Review: The Garden of God

The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology, Pope Benedict XVI, foreword by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s statements in homilies, papal greetings, letters, and other written documents, pertaining to a theology of human ecology.

Many would consider Pope Francis to be the environmental pope, especially with the issuance of Laudato Si. This volume shows that, at least in this respect, he builds upon the theology and actions of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Afterall, it was under Benedict that the Vatican went carbon neutral. This collection of the Pope’s writings on the environment in speeches, homilies, greetings to various governmental and international bodies, to youth and workers groups conveys a robust and far reaching ecological theology that offers distinctive contributions to our contemporary discussions.

The collection is divided three sections, and because of the “occasional” nature of these writings, many repeat similar ideas. I will discuss some of the key themes in each section.

Creation and Nature

Benedict begins with the idea of creation as the gift of a rational God, intended to be the Garden of God in which he placed human beings to enjoy and tend. From the beginning the peace and prosperity of human beings and the environment are seen to be integrally and reciprocally connected. And for our present day, we cannot hope to have peace in the world if we fail to protect the creation. Its peace is our peace. The creation was set up so that we might fulfill God’s plan for the flourishing of all his creatures, when we set ourselves up at the center and exploit the environment, we threaten our own existence. The protection of creation is also a matter of justice. Our failure to protect creation often puts at risk the poor and marginalized. Benedict celebrates the importance of everything from the Arctic to the Amazon as well as the fragile beauty of the earth as scene by space, with its vanishingly thin envelope of atmosphere on which our lives depend.

The Environment, Science, and Technology

Building on the idea of creation as the rational work of God, Benedict sees faith, knowledge, and science as in harmony. At the same time, the technological applications of science must be informed by the Church’s theology. Human ecology and environmental ecology must work together. He does not accept the pitting of humans against the natural world. The flourishing of families and societies, including the begetting of children is not at odds with seeking creation’s flourishing. Indeed, it is our task. In our time, this means moderating our consumption, turning to alternate energy sources, and ensuring the equitable access to the earth’s resources for all nations. He decries financial gains at the expense of the workers who make this possible, as well as speculative economies, that in the collapse of 2008, inflicted harm to the lives and livelihoods of the global community, as well as leading to environmental degradation.

Hunger, Poverty, and the Earth’s Resources

A number of the Pope’s messages in this section are to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He urges the adequacy of the earth’s resources to feed the world’s people without compromising biodiversity. He decries policies that denigrate the dignity of agriculture and the rural parts of the world. He upholds the farmer as a model of upholding faith and reason, acting on his knowledge of the laws of nature while trusting in the providence of God. He calls for our solidarity with all of humanity for equitable access to food and the world’s resources. He believes this leads to sustainable development.

Most of the pieces are short, sometimes excerpts of longer documents. That makes this at once a resource for thoughtful Christian reflection on caring for the creation and a resource for those studying the environmental thought and advocacy of Benedict XVI’s papacy. Benedict contributes to the conversation the conviction of the transcendent basis for our use of reason in the care of creation. He affirms the role of humans, not only in environmental degradation but also in remediating these impacts. Human beings are part of God’s plan for the world. As leader of a global church, he speaks to global leaders about their responsibilities to all of humanity, and all living things. He affirms the spiritual values that enable people to renounce excessive consumption and make changes for the sake of both fellow human beings as well as the rest of nature.

I did find relatively few references to global climate change. There are concerns regarding his encouragement of equitable sharing of resources if this only means increased consumption of carbon-based fuels and more greenhouse gas emissions as other nations “catch up.” He seems more focused on land and water resources and assumes that climate will not drastically affect food production. Perhaps because we are further down the road as I write in 2023, we see more clearly the implications of our changing climate. Yet these impacts were not unknown in the years of Benedict’s papacy. Indeed it motivated the Vatican’s move to carbon neutrality. It seems more could have been said.

Yet what the Pope said and advocated was significant and far-reaching both in geographic scope and on the aspects of human existence on which he touched. It is striking how he wove these themes into so many papal messages. It both offers models and raises questions about how well we do this throughout the church. May we do as well.

