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Think Again

Back to the Garden
Why, a man of the cloth wonders, do people of faith so readily exalt the symbols of creation over creation itself?

In 2013, while walking through New York City on the Sunday before Earth Day, I received a visitation from the Holy Spirit.

The occasion was an ordination ceremony over which I had been asked to preside. Two friends were taking the plunge into ordained ministry, and they had asked me—I’m a minister myself, at a 125-year-old church in Greenwich Village with a long history of progressivism and social activism—to give them a “charge,” an inspirational mini-sermon, before releasing them into the wild as card-carrying clergy.

But something strange happened to me that morning as I began assembling and arranging the robes, stoles, and Bibles that these two new ministers were to be presented with. It started when I couldn’t help noting a poignant irony in the stylized symbols—doves, olive branches, rushing springs—that we churchfolk are forever emblazoning onto our sacred objects. These symbols were now laid out before me: metaphors, respectively, for Christian ideals of spirit, grace, and the rebirth of baptism.

As the liturgical importance of these symbols has grown over the centuries, it occurred to me, so has the distance between them and their living, growing, life-sustaining referents in the real world. In my mind’s eye I saw shopping mall–size megachurches whose gigantic carbon footprints are belied by the serene natural imagery on their bulletins and websites: pink sunrises, majestic mountaintops, rolling ocean waves. I recalled learning that the pillars and arches of some of Europe’s grandest medieval cathedrals were intended by church fathers to evoke towering tree canopies and forest groves—trees that had to be cut down so the very cathedrals evoking them could go up. From there my mind drifted to the stained-glass birds, beasts, and vines that adorn my own urban church’s rose window, which isn’t even illuminated by sunlight, but rather by an electronic light box.

In the process of co-opting certain images from the biosphere, Christians have managed to abstract them so fully that we seem to have forgotten why the biosphere is such a metaphor-rich context to begin with. Within the network of interrelated ecosystems, human beings are given a chance to observe, in the physical realm, the same pageant of life, death, and rebirth that’s mirrored metaphysically in Christian theology. How could it be, I wondered, that so many Christians have stopped seeing this all-important connection? Could it actually be that we’ve stopped looking for it?

In my mind’s eye I saw shopping mall–size megachurches whose gigantic carbon footprints are belied by the serene natural imagery on their bulletins.

Or maybe we had been going about it all wrong from the very beginning. As a student of scripture, I’ve read enough to know that the children of God have always existed in some version of this benighted state. In fact, one could argue that this same alienation from nature—combined with our attempts to reconcile with it—is what gives the Bible its narrative thrust and its moral sweep.

According to the New Testament, Jesus, at the beginning of his own ministerial career, retreated into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. This 40-days-and-40-nights trope clearly held significance to the Bible’s drafters: it typically denotes deliverance from human-built civilization, with all of its intrinsic suffering, into the protective custody of nature. We encounter it in the tale of Noah’s escape from the world-destroying flood; again when Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments; and again in the aforementioned story of Jesus’s exile.

Each of these can be read as a symbolic reversal of the great-granddaddy of all separated-from-nature stories. In the tale of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, the moment that the first humans were driven out of the garden (and away from their sustainable hunter-gatherer lifestyle) is the moment everything started to go south. If you’re the sort of person who looks for meaning in the Bible, then it’s hard not to notice that nearly every redemption story found therein involves human beings trying (to quote the famous theologian Joni Mitchell) “to get ourselves back to the garden.”

The solitary retreats that various biblical figures make into nature are, in a word, transfiguring. When Jesus returns from the desert, for example, the Bible notes that there’s something noticeably different about him—something mesmerizing. Some accounts relay that “the spirit was with him,” as if he had brought back to civilization the sense of clarity and confidence that comes from having discovered one’s true home.

It may or may not have been this same sense of clarity and confidence that I was missing, and grieving, that morning. But whatever was bothering me was also compelling me to step outside. On a mind-clearing walk through lower Manhattan, I recalled an article I had read about an amateur mycologist—a mushroom expert—who teamed up with some scientists to document the oil-absorbing capacities of oyster mushrooms. After inoculating diesel-contaminated soil with mushroom spores, they watched as the toxicity of the soil went from 10,000 parts per million to not even 200 parts per million in less than four months. To me this was a perfect example of nature’s benevolence, of its forgivingness. That the earth could simply grow its own oil-spill remediation technology struck me then, just as it strikes me now, as a bona fide miracle.

Heaven Can't Wait

While many Christian institutions grapple with the question of how—or, indeed, whether—to engage their members on climate change, one evangelical temple of higher learning is proudly getting out in front. Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is unabashed about linking its spiritual mandate to a sustainability mandate. The school’s commitment has manifested itself broadly, from faculty-led efforts to integrate sustainability issues into the curriculum across disciplines to a student-proposed revolving fund that has incubated energy- and emissions-reducing projects on the 400-acre campus. Students have also partnered with Michigan water conservation groups to educate members of the local faith-based community about threats to endangered watersheds.

And that’s when I began to feel the stirrings of revelation. Here’s how it happened: instead of processing the urban environment as an agglomeration of sidewalks, storefronts, and apartment buildings—all of them combining to crowd out or tamp down nature—I became convinced that I was witnessing holy, irrepressible nature assert itself in response. In the cracks in the pavement before me, I noticed micro-gardens of tiny weeds sprouting up defiantly. High above my head, the clear morning sky had slyly appropriated the glass-paned sides of office towers, turning them into giant mirrors that reflected its bright blue light. As I waited at a crosswalk, my newly acquired X-ray vision enabled me to look down at the street and to see, inches below it, the continent-wide expanse of rich, black, living earth.

At that moment I was made to understand: the kingdom of heaven isn’t some plane in another dimension, understandable only through symbols and reachable only upon death. The kingdom of heaven is here on earth. The natural paradise that surrounds us is our true home, both physically and spiritually. It’s the mysterious marine ecosystem that protected Noah; the mountaintop from which Moses received and dispensed his epochal code; the desert that tested and transformed Jesus. And this heaven-on-earth, the Holy Spirit revealed to me during that short walk, is still capable of taking care of us, of sharing its wisdom, of transforming. But if we’re to partake in all the glorious gifts it would bestow, we must acknowledge its sacredness. Every plastic six-pack ring that makes its way to the ocean, every gallon of toxic waste that leaches into an estuary, every tenth-of-a-degree rise in average global temperatures represents another step away from the garden—and another step toward something that I don’t hesitate to identify as perdition.

The ordination charge I ended up delivering that day wasn’t exactly the one I had prepared. As I formally sent my two friends off into their lives of ministry, I looked at their flowing vestments and eager countenances and felt newly compelled to urge them: Don’t trust the pictures of doves on the decorative banners festooning your churches. Trust real doves. Don’t trust any stained-glass windows whose frames have been hammered into the shape of a rose, or that depict elegantly creeping vines or gentle lambs. Trust real roses, and real vines, and real lambs—things that breathe and eat and drink and live and die. Whatever you do, don’t trust in your lofty ideas about this world, or in your abstracted liturgical metaphors about what it means to be living in it. Trust only—and always—in the real thing.

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image of Michael Ellick
Michael Ellick is the minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Raised in a conservative Baptist tradition, he attended the University of Washington and New York's Union Theological Seminary before embarking on a five-year period of study and meditation under a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. MORE STORIES ➔
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Beautiful. Truly Beautiful.