Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Deep theology = Deep ecology

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In Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It we read this fascinating bit of dialogue between a father and a son:

Then [my father] told me, “In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

“That’s because you are a preacher first and then a fisherman,” I told him. “If you ask Paul, he will tell you that the words are formed out of the water.”

“No,” my father said, “you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

I’ve seen the movie, but never read the actual book. The quote comes from a book which I’m currently reading, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, by Douglas E. Christie (Oxford University Press, 2013, page 223). After quoting the above passage, Christie goes on to ask:

Are we listening carefully enough? Can we discern this Word, older than the silence, deeper than the water, woven into both?

That is always the question, isn’t it? Are we listening carefully enough? Can we discern the Word, the Logos? “Logos, the Song of the World” is indeed the title of chapter 6 of Christie’s book. And my thoughts today are inspired by Christie’s chapter 6. He writes of faith in the following evocative and provocative way:

faith in the presence of a voice beckoning to us in and through the living world, and faith in power of “our own responses”— that is, our own poetic evocations of the living world— to bring this voice to clear and vivid expression. In its honest exploration of this rich and troubling ambiguity and in its careful attention to the intricate relationship between word and world, the contemporary literature and poetry of nature can help us recover a sense of the Word as incarnate in every living being— as creative, renewing presence in the world, as the source of all language, all storytelling, community, the cosmos itself.

This is incarnational theology at its best and deepest. This is where deep ecology meets deep theology. The connection between theology and ecology runs very deep, deep into common linguistic origins. Theology is theologia (θεολογία), the combination of two ancient Greek words: theos (god) and logos (word). So theology is logos about god. Likewise, ecology comes from two Greek words: oikos (dwelling, house, home) and logos (word). So ecology is logos about home, our home, our planet Earth. But oikos meant more than dwelling. The New Testament gave the Greek word many special meanings. For example:

1 Peter 2:5 “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” – οἶκος πνευματικός – the Christian community as the spiritual temple of God.

1 Timothy 3:15 “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God”.

οἶκος Ἰσραήλ (house of Israel), οἶκος Ἰούδα (house of Judah), οἶκος Ἰακώβ (house of Jacob), etc. – a whole clan or tribe of people descended from a common ancestor – thus, nation.

And from the word οἶκος derived many other words which played crucial roles in how the message of Jesus Christ was communicated in the New Testament and in the early church. For example:

οἰκουμένη – from which we get ecumenical, etc. – the inhabited earth.

οἰκονομία – economy, management (of a household), and, most importantly, God’s plan of redemption = dispensation.

The early Christians interacted very easily with their surrounding culture and used all the tools of the Greek language to express their new message of salvation. Most Christian churches of our own time have lost the ability to do deep theology, and have thus lost the ability to interact with the best ecological and political thinking. So we retreat into the safety of sloganeering, traditionalism and tribalism. And there lies the problem with so much of modern Christianity. We no longer hear the Word; we sustain our place in society with marmoreal repetitions of formulaic worship and simplistic slogans of feel-good, superficial religion. Different churches have worked out different strategies to keep people in the pews, but even the most exuberant pentecostal churches and the most business-savvy mega-churches are only prolonging the dying process.

Christie quotes from another book, House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday – a passage which reimagines the Christian creation story in light of ancient Kiowa myth:

In the beginning was the Word … there was nothing. There was nothing! Darkness. There was no end to it … there was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it.… And from that day the Word has belonged to us, who have heard it for what it is, who have lived in fear and awe of it. In the Word was the beginning; In the beginning was the Word.

This is an example of the theopoetic act. This word also comes from two Greek words: theos and poiema. Theos is the word for god; poiema is the Greek word that gave us the English word poem. But poiema goes deeper than poem or poetry: it means the act of creation, the product of creation. So I take theopoetic to mean creating the divine in words or art, or in life! We are all meant to be theopoetic beings! We are meant to give expression to the divine in our lives, since we are images, or icons, of the living God. Then and only then we might be able to hear the Word that lies underneath the water; underneath the soil; and underneath the concrete with which we cover the life-giving soil.

Christie had began chapter 6 of his book by mentally connecting an unknown artist painting figures on the stone of a canyon in Utah to John, thousands of miles away on Patmos, looking at the words drying on the parchment on which he wrote them – momentous words, “In the beginning was the Word…” He returns to those two images at the end of chapter 6 with a paragraph that touches deep ecological and theological truth.DSC_3563

I think of that unknown artist at the bottom of Barrier Canyon and of that old man on the island of Patmos. Did they know that deep, archaic silence woven into the very fabric of the world? Did they stand, trembling, in that silence, listening to the world, before finally giving voice, in word, in song, to what they had heard? Can we recover a sense of world so pregnant with Word, a sense of Word so intimately bound up with the very life of the world? Such attentive listening promises a deeper sense of relationship with the places we inhabit. It may also be necessary to the long-term survival of those places.

It seems to me this is the language that is missing in today’s churches: the “sense of world pregnant with Word.” If only we could hear the Word. It sounds mystical, and it is, but it would save us from the disasters we daily inflict on each other and on our planet. But I’m afraid I’m not making much sense. Probably because I also am too much a product of today’s church. I close with this beautiful picture of two friends at Cathedral Canyon in Arizona. Perhaps in a place like this it might be easier to sense the “world pregnant with Word.” (Click to enlarge it.)

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