We Belong to the Earth and Not Vice Versa
Once again, a human-made object takes a picture of the earth from near the moon. Once again, everyone who sees the picture is reminded of how rare the earth is. As far as we can see, whether from a moon capsule or the Webb telescope, we’ve not yet seen another orb with blue seas and green lands. I’m convinced there are others out there and other sentient beings. For God would not be so stingy or stupid as to put all the cosmic eggs for sentient life in one basket.
So, given what we know about how rare the earth is, why do the most technologically developed societies on this planet seem so intent on pushing the 5th extinction event in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history? One could point to the human disposition, at least in individual-oriented societies, to see everything as if we are the center of the universe; there is that powerful, false belief, yes.
But, increasingly over the last several years, I’ve been convinced the distinction between nature and history is a fundamental flaw in thinking and living. That distinction is rooted in the belief that the human species is separate from nature. In this perspective, human beings take nature and improve on it, manipulate it, tame it, conquer it for our benefit. Examples are legion, from mineral and fossil fuel extraction to industrial monocultural agriculture (which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels) to wrapping nearly everything in near-eternal plastics.
What if nature and history are not distinct realms? What if human beings are neither the unique pinnacle of God’s creation nor the species for whom this exceeding rare jewel of a planet exists?
What if the earth is the most wondrous creation known to humankind rather than we ourselves?
Consider with me.
Life on earth has survived through four planetary extinction events. There have been millions of species, not only plants and animals but bacteria and viruses and spores. Mushrooms may be something other than plant or animal! Remember the line made famous by the Jurassic Park movies: life will find a way. The power in the earth to regenerate life and innovate is beyond comprehension.
We once thought we were the only “intelligent life” on the planet (all jokes aside). But now we know that is bunk. Whales, dolphins, elephants, and octopi are just a few of creatures that apparently “feel” and “think” in ways we once thought were reserved for humans.
Connections. Do trees talk to each other via the chains of microorganisms in the soil? Likely. Dung beetles navigate by the stars. Have you ever looked up at the tips of a tree branch after dropping its leaves in the fall, then looked at the bare ends of a cluster of grapes you just ate, and then glanced at the veins on the backs of your hands? Same pattern. Connections, obvious and yet to be discovered, are everywhere.
Walk a ranch in western Oklahoma. Look at the abandoned buildings collapsing back into the earth. Stare down at the ground, strewn with sun-bleached disintegrating bones of animals who died on that spot. Call to mind what happens to our bodies when we die. As a funeral director once told me, no casket or vault ultimately prevents “nature” from having its way. Composting human remains is a “newer” practice in our Western world. But isn’t that fundamentally what the earth has been doing with all her children for all the small part of global history we’ve been around? The earth, and maybe a comet’s tail sweep or two, have been the source of all of life and the materials human beings use to fashion our lives. Again and again.
The earth does not belong to us. We, the human species, belong to the earth. And the earth belongs to God.
In the book of Genesis, Adamah (river mud) is the substance from which God made Adam and breathed into him the breath of life. Adam is Earth Man, Earthling. Adam and Eve are set in the garden to till and keep it. But in a few chapters after that beginning, they are doing hard labor, one son murders the other, cities are founded, human hubris grows, land is battled for, families fight bitterly and deceive often, a brother is sold into slavery—an action that brings grief, then relief, then enslavement to a whole people.
Freedom from that enslavement came to be tightly tied to occupying a particular piece of land and a people’s history with that land. That land, most unfortunately, sits at the intersection of clashing real and wannabe empires—since the dawn of civilization.
Early Christians took that freedom from enslavement to mean freedom from sin and death, which one could say was understood as freedom from being an Earthling, and the battle is against everyone who does not believe in Christianity’s singular truth.
Regardless of whether or not these transmutations were a mistake in the early centuries of Christianity, they are unhelpful beliefs today for a planet in crisis.
In Oklahoma, we love to sing the title song from the musical Oklahoma, “You know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge slapping the human species is living as if that line is true.
Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.