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.

Of course, we all know the history of this land. According to Deffenbaugh, the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, firmly rooted in the command to rule and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28), encouraged the dominant attitudes of objectification and conquest. Where Natives saw "persons and a sacred ecology," European settlers saw "provisions and potential profit." Where the Natives "belonged to a place," European settlers believed that "one place or another could actually belong to them." For Deffenbaugh, the historic disregard shown to Native American mythology by European settlers exemplifies the flaws of the myths and worldviews of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

THUS, THE SECOND half of the book is devoted to "remythologizing" the Judeo-Christian creation stories in an effort to develop a "theology of place" in creation—away from an emphasis on conquest and objectification and toward an understanding of kinship, connection, and liberation. Deffenbaugh first explores the concept of stewardship, affirming with others in the Christian tradition that scripture identifies humans as "tillers and keepers" of the earth, but he finds this notion too open to abuse and manipulation. If the notion of stewardship is inadequate, what will work in its place?

Building on the work of Martin Buber, Karl Barth, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the author focuses significant discussion on what it means to be made in the image of God, concluding that it means, first, to be relational (with God, humans, and all life on the planet), and second, to care for the earth. He further suggests that, being made from the dust of the earth, strong argument can be made from scripture that humans are also made in the image of the earth, sharing similar kinship with all created things, similar to the kinship expressed in the myths of the Native Americans. Deffenbaugh proposes this concept, "imago mundi et dei," as a key element of "a thoroughgoing creation spirituality."

Though Deffenbaugh situates himself in the practice of liberation theology, doing theology as a "second act" to one's own life experience, he focuses more on abstract theology than stories from his experience with organic gardening as a spiritual discipline in the fields of eastern Tennessee. He emphasizes the importance of "learning the language of the fields" that comprise your place, whether farm, backyard, or urban garden, more than translating the message you might hear by doing so.

This careful, well-written work will appeal especially to those with an interest in connections between Judeo-Christian and Native American spiritualities as they relate to care for the earth.

Lyndsay Moseley is the faith partnerships coordinator with Sierra Club's Environmental Partnerships Program in Washington, D.C.

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