Christianity and The Survival of Creation
I confess that I have not invariably been comfortable in front of a pulpit; I have never been comfortable behind one. To be behind a pulpit is always a forcible reminder to me that I am an essayist, and in many ways a dissenter. An essayist is, literally, a writer who attempts to tell the truth. Preachers must resign themselves to being either right or wrong; an essayist, when proved wrong, may claim to have been "just practicing." An essayist is privileged to speak without institutional authorization. A dissenter, of course, must speak without privilege.
I want to begin with a problem: namely, that the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world, and the uselessness of Christianity to any effort to correct that destruction, are now established cliches of the conservation movement. This is a problem for two reasons: First, the indictment of Christianity by the anti-Christian conservationists is, in many respects, just. For instance, the complicity of Christian priests, preachers, and missionaries in the cultural destruction and the economic exploitation of the primary peoples of the Western Hemisphere as well as of traditional cultures around the world, is notorious. Throughout the five-hundred years since Columbus's first landfall in the Bahamas, the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant, too often blandly assuming that his cause was the same as theirs. Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures. It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent as most industrial organizations to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics. The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation.
The conservationist indictment of Christianity is a problem, secondly, because, however just it may be, it does not come from an adequate understanding of the Bible and the cultural traditions that descend from the Bible. The anti-Christian conservationists characteristically deal with the Bible by waving it off. And this dismissal conceals, as such dismissals are apt to do, an ignorance that invalidates it. The Bible is an inspired book written by human hands; as such, it is certainly subject to criticism. But the anti-Christian environmentalists have not mastered the first rule of the criticism of books: you have to read them before you criticize them. Our predicament now, I believe, requires us to learn to read and understand the Bible in the light of the present fact of Creation. This would seem to be a requirement both for Christians and for everyone concerned, but it entails a long work of true criticism--that is, careful and judicious study, not dismissal. It entails, furthermore, the making of very precise distinctions between biblical instruction and the behavior of those peoples supposed to have been biblically instructed.
I cannot pretend, obviously, to have made so meticulous a study; if I were capable of it, I would not live long enough to do it. But I have attempted to read the Bible with some of these issues in mind, and I see some virtually catastrophic discrepancies between biblical instruction and Christian behavior. I don't mean disreputable Christian behavior, either. The discrepancies I see are between biblical instruction and allegedly respectable Christian behavior.
If, because of these discrepancies, Christianity were dismissable, there would, of course, be no problem. We could simply dismiss it, along with the twenty centuries of unsatisfactory history attached to it, and start setting things to rights. The problem emerges only when we ask, Where then would we turn for instruction? We might, let us suppose, turn to another religion--a recourse that is sometimes suggested by the anti-Christian environmentalists. Buddhism, for example, is certainly a religion that could guide us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans, and our fellow creatures. I have a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself, so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of that Creation which is its subject.
If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those two survivals--of Christianity and the Creation--we are apt to discover several things that modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet about, or have paid little attention to.
We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). There is in our human law, undeniably, the concept and right of "land ownership." But this, I think, is merely an expedient to safeguard the mutuality of belonging without which there can be no lasting and conserving settlement of human communities. This right of human ownership is limited by mortality and by natural constraints upon human attention and responsibility; it quickly becomes abusive when used to justify large accumulations of "real estate," and perhaps for that reason such large accumulations are forbidden in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In biblical terms, the "landowner" is the guest and steward of God: "the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me" (Lev. 25:23).
We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve, but all of it: "all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made" John 1:3). And so we must credit God with the making of biting and dangerous beasts, and disease-causing microorganisms. That we may disapprove of these things does not mean that God is in error, or that the creator ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding--that is, we are "fallen."
We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure; and that he continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world--not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness--the lovability--of the world.
We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God "gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together . . . " Job 34:15). And Psalm 104 says: "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created.... " Creation is God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian, Philip Sherrard, has written that "Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God's hidden being."(n1) Thus we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate. To every creature the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet, George Herbert, put it,
Thou are in small things great, not small in any.... For thou art infinite in one and all.(n2)
We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, "despising Nature and her gifts" was a violence against God.(n3) We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of Nature, but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need, but no more, which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations of property. The usurer, Dante said, "condemns Nature. . . for he puts his hope elsewhere."(n4)
William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that "everything that lives is holy."(n5) And Blake's great commentator, Kathleen Raine, was correct both biblically and historically when she said that "the sense of the holiness of life is the human norm...."(n6)
The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows it all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modem Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?
