This World Is (Not) My Home
Judging from the content pouring through my various social media feeds (and from my wife’s enthusiastic exhortation to go get a free Starbucks coffee!), today is Earth Day. Another day devoted to building awareness, promoting responsibility, and broadening horizons. I wonder if we are soon going to run out of calendar space for all of the special “days” that join the fray each year, but I am of course happy to affirm Earth Day and all it represents.
Well, most of what it represents, anyway. I did not encounter a robust theology of the created world until I was well into my twenties, and I remember initially seizing upon it with great delight. How refreshing, I thought, to have a more expansive perspective than the “evacuation theology” that seemed to be in the air in the church circles I grew up in. How liberating to have the freedom to think that God was interested in redeeming all that he had made, rather than just sucking souls up into heaven after their handful of decades (or less) on earth. How delightful to anticipate “new creation” rather than some kind of an immaterial “heaven” where my disembodied soul would float around for eternity. How wonderful to be able to join hands with those from a wide variety of ideological perspectives in stewarding the world of which we are all a part.
And I still feel this way, for the most part. But even as I was encountering these ideas for the first time, I recall thinking, “this is all fine and good, but it seems like a theological perspective carefully crafted for/by those whose experience of the physical world is a largely positive one.” It’s relatively easy to affirm the goodness and value of creation while living on the beautiful west coast of Canada (as I was at the time) with majestic rainforests and beautiful ocean views and beaches and mountains and abundant diversity all around. But what about sandblasted, sun-scorched lands that refuse to yield their fruit in season? What about the barren places, the unattractive places, the harsh and unforgiving places, the places where the wealthy and the privileged will never have to live?
And, of course, these questions extend far beyond geography. A theology that emphasizes the value of this world is, it seems to me, far easier to embrace for those whose experience of this life is mostly comfortable, peaceful, and full of opportunity. It is a theology virtually tailor-made for postmodern, post-Christian Westerners. Not only does it lend value to what we value, it has the happy side-benefit of allowing those who are perhaps a bit squeamish about some of Christianity’s more difficult and irreducibly personal truth claims, to turn their gaze upon on more culturally palatable fare.
When I was in grad school, we sometimes mockingly pointed to a song called “This World is Not My Home” as symptomatic of everything that was wrong with evangelical theology. And it must be acknowledged that the song contains some pretty abysmal lyrics. But I’m thinking of one line in particular on this Earth Day 2015:
I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
I’m thinking about this line through a couple of lenses.
I am thinking of a friend who is walking with their spouse through a very dark valley. A cancer diagnosis, an uncertain future, a present containing sadness, tears, longing. They are praying for redemption, for hope, for a future. They are undoubtedly ultimately looking ahead to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21). But I am guessing that right about now they are experiencing “this world” not as a delight, but as an open wound. They are looking forward to a different mode of existence.
I am thinking of teenagers and young adults I have known, past and present, who always struggled to fit in. I am thinking about how early “this world” schools human beings in the lesson that some people “belong” and some do not, that if you don’t look a certain way, that if you’re not good at certain things, then you are worth less than others. My heart aches for them. I grieve that such young and tender lives should ever come to the conclusion that “this world” is not for them.
I’m thinking of the Syrian refugees that our church is taking steps toward sponsoring to come to our city. It will likely be one or two families. A dozen people perhaps? In a sea of millions of displaced, homeless, heartsick human beings. Women, children, men. Young, old. Many people whose only experience of “this world” has been brutal oppression, struggle, poverty, and lack. And, of course, Syria is only one place among many in “this world” where human life is cheap, where suffering is abundant, where people’s primary experience is often one of abandonment and hopelessness.
I am glad that there is such a thing as Earth Day. Truly, I am. I really do think that creation care is a vitally important part of Christian faith. I think that we must pursue ways of being in the world that are less burdensome to the planet, that use resources more responsibly. It is imperative that we do so, particularly for the many vulnerable people who are affected by the greedy and acquisitive habits of the rich and the powerful. I just wonder, sometimes, about how our cultural location affects the theologies and ideologies that we embrace and, perhaps more importantly, how we embrace/espouse them.
This world is not my home. This world is my home. It seems to me that, from a Christian perspective, we must always find ways to affirm both.
Interesting and thought-provoking reflection, Ryan. I think I can offer an answer to some of your questions (though I think broadly these are very useful to questions to ask). First, regarding barren, unforgiving landscapes and those that live there, I think if you talked to Inuits, say, or people who have lived in the Sahara for generations and generations, they would express a far deeper love for their land than we white, post-modern westerners in our comfortable, urban, technology-laden (alienating from the land) lives. I think one of the most amazing thing about human beings and cultures is our ability to adapt to and thrive in the most unlikely environmental settings, and then the passionate resistance these folks often mount to attempts to move them into “easier” lifestyles.
Second, regarding how creation theology is received outside the west where it was developed, at least in my research in Kenya, I think largely Kenyans had an easier time accepting creation care theology — e.g., God made the world and loves it, so we should take care of it — than most westerners. I can only guess at the reasons why. Maybe partly because they are closer to a pre-Christian, “pagan” worldview that is more connected to the land. Maybe because they depend much more directly on the land for their livelihoods and therefore welcome a theological affirmation of its worth. Maybe because their economy is less tied up with destructive practices like burning masses of fossil fuels. That being said though, lots of them also thought that forests with rare and endangered species in them should just be cut down so there would be more farmland. So, it’s complicated there too. Anyhow, I do think we as Westerners need to be careful in how we talk about these things, but sometimes I think, at least with regard to this question, people in other parts of the world sometimes get it better than we do!
