Teaching us how to live rightly on the earth

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Publishing in the Landscape

by Calvin B. DeWitt

We had driven through the Cotswold district of England a few days earlier, and now I was standing before an impressive group of scholars in nearby Oxford, ready to present a lecture on Creation stewardship. I had been welcomed to the lectern and was ready to begin with an academic introduction. But I put aside my notes, and announced to my audience, “I have just made what for me is an important discovery I want to share with you! It is a powerful and convicting publication on land stewardship. And yet, while it is very near, it can be found in none of the university libraries in this city!

I related what I had seen in the Cotswolds: a landscape that was publishing and teaching about itself, its heritage, and its history of stewardship. It taught this to everyone who could see: occupants and travelers, residents and sojourners. The road seemed to have been threaded through the landscape by a fine teacher who had lessons to teach. Beyond the next glade, a small church came into view, fittingly, harmoniously. Settled into its place, it was ancient, rustic, embraced by the graves of erstwhile pastors and stewards of this landscape. We anticipated the next scene because it seemed to naturally follow from having seen this church: an ancient hedgerow bordering rolling pastureland on which sheep and lambs safely grazed. And next, as the scene seemed to call out for human habitation, a cottage came into view with rustic people tending the land that cuddled it in contour and vegetation. Harmony led to harmony. Wholeness, fulfillment, was all the scene. It professed to us. It professed what it was and what it had been, the harmony shared between past and present, and something of its fitness within the workings of the greater Creation.

Travelers through this landscape have no excuse but to hear its proclamation. Speaking softly with a loud voice it makes itself clearly heard. Its stewardship message is humbly proclaimed, convincingly expressed, in harmony with the universe. Its context of planet, solar system, Milky Way galaxy and a hundred and more billion galaxies, each with their billions of stars also proclaimed and published is message. Proclamations by the Cotswolds below and heavens above, both convincing and convicting albeit at overwhelmingly different scales. Both compel us to hear a message of the work and love of their makers and caregivers.

Failure to read the Cotswold landscape or text of the universe would impoverish any scholarship on land use. And failure to see and hear the harmony of the Cotswolds with the larger universe would impoverish any scholarship on Creation and its care. “The heavens declare the glory of God” and proclaim the work of God’s hands (Psalm 19:1). Reflecting that care, human work here in the Cotswolds proclaims human faithfulness to the way God makes, sustains, and loves the world.

My Oxford audience had been grounded. With our feet on the landscape, we opened the Scriptures. There, of course, is more harmony, this time between world and Word. And from this harmony can be distilled three very helpful principles for Creation stewardship. These principles, proclaimed by the Cotswolds, taught by the Scriptures, and reflected in the greater universe, can be productively applied to the landscapes we touch, shape, and give our care: Earthkeeping, Fruitfulness, and Sabbath.

Earthkeeping Principle: We, as was Adam, are expected to serve (‘abad) and keep (shamar) the garden (Gen 2:15). Although the first Adam failed in this task, we are called to follow the last Adam, Jesus Christ, who comes to undo the work of the first Adam and go about doing what Adam was supposed to do in the first place. We must name and care for God’s creatures. We must be earthkeepers.

Fruitfulness Principle: While we and other creatures are expected to enjoy the fruit of Creation we must not destroy its fruitfulness (Deut 22:6-7), and when its fruitfulness is threatened we must preserve it (Gen 6-9). As we fill and fulfill (male’) the Earth in response to God’s blessing, we must not deny the same blessing to the other creatures (Gen 1:22). Asks Ezekiel, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” (Ezek 34:18). We must preserve Creation’s fruitfulness.

Sabbath Principle: Relentless pressing of ourselves, our family, the animals under our care, the land and its creatures is not permissible (Exodus 20 and 23). All Creation must have its sabbaths, as even God took sabbath rest. If we find ourselves rationalizing continuous work and continuous exploitation of ourselves and of God’s world we violate God’s expectation that we, God’s other creatures, and all Creation enjoy our times of sabbath rest (Lev 25-26). We must observe and practice the sabbaths.

Earthkeeping, fruitfulness, and sabbath: these principles– preached and lived in context of the God’s world and Word– are vital for our right living on Earth, whether in the Cotswolds or at the Saint Benedict’s Center here in Wisconsin. Our worship, our singing of psalms in the sanctuary, in the tiny pastoral church in England or the chapel here at Saint Benedict’s nurture our singing of the psalm of life. Sometimes in unison, sometimes in multi-part harmony, our strains can harmonize to become symphonies of truth and beauty, in tune with the marvelous beauty of God’s world.

As I prepared for this writing, I conversed with the earthkeepers and the landscape at Saint Benedict’s [former name of Holy Wisdom Monastery] as I had done earlier at Oxford. Here is a landscape that once was pressed for all the feed corn it could produce, a landscape now being pressured on all sides by house added to house. But it is being transformed into an effective publication on biblical earthkeeping, fruitfulness, and sabbath. This old farm is showing new beginnings that reflect the prairie that once flourished here, beginnings that reflect the need for good nutrition as well as the love and care of the Creator whose landscape this is. A restored lake provides a home for herons and water creatures, a field of agricultural weeds is becoming prairie, and the psalms sung daily in the chapel spread over the landscape to become planted and published there. Saint Benedict’s is joining the Cotswolds and other windows on earthkeeping to become publications, not for university libraries, but publications in the landscape– publications that join with the rest of Creation to teach us how rightly to live on Earth.


Published as:  “Publishing in the Landscape,” Benedictine Bridge, Lent 2000

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