On earth as it is in heaven

James Wood had an interesting piece in last week’s New Yorker about Rick Santorum’s objection to environmental conservation. Radical environmentalists, Santorum has claimed, act as though man were here to serve the earth instead of ‘husbanding its resources’. