By Amy Herring
“God so loved the world….”
So begins perhaps the most widely known and widely quoted verse in the Bible. From bumper stickers, to T-shirts, to signs held up at baseball games, John 3:16 is considered to be the essence of the good news. It is one of the primary verses we first teach our children to memorize. Yet, as many times as we as Christians have proclaimed this verse, I wonder sometimes, especially when we stop to consider the “catastrophic discrepancies” in our world “between biblical instruction and Christian behavior,” how well we’ve truly grasped the implications of what we are saying.
During the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to reflect on this question through a special topics class entitled “Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Creation Care.” It was a fascinating course involving spiritual, intellectual, and physical disciplines as we spent time working in Campbell’s Community Garden, cooking and sharing meals and exploring contemporary agrarian theology and its implications for Christian discipleship.
Having never read the works of Wendell Berry or Norman Wirzba, I was intrigued by the close connection I began to appreciate between agrarianism and the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food, and my own understanding of what it means to be a steward of the land as a person of faith.
One of the most compelling thoughts I found in my studies came through Wendell Berry’s essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in which he states that the “advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world — not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is.” In considering Berry’s words, I realized that far too often I have simply substituted “people” for “world” when thinking of this verse—something which stops short of what God’s love truly is, and fails to take into account the full scope of Jesus’ redemption.
As Norman Wirzba notes in his work, Sabbath (not people), is the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and Berry’s reminder that “God found the world, as He made it, to be good,” and that “He made it for His pleasure, and …continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us,” helps us see the importance of understanding our place within God’s creation. This, of course, is easier said than done — for as Wirzba notes, as Christians, we would often rather “look up to heaven” than be brought “face to face with [the] carnage” of the world around us.
Yet, according to Berry, “most of our modern troubles come from our misunderstanding and misevaluation of the dust”—the particles of creation—of which we are made. We fail to see that rather than man being a “body + soul,” we truly are simply dust that “became a soul” by God “breathing His breath into it” to make “the dust live.” According to Wirzba, perhaps the most serious consequence of this dualism is a “spirituality that [is] world-denying, even world despising” — for in the “duality of our own living soul” not only do we risk “disowning the breath” that God gives us, but also, as seen in Christians’ complicity in the destruction of creation, we end up “disowning the dust” of which we are made.
As Christians, we are rightly concerned with people’s souls, but for far too long the church has been made a “tool of earthly villainy” — standing “silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, [and] divided and plundered its human communities and households.” With the publication of Laudato Si, the eyes of the world are on the Christian community — watching to see what we will do, how we will live, in light of our beliefs about God’s world and our place within it.
Will our actions show that we truly believe that creation is God’s gift, that we have a responsibility in caring for “our common home?” Ultimately, as Berry notes, “how we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them…are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance” — for in answering them, “we practice or do not practice,” our faith.
“God so loved the world…” — it is the gospel in a nutshell, the reason God sent “his only begotten Son.” How can we claim this truth, be worthy of proclaiming it, if we do not?
Amy Herring serves as Ministry Intern at Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham, N.C. As a CBF Leadership Scholar at Campbell University Divinity School, she is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity with certification in Children’s Ministry.