Of Mother Earth and the Invisible Hand

It’s been a real blessing to teach a course at seminary this semester. It’s not just that I love teaching no matter what the context (I do); it is just much more satisfying to work with people who share the same assumptions and goals I do, and to do so in a forum where we can actually talk about these and work out their implications. FWIW, I am pretty sure that my students at the Naval War College (where I just finished teaching) shared many of the same assumptions and goals as I, but the secular setting demanded that these be left untouched. This was completely appropriate and enjoyable in its own way, but it really is nice to be able to talk about the most important things (both eternal and local) with beautiful people, and to do so with undisguised love and delight. This is one of the many reasons I love our seminary of St. Sophia’s.

Earth, the mother of Rus’

One of the topics of study this past week was to explore paganism in pre-Christian Rus’ and how it informed (and perhaps continues to inform) Kyivan Spirituality. The data are pretty spotty, so we risk learning more about the historians themselves than about the people of pagan Rus’ (always a risk when good data are rare; in the IC I often learned a lot more about other analysts than I did about Islamist insurgency), but reliable historians (e.g. Fedotov) suggest that Rusyn paganism was heavily informed by her agrarianism. Mother Earth was less a deity than an integrated part of the pattern of life. While the Rusyn pagans had other “deities” such as Perun, Mokosh, Stribog, Dajbog, rusalki, and domovoi, there was less an established pantheon than local expressions of a grounded and local pantheism. Water and forest spirits were important, but the over-riding strength of nature was in the earth and her soil. Spirituality was not directed to gods above, but toward the ground that sustains and enfolds. This was the loam that accepted the seed of Christ, and you have to know that it earthiness affected the nature of the harvest.

We have to remember that Christianity takes on local expressions as it baptizes local cultures: it is imperial only in the sense that it draws out the best of what went before and fills in the empty spots, and draws it all toward the light. Kyivan Spirituality thus took on a special folk/earthy character (more so as you moved down the social ladder and away from the direct influences of Greece and the Northlands). I think we can assume that the Christians of Kyiv had a natural appreciation for God’s creation and man’s place in it. The stewardship they felt toward the earth was that of the husbandman and nurturer. Natural affinity for the soil was less a vestigial remnant of paganism than a stunted remnant of life before the fall; restored, ennobled, and sanctified by Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. Kyivan Rus’ had its own temptations to deal with, but at least in this the Church had something it could work from.

The Invisible Hand that Guides Us

What about us here in America? What is the culture that Christ is baptizing here? In particular, what kind of ingrained attitude towards the earth do we give the Church to work with? How do approach stewardship? I’m afraid that the answer is not so flattering. There are many parts of our culture that are easily baptized (we are a post-Christian nation, after all!), but this is one that needs some serious work. Even the best among us think of stewardship in terms of “sustainability” and “do no harm”; the rest of us approach it as a manager does his factory and workers, a master – his plantation, or (the most popular approach) a consumer – his grocery store. Some visionaries (e.g. PETA) recognize how unhealthy this is for us and our world, but without the Church/Truth to guide them, their sentimental relativism makes them less true prophets than dangerous activists of absurdity.

Thank God, the solution to this problem does not need to be created from scratch. Many of us have spent less than a generation or two isolated from the earth. Our culture retains hints of traditional agrarian values that can be drawn out and augmented with those which many of our newer immigrants have brought. We may not remember how to plow a field, but most remember how to till a garden. We can also educate ourselves. Reading Christian authors such as Vigen Guroian, Wendell Berry, and Rod Dreher (and meditating on Genesis and the Psalms) may not turn us into true stewards, but it can at least help us to see and feel how much we have lost. Perhaps then we can begin the difficult transformation from consumers to husbandmen.

Things I’m working on

In addition to reading Guroian, Berry, and Dreher, I have been trying to nudge my habits in a healthier direction. I’m new at this, so suggestions are welcome:

Replacing almost all of our lights with CFL’s and LED’s and opening areas up to more sunlight. If I were building from scratch, I would set up the lighting to rely exclusively on sunlight and LED’s (or whatever technology replaces it… bioluminescence?). This would mean darker evenings, but perhaps submitting our own biorhythms to that of the earth’s rotation might not be such a bad thing! It would also require almost no energy. Replacement style LED light bulbs use 1-2 watts, and while they are not bright, I find them to be bright enough. Hopefully mass production will bring the cost and down and the quality of the light (which tends to be blueish) up. [Yes, I really do dream of building a comfy cabin “off the grid”… as long as it had internet!]

The parish has begun installing new windows in the rectory. This helps with #1 and means that it takes much less oil to keep the house at a comfortable 60 degrees (well, it’s comfortable if you wear a coat…). Until local power generation comes down in cost cutting use through improved efficiency is the only real leverage we have (we’d make our own energy, but solar would cost at least $15k, wind about $10k, geo-thermal about $20k, and zoning does not allow for the splitting atoms in the basement).

Buying organic (and healthier) food and supporting stores that offer it. Here, that means spending time at Trader Joe’s and (believe it or not) Job Lots. If we had to rely on Whole Foods or the selections at the local chains stores, we’d go broke. We also frequent Chipotle and other places that are a bit more earth-aware.

Buying shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm’s crop. For a few hundred dollars, we get enough fruits and vegetables each week to feed a small army (time to learn the lost art of canning!). I don’t know if it saves any money, but being the friend of a real farmer is one step closer to the land than I was before. This supplements the wonderful bounty parishioners share with us (and what we’ll grow in our own garden if I ever get over what seems to be a terminal case of “Oblomovshina”.

Other random things: Driving less. Getting in better shape. Being nicer (sin and hate actually harm the world; the world is messed up because we have used our power as “little creators” to mirror our fallenness. It will be sustained in perfection when we are remade at the end of days).