Friday, January 16, 2009

Faith Works 1-17-09
Jeff Gill

Naturally Religious or Theologically Un-natural

So, apparently, US Airways just ruthlessly killed two innocent Canada Geese.

That would be one way of putting things, anyhow.

Most of you probably heard that an amazing pilot and a well trained crew saved all 155 lives in New York’s Hudson River by putting their jet airliner down ever so gently on the water, and meeting just about every ferryboat and tour ship in Manhattan.

As advanced as our flight technology becomes, and on the ground, where cars continue to become more reliable, more safe, and more sophisticated, the fact is that when your car calls 911 for you, it’s likely to be because you ran into an animal.

It’s like the world is full of animals, or something.

Paving and building and landscaping may extend our sense of control pretty far out into nature, but the fact is that we humans still live in ecosystems and as part of nature ourselves. We work to create some of this distance, indoor couch potato-y folk that we can be, but even those seeking to protect nature can be part of the problem.

When we talk about the harm people do to the environment, when the debates focus on how humanity is a burden threatening to break global climate systems, there are often subtle, persistent cues to make people think that this all means there is “Nature” and there is “Us.”

Such as the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,” whose interesting proposition can be seen in detail at I read carefully to see if anyone was making reference to Jonathan Swift, but apparently this group has a serious irony deficiency.

This is the kind of thing I mean; they seem sincere if humorless, wanting to speak up for nature and the living world. But their position reaffirms the false idea that humans are something separate from or different from their environment. The fact is, when we dump toxic chemicals into a waterway, we are impacting the environment, we are participating in it – and we, as living creatures will be impacted ourselves by what we did.

For people of faith, the question of how our beliefs relate to the natural world is a tricky one. For much of early Judeo-Christian theology, discussion of “the land” and “the people” was common, but so closely connected to a particular piece of land and place that today we read most of those passages politically.

Many of those scriptural statements can be productively re-read from an environmental perspective, but the real complication comes from the question of what it means, Biblically, to be human. The Psalm says we are created “a little lower than the angels,” and goes on to talk in Proverbs about how we don’t want “to be like the dumb beasts,” but from that hierarchy (angels, men, animals) a sort of sloppy biology came out that said we are “the Crown of Creation.”

Then came Charles Darwin. “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, hinting that we puny humans might not only be a little lower than the angels, but we might rub shoulders with our cousins the ape and gorilla. Is this a problem? For the established church of his day, it was, and once belief in human separateness from the animal kingdom was made a part of official faith, that reaction spurred Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s chief advocate of the late 19th century, to also create a new word – “agnostic.”

In a few weeks, both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln celebrate the 200th anniversary of their birth, on February 12, 1809. I think both men’s stories have much to say to people of faith, and you’ll be reading more about them over the next few weeks here. I hope the discussion will be supportive of faith, and also open to looking at what belief guides us to see about our place in creation.

Could I also add this reading suggestion for anyone interested in advance of Feb. 12 about Darwin and what he was and wasn’t trying to do? There are some recent, magisterial biographies that are very illuminative about the faith that moved and motivated Darwin right through to the end of his earthly days, but there is also an amazing book, that is not in print but easy to find on-line used, that pulls together science, beliefs, culture, and the man.

“Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt – if you can find a copy, grab it, because I think it’s one of the best books of any sort I’ve read in the last ten years.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at

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