Walking Gently on the Earth
In an essay on Willa Cather’s classic O Pioneers!, scholar Patrick Dooley writes of three ways for people to view the land. The first is the biocentric view, which argues that all life ought to be judged as existing on the same plane, completely equal. One being is no more valuable than another. Philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University espouses the most extreme form of this view in his book Animal Liberation. In it, Singer argues against “speciesism”—the idea that one species of life (for example, humans) ought to be privileged above others (like birds). Although few take the biocentric argument as far as Singer, it has some adherents in the contemporary public square and is exemplified by groups like PETA.
The second view Dooley describes is the anthropocentric view of the land, which argues that the land’s value is derived from its usefulness to humanity. In recent years, this has been the favored view amongst many in evangelicalism. One well-known evangelical pastor made the following comment in a recent sermon: “Keep things straight here in your environmentalism: We should not belittle [the environment] like some right-wing talk show host. But, the universe,” which would include the land in it, “is not important in itself. It’s important as the playground of the children of God.” To be fair, the pastor was making a point about the value of humanity. The sermon wasn’t about environmentalism. But that’s just the point: Can we speak Christianly about the value of humanity without demeaning the rest of creation? Traditionally, the answer has been no.
Into this void step authors Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff with their new book, Walking Gently on the Earth. In it, they argue for Dooley’s third view: A theocentric ethic of stewardship. In this view, the land is understood as the work of a benevolent creator that ought to be treated with reverence and care. McMinn, a sociologist at George Fox University, and her daughter, Neff, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, co-authored the book with each writing sections that play to their individual strengths.
McMinn provides the bulk of the writing in which she discusses issues ranging from food to alternative energies, housing and even (gulp) family planning. Neff writes a series of reflections, which they call preludes, at the opening of each chapter. She has spent considerable time in Malawi and Ghana studying with African Christians and uses her experience to offer a theological framework that explains the practical proposals made by McMinn. When the two authors combine their work, it yields a final text that is realistic, honest, challenging, hopeful and profoundly Christian.
Neff unpacks the core theological principle in her second prelude in which she describes the different approach to being or personhood in different cultures. In the West, humans are “who” and everything else is an “it.” Appealing to the broader Christian tradition, including the great African theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, Neff argues that we ought to understand and treat all living creatures in creation as having being. Though some might quibble with the lack of explicit citations from biblical text, the overall theological reasoning of the preludes is in tune with the biblical themes of stewardship, the value of creation, and the connectedness of life in God’s world. The remaining preludes continue to build on these themes, drawing heavily on the theology of Ghanaian and Malawian Christians that Neff has lived and conversed with during her time in their countries.
McMinn’s contributions give readers a practical framework for understanding current practices and offering viable solutions. In the section on food, for example, she offers ideas about how to eat sustainably and humanely by buying local produce and free-range meat. In the section on energy, she suggests simple ways to limit energy use in your home, like running ceiling fans instead of an air conditioner and taking shorter showers.
Thankfully, McMinn does an excellent job of avoiding an excessively preachy tone as she discusses such volatile subjects. Many well-intended environmentalist works fail because they reek of a Green self-righteousness that thumbs its nose at anyone depraved and selfish enough to drive an SUV or buy processed foods. When Christians pick up the issue and the tone that goes along with it, we adopt a kind of hipster-friendly moralism that can divide our communities and marginalize the important question of how to walk gently on God’s earth.
Instead of such holier-than-thou tactics, McMinn writes about the issues as a fellow pilgrim, someone trying to sort through her own messy, busy life and find ways to “walk gently.” She explains it wasn’t till their daughter became a vegan that her and her husband began to question many of our culture’s modern food practices and values. In one chapter she even concludes by highlighting the ways her family has failed to measure up to their own standards, confessing they didn’t start buying fair trade chocolate chips until she wrote the chapter about fair trade products.
To readers familiar with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Michael Pollan, or Wendell Berry, McMinn’s sections won’t be particularly groundbreaking, though they are valuable as a kind of one-stop resource for well-informed reflections on all the issues involved with our relationship to the land. But when McMinn’s practical reflections meet with the theological musings of Neff, you get a book that is unique and timely.