Holistic thinking, biblical Christianity and miracles
A few days ago I was in a conversation about a recent book written by a wise and thoughtful eco-Christian, advancing the proposal that we are mistaken in ascribing to ourselves the role of stewards of the Earth. We are, so my friend described the book’s argument, not over and above the Earth as stewards, but part of the Earth. We belong to Earth as part of the web of creation.
I took issue with this.
I certainly believe we are an integral part of creation; we are no more valuable or more important than any other part of it. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we inter-are — we all arise together as part of an interdependent fabric of nature. We are not lords of creation, not the pinnacle of creation, we are integrated with it. But that integration includes and implies a role to play; which in our case is that we are the stewards of the Earth.
I believe we are the stewards of creation for two reasons.
One, you can see it. We have influenced and affected the entire eco-system, and the Earth’s well-being and regeneration, or its destruction and extermination, will be determined absolutely by what we choose and decide in the next very few years. If that is not a role of responsibility for the stewardship of the Earth, I don’t know what would be.
All beings bear responsibility, all are in covenant with God and all are guardians of the well-being of creation. Bees, for example ensure our harvests, and trees protect us against both drought and flood, stabilising the Earth’s nutritious layer to prevent its erosion, and slowing down the movement of water through the landscape. But we have power over the bees, to kill or protect them, and power over the trees, to safeguard the forests or cut them down for soya bean plantations — and that’s what makes us stewards.
Secondly, I believe we are stewards of the Earth because the Bible says we are, and I am a biblical Christian. To clarify, I take the Bible as my rule and guide, but what I think it is saying and how I receive my understanding of its words may be different from yours — and this is what we mean by interpretation. So I think I’m a biblical Christian but plenty of other people who think they are have scoffed at what I have written and taught, and dismissed is as being — I quote — “infected with the taint of liberalism”. All of which is exactly what interpretation is about.
Now, when I say I think we are stewards of the earth, because that’s what the Bible says, I’m referring to the Original Blessing of the Book of Genesis, in which God sets humanity free into the eco-system, saying, “Fill the Earth and subdue it.”
But then comes the question, well, what do we mean by that?
“Subdue” can mean beat into submission or dominate.
Or it can mean bring quietness and peace — enable something turbulent to calm down.
These are both forms of mastery but different in character, not least because the first is about dominating and subjugating others, where the second is primarily about self-mastery and taking responsibility.
Jesus models the second for us in the stilling of the storm, the healing of the Gadarene demoniac, and the healing of the epileptic boy. His mastery, his stewardship, brought peace and shalom — the quiet, harmonious integration that is the proper condition of someone who is well.
Of course illnesses, and storms on the Sea of Galilee — and indeed in any life situation — are entirely natural; but what we saw in Jesus was an integrating of all the factors, the natural propensity to storms and the presence at that time of some human beings tossed about in a small boat. He integrated the conditions to bring out the best outcome. And I think that’s what the Bible means by stewardship.
It’s not meant to be a tussle. “Fill the Earth and subdue it” is, according to the Book of Genesis, part of Original Blessing. Bringing forth crops in toil and the sweat of your brow is the masculine half of the curse that came later in the story of the Fall. The feminine half of that curse is being dominated by men, experiencing family life as painful and a source of sorrow. Tussle, strife, one person dominating another instead of two working in harmony, equally, together — Genesis calls this a curse. The way of blessing is all about integration. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. One integrated whole. Shalom. That’s where we want to be headed.
I think when we read the Bible, it helps to have the largest possible understanding of its truth. So when it says God told Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it, we shouldn’t think in terms of a concrete being — an old man with a long white beard — addressing a man and a woman. Humanity thinks in stories and explains truth in metaphor. That’s how our understanding develops. We move from the seen to the unseen.
