planet as a whole. What is the importance of land? How might we think theologically about it? We know from the opening creation story in Genesis that dry land appears on day three, when God separates it from water. Land is where we live; it provides shelter; and its vegetation produces food. The mere existence of land is an inherent good. That much seems pretty obvious.
But if we’re going to think more deeply and theologically about land, I think we need to consider two probing questions. (There are certainly other questions, but I think these two stand out.) First, what is the relation of land and sea? And then, second, what is the relation of land to human behavior? The first question is important because water, for all its life-giving quality, is often presented in the Bible as symbolizing chaos and destruction. For instance, at the very beginning of Genesis, the earth is described as a “formless void” of darkness and deep water. In the story of Noah, a global flood wipes out all non-aquatic life, except for those creatures in the ark. In the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Red Sea is seen as a threat, drowning the Egyptian army after the Israelites had managed to cross over in a mysterious moment of the waters parting. In the story of the wayward prophet Jonah, he is thrown from a ship into the sea and swallowed whole by a whale or shark. In today’s Gospel, the sea is portrayed as a destination of judgment for those who throw up obstacles in the path of children who desire to follow the way of Jesus.
There seems to be a dichotomy throughout the Bible of land versus sea. Land is the focus of creation. Land is what is given to Abraham and his descendants. Land is where the Messiah—the Christ—appears. Land is the site of deliverance and redemption. But the sea—that is a foreboding mystery of chaos and destruction to be approached with trepidation or to be avoided altogether. The problem with this land-sea dichotomy is that it doesn’t help us a great deal in making theological sense of the whole earth—land and water—as good.
One alternative is put forward by Rosemary Radford Ruether, a prominent U.S. feminist theologian. In 1992 she published Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, a book more significant now than when it first appeared. Ruether attempts to reconcile the reality of God with the Gaia Hypothesis. In Greek mythology Gaia is the earth goddess, which is the root of our popular conception of Mother Earth or Mother Nature. The Gaia Hypothesis is a belief that the entire planet is a living system, behaving as a unified organism. What goes on in the oceans and on land is deeply entwined. Global biodiversity is a single integrated life system. Ruether’s thesis is that the life of God and the life of Gaia cannot be disentangled. Who God is lies at the heart of earth’s great web of life, from the depths of the seas to the most built-up urban centers. In what way does all of this inform how we might think theologically about land? I think it compels us to recognize that land never exists as an isolated independent island but is always impacted by what is happening away from land. In other words, making sense of land presupposes that we make sense of the entire planet.
That brings me back to the second question I posed: What is the relation of land to human behavior? The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are a harsh judgment of anyone who becomes a stumbling block to others seeking to walk rightly and justly. In fact, Jesus says, those who are a stumbling block must examine themselves and “cut off” whatever body part is causing the stumbling. The point here, as I understand it, is that land is very much shaped by human behavior on the land. In Jesus’ day, it was easy for the wealthy to disposses the poor. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, must have none of this. If we imagine the kingdom as a way of life, lived locally in a specific place, on the land, Jesus is insisting that social hierarchies and practices of injustice must be eradicated—or there will be hell to pay.
What do we make of Jesus’ rhetoric here? Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that God’s voice in the Bible is all too often a thunderous masculine tone of “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” This is the voice of power and law, she says, even as it speaks on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, to protect the powerless and restrain the powerful. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking in this voice. But there is another voice, suggests Ruether, the voice of Gaia: “Her voice does not translate into laws or intellectual knowledge, but beckons us into communion.” In listening to the Bible, we are certainly familiar with that first voice. It is in the second voice that we can hear God speaking in a different way.
That second voice does not nullify the first, rendering it obsolete. We need to hear both of these holy voices. We need the urgent imperative of the first voice to inspire us to act in the right way. Yet without the second voice, the voice of Gaia, law and command can become heartless, lacking compassion.
Today we hear the strong voice of Jesus, reminding us that there are consequences to our actions—actions which impact others, actions which impact the land, indeed the earth, that sustains us. In heeding the voice of Jesus, we can also listen for the voice of Gaia—in land and water, fire and air—a voice that beckons us into deeper communion with the land on which we walk and the earth in which we move. This communion, we will discover, is nothing less than being drawn ever more deeply into the very heart of God. We need not look far to find God, for God is present to us in every aspect of our planet’s existence. In this Season of Creation, that is surely good news.