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“Ooh” she said, “That one’s my favorite!” She came over and I snapped a cell phone picture of her next to it. One needs to see a Van Gogh painting in person for full effect. More so, one should move in close.
Van Gogh painted in three dimensions, literally and metaphorically. He used vivid colors and fearless brush strokes rendered in layers of thick paint. As you move closer, the intended image disappears and the surface quickens and moves, shimmering a “pulsing animacy” – (a delicious phrase lifted from Robin Wall Kimmerer).
In one of life’s happy accidents, I am collaborating with a professor at Boston University and pre-COVID, business trips to Boston enabled me to hang with my daughter who is completing her degree at another school there. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts deeply discounts admission for students from her school and she takes full advantage. She was my guide.
We were absorbing Van Gogh’s “The Ravine, 1889.”
“Do you see them?”
I didn’t, so she pointed them out. There among the pulsing artistic animacy are two human figures. There, in the center of the frame, seamlessly rendered out of the same colors and same thick paint, the same bold technique but for a few deliberate brush strokes.
I love the painting and I love the memory, and both tumble around in my mind spinning off metaphor and pondering, when the academic taskmaster is asleep at the wheel. I show it to my students to flaunt my liberal arts bone fides and to prompt discussion that squarely is relevant to the science of wildlife conservation: how should we view the position of humans in nature?
I found myself pondering again in the wake of Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s recent post (Nature Has its own Religion). In it he contrasts Christianity’s rooting in grace and resurrection with nature’s “brutality, harshness, and competitiveness.” Steve wrote a thoughtful essay, indeed it is a gift to read something that forces one to search for insight or to get the pondering to tumble less and gel more.
I’m no theologian and given the theological sophistication in the The Twelve’s blog posts and commentary, it’s a little intimidating to weigh in. But, nature’s “brutality, harshness, and competitiveness” is pretty much my academic specialty. My first impulse was to make the argument that Steve’s “hard-nosed Calvinist” is no less isolated from or culpable for the brutality, harshness, and competitiveness in nature than are the wild wolves I study.
But what struck me was the otherness of the framing, Christianity (and by implication, humanity) on one side versus nature on the other with the two in opposition. And Steve doesn’t own that worldview. From my vantage, that’s the dominant view in the wider North American culture – including among most Christians I’ve encountered.
And truthfully, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve interrogated my own environmentalist thoughts and found it still lurking. I was taught a faith that marinated for centuries in strict enlightenment dualism. Elements of it crossed over on the Mayflower and likely motivated my Frisian ancestors to seek to make a life in Sioux County just after the Sioux people were forced out. It’s our foundational myth, righteous pioneers conquering the hostile and empty wilderness with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.
It’s as if we’ve taken Van Gogh’s painting and nailed a GI Joe and a Barbie doll (the white versions) right in the middle of the canvas. Nature, properly dominated, is a pleasant background but it is only the backdrop to the heroic (and distorted) view we have of ourselves.
That’s a practical problem as well as a theological problem. We wealthy North American types are driving a climate crisis and an extinction spasm that is sinful in the injustices it forces on the poor of this world and our non-human kin to say nothing of the way it aggressively insults our Creator.
Do we not see it or do we not care?
I’ve grown frustrated that western Christianity has only an anemic and simplistic theology of creation that largely shields us from our responsibility for it. If forced to confront our responsibility we fall back on our distorted privileged position. If called to account, we play the “God is sovereign, He’ll fix it if he wants to” card so we can get back to the party.
To be sure, there are Christian scholars and theologians pushing for a robust theology of creation, and I’ve met and interacted with some of them during a decade plus of teaching at the Au Sable Institute and there are hopeful signs like scholarship behind 2019’s Beyond Stewardship… which takes on the problem of humanity’s view of itself.
Despite a few wise people working very hard, as near as I can tell, providing Christian leadership and creativity (or a prophetic voice) on the most pressing problem on the planet remains only a boutique concern.
But we can’t get there if our starting point is a distorted view of ourselves and our separateness from nature, a view that likely is intertwined with the same Eurocentric worldview that Charles and Rah find behind the heresies that devalued black and indigenous people. White Christians resolved the moral tension in their treatment of enslaved black people by turning them into commodities. There’s a parallel there in how we westerners resolve the moral tension in our abuse of nature – and the cascading injustices that follow.
A robust theology of creation would be one of interconnection and interdependence and respect of intrinsic value.
There’s urgent work to do. Last week, I put several of these ideas in front of thoughtful Christian colleagues, including a Calvinist I know (says so right on his University). But for all the fearlessness and rigor of his scholarship, he is anything but hard-nosed. Even so, it was good to be with them pushing in similar directions.
Somehow, we need to take G.I. Joe and Barbie down to find the two humbler figures there all the while, still at the center where the artist put them, though of the same stuff — but for a few deliberate brush strokes.