Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Ecological Reading of the Sermon on the Mount

As I have completed my degree in Conservation and Restoration Ecology, some things in life I can simply never see the same way.  When I look at forests and fields I typically don't see wilderness.  Most often, I see a managed landscape.  When I look at a farm, I see the competing social priorities water can be devoted to.  When I see a bird, I think about transcontinental migrations.  When I see roads and concrete, I think about altered patterns of runoff water.  Unsurprisingly, when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I see something different as well.  One passage in Matthew Chapter 6 reads:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Growing up, I was taught that this passage suggested that those called by God to live without caring for their financial well being could expect to do so at no ultimate personal sacrifice to their physical well being.  As such, the passage was beautiful but mostly irrelevant since I had no expectation that I would ever be called upon to ignore my basic needs.  Taking care of my needs was something I viewed as an almost a spiritual obligation.  Early in my marriage even I viewed paying off my debts as fulfilling a divine commandment.  The whole idea of ignoring my well being while being miraculously and totally supported as I supposed this passage suggested had nothing to do with me.

Now when I read this passage, I can't help but think about actual birds and actual flowers.  The passage reads "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them."  Clark's Nutcracker actually does sow, reap, and store.  They eat the seeds of trees like the Limber pine, storing for the future in seed cache's.  If the bird forgets the seed cache or dies before eating it, the seeds are planted.  Many of the Limber pines you see were planted by a Clark's Nutcracker.  Similarly, the Acorn Woodpecker also stores acorns to eat later, although they couldn't be said to plant them.  So, although it may be poetical to consider birds as living an easy going lifestyle with manna from heaven supplying their every want, it is common for birds to participate in the stresses of gathering and storing food- even if only as a fat layer for migration.

There is a darker side to the comparison with birds and flowers.  It is common among many birds that the parents will drive the young away from their breeding territory to prevent the offspring from competing with the parents for food.  Young birds who have not yet learned how to forage often die at this stage of life.  Many species drive away their young when the survival rate of those young on their own for the first time is only 50%.  Those who survive the withdrawal of parental care may live a long time, considering their small body size, but generally their chance of death is about equal every year as they age until they are much older.  As for flowers, you can't learn about the effectiveness of techniques used for reseeding landscapes without realizing that most of the viable seeds you put on a landscape will never survive.  They will be eaten by ants, rodents, and fungi and sometimes seedlings are trampled or grow in poor soil.  Once they establish they must compete with other plants for light and nutrients.  While flowers might look pretty, most seeds never survive to be an adult plant.  And while plants may not make clothing for themselves their pretty forms have a cost.  Plants must balance their carbon and nutrient budgets in order to both grow and reproduce.  In poor conditions, the carbon and nutrient budget available to a plant may be too small for survival.  Similarly dark realities could be pointed out in any life form.  Such findings prompted Darwin's famous words: 
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Christ's words seem to take this into account such natural destruction with the comment the grass is "tomorrow is thrown into the fire."  If our model of God caring for the living things in the world includes the possibility of sudden and seemingly meaningless death just like burned grass, then it makes no sense to argue that this passage means that those authorized by God to neglect their personal well being will suffer little want.  While I respect the claims of those who feel they received divine support in a ministry, I don't believe anyone is guaranteed an easy life serving God while neglecting their personal needs.  Instead, these verses seem to suggest that followers of Christ should take a philosophical view towards their own deprivations.  Despite all the nestlings and fledglings that die every year, there is no lack of beautiful birds provided for in the world.  Despite all the seeds which never become adult plants, the world has no lack of plants.  God cares and knows the needs of all of us, including the hungry and the well fed.  We can believe that God loves all of creation in all its endless cycle of destruction and rebirth, wishing and striving to redeem it in rebirth.  Even if our own needs fall short, the general order of life continues.  We should seek first to be part of the Kingdom of God, considering it a priority even over life itself, which will continue (or end) no matter how much we worry about it.  Living the good life is more than just having our physical needs met.

The imperative to seek first the Kingdom of God instead of consuming our lives with worrying about our physical needs does not inherently make a virtue of self denial or self care, but rather gives us priorities.  We should be willing to lose our life for Christ, in order to gain a life which is meaningful and full of striving for goodness in the world.  Worrying about the consequences of choosing to live to make a better world doesn't typically change anything- so don't worry about it and just enjoy living life as you can.  This is true no matter how brief or long your life is or how well or poorly fed you are.  Believing God loves all of us and wishes our well being but for some reason does not or cannot ensure it perfectly for all of us, we can still carry out that wish of love through our life.  Even if life is short and impoverished, in our own way and place we can live to help preserve and beautiful the natural world, care for the sick, feed the hungry, and restore the dignity of the oppressed.  Otherwise we risk saving our lives, only to find we lost living the good life.

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