It helps if we see that we live and move and have our being within God. That all truth and all creation proceed from the Spirit of God. So the Bible is speaking with the vocabulary of mythology — ie, weaving a story as a bag to carry truth — to tell us that the reality is that humanity will increase in numbers and come to assert influence over every aspect of life on Earth. And that’s just true, isn’t it? We know it is. It’s historical, it’s scientific, it’s happened. But the question is, are we going to choose the way of blessing, of responsible stewardship in this role that is ours whether we like it or not, or the way of curse. The way of curse is about separation, domination, polarisation and antagonism. The way of blessing is about integration, healing and shalom. Two styles of stewardship. One leads to death, one leads to life. It’s there in the Bible, but if you don’t like the Bible it’s right there in modern politics and ecological science. It’s just reality, which is another name for truth, which proceeds from God, because God is our context and there is nowhere else for us to be. Living biblically is a discipline of adaptation to reality — which we were made to do; so though it is not easy, it is more natural for us than trying to fly in the face of it and going the path of curse.
So now then, what about filling the Earth and subduing it the Jesus way — by integration, healing and speaking peace?
We call the stilling of the storm, the exorcism and blessing of the Gadarene demoniac and the epileptic boy, “miracles”. And please note, when the disciples asked Jesus, about the epileptic boy, “How did you do that?”, he said it needed prayer and fasting — which should alert us to the reality that personal holiness, spiritual discipline, including bodily discipline, is part of this mix.
“A miracle” is what we call something we don’t understand. The disciples had no luck with trying to heal the epileptic boy, so we say Jesus came and did a miracle. The disciples were overwhelmed by the storm and about to sink, so they woke Jesus up and he told it to calm down and be quiet and it did — so we call that a miracle. But where we’ve gone wrong is, with our usual arrogance, thinking that if we don’t understand it, then it must be against the laws of nature. But that doesn’t make sense.
The way nature works proceeds from the reality within which all of us live and move and have our being — God — and the ways of nature *include* the effects we can’t understand and don’t personally know how to reproduce, that we therefore say are miracles and a suspension of the laws of nature. To say nature’s laws are suspended is, literally, nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything.
It is necessary to grasp that nature is not merely mechanistic and physical, but is also subtle and spiritual. Holistic. Integral. Nature will organise up differently around someone like Jesus who lives and breathes peace, from how it organises up around someone who is combative and antagonistic. Like Masurai Emoto’s experiments with the structure of water, that either organises beautifully or degenerates into chaos depending on the words you speak into it.
If you look at this from the other end — the antagonistic end, the way of curse — you can get a better handle on it. Because you may not think you can make someone well just by announcing peace and healing, but I bet you know how to make someone ill. If you browbeat and bully a person, if you are domineering and contemptuous to them, if you gaslight them and hem them in, if you isolate them and malnourish them, they’ll get ill and it was you who made them ill. You know that, don’t you? And it’s no miracle. You can even kill someone by treating them like that. Remember those horrendous experiments they did on babies in the 1940s? All they had to do was never cuddle or hold them, and the babies just failed to thrive and died.
In the same way, you can take the way of blessing and make people well. Touch them, hold them, love them, pray for them — embody the fruit of the Spirit (which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) and things will organise up around you for health and well-being.
When I was a teenager, I worked with nuns. Sister Carmel was a sour old git — I don’t think I ever saw her smile — who was steadfastly rude; whereas Sister Philomena had a smile like a sunbeam and was a kind as the day is long. I only had to be near Sister Philomena to feel better. Sister Carmel didn’t have the same effect, not even on herself. She just looked worn out.
But being like Sister Philomena not Sister Carmel is a choice — and it’s supported by natural things like wise dietary choices, including fasting, and getting enough rest, and living simply, and singing, and spending time in nature; and laughter..
And this is how we start work on making miracles happen, and on taking up our blessed role within creation as stewards of the Earth — to infuse all of it with shalom.
We start, like Jesus did, by a discipline of holiness and love, by working on producing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, by living so simply that we give ourselves enough space to examine our choices — and checking that in all of them (how we speak and act, how we respond to others, how we spend our money, how we interact with the rest of creation, which is all sacred, all in covenant relationship with God) — in all these things we choose life, follow the way of blessing, work for integration, healing and peace.
Then we’ll see miracles sprouting up like the desert blossoming after a shower of rain.