In adrienne maree brown’s futuristic short story “the river,” a Detroit girl makes extra money by taking passengers on boat tours. In this story, the river is a central character — an ominous, churning prophet and witness of Detroit’s history and its people. The river is polluted with poison and filled with old cars, remnants of a once-thriving city. The girl notices a growing restlessness in the water that has held Detroit together despite its human degradation and economic despair. The story concludes with a rebellion. The river rises up, washing away the outsiders who had moved into the city, taking jobs and investment opportunities from locals. The boat girl and her neighbors are spared to regroup and rebuild.
After reading “the river,” I wondered what might change about our story if we understood nature as an embodied character. If nature was personified, if we considered her a neighbor, would her languishing cause us more concern? If we included her among the oppressed, would we prioritize her needs as Jesus prioritized the marginalized? If corporations can be people, with the same protections and privileges, why not creation?
On page 11 of this issue, philosopher David Williams describes why he begins his Tahoe Semester class by asking students, “What is nature?”. Preparing the next generation to be good stewards of creation requires engaging this question, Williams writes. “Most of the engagement on the environmental front is consumed with immediate action and riven by ideological debates. But again, how one answers the question, ‘What is nature?’ is the critical first step that determines all subsequent steps.”
As we approach this summer’s 225th General Assembly, we would be wise to consider how we define and value nature. Climate change is a matter of deep concern, with numerous overtures being considered, including that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest some or all of our holdings in the fossil fuel industry. An assembly committee will be dedicated to all the overtures on environmental justice. (Read Leslie Scanlon’s summary of these overtures on page 32 of this issue.)
Sallie McFague, a prominent eco-theologian, wrote about the importance of metaphors in imagining our relationship to creation and our relationship to God. She argued that it is the task of the theologian to experiment with metaphors and identified a metaphor for God that would shift our anthropocentric sensibility to a theocentric, life-centered, cosmos-centric one — God as embodied by the universe itself.
Imagining the universe as God’s body bears witness to God’s profound incarnational presence in the world. The metaphor makes plain the interconnection of human beings, other creatures and the earth itself. Understanding this interconnectedness, McFague argued, would lead us to a more profound awareness that there can be no peace, no justice without a healthy ecosystem. The stakes of this relationship are high. Our future depends on heeding the needs of God’s creation.
In her treasured collection Prayers from the Ark, the French poet Carmen Bernos de Gasztold gives voice to each animal, bird, fish and reptile saved from the disastrous flood of Genesis 7. Each creature prays to God from their particular experience. The giraffe, seeing the world from above, is frustrated by pettiness and prays for humility. The bee prays that the work of his small, ardent life will “melt into our great communal task; to lift up Your Glory.” The loyal and protective dog, who understands faithfulness, prays to not die until, for us, all danger is driven away. Gasztold also gives voice to Noah because we are, of course, all in the same boat. Noah prays for the raven to bring back a twig of hope, for rest, for the feeling of solid rock under his feet and for the whole ark, all of creation, to be guided to safety on the shore of God’s covenant. May our prayers, our theology, our understanding of interconnectedness guide all creation to these promised safe shores.