"The sense of the holiness of life" is not compatible with an exploitive economy. You cannot know that life is holy if you are content to live from economic practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibility. And many if not most Christian organizations now appear to be perfectly at peace with the military-industrial economy and its "scientific" destruction of life. Surely, if we are to remain free, and if we are to remain true to our religious inheritances, we must maintain a separation between church and state. But if we are to maintain any sense or coherence or meaning in our lives, we cannot tolerate the present utter disconnection between religion and economy. By "economy" I do not mean "economics," which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of Nature. To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and in character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians, would be the economy, the practices and the restraints, of "right livelihood"? I do not believe that organized Christianity now has any idea. I think its idea of a Christian economy is no more or less than the industrial economy--which is an economy firmly founded upon the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments. Obviously, if Christianity is going to survive as more than a respecter and comforter of profitable iniquities, then Christians, regardless of their organizations, are going to have to interest themselves in economy--which is to say, in nature and in work. They are going to have to give workable answers to those who say we cannot live without this economy that is destroying us and our world, who see the murder of Creation as the only way of life.
A second reason why the holiness of life is so obscured to modem Christians is the idea that the only holy place is the built church. This idea may be more taken for granted than taught; nevertheless, Christians are encouraged from childhood to think of the church building as "God's house," and most of them could think of their houses or farms or shops or factories as holy places only with great effort and embarrassment. It is understandably difficult for modern Americans to think of their dwellings and workplaces as holy, because most of these are, in fact, places of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation.
The idea of the exclusive holiness of church buildings is, of course, wildly incompatible with the idea, which the churches also teach, that God is present in all places to hear prayers. It is incompatible with Scripture. The idea that a human artifact could contain or confine God was explicitly repudiated by Solomon in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple: "behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee: how much less this house that I have builded?" (1 Kings 8:27). And these words of Solomon were remembered a thousand years later by St. Paul, preaching at Athens:
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands....
For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said.... (Acts 17:24 and 28)
Idolatry always reduces to the worship of something "made with hands," something confined within the terms of human work and human comprehension. Thus Solomon and St. Paul both insisted upon the largeness and the at-largeness of God, setting him free, so to speak, from ideas about him. He is not to be fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature; he is the wildest being in existence. The presence of his spirit in us is our wildness, our oneness with the wilderness of Creation. That is why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is so dangerous, and why it so often results in evil, in separation and desecration. It is why the poets of our tradition so often have given Nature the role, not only of mother or grandmother, but of the highest earthly teacher and judge, a figure of mystery and great power. Jesus' own specifications for the church have nothing at all to do with masonry and carpentry, but only with people; Jesus' church is "Where two or three are gathered together in my name" (Matt. 18:20).
The Bible gives exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) attention to the organization of religion: the building and rebuilding of the Temple; its furnishings; the orders, duties, and paraphernalia of the priesthood; the orders of rituals and ceremonies. But that does not disguise the fact that the most significant religious events recounted in that book do not occur in "temples made with hands." The most important religion in the Bible is unorganized, and is sometimes profoundly disruptive of organization. From Abraham to Jesus, the most important people are not priests, but shepherds, soldiers, men of property, craftsmen, housewives, queens and kings, manservants and maidservants, fishermen, prisoners, whores, even bureaucrats. The great visionary encounters did not take place in temples, but in sheep pastures, in the desert, in the wilderness, on mountains, by rivers and on beaches, in the middle of the sea; when there was no choice, they happened in prisons. However strenuously the divine voice prescribed rites and observances, it just as strenuously repudiated them when they were taken to be religion:
You new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide mind eyes from you: yea, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isa. 1:13-17)
Religion, according to this view, is less to be celebrated in rituals than practiced in the world.
I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a hypaethral book, such as Thoreau talked about--a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. That is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the fuming of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is fumed into grapes.
What the Bible might mean, or how it could mean anything, in a closed, air-conditioned building, I do not know. I know that holiness cannot be confined. When you think you have captured it, it has already escaped; only its poor, pale ashes are left. It is after this foolish capture and the inevitable escape that you get translations of the Bible that read like a newspaper. Holiness is everywhere in Creation, it is as common as raindrops and leaves and blades of grass, but it does not sound like a newspaper.