Thanks for this valuable perspective, Joanne. I appreciate hearing from your experience, which is certainly broader than my own when it comes to these matters. What you say makes a lot of sense, particularly where you talk about how/why non-Western folks might have an easier time embracing creation theology than we do.
I certainly didn’t mean to convey that Western folks are the ONLY ones who embrace creation theology (indeed, as you say, a good argument could be made that we are uniquely BAD at embracing this theology!). I was mostly reflecting on how some aspects of our cultural location affect the theologies and worldviews that we embrace and and how we talk about them. I’m thinking particularly of our own Mennonite context where the temptation, it seems to me, is to often collapse faith into ethics. In our post-Christian context, it’s not always popular to speak about some of the more “otherworldly” (bad term, I know, but I can’t think of a better one right now!) aspects of Christianity. Far easier to talk about “the environment” than about nasty things like “sin” or “salvation” or metaphysics or some of the other topics that make people uncomfortable these days.
Having said all this, I of course want to reiterate what I said in the second-to-last paragraph. I think that Christians ought to be among the most committed people to creation care, whether as a stewardship issue, or a justice issue, or, more likely, some combination of both (and others, no doubt).
Good thoughts Ryan. There’s a lot to the “on the one hand/on the other hand” paradigm that we need to keep in mind. I just came from visiting my 96 year old mother, who, while she is remarkably blessed with health and acuity, she is in a home full of people who aren’t. At best this will be her future. And we sat looking at pictures from the past- and she spoke with gentle longing for the day when she would be among those many, in the pictures, she was longing to be reunited with. I could step out of her room into another beautiful day and but this was a good reminder that we do share a vision of life beyond now.
I find myself doing that “on the one hand… but on the other hand…” thing a lot these days. 🙂
Sounds like a poignant moment with your mother—a wonderful reminder of longings that many of us keep buried for a while, but which are always there.
I too am looking forward to a different mode of existence. Thank you for that phrase. 😊
Me too, Chris.
Evidently the Early monastic types, such as the Desert fathers, embodied a profound holistic Heaven/Earth theology that embraced and affirmed both perspectives. Unfortunately, When I entered through the gates of Christendom years ago, I naively embraced a rigid Fundamentalist Pentecostal “just passing through” / Jimmy Swaggart mentality that has proven most difficult to uproot, but then I’ve never been able to “feel at home” here nayway. …Perspective Perspective Perspective.
I think that some ancient sources might have had a more holistic approach to “the world” and it’s role in God’s story. I think that there is also a thread running throughout many ancient philosophies and religions that posits a radical dualism between the physical world of human experience and some future incorruptible mode of existence. Christians were not and are not the only ones to historically look at the world as it is presently configured as something to “escape.” And I’m not entirely unsympathetic to some of these dualisms, even if I would ultimately reject them.
As you say, it’s hard to “feel at home” here sometimes.
Thought provoking post, Ryan. It’s a post I will think about. I want to push back against it almost immediately but want to think about it more (and read it more than once before I do 🙂 .
Coincidently, I’ve been digging more deeply into Rich Mullin’s music and have been struck by how other worldly he seemed to be. Of course Rich died and went to be with the Lord before he could read NT Wright 🙂 I was struck by Jame’s post since I also sit with my 88 year old mother and listen to her musings about the afterlife. What was NTW’s line… Life after life after death… Or something like that. It’s the state of death… Being with the Lord waiting to be joined with our bodies where we have lots of questions.
“This world is not my home. This world is my home.” How’s something like this….. “this world, my home is beautiful but messed up. I’m waiting and hopeful for the Day when it will be fixed and I will be truly at home.” Tomorrow I’ll probably wish I could tweak these lines. I think Joanne’s post pushes us in a positive direction.
Again thanks for your post
Thanks, Larry. Feel free to push away. I’m told by my wife and kids that I’m not always right about everything… Incredible, I know. But apparently possible. 🙂
I very much like your formulation, incidentally:
I think this pretty much exactly captures what I had in mind with the “my home but not my home” language.
Hi Ryan, if you resonate with my couple of lines there isn’t too much for me to push at you about. Specially with your post to Joanne to help understand you more fully.
I can’t say “this world is not my home” since I deeply believe this world is where I belong. Contra the new Christian song I will recommend as a new song for you to mock. I hate it’s chorus:
“All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong”
I listened to the song on my drive into work today (it’s on our syrupy sweet Christian station) and thought of this Thread. Unfortunately the song has a catchy tune.
Here’s something to ponder/argue.
I’m thinking that it is theologically misguided to say about the dear departed saint that s/he “went Home to be with the Lord.” That sentiment seems indicative of platonic dualism.
(Although, I do remember something in the Revalation about the saints under the alter. Maybe I’ll have to dig into that text a bit).
I don’t think my hyperlink worked. Maybe this will:
It’s a good tune. By Building 429 “where I belong”
Yes, I can certainly see that. Although I also think that there is nothing truer we could ever say than that to be “with God” is to be “home,” in the deepest sense of the term.
(Thanks for the link. You’re right, catchy song, but… )
In no particular order :)…..Starbucks will prostitute anything and everything to advance it’s brand. I wish corporate culture was not of this world. Buy as much as you can locally, from your neighbors, or small business culture may soon not be part of this world….Musically speaking I am reminded of Tevye the dairyman, from Fiddler on the Roof….”on the one hand, on the other hand”…such approaches to life should be seen as humorously ironic, reminding us of our own hypocrisies;…..taking the piss out of us so to speak.
Dualism sounds good in theory but as best as I can figure it is the domain of salesmen, lawyers, politicians, cheats and liars. Better to pick a side and deal honestly with it’s shortcomings then to spend a life drowning in the perpetual bs that is relativistic thought.
For me this is not my home but you are all my family.
Nicely said, Paul. 🙂