Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wildness...and the mark of Cain

I'm presently finishing a marvelous little book about John Muir. I spent last weekend in Yosemite with family, and my son, who rode his bike from Seattle to Fresno, via San Francisco and Yosemite, had stayed in the same motel that John Muir stayed in, with Teddy Roosevelt. So conservation and the wilderness has been on my mind a great deal lately.

Muir would write, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people, are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; and that mountain parks are useful not only as fountains of timer, but as fountains of life."

If Muir viewed urbanized people of the late 18th century as nerve shaken and over civilized, I wonder what he'd think of our lives today, where for many, the only encounter with fresh air is those few steps between door and car, and any sense of wildness has been fully exorcised from our lives, leaving us with a sort of sanitized techno-living, whereby we eat unhealthy foods, and embrace unhealthy sedentary lifestyles that include far more sitting, stressing, and staring at screens than God ever intended?

I'm of the opinion (and it's only an opinion, so I don't make a big deal of it in the church I lead) that these choices aren't morally neutral, but are far, far, from what God intended. One can go back and see the original plan in Genesis. When the plan went wrong, Cain become the line that represents people trying hard to live in a way that insulates them from any sense of dependence on, or awareness of the creator. How did he do this? God told Cain that his destiny was to be a wanderer on the earth, but instead of wandering, we read that Cain settled down and made a city. Then came tools and agriculture, all of which served to make our lives "easier" (at least in the short term), and all of which served to insulate us from encounter the beauty and terror of wildness. Thus was humanity tamed; thus did our wildness die, thus did our encounters with God move away from the revelation that comes through nature, depending instead, increasingly, on the book.

The problem was that we view God's injunction on Cain to be a wanderer as a curse, rather than God's provision to reinstate in Cain a sense of dependency on God. Because of this paradigm, we've come to view nature as the adversary, and our ability to settle and insulate ourselves from nature as a victory. This, I believe, is tantamount to calling 'good evil' and calling 'evil good'!

Please don't get me wrong. The book is good, important, central, to our faith. There are declarations therein which could never be uncovered through the general revelation that comes from the wild, and those revelations are the foundation of our faith. However, there are revelations as well, that come from creation that are more subjective, changing us in powerful ways and opening us up to transcendence and eternity through, as Psalm 19, Romans 1, and Romans 10 all say, "what has been created". To insulate ourselves from this kind of encounter, focusing solely on the book, must be damaging in some way, just as to focus only on nature at the expense of the book would be damaging. The real answer is: YES... nature and book.

So here we are, with intellectualized faith and industrial agriculture, both of which seem to be weakening us, like some sort of Kryptonite for the soul. The problems with intellectualized faith have been cataloged in many places. An example of the problems with industrialized agriculture can be seen here. We're paying for this insulation from the wild, in other words, in our spirits, souls, and even our bodies.

I'm not advocating that we become Luddites. But I am suggesting several shifts in our thinking are needed:

1. away from 'only the book' to 'the book and nature'. I offer this because this is exactly what the book suggests, in all the passages I listed above, and more. Those who, like David, are shaped by living in the wilderness, seem to see facets of God's character that appear inaccessible if one's life is lived indoors. This means...

2. we need to time and courage to 'get out'. Start small, with a walk in the park if that's all the time or capacity you have right now. But start. Expose yourself to what God wants to teach you about His character through creation. If you're an old hand at this already, then push yourself a bit further. Try a night of solitude in the mountains. Don't take your i-pod... just go.

3. away from industrialized agriculture, towards localized and organic foods - because we need to change the entire way food gets distributed on the earth. We need to this for the sake of health, and the environment, and the global hunger situation. We can begin by affirming those farms who are producing local organic goods, because these use far less petroleum, both for production and distribution. Also, by buying these, I'm not buying a techno-fruit, produced through genetic manipulation. There's a great deal to learn about this subject, and if you're interested, you should consider this movement as a starting place. If we do this, we'll also move away from Omega 6 oils in our bodies, towards Omega 3's. The article referenced above will explain these important oils and the effect they have on our health.

4. away from sedentary living, towards incorporating movement. We're not made to sit on our butts all day.

5. away from whatever it is we're doing, towards some sort of Sabbath practice. To be both/and people, city and creation, book and general revelation, solitude and community, we're going to need to find time, for cooking, walking, getting outside. God has given us this time. It's called "Sabbath"

I thought as I got older I'd stay inside more. That will probably happen later, but for now, the opposite it true. I'm more barefoot, more organic, more candles, more full night's sleep, more sitting outside to read and study. By resisting Cain's path, I'm finding something that helps connect me with God, my family, and my own body.

How can we help each other recognize the dangers of "Cain's Lifestyle", pointing each other, instead, to health and life?


At 11/9/09 13:20, Blogger Jeremy said...

Great post, I'll chew on this one over the weekend, maybe during a long run or ride.

Speaking of long runs, I couldn't help but notice the fivefingers in the photos. I'm new to barefoot running, but really am quite fond of it. So far I only run between 1 - 3 miles, and usually have a small blister to deal with. There usually minor, but I would love to up the distance barefoot. My question is do you use the fivefingers on long trail runs? Although, mMaybe trying to avoid minor blisters misses the point of what you are saying.

At 11/9/09 14:54, Anonymous Lisa said...