It is clearly impossible to assign holiness exclusively to the built church without denying holiness to the rest of Creation, which is then said to be "secular." The world, that God looked at and found entirely good, we find none too good to pollute entirely and destroy piecemeal. The church, then, becomes a kind of preserve of "holiness," from which certified lovers of God dash out to assault and plunder the "secular" earth.
Not only does this repudiate God's approval of his work; it refuses also to honor the Bible's explicit instruction to regard the works of the Creation as God's revelation of himself. The assignation of holiness exclusively to the built church is therefore logically accompanied by the assignation of revelation exclusively to the Bible. But Psalm 19 begins: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork." The word of God has been revealed in fact from the moment of the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: "Let there be light: and there was light." and St. Paul states the rule: "the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead. . . " (Rom. 1:20). And from this free, generous, and sensible view of things, we come to the idolatry of the book: the idea that nothing is true that cannot be (and has not been already) written. The misuse of the Bible thus logically accompanies the abuse of Nature: if you are going to destroy creatures without respect, you will want to reduce them to "materiality"; you will want to deny that there is spirit or truth in them, just as you will want to believe that the only holy or ensouled creatures are humans, or only Christian humans.
By denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman Creation, latter-day proponents of religion have legitimized a form of blasphemy without which the nature- and culture-destroying machinery of the industrial economy could not have been built--that is, they have legitimized bad work. Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God's spirit.
In the Bible we find none of the industrialist's contempt or hatred for nature. We find, instead, a poetry of awe and reverence and profound cherishing, as in these verses from Moses' valedictory blessing of the twelve tribes:
And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that croucheth beneath,
And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon,
And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills;
And for the precious things of the earth and fullness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush.... (Deut. 33:13-16)
I have been talking, of course, about a dualism that manifests itself in several ways; it is a cleavage, a radical discontinuity, between Creator and creature, spirit and matter, religion and nature, religion and economy, worship and work, etc. This dualism, I think is the most destructive disease that afflicts us. In its best known, its most dangerous, and perhaps its fundamental version, it is the dualism of body and soul. This is an issue as difficult as it is important, and so to deal with it we should start at the beginning.
The crucial test is probably Genesis 2:7, which gives the process by which Adam was created: "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul." My mind, like most people's, has been deeply influenced by dualism, and I can see how dualistic minds deal with this verse. They conclude that the formula for man-making is: man = body + soul. But that conclusion cannot be derived, except by violence, from Genesis 2:7, which is not dualistic. The formula given in Genesis is not man = body + soul; the formula there is soul = dust + breath. According to this verse, God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; by breathing his breath into it, he made the dust live. Insofar as it lived, it was a soul. The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul. "Soul" here refers to the whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete parts temporarily glued together, but as a single mystery.
We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy it is when Jesus asks, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matt. 16:26) to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the disembodied soul. But if we give to "soul" here the sense that it has in Genesis 2:7, we see that he is doing no such thing. He is warning that, in pursuit of so-called "material possessions," we can lose our understanding of ourselves as "living souls"--that is, as creatures of God, members of the holy community of Creation. We can lose the possibility of the at-one-ment of that membership. For we are free, if we choose, to make a duality of our one living soul by disowning the breath of God that is our fundamental bond with one another and with other creatures.
But we can make the same duality by disowning the dust. The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust. Most of our modern troubles come from our misunderstanding and misvaluation of this dust. Forgetting that the dust too is a creature of the Creator, made by the sending forth of his spirit, we have presumed to decide that the dust is "low." We have presumed to say that we are made of two parts: a body and a soul, the body being "low" because made of dust, and the soul "high." By thus valuing these two supposed-to-be "parts," we inevitably throw them into competition with each other, like two corporations. The "spiritual" view, of course, has been that the body, in Yeats's phrase, must be "bruised to pleasure soul." And the "secular" version of the same dualism has been that the body, along with the rest of the "material" world, must give way before the advance of the human mind. The dominant religious view, for a long time, has been that the body is a kind of scrip issued by the Great Company Store in the Sky, which can be cashed in to redeem the soul, but is otherwise worthless. And the predictable result has been a human creature able to appreciate or tolerate only the "spiritual" (or mental) part of Creation, and full of a semiconscious hatred of the "physical" or "natural" part, which it is ready and willing to destroy for "salvation," for profit, for "victory," or for fun. This madness constitutes the normality of modern humanity and of modern Christianity.