Review: Becoming Native To This Place

Becoming Native To This Place, Wes Jackson. New York: Counterpoint Press, 1996.

Summary: Six essays advocating agricultural practices that reflect close attention to the character of a particular place.

Wes Jackson thinks universities ought to focus their work on preparing their students for “homecomings”–not to assume that success consists in leaving home but rather becoming native to these places–fully appreciating the character of the place and conforming one’s life in that place to its character. He elaborates this idea of becoming native to one’s place in the six essays that make up this book.

He begins by asking a probing question. Archaeological evidence indicates that at one time over 25,000 indigenous persons lived in the boundaries of Rice County, Kansas. By 1990, only 10,400 could sustain their livelihoods there. Why this population decline? Why did so many families fail where the native peoples once thrived? Why, in a place where buffalo roamed amid native grasses could an economy based on wheat farming fail?

Jackson argues that the assumption that nature must be subdued and ignored had a lot to do with it. Farm plots laid out in squares, disregarding the location of creeks and rivers, the fencing of prairie that offered common grazing ground along with hunting led to the decimation of the buffalo, a food source rich in calories, well-adapted to the prairies. Instead of studying what worked, farmers in tandem with agricultural scientists sought to bend nature to their will. Nature would not be bent.

He offers an interesting case of the conflict between Lysenko and Vavilov, two Soviet scientists. On the science, Lysenko was wrong on many counts and power hungry as well. But he was right to listen to peasant wisdom rather than the proponents of the collective, who wrecked agriculture. Rather than the objectification and control of nature, he urges what Wendell Berry calls a “conversation with nature.” One honors water, forest animals, savanna grazers and the prairie. One pays attention to the topography of land, allowing grasses to hold the soil on slopes. Out of this “conversation,” Jackson launched the Land Institute to develop practices appropriate to the place, an approach that seeks to “mimic” the nature of the place.

More than that, he dreams of what a community might be that did this, describing the community that once was in his location. Sustainability is not just about preserving wilderness, but loving the ordinary of prairie farmland, and even our cities. This loving of place is a task for all of us, and without it, even the most wild places cannot be hoped to survive. It means paying attention to the succession of a place, how in a healthy ecosystem, whether a marsh or a forest, nothing is wasted.

He describes his find forty years programs of New Century Club, a women’s group and their discussions of local wisdom, and the gradual decline even as modern agriculture advanced, but fewer could afford to live there. From beautiful program covers, the programs declined to mimeographs on construction paper. It was evidence that the people of that place had lived closer to the land in those early years than later, with all their technical advances.

Jackson concludes with a call to a kind of ecological patriotism–of love of one’s land, of our place that doesn’t turn the clock back but uses what we know to go forward, though not as conquerors, but those who have finally learned that the land is our teacher, and if we are to care for it well, we must learn from it.

I reviewed Braiding Sweetgrass recently on the integrating of indigenous and ecological wisdom. It strikes me that Jackson is engaged in a similar project. Many argue that we cannot afford the less “efficient” approaches of Robin Wall Kimmerer, or the Land Institute, or places like Polyface Farm, or even Wendell Berry’s own farm. If Wes Jackson and these others are right, we cannot afford our current, unsustainable life, where the hidden costs of our supposed efficiency are becoming increasingly evident. The question is whether we will start learning the lessons of our place on earth while those places can still teach us?

Review: Ecology and the Bible

Ecology and the Bible, Frédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises.

Imagine an art patron leaving a priceless Cezanne in your care. You fail to dust it, leave it in the sun, allow your children to play underneath it leading to inevitable damage. It is irreparably damaged and you turn the painting toward the wall. Then the owner returns. The author of this book suggests this as an analogy for our care of the creation God has entrusted to us.

The aim of this work is to consider our present ecological crisis in the light of scripture, particularly in light of God’s mandate for human beings. Baudin begins with considering Genesis 1:28 and our stewardship mandate. He looks at the words used that underline our role to properly manage God’s creation, an earthly temple we guard and serve, language used for those who do this later on in Israel’s temple. Instead of exercising proper dominion, they submit to the serpent, and begin, as fallen creatures, to misuse the creation. In various ways, we exceed the laws and boundaries God sets for his world, including sabbath.