You've outlined many of the reasons why I garden. After a long day sitting in front of a screen I can hardly change into my play clothes and pull off my socks fast enough. I long to be out in the fresh air, smelling the sweet dirt, mucking myself up slogging through my muddy pumpkin patch. To me it's the best therapy in the world and the quiet space where I meet my maker and delight in His providence.

It's also the best way I can think of to find perfectly local healthy food, to create community through sharing produce (and even work, the neighbor kids love to help), and create a meaningful avocation and set of skills to share with others.

I am proposing an organic vegetable garden at Bethany. Who would like to help?

At 11/9/09 14:58, Blogger Kevin said...

Good thoughts, here, but I have a lingering question. Muir adequately expressed a common sentiment for his period (late 19th-century, by the way), that an excess of civilized society drained the potency from man. Having to always exist in the tension of a society that demanded "manly restraint", many gentleman fell prone to nervous collapse and an ailment dubbed "neurasthenia". While there were those that recommended mild treatments like bedrest and relaxation, there were others that advocated electrotherapy and other extreme treatments. Still others, and Muir in particular, advocated that the civilized man reconnect with his primal roots and get back out into nature. A similar sentiment guided the American Arts & Crafts movement, and the focus was on finding ways to straddle to two seemingly disparate worlds of human civilization and the natural world.

All that said, my concern is this: all of this effort was spent by wealthy, Caucasian men, and the reason for this expense was the preservation of their position and dominance within society. While I understand that you are in no way advocating patriarchy, racism, or classism, I have to wonder if what you are recommending still requires and even enforces a great degree of privilege. While it is a wonderful thing to get out and experience nature, the reason that so many people eschew the practice has less to do with laziness or ignorance than it does simple matters of practicality. What makes the poor truly poor is that they lack not only the ability but the choice to change their means: how can we be so prescriptive with this kind of lifestyle when the choice itself is a luxury denied of so many?

At 11/9/09 15:11, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

you make some very good points Kevin. I flew to the Bay Area, rented a car, drove to Fresno, all on paid time off. Such choices are hardly accessible to 98% of the world's population, and I almost feel guilty for enjoying it so much.

But there's another important way to look at this, and it has to do with the increasingly centralized wealth of major corporations, most of which are intent on driving people into urban areas, where they can be used as laborers. We could argue the merits and liablities of this, and I'd suggest that both sides of that debate are worth hearing. But the bottom line is this: our world is moving into the cities, and the reasons for this often have to do with economic necessity, due to the death of local agriculture and subsistence living, both of which died because their internally sufficient economies gave way to the export economies. It's a complex story and McKibben documents it well in "Deep Economy".

For now I'll simply note that while you're right in observing that 'getting out' is a possibility only for the privileged few, that problem has more to do with our current global economic structure than it has do with patriarchy or privilege. But that's a post for another time.

Jeremy... the five fingers are great for hiking... but don't use them on pavement! At least, that's been my experience.

At 12/9/09 08:08, Blogger Kevin said...

Firstly, know that it was not my intent to make you feel guilty or to cast the relative affluence that we both enjoy in a particularly negative light. The problem is not so much wealth as the purpose to which that wealth is put, and I think that seems to be your underlying critique of corporate interests. And while I can see your point about urban centralization, Richard, I would argue that the death of local agriculture and subsistence living does not come necessarily from corporate influence. While many rural communities are currently crumbling under the weight of centralized wealth, the move away from subsistence living goes well back into the early-19th century, when the idea of subsistence itself was no longer satisfactory. Though we might look back across history with a nostalgia tainted by our current ails, those that first left the agrarian life behind did so because urban life offered greater access to healthcare, greater access to education, and an increased level of social mobility and potential for economic prosperity. The children of farmers often have their destinies written for them, and this constrictive outlook is the reason why there is still an exodus from the hinterlands. Though we have the luxury of choosing to pursue a lifestyle more akin to the traditional agrarian mode (and I'm with you on the gardening, Lisa), I think that we may have to accept that there are those for whom the feeling of dark, warm soil between the fingers conjures feelings of revulsion rather than joy.

If you want to find a problem with our current economic reality, I'd say look first to the purpose for all that we do before you critique the structure, itself. As I said before, the problem isn't wealth; it's how we orient ourselves in relation to wealth and what we choose to do with it.

At 14/9/09 21:17, Blogger Donte said...

Does this mean that we are contributing to sedentary lifestyles in Uganda when we build wells? lol!

At 16/9/09 10:10, Blogger Tom said...

I love this piece. So rich; so well put; so right on. You have made some of the same links that Lopez, Pyle, Snyder, Louv, and Dillard have made: they connect word with world, language and landscape, and narrative with nature. Lopez writes about inner and exterior landscapes that are linked through story. Isn't that also what the book does with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and John the Baptist? I am grateful for religious leaders who get this principle and have the courage to state "truth to power."



At 16/9/09 11:51, Blogger Tom said...

I read some of the other comments. What a nice conversation.

I guess it could be viewed as elitist or classist if our vision of care of creation is constrained by visits to Yosemite or McKinley, a climb of Everest, or rafting the Colorado. There should be a democratization of place consciousness, however. A backyard, neighborhood park, hidden ravine, local watershed can teach important lesons about place and about creation. In junior naturalist programs we teach about "small noticings" that occur in a school yard, local park and other places in the bioregion. We don't have to mount a major expedition to appreciate the wonders and lessons of creation.



Post a Comment

<< Home