But to despise the body or mistreat it for the sake of the "soul" is not just to burn one's house for the insurance, nor is it just self-hatred of the most deep and dangerous sort. It is yet another blasphemy. It is to make nothing, and worse than nothing, of the great Something in which we live and move and have our being.
When we hate and abuse the body and its earthly life and joy for Heaven's sake, what do we expect? That out of this life that we have presumed to despise and this world that we have presumed to destroy, we would somehow salvage a soul capable of eternal bliss? And what do we expect when, with equal and opposite ingratitude, we try to make of the finite body an infinite reservoir of dispirited and meaningless pleasures? It is the same spite and destruction, the same poor, preposterous assumption that Paradise can be recovered by violence, by assaulting and laying waste the gifts of Creation.
(Times come, of course, when the life of the body must be denied or sacrificed, times when the whole world must literally be lost for the sake of one's life as a "living soul." But such sacrifice, by people who truly respect and revere the life of the earth and its Creator, does not denounce or degrade the body, but rather exalts it and acknowledges its holiness. Such sacrifice is a refusal to allow the body to serve what is unworthy of it.)
If we credit the Bible's description of the relationship between Creator and Creation, then we cannot deny the spiritual importance of our economic life. Then we see how religious issues lead to issues of economy, and how issues of economy lead to issues of art, of how to make things. If we understand that no artist--no maker--can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work, by the way we practice our arts, we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use and what we do with them after we have used them--all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. These questions cannot tee answered by thinking,but only by doing. In answering them, we practice, or do not practice, our religion.
The significance--and ultimately the quality--of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.
If we think of ourselves as merely biological creatures, whose story is determined by genetics or environment or history or economics or technology, then, however pleasant or painful the part we play, it cannot matter much. Its significance is that of mere self-concem. "It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing"--as Macbeth says it is, when he has "supped full with horrors" and is "aweary of the sun."(n7)
If we think of ourselves as lofty souls entrapped temporarily in lowly bodies in a dispirited, desperate, unlovable world that we must despise for Heaven's sake, then what have we done for this question of significance? Not much, I think. For we are still stuck, like Macbeth, in a condemnation of this life and this world, which were not made for our condemnation. If we divide reality into two parts, spiritual and material, and hold (as the Bible does not hold) that only the spiritual is good or desirable, then our relation to the material Creation becomes arbitrary, having only the quantitative or mercenary value that we have, in fact, and for this reason, assigned to it. Thus we become the judges, and thus inevitably the destroyers, of a world we did not make, and that we are bidden to understand as a divine gift.
It is impossible to see how good work might be accomplished by people who think that our life in this world either signifies nothing or has only a negative significance.
If, on the other hand, we believe that we are living souls, God's dust and God's breath, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other creatures--then all our acts have a supreme significance. If it is true that we are living souls and morally free, then all of us are artists. All of us makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we need and use.
This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is "the normal view," which "assumes. . . not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler or parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist.... "(n8) But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist--either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes others' lives, and so changes the world. That is why our division of the so-called "fine arts" from "craftsmanship" and "craftsmanship" from "labor" is so arbitrary, meaningless and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said "the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function."(n9) Bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.
If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious--that, even when visible, is never fully imaginable--and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer. We see why the old poets invoked the muse. And we know why George Herbert prayed, in his poem "Matters":
Teach me thy love to know; That this new light, which now I see May both the work and workman show.. (n10)
Work connects us both to Creation and to eternity. This is the reason also for Mother Ann Lee's famous instruction: "do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow."(n11)
Explaining "the perfection, order, and illumination" of the artistry of Shaker furniture makers, Coomaraswamy wrote: "All tradition has seen in the Master Craftsman of the Universe the exemplar of the human artist or `maker by art,' and we are told to be 'perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.'" And searching out the lesson, for us, of the Shakers' humble, impersonal, perfect artistry, that refused the modern divorce of utility and beauty, he wrote: "Unfortunately, we do not desire to be such as the Shaker was; we do not propose to 'work as though we had a thousand years to live, and as though we were to die tomorrow.' dust as we desire peace but not the things that make for peace, so we desire art but not the things that make for art. . . we have the art that we deserve. If the sight of it puts us to shame, it is with ourselves that the re-formation must begin."(n12)
Any genuine effort to re-form our arts, our ways of making, must take thought of "the things that make for art." We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, and in nature. If we look at the great artistic traditions, as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility of an entirely secular art, and of works of art -- made things -- that are spiritless or ugly or useless, is not a possibility that has been among us for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value upon their materials or subjects, upon the uses and the users of the things made by art, and upon the artists themselves. They have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God....