In the gospel, we are reconciled to the creation we had been alienated from, which is not an invitation to exploitation but care and restoration. The continuities and discontinuities between the creation and the new creation challenge us to not put all our hope in our work in this world while living in the hope that our work in caring for creation will matter in the new creation. Baudin discusses this eschatology in light of competing ideologies and various conceptions of the millenium.

Having considered the biblical narrative from creation to new creation, Baudin then turns to a discussion that moves “from theory to practice.” He explores the relation of economy and ecology, not merely in the etymology of the words, but how these interact in modern life, particularly in consumerism and advancing technology. He discusses politics on the global scale in which ecological decisions must be made. He turns to the efforts of Christians. and emphasizes the unique contribution our trust in the providence of God, shaping the tenor of our care of creation, putting God first, then people, and finally the welfare of the whole creation.

This work combines solid treatment of the scriptures, particularly apparent in the discussion of continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament. Given the work was originally in French, it reflects a European perspective. I would also note that whether it was an issue in the original text or the translation, the writing is characterized by the passive voice making reading more difficult. However the combination of solid treatment of scripture and the global perspective makes this a valuable work for Christians who would root their ecological thinking in scripture.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Laudato Si’

Laudato siLaudato Si’, Pope Francis. Vatican City: Link is to online version of the encyclical (.pdf version available at site), 2015 .

Summary: Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, advocating an “integral ecology” that links care for the creation with care for the poor, the quality of life in our cities, and a way of life emphasizing spiritual rather than material priorities.

Encyclicals are circular letters from the Pope to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church addressing important matters of church teaching. The title of the encyclical is taken from the first two words of the encyclical in Latin. This encyclical, “on care for our common home” begins with the words Laudato si’ or “Praise to you” and are the first words of a song of Saint Francis. The remarkable thing about this particular encyclical is that it has been addressed not only to the Catholic faithful, but “to the whole human family.”

The encyclical begins with a review of prior church teaching on the environment and particularly that of Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope draws his inspiration for what he terms “integral ecology.” For Saint Francis, the love of God and his creation transcended the separate categories in which we often place science and faith, care for the environment and care for the poor, the pursuit of stewardship of the earth and social justice. One commentator has noted that the most significant word in the encyclical may be the word and because Pope Francis associates things we often separate.

Six chapters follow this introduction. Chapter 1 explores “what is happening to our common home?” and considers pollution and climate change, water supplies, biodiversity, and the decline of the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, and global inequalities. Chapter 2 is titled “the gospel of creation” and explores a Catholic theology of creation. emphasizing that our dominion of creation was not domination but tilling and caring for it. It movingly states:

“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (paragraph 92)

Chapter 3 turns from God’s intent to the “human roots of our ecological crisis”. The encyclical sources this in an inordinate reliance on technology–technocracy, in the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, and an excessive anthropocentrism that paradoxically compromises human dignity as we exploit not only the environment but other human beings as well. This chapter ranges widely considering everything from genetically modified food (and the usurping of smaller landholders by big agribusiness) to the dignity of human work and the need for gainful employment. Chapter 4 then turns to the remedy of these woes in “integral ecology” that concerns environmental, economic, social, cultural and everyday ecology, the common good and justice between generations.

Chapter 5 considers “lines of approach” and has to do with various public spheres in which environmental advocacy and action must occur. I was struck how often the word “should” was used here in ideas for international, national, and local policy. Perhaps the most trenchant remarks in this section are in the Pope’s call for transparency in dialogue and decision-making and in his call for a rapprochement between religion and science around environmental concerns.

The final chapter concerns “ecological education and spirituality” and turns to the impact a Catholic eco-theology might have at the parish level. In a section on “Joy and Peace” the Francis writes:

“To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.” (paragraph 222).

He also calls for a kind of ecological conversion and considers the relation of the Trinity, and of Mary to the creation. He concludes the encyclical with two prayers, the first “a prayer for our earth” and the second a “Christian prayer in union with creation.”

