A Theology of Place

Something is bound to go terribly wrong when so many Christians see the planet as an unimportant holding place where we await salvation; or when preachers and teachers of the faith place too much emphasis on humanity's privileged status without also explaining our responsibilities to tend the garden; or when Christians see God as transcendent but not immanently present in creation. The result, according to religious studies professor Daniel Deffenbaugh, is twofold: an ecological crisis and an "evident exodus" of ecologically sensitive individuals from churches across the country.

Over the last 30 years, Christian leaders and theologians have attempted to correct these imbalances and highlight the environmental wisdom of the scriptures, seeing the problem primarily as a matter of emphasis: the foundation for a strong environmental stewardship ethic is latent in the tradition, waiting to be articulated and embraced.

Deffenbaugh disagrees. In Learning the Language of the Fields, he urges that instead we need a "dramatic revision" of Christian theology that requires revisiting the myths of our tradition and integrating wisdom from the various and rich cultures of those Native Americans, "children of the earth," whose myths are derived from the land in which we now live.

Examining prominent myths of groups such as the Zuni, Plains, Cherokee, and others, Deffenbaugh identifies several themes: a sense of cosmic mystery; the notion that a person's identity is intimately connected with the place of which he or she is a part; and that through discipline, "one can approach and know the mysterious Other." These basic themes provide shape and structure to the lives of the Native groups. As they are frequently centered on agricultural practice, they give meaning to the seasonal rituals of planting, nurturing, and harvesting as well.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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