In denying the holiness of the body and of the so-called "physical reality" of the world -- and in denying its support to the economic means by which alone the Creation can receive due honor -- modern Christianity has cut itself off from both nature and culture. It has no competent interest in biology or ecology. And it is equally uninterested in any feature of culture by which humankind connects itself to nature: economy or work, science or art. It manifests no awareness of the specifically Christian cultural lineages that connect us to our past. There is, for example, a splendid heritage of Christian poetry in English that most church members live and die without reading or hearing or hearing about. Most sermons are preached without any awareness at all that the making of sermons is an art that, at times, has been magnificent. Most modem churches look like they were built by robots without reference to the heritage of church architecture or respect for the site; they embody no awareness that work can be worship. Most religious music now attests to the general assumption that religion is no more than vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion.
Modern Christianity has become, then, in its organizations, as specialized as other modern organizations, wholly concentrated upon the industrial shibboleths of "growth," counting its success in numbers, and upon the very strange enterprise of "saving" the individual, isolated, and disembodied soul. Having witnessed and abetted the dismemberment of the households, both human and natural, by which we have our being as creatures of God, as living souls, and having made light of the great feast and festival of Creation to which we were bidden as living souls, the modern church presumes to be able to save the soul as an eternal piece of private property. It presumes moreover to save the souls of people in other countries and religious traditions, who are often saner and more religious than we are. And always the emphasis is on the individual soul. Some Christian spokesmen give the impression that the highest Christian bliss would be to get to Heaven and find that you are the only one there -- that you were right, and all the others wrong. Whatever its twentieth-century dress, modern Christianity as I know it is still at bottom the religion of Miss Watson, intent upon a dull and superstitious rigmarole by which supposedly we can avoid going to "the bad place" and instead go to "the good place." One can hardly help sympathizing with Huck Finn when he says, "I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it."(n13)
Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that "economic forces" automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that "progress" is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?
The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice, it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of kings. And Christ's life, from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the "good news" of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel's bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every "Christian" government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably at the feet of Jesus, who is telling them to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you. . . " (Matt. 5:44).
In fact, we know that one of the businesses of governments, "Christian" or not, has been to re-enact the crucifixion. It has happened again and again and again. In A Time for Trumpets, his history of the Battle of the Bulge, Charles B. MacDonald tells how the SS Colonel Joachim Peiper was forced to withdraw from a bombarded chateau near the town of La Gleize, leaving behind a number of severely wounded soldiers of both armies. "Also left behind," MacDonald wrote, "on a whitewashed wall of one of the rooms in the basement was a charcoal drawing of Christ, thorns on his head, tears on his cheeks -- whether drawn by a German or an American nobody would ever know."(n14) This is not an image that belongs to history, but is one that judges it.
(1.) Philip Sherrard, Human Image. World Image (Ipswich, Suffolk, England: Golgonooza Press, 1992), 152.
(2.) George Herbert, "Providence," lines 41 and 44, from The Poems of George Herbert, ed. by Helen Gardner (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 54.
(3.) Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Charles S. Singleton, Bollingen Series LXXX, and Inferno, canto XI, lines 109-11 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970).
(4.) Dante, Inferno, canto XI, lines 109-11.
(5.) William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 160.
(6.) Kathleen Raine, Golgonooza: City of Imagination (Ipswich, Suffolk, England: Golgonooza Press, 1991), 28.
(7.) William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. by Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), V v, lines 13; 26-28; 49.
(8.) Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1957), 98.
(9.) Walter Shewring, Artist and Tradesman (Marlborough, Mass.: Paulinus, 1984), 19.
(10.) Herbert, The Poems of George Herbert, 54.
(11.) June Sprigg, By Shaker Hands (Hanover, N.H.: University of New England, 1990), 33.
(12.) Coomaraswamy, Selected Papers, vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), 255, 259.
(13.) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in Mississippi Writings (New York: Library of America, 1982), 626.
(14.) George MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets (New York: Bantan Books, 1984), 458.
By Wendell Berry
WENDELL BERRY is a well-known poet, essayist, and farmer. This essay is taken from,
Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, which will be published in the Fall by Pantheon
Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright 1993 by Wendell Berry.
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