Conversations, VOLUME 2

A Response to TS Derr’s Critique of LH Bailey’s THE HOLY EARTH [Vol. 2, #22]


Thomas Sieger Derr recently posted a critical review of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s THE HOLY EARTH on the blog for FIRST THINGS ( http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1390 ), concluding that this book is an “ambiguous guide” for environmentalists in the Church.

Having published one of the three editions of THE HOLY EARTH released in the last year, we believe that Derr’s criticisms are misguided.  Most notably, he fails to see that Bailey’s work steers a course between anthropocentrism and biocentrism. For Bailey, a true ecologist, there is really no difference between human need and the needs of the nature.  The two are thoroughly interrelated since both lie on the plain of creation under God.

Bailey’s work, we believe, casts a theologically-rich vision for the Church’s ecological witness to God’s redemptive work.  We offer these two passages from THE HOLY EARTH in response to Prof. Derr.

“The Earth is holy”

Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all the creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation. When once we set ourselves to the pleasure of our dominion, reverently and hopefully, and assume all its responsibilities, we shall have a new hold on life.


We shall put our dominion into the realm of morals. It is now in the realm of trade. This will be very personal morals, but is will also be national and racial morals. More iniquity follows the improper and greedy division of the resources and privileges of the earth than any other form of sinfulness.


If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it. We are to consider it religiously: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

The sacredness to us of the earth is intrinsic and inherent. It lies in our necessary relationship and in the duty imposed upon us to have dominion, and to exercise ourselves even against our own interest. We may not waste that which is not ours. To live in sincere relations with the company of created things and with conscious regard for the support of all men now and yet to come, must be of the essence of righteousness.


This is a larger and more original relation than the modern attitude of appreciation and admiration of nature. In the days of the patriarchs and prophets, nature and man shared in the condemnation and likewise in the redemption. The ground was cursed for Adam’s sin. Paul wrote that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain, and that it waiteth for the revealing. Isaiah proclaimed the redemption of the wilderness and the solitary place with the redemption of man, when they shall rejoice and blossom as the rose, and when the glowing sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water.


The usual objects have their moral significance. An oak tree is to us a moral object because it lives its life regularly and fulfils its destiny. In the wind and in the stars, in forest and by the shore, there is spiritual refreshment: And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.


I do not mean all this, for our modern world, in any vague of abstract way. If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy. They do not belong to man to do with them as he will. Dominion does not carry personal ownership. There are many generations of folk yet to come after us who will have equal right with us to the products of the globe. It would seem that a divine obligation rests on every soul. Are we to make righteous use of the vast accumulation of knowledge of the planet? If so, we must have a new formulation. The partition of the earth among the millions who live on it is necessarily a question of morals; and a society that is founded on an unmoral partition and use cannot itself be righteous and whole. (11-12)

[Notice the relevance of reading this next passage in a post-Constantinian age]

“We may be losing the old literary piety and the technical theology, because we are losing the old theocratic outlook on creation. We also know that the final control of human welfare will not be governmental or military, and we shall some day learn that it will not be economic as we now prevailingly use the word. We have long since forgotten that once it was patriarchal. We shall know the creator in the creation. We shall derive more of our solaces from the creation and in the consciousness of our right relations to it. We shall be more fully aware that righteousness inheres in honest occupation.”  (90-91)

 

Page numbers are from
the Doulos Christou Press edition of THE HOLY EARTH (2008):

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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