Celebrating City, Farm, and Wilderness Together: An Un-American Theology for Nature’s Nation?­

The eminent twentieth-century American historian, Perry Miller, once published a study in American history entitled Nature’s Nation.  Woody Guthrie gave expression to that theme in his own memorable way:  “This land is your land and this land is my land… From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters….”  One of the nation’s most celebrated authors, Henry David Thoreau, wrote extensively and intensively about the same motif:  a life immersed in what he thought of as nature.  Just about anyone who has studied American cultural history from colonial times on will also know the names of many other U.S. writers of stature or celebrated artists or renowned activists or popularizing scientists who were likewise preoccupied with nature.

While Indigenous peoples have lived in and with nature on the North American continent for countless centuries, European colonists and their descendants have thus made the very idea of nature their own, as Guthrie was wont to sing:  “this land is my land.”  In this sense, America, as colonized – and often as romanticized – has been nature’s nation.

But which “nature” does this cultural construct in fact identify?  How to define that venerable word?  Those who have thought about this question have regularly been unable to come up with a rendering that’s commensurate with the word’s rich and often confusing meanings in common or literary or scientific or theological usage.  The noted American philosopher, Arthur Lovejoy, once identified dozens of meanings of the word nature.  But sometimes define a term we must.  In this case, I think, as long as we are aware of the ambiguities, it is intellectually permissible to think of nature as what we commonly call “the material world.”  Which is not all that different from what the Nicene Creed calls “all things visible.”

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That being said, over the years, pursuant to my own interests in the theology of nature and, more particularly, the theology of ecojustice, I have chosen to move on from that definitional challenge – or morass – as quickly as possible into the world of biblical thought.  This, in part, was to respond critically to what I have perceived to be a certain problematic insularity in non-indigenous American life and thought concerning nature.

City-dwellers, for example, may well be indifferent to the needs of farmers.  Or champions of rural America or of the wilderness may well advocate, politically, against public investments in the city.  Cattle farmers may resent the idea of wilderness preservation when they have to deal with the attacks of wolves, say.  Lovers of the wilderness may fight against a planned pipeline through a forest preserve, even though it would benefit more than a few who live in cities.

Justice is best served, it appears to me, by what might be called a holistic vision of nature – the material world – that presupposes the equal importance of city, farm, and wilderness for American life today.  And it is good to know that such a holistic vision is available – in the Scriptures.

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The Bible, I believe, as I will presently show, offers us what might be called a trinitarian understanding of that which modern Westerners have commonly referred to as nature or otherwise thought of as the material world.  Note that I’m not thinking here explicitly of the word trinitarian in terms of historic Christian doctrine, but in terms of a threefold historical meaning.

As I reflect about the material world with biblical faith in mind, then, I believe that that world can be understood as having three dimensions, which I have elsewhere called fabricated, cultivated, and wild nature – dimensions that typically come to their most visible public American expressions in familiar terms that I have already invoked:  the city, the farm, and the wilderness.

But a word of caution.  These terms are so familiar that what might be called their existential weight often goes unnoticed.  So, recognize that weight we must, if we are to grasp how problematic they can be, functionally, in our society today.  To this end, I’m now going to present some impressionistic notes about the place where I happen to live, the Boston area, as a kind of phenomenological baseline for the theological proposal that is to follow.  City, farm, and wilderness each has a way of claiming many Americans existentially that has considerable force.

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The city:  think of Boston’s great cultural institutions, among them its sometimes elegantly designed universities, especially those situated along the winding Charles River.  Think also of the historic beauty of Boston Commons, dating from 1634, thought to be the oldest park of its kind in the U.S.  Or call to mind Boston’s thousand-acre Emerald Necklace, a chain of grasslands, shrubs, and trees, running throughout the city, designed more than a hundred years ago by the eminent Frederick Law Olmsted.

This, however, is the same city that’s defined by its now notorious Big Dig – designed by a committee, some wag once said – a massive, submerged highway that cost more than $7 billion (in today’s dollars) to construct and which to this day is traversed by many thousands of polluting cars and trucks and buses.  Drivers in traffic jams on that Big Dig highway today are obviously not able to observe – perhaps not even able to think about – farm animals or vistas of distant mountains.  Their world is the asphalt jungle, as it has sometimes been called, notwithstanding some of the greener aspects of Boston overall.

All the more so for many of Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods, where tree canopies tend to be scarce and where concrete and blacktop are omnipresent:  people who live in these places typically do not have the financial wherewithal to spend much time in the countryside or to undertake hiking or camping adventures in the mountains.  The city, typically, is their island home, for better, for worse.  For them, more often than not, the farm and the wilderness are little known experientially and remain, for many, alien worlds.

