“…all creatures live by participating in the life of God” – An Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s The Burden of the Gospels

I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called ‘holy living,’ simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, sustained, and finally to be redeemed by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lake shores, river banks, in field and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these non-human creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and care of God.

To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much us implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation – the practical or working relation – of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created…’ And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God ‘ gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together…’ I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on ‘all flesh.’

Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plan as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but allcreatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of His spirit and breathing His breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.

When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing: heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified ‘Christians,’ but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.

To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty with desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. It seems as though industrial humanity has brought about phase two of original sin. We all are now complicit in the murder of creation. We certainly do know how to apply better measures to our conduct and our work. We know how to do far better than we are doing. But we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon. How could we live without degrading our soils, slaughtering our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning the air and the rain? How could live without the ozone hole and the hypoxic zones? How could we live without endangering species, including our own? How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels? To the offer of more abundant life, we have chosen to respond with the economics of extinction.

If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?

That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time – if they are allowed a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.

– Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” in The Way of Ignorance p. 135-137

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