[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0664261574″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/61wpra2BfuVL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]A Patient Attendance to Beauty
A Feature Review of
God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity.
Paperback: WJK Books, 2016.
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Reviewed by Alan Van Wyk
In her brief and stunningly beautiful meditation God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity, Kristen Swenson proposes a rather simple theological experiment: to take seriously the Incarnation. Of course, it is never a simple thing to take a theological claim seriously; doing so does often lead to quite radical ends. Nevertheless, Swenson begins with that most basic of Christian claims: “the one eternal Creator God chose out of love to become incarnate in order to reconcile wayward human beings to God.” So no, it is not really a simple claim, but even here, in this opening, Swenson suggests a subtle shift. Taken seriously, the incarnation is no longer about The Incarnation, full stop, but about the incarnation of God; no longer about Jesus as the Incarnate, but about Jesus as the incarnation of God. And this shift opens, for Swenson, a series of questions:
What is the whole Jesus-thing if not God’s being of and in the material, blood, bone, and breath of it all? What is it if not a declaration of love beyond knowing for the eternal, universal Creator to take on skin and limbs and friends and grief in order to reconcile this blue-green home of ours to heaven? And what is that reconciling if not a repair that accepts the truth of our brokenness and throws a lifeline that we may grope our way toward wholeness?
Which is to say, it is a shift that reverberates through the entire tradition, shaking all the key concepts of Christianity: love and sin, forgiveness and salvation and redemption.
To be clear, this is not to dismiss Jesus as the incarnation; with a good deal of humor Swenson offers that she is “not against the celebration of a Middle-Eastern boy born two-thousand years ago” It is, though, to push beyond what she calls “an obsession with historical detail” to the timeless and cosmic nature of that boy’s birth. Temporally this is to insist that “the Jesus of Christian tradition and faith is God incarnate – the logos who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be” such that “God’s engagement with earth predates the historical Jesus-event and endures… still today.” While universally this is to insist that in incarnation “the material machinations of the nonhuman natural world around us, with its own birthing, living, and dying, its structures, laws, and evolution become infused anew by nothing less than God,” transformed “from a material mass of the profane to a sacred vitality yearning to heal every rift, within and without, in holy wholeness… to give life abundant.” Both timeless and cosmic, ahistorical and universal, God incarnate for now and evermore and everywhere. Which is to take fully and in every possible inflection the meaning of her title: “God of earth – both ‘over’ (like Elizabeth Queen of England) and ‘constituted by,’ (like chocolate is of cocoa) – and all the while, at the same time, God.”
Of course, as a bit of theological experimentation, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Liberation theologians – with ecological and political, gendered and racial senses of justice – have for quite some time been experimenting with pantheistic and panentheistic imaginings of God in their efforts to overcome various hierarchies and practices of oppression. In this sense, for all its radicality, God of Earth remains theologically within a well-established tradition of eco-feminism. But experimentation is not always logical, and so not only theo-logical. More than this God of Earth is “an invitation – an invitation of imagination,” an invitation to imagine another life and other ways of being.
As an aide in imagining this experimental living God of Earth is structured around the rhythms of the Christian calendar. With this structure Swenson asks us to be drawn into a rhythm of life that is not our own, that is not strictly determined by our own desires; a rhythm that runs counter to, as Augustine says, these our times of avarice. With this, Swenson invites us to be drawn into a rhythm of life as hope.
In Advent the Christian calendar begins in hope: “What,” Swenson asks, “is more definitive of beginnings than possibility, and with possibility – the as yet unmade business of the future – hope. Maybe that’s why we keep beginning, to keep alive the hope for what’s to come – that we might be better, that it may be good.” Yet as the beginning of this incarnational time, hope is never simply given. It is, rather, a spiritual discipline. Advent, Swenson reminds us, is a time of preparation and waiting, the “readying of one’s self, one’s manner, one’s heart for whatever’s to come.” Today, in the midst of our own seemingly omnipotent technologies of creation and destruction, this preparation must take the form of a self-restraint, a self-restraint that creates space for a certain attendance and attention to the world and the future that is about to arrive. Which is to say Advent becomes an ecological ethic: “simply being still in the face of it all, holding back from imposing ourselves in busy-ness and change to wait, instead, with keen attendance for the wonder that Jesus as the God of earth might bring.”
For this wonder is rather easy to miss. A baby born in a manger, a “radically vulnerable newborn who has thrown God’s self into our arms, gambling everything on our care.” Which feels, as Swenson so beautiful suggests, like a bit of a cosmic farce:
How could the God of all possibly be interested in repairing the world from such an insignificant point? Even throwing herself on the mercy (so to speak) of the world, how could the God of all time and place possibly believe that the world would follow through in a manner anywhere near close to satisfactory?
But this is a farce that we can no longer laugh at, for we have not attended well to this child or this hope, exchanging any possible future for Fallen lives lived out in separation from each other, from earth, from God. So in this time, Swenson insists, there is value in adoration: “Sometimes it’s enough as a disciple of the God of earth simply to let go of the practical worries of business as usual and listen, watch and listen, to the stories of earth.” To attend to the needs of this earth as to the needs of that child.
In this attending to, this watching and listening, it might again be possible, Swenson offers, to experience the “great grace” of Easter Sunday, catching a glimpse of “the radiance of an eternal earth shot through with glory,” “engaging with whole-hearted joy the reality of the God of earth alive.” But the grace of this joy requires faith, and faith belief. For faith, Swenson argues, is a mercy, a living into the possibility of reconciliation, of redemption, of being made whole and one with the world and the God we have so long been separated from. With this faith, we are able “to stand in wonder and awe, to take pleasure when pleasure is to be had, and to live as if we know and know for certain that a fierce and wise love is at work in and through the world around us, a love that reconciles us to heaven even as it nestles us in earth.”
But of course this is all said too quickly, without the patience or beauty of the work itself. Nor with any mention of the great importance of the fact that this experiment is an experiment in what we might want to call a secular Christianity, undertaken by “a lapsed churchgoer of questionable Christianity” who “nevertheless remain[s] captivated by the implications of Jesus.” So I can only end with this, that whatever else we may say of God of Earth it’s great work is the work of a patient attendance to the beauty of a world that God has made her home. And in this work we, whatever the propriety of our own faith and belief, may yet find a grace to live into a future of love. Which, if we are serious, might just be enough.
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