Saving Soul and Soil
Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology
The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared. Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready. Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond. Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i]
The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood? The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others. We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health. What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.”
The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment. I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii] A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort. He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii]
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.” People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world. More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures. Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward? This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be. Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv] The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.” Both are required.
My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism. We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century. As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared. We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles. There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences. We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work. We were not ready to be at our best.
I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity. There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future. In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani. Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo. No. I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins. Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together. Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus. In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith. We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.
In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.
[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.
[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31
[iii] Ibid, pp. 27-28.
[iv] Ibid, p. 2