In Boston, presiding over it all, is the city’s famous – for some, infamous – cement city hall with its brutalistic architecture, along with that building’s vast cement plaza.  If that urban installation doesn’t tell the whole story of Boston’s culture, it still has enormous symbolic power. Not surprisingly, then, for many who identify with the City of Boston, fabricated nature dominates their daily experience, whether they are residents or commuters.

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The farm:  think of historic Brook Farm (on land currently within the Boston city limits), a short-lived Transcendentalist rural communitarian experiment in the 1840’s, which idealistically accented intellectual discourse and hands-on agricultural labor for a few well-educated white New Englanders and also a number of craftspeople.  Ralph Waldo Emerson was a founding member.

Nature for the Brook Farm community was a world of quiet beauty and, sometimes, hands-on care for plants and animals for the few who could afford to live in that kind of intentional setting.  Members of that community self-consciously distanced themselves from what they thought of, even then, as the noise, the grime, and the turmoil of the city and from what was, for many of them, the dangerous or even hostile world of the wilderness far beyond.

Today’s farms in the U.S. typically differ markedly from Brook Farm, to be sure, ranging from some of New England’s self-sustaining, organic projects to vast Midwestern, agribusiness enterprises.  An example of the former is Noonday Farm in Wincheden, MA, inspired by the vision of Peter Mauren and the Catholic Worker movement and founded by Haley House, a Catholic food ministry in Boston.  Clearly, farming in the U.S. takes innumerable forms.

But, notwithstanding such differences, the idea of farming still has its own compelling aura of meanings for many Americans, far beyond the hands-on work of farming itself.  One might even argue that, after World War II, the development of suburbia in the U.S. reflected a widespread green longing for the then disappearing – and thereafter idealized – “life on the farm.”  Along with all this, agrarianism has become a kind of metaphysical lens for some of its champions, through which to view the whole world, as in some, if not all, the writings of Wendell Berry.

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The wilderness:  then of course there’s Walden Pond, just outside Boston, celebrated by the one who is now widely regarded as America’s greatest champion of nature, the aforementioned Henry David Thoreau, especially in his masterpiece, Walden.  While Thoreau took some engaged civic stands on occasion, his writings generally depicted the city as an artificial, even destructive, milieu for human life.  He once said that there’s more wisdom in (tiny, rural) Boxboro than in the whole of Boston.  Thoreau was very much at home in his small-town, agricultural milieu in Concord, even when he was living at Walden Pond (he walked home each week to have his mother do his laundry).

Contrary to some popular images, too, for many years Thoreau was not a full-throated champion of the American wilderness.  That attitude only began to develop in a thoroughgoing way after he returned from what was for him his harrowing climb to the top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine.  But, rightly so, he remains America’s most popular champion of what he thought of as wildness.

And vast numbers of Americans to this day aspire to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps, even if they do not actually seek to live some kind of simple rustic life in the wilds of nature, as Thoreau once imagined himself to be doing at Walden Pond.  This aspiration comes to its most popular expression perhaps in the throngs that visit the nation’s many national parks and in the highly esteemed wilderness backpacking expeditions undertaken by those of a certain age and social class, who often identify deeply with what they perceive to be the mystique of the mountains.

The same aspiration is also evident everywhere, for those who have eyes to see, in the historic romanticizing of native American peoples and their life in what westernized peoples have come to think of as wilderness.  This is symbolized perhaps most familiarly by omnipresent popular images of “the Indians” emerging from the forest to welcome newly arrived European settlers, as in the ubiquitously reproduced painting by Edward Hicks of “the Peaceable Kingdom.”

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Interestingly, and perhaps soberingly, in our era each of these dimensions of the material world has been lifted up individually, at one time or another, by American theologians of some standing:  the city by Harvey Cox; the farm by Norman Wirzba; the wilderness by Matthew Fox.  Numerous lesser known figures have adopted similar theological programs.  All this singleminded popular theologizing appears to me to be as American as apple pie.  Such reflections mirror, in some significant measure, longstanding trends in popular American culture more generally.

In a sense, therefore, many Americans of European descent are living in a schizoid society, various theologians included.  Some claim the city as their center of value, some the farm, others the wilderness.   And sometimes they do that singlemindedly, even with marked disparagement of the other two.  Which has led me to wonder over the years:  given the existential weight of each of these centers of public value, can most Americans really do otherwise than identify with just one of them?  And, if so, will not that continuingly pose justice issues for our society more generally?  Which dimension is to be most highly valued?  And which dimensions are to be of lesser value, even devalued?  Is Nature’s Nation, as understood by its citizens of European descent, therefore perpetually destined to be the land of trichotomous culture wars?

