Naming Creation (Rev. Kyle Childress)
From Rev. Childress's sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, 2016.
Early in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior Dellarobia, a young Appalachian mother, is climbing a mountain trail. As usual for her, she’s left her glasses behind somewhere though she can see well enough. She comes up on bright overlook so where she can see the valley below the mountain beyond. But instead of green she sees that the forest, the valley, indeed, the entire mountain is covered in bristly, writhing things like corn flakes. Thousands upon thousands, perhaps millions of them. Then the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the whole landscape intensified and brightened. “Every bough glowed with an orange blaze... Trees turned to fire, a burning bush... The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked... This was no forest fire... Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy...” (p. 13-16).
What Dellarobia had stumbled upon were millions of monarch butterflies whose migratory habits and flight behavior were changing due to drought and climate change in Mexico. Later we discover that most of the monarch butterflies in the entire United States were concentrated in that one Appalachian valley in eastern Tennessee during this particular time frame.
Through the rest of the novel it is interesting to see how different people and groups respond to this phenomena. A biologist shows up to study the butterflies. He sees the butterflies as objectively as he can, saying, “Science is only interested in what is.” Dellarobia’s mother-in-law, Hester is a devout church-goer who sees the butterflies as a direct sign from God, which is generally the way Dellarobia sees them. But a sign for what? What’s going on? What does this mean? Bear, her father-in-law only sees the valley of trees and the mountain beyond as an opportunity to sell the timber by having it all clear-cut. It would get the farm out of debt. They need cash quick. The media sees it as a sensational story and the poor mountain people around as human-interest stories to be exploited. Some of the townspeople see the sightseers as a chance to make some money and they want to turn the valley into a showplace and sell t-shirts, bumper stickers, and souvenirs.
What was it? An scientific phenomenon to be studied? A religious epiphany signifying something? A money-making opportunity? Some combination of these?
For our purposes this morning I’m interested in how we name things and what naming might mean for how we live in this world.
For example: I remember when Callie was pretty young, three or four, a dandelion in our yard was a pretty flower or a plant of complete fascination when she could blow the dandelion fuzz. To others the dandelion was food. It was good to eat in a salad. And to some it was a weed that needed to be eradicated from the yard.
It makes a difference if we name a plant a weed, a flower, or a vegetable. How we name it, is how we understand it and determines what we’re going to do with it.
It makes a difference if we name a building a house, a gym, a church, an office, or a school.
Look around us this morning. What do you call it? Beyond us, what do you call this wider world we live in? Is it “creation” or is it “nature” or is it “the environment” or perhaps an “ecosystem”? Or maybe it is timber that needs to be harvested so we can make a little money? Or is it an undeveloped part of a subdivision?
I’m not suggesting any of these names are wrong. Right now I’m simply suggesting that how we name something determines a great deal about how we live with it and how we understand it and treat it.
Francis Bacon, who died in 1626, is considered the father of the modern scientific method and is the person who gave us the phrase, “knowledge is power.” Bacon, along with others, considered “nature” as something outside of us. Nature is something we objectively study. Nature had long been considered feminine (“Mother Nature”) but by the sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes toward women had changed. Rather than a respectful attitude there was a new attitude of domination and control – toward women and toward nature. Both women and nature required control. Bacon used the language of “inquisition of truth” as the object of men regarding women and nature.
Nature – out there – was considered untamed and wild (like women) and “man’s” job was to dominate, control, and use it for our betterment using machines and technology (see Michael S. Northcutt, A Political Theology of Climate Change, pp. 100-106).
Sixteenth and seventeenth century explorers saw the new worlds of the Americas and other places they were discovering as sources of raw materials to be exploited and to be tamed and domesticated. Nature was a wilderness out there dark and threatening. And the native people encountered out there were also to be tamed and domesticated, and used and exploited for European and rational and objective-minded men in order to make the world and nature a better place. If the darker skinned people didn’t cooperate they’d be destroyed. And when coming upon a new place, the Europeans practiced “name it and claim it.” Naming was a way of dominating and controlling.
To this day, modern capitalism tends to see nature as the resource for commodities to be mined, exploited, grown, and turned into profit and improvement.
By the early 1800’s the Romantic Movement reacted to this objective and hostile view of nature. Nature became the place of renewal and inspiration but it remained “out there.” Spectacular vistas of beautiful mountains and quaint valleys, etc. were the places to retreat to but not part of us and we were not part of them.
Suffice it to say what we name something says something about how we understand it and use it or live in it.
Sometimes I say “creation” and other times “nature” and occasionally “environment” or “ecosystem.” I try to use the words depending on the context of the conversation. However, and for me this is a big however... underlying whatever name I use is the deep understanding that we are participants, and recipients of God’s creation. This is Creation and we are creatures in it.
To read Rev. Childress's full sermon, click here.