Grounded, by Diana Butler Bass (Chapter 1: Dirt) a poem by Mary Oliver

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Grounded, by Diana Butler Bass (Chapter 1: Dirt)
A Poem by Mary Oliver:

The god of dirt

came up to me many times and said

so many wise and delectable things, I lay

on the grass listening

to his dog voice,

crow voice,

frog voice; now,

he said, and now,

and never once mentioned forever.
The best/clearest paragraph:

An atheist friend of mine is fond of saying, “I just don’t believe that God is an old man sitting on the throne in heaven.” Me neither. Nor do the millions of people who still trust in God, yet reject this particular conception of God. McFague calls it the ‘transcendent sky-God tradition. Instead of seeing God as distinct and distant from the world, we are acquiring a new awareness that the universe itself is God’s body, a complex and diverse interdependent organism, animated by God’s breath, the spirit of creation. We are with God and God is with us because – and some people may find this shocking – we are in God and God Is in us. Maybe the far-off heavenly Father is finally retiring, replaced by a far more down-to-earth presence, a presence named in Hebrew and Christian scriptures as both love and spirit. I once heard poet Wendell Berry remark, “The idea of heaven doesn’t take religion very far,” because the distance makes for too great an abstraction. “Love,” as the very being of God, he continued, “has to wear a face.” And that “face” is “our neighborhood, or neighbors and other creatures, the earth and its inhabitants” (52).
Personal Stories

The chapter begins with BB’s own memories of a childhood mostly in town, mostly indoors. This carried with it some negative feelings towards the outdoors, the rural, and the kinds of people who live in rural places: “Like other city people in mid-twentieth-century America, we considered ourselves superior to country people. The country was a place one came from to make a success of life” (32). But it also colored her spiritual life: She tended to find God primarily in church. “God apparently preferred the indoors too” (33). Have you had these kinds of experiences? Or have you felt these preferences for the “indoor” religion in others?

Then something changed for her when her family moved to a more rural place. “But the country – the place of dirt that I had previously feared – became a school of wonder. Those woods and farms were a sanctuary of the sacred, a place where the Bible actually spoke” (34). Have you experienced the outdoors, the woods, the dirt – as a place of wonder and the sacred?
The Diagnosis

She tells a broad story about how some of us now have a troubled relation to soil and the land. It’s a story about the industrial revolution and demographic shifts from rural to urban areas (35). This is no doubt true. But isn’t this a little too romantic about the relationship between people and land prior to the past century?

Problems related to the Industrial Revolution are the backdrop to a renewed interest in environmental health, soil conservation, local food movements, and the connections between food and justice (39).
The current crisis: “soil is as much a nonrenewable resource as oil. . . . Once destroyed, for all practical purposes in human time, it is destroyed forever” (45, Wes Jackson).

  • In the last 150 years, the earth has lost half its topsoil.

  • In the US, soil is disappearing ten times faster than it can be replenished.

  • In China and India, erosion rates are thirty to forty times that of the US

  • The planet loses 25 million acres a year to erosion.

BB refers to this as an environmental, moral, and ethical crisis (46).

“For millennia, land was the beginning of faith: gratitude for it, struggling with it, reflecting upon it, recognizing its power, fearing its loss, or seeking its increase” (38).
Reasons for Hope

“At the same time that the earth is losing its soil, more people than ever are making their way back to the ground” (46).

What does this mean? Is it true? I thought the urbanization thesis proved the opposite. And farming technology means that fewer people are needed to farm (James Rebanks: less than 3% of people in modern industrial economies are farmers. Worldwide, more than 2 billion people farm – almost one in three). So isn’t this more of a trendlet in the US, even if important?
Her argument: Cf. 46-47, She provides examples of congregations with gardens, farms, seedling sales and food-related ministries. Cf. 47b – one in three US households now growing food, an uptick. More community gardens. Cites urban agricultural initiatives.
Her story appears to indict large-scale corporate farming:

“Although farmers have always known that our life and destiny are tied to the health of the soil, much of that wisdom had been lost as technology-driven, single-crop, large-scale farming replaced more intimate connections with the land. Indeed, in recent centuries, farming emerged as a mechanical process of food production rather than a mutual relationship with the earth” (50).

Yes, modern farming is “a mechanical process of food production.” In other words, it is a business, from which someone means to earn a livelihood. Are machines and technology always an enemy of soil health? Can a family farm run as a business – with machines, aimed at food production – not also involve a “mutual relationship with the earth”?
Biblical Resources

BB explores Genesis 1 as a “liturgical poem” that Christians share with both Jews and Muslims (41). BB explores Genesis 2 as a close cousin of many other ancient tribal myths about the earth (42). Here BB emphasizes that Adam and Eve are “not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life.”

“We are animated dirt. Soul and life joined. From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return” (42). God’s instructions for humans to “till and keep” the garden means that “humankind’s divine vocation is to be earth’s custodians, the overseers of the soil” (43).
BB notes that the Hebrew Bible is “a collection of wisdom based in an agrarian way of life and an agricultural spirituality” (43).
BB suggestively refers to soil as a “sacrament” (quoting Bahnson, 51). Is she being playful or serious?
BB mentions theologian Sally McFague more than once. “What if we saw the earth as part of the body of God, not as separate from God (who dwells elsewhere), but as the visible reality of the invisible God?” (51).
BB’s more formal term for this way of imagining God is panentheism = “The idea that God is with or in all things.” BB means for the term to pick out a middle space between “pantheism” (where God is simply identical with reality) and conventional theism (where God is the distant Lord of a three-tiered reality).
Metaphors for sin and salvation: washing away dirt, metaphors of clean/unclean (54-58).
BB advocates that we recover an “agricultural spirituality” – her term for the way of life that shaped the writing of both the Hebrew Bible and the stories of Jesus.

A few questions:

  • Given the Bible’s emphasis upon care for the earth, how is it that issues related to conservation, environment, ecology, and climate change have been labeled “liberal” or “progressive”?

  • Questions about the world as God’s body: Colossians borrowed this Greek way of talking and specifically emended them into poems that name “the church” as Christ’s body (see Colossians 1:15-20). Does this matter?

  • Congregations with gardens or farms – would that be a possibility for us?

  • What about building raised beds during Sunday Serve?

  • A liturgy of soil, blessings on gardens and farms? (homebaked bread for communion is a start!)

  • What about a retreat center for agricultural spirituality?

A few resources:

The Land Institute (Salina, KS)

Wes Jackson

Wendell Berry

James Rebanks article in NYT

Rural Policy Institute – conference at Univ. of Iowa

Chasefu Farm and Seminary – Charles and Melissa Johnson in Zambia

Farminary – at Princeton Theological Seminary

Locally - Gardeners club, Farmers market, 4-H Clubs, FFA, Chris Petty, Barb McCord

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