Not necessarily.  It is not that difficult to embrace all three at the same time, I have discovered.  With apologies to America and to apple pie, I have proposed an integrative theological vision, which accents city, farm, and wilderness equally, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.

And, with observations such as the following, I have maintained that that’s the way the Scriptures as a whole appear to envision these things.  The created world, for the Scriptures, has three coequal dimensions, which I am here calling trinitarian.  And the God of biblical faith appears to want it to be precisely that way.

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The city, again:  consider the central biblical theme that highlights the theological meanings of Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem.  A theological tale of these two cities lies at the heart of many of the narratives in the Bible.  II Isaiah has a vision of all the peoples of the earth making a pilgrimage to a gloriously renewed Jerusalem, amidst a pervasively transformed world of nature.  The Book of Revelation envisions a heavenly Jerusalem in the midst of a totally renovated creation.

The farm, again:  consider the biblical vision that, in Genesis 2, shows primal humanity created to live in and to care for – not rule over – the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve were created to be good farmers!  Adam himself was specifically identified as being of the earth (adamah).  For Genesis 2, caring for the earth and being of the earth is the normative human vocation.  (In contrast, the first biblical creation narrative in Genesis 1 may best be read as belonging to the urban-centric view of creation I have just described.)

When, more particularly, God brings the animals to Adam to name them, that naming should be regarded as an act of bonding, as when God gives Israel its name, not as some kind of domination.  Not for nothing, also, did Noah take all the animals, the clean and the unclean, with him on to the ark.  In this sense, Noah was exercising the primordial human – agricultural – ­vocation, according to this trajectory of biblical thought:  to care for all the creatures of the earth.

The wilderness, again:  consider Job being thrust toward the wilds to contemplate the great wonders of God there, and note that that experience was intended by God not as a punishment, but as a gift of awe and a promise of new life.  And consider the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not primarily to test him, but to reveal his Divine-human identity as the Redeemer of the whole creation, reminiscent of the first Adam at home in the Garden with the wild beasts.

Note, too, how this inclusive theme of human embeddedness in the whole creation – not just the city, not just the farm – was given voice in a quite different manner by Paul in his letter to the Colossians, 1:15ff.  There we see that not just human history, but all things – some facets of which, for Paul, were thoroughly alien to human life – are held together and redeemed by the cosmic Christ, who is at once the head of the new redeemed, human community.  In a sense, then, Paul here embraces theologically what, for him, was radically other – wild? – in the created world, the “principalities and powers” of the cosmology of his time.

For me, therefore, it makes perfect – biblical – sense to celebrate city, farm, and wilderness together as coequal dimensions of God’s good creation.  And it makes more particular – biblical – sense to contemplate city, farm, and wilderness together as differing expressions of the one creative and redemptive intentionality of God for the whole creation, with the assumption that each dimension of the material world has its own integrity before God, that any one of them should never be viewed as ultimately more important than the other two, and that each will flourish eternally with the dawning of the eschatological new creation of all things.

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Note the theological assumptions I’m working with here.  The city and the farm and the wilderness all have their own value, equal value in biblical perspective.  But that value is derivative.  God is the center of value.  Each dimension of the created world depends for its ultimate standing on the Value-Giver, who sees that the created world is good, both as a whole and in its rich dimensionality, both now and in the world to come.

But note well, also:  each of these dimensions, as the Scriptures also make abundantly clear, is in fact riven with ambiguities.  A complete analysis of the three, for sure, would explore those ambiguities.  Thus we daily encounter egregious examples of human-on-human violence in cities and farms, sometimes even in wilderness settings.  Then there are the vast patterns of human destructiveness, in our time typically driven by corporate interests that negatively impact life-sustaining ecosystems on our planet – leaving us today with our horrendous, global climate crisis, among other planetary disorders.

Beyond that, recall the violence that sometimes dramatically unfolds in the wilds or in larger planetary settings.  Sometimes this is called “natural evil.”  It is particularly evident in the bloody dynamics of the food chain in nature, but all the more dramatically apparent in phenomena like volcanic eruptions or tsunamis.  Coming to terms theologically with such ambiguities in each of nature’s dimensions is obviously critically important, but I have cautiously bypassed discussions of such matters here.

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In these explorations, I have only wanted to address a much more modest theological challenge, which I believe is nevertheless well worth pondering.  I have wanted to find a way to say to Nature’s Nation, particularly to Euro-American urbanists and agrarians and wilderness advocates, and also to all those American Christians of any background who have been thoroughly enculturated in this respect:  never mind being a champion of the city or the farm or the wilderness.  How about three cheers for all three, for the trinitarian richness of nature that we experience on planet Earth, even if that might make us feel – rightly or even just slightly – “un-American?”