I found much to commend here. Here is an ecology that is pro-human life from the uterus to the grave, and at the same time fully recognizes the dignity of all creatures. Francis recognizes that it is often those who have contributed least to our ecological problems who suffer the most and sees the issue of justice and not simply ecological concerns in this suffering. He also recognizes that most profoundly, we need a conversion from the materialism and consumerism that is neither ecologically sustainable nor spiritually satisfying. With his namesake, he eloquently argues for how our lives are inextricably bound up with the life of the whole creation.

He speaks prophetically to those in political and economic power. And I found myself wondering here whether in fact it will be the weak of this world, the powerless, who will, under the grace of God, confound the mighty and whether change, if it comes, will not come from the politicians or big business interests but from a grassroots movement. My own hope is that such a movement might be nurtured by Christian communities whose faithful presence and witness in these matters captures the imagination of others, as did the church in eastern Europe during the fall of Communism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” I’m troubled that we have not lived in such a way to leave a healthy, verdant world to our children. The kind of world their children find may well hinge on whether both the church and the wider human community heed this passionate plea for our common home.

[Note: after publishing this post, a friend asked for the source of this Bonhoeffer quote. It appears on a number of sites but there is no source information on any of these and a search of Google Books and questions to some who know Bonhoeffer’s work well have failed to turn up the actual source of this quote. So it may be more accurate to say that this statement is attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, actual source unknown.]

Review: Slow Church

slow churchSlow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Slow church. That’s not what I wanted when I was growing up. I wanted to get my weekly dose of church and get on to more interesting things. If the authors are to believed, the church growth specialists gave my generation what we wanted–fast church. Messages that cut to the chase, efficient, homogeneous organization that led to big box churches that provided a great show. For a time, I was part of such a church in another city, typically driving 10 miles to attend. But it seemed totally unconnected to the place where we lived and so when we moved to our current home town, we found a church in the neighborhood, which in recent years has come to embody many of the things the authors of this book describe as part of the “slow church” movement.

The authors describe an approach to thinking of the church that gives words to much of what we were looking for. They believe that God’s redemptive work is slow and values the unique qualities of people and place and gifting that our particular places of worship reflect. They organize their approach around three categories.

First they think in terms of ethics. What is the good to be pursued in the life of a local congregation? It begins with a sense of place that takes time to become a community that shares life together and learns how to serve the mix of people in a real neighborhood rather than efficiently reaching a “market segment.” It encourages stability that takes time to understand a place rather than our restless mobility. It values patience that is willing to suffer alongside others and walk alongside the people of one’s community through the seasons and changes of life as Christ is formed in us.

A second emphasis is on ecology. It focuses on the connectedness of all things and all of life as opposed to fragmenting life, and groups of people into segments, often with the result of dividing them against each other–young and old, liberal and conservative, poor and affluent, and even humans versus the rest of creation. It cares about the dehumanization of work and fosters good work based in our neighborhoods. It celebrates sabbath where God provides enough in six days for us to live seven.

A third focus is on economy. Will we join the culture’s economics of scarcity or the kingdom economy of abundance? This means noticing all the abundance God has placed in the people and physical resources of a church and a community and responding with gratitude and hospitality. And in a wonderful connection with the slow food movement, it means reveling in the fellowship of the table, having rich conversation over good food.

This book is particularly important for churches that take seriously the work of “re-neighboring” and community development in transitional or struggling communities. It is also important for churches in more suburban “communities” that often don’t have a real sense of community and place, and are at great peril over the long haul.

The authors challenged me to consider how, even though I am in a church that is seeking to become these things, I am embedded in a “fast church” life and way of thinking that is formed more by my culture than the church community with which I identify. I work in a ministry that is not located in the community where I live, where I travel extensively, and work with colleagues in a tri-state area, and more widely with individuals throughout the country as well as an extensive virtual community. As I write today, I don’t have good answers to resolve this tension. But this book serves as impetus for a conversation, maybe a slow conversation, but one that I recognize needs to begin in my life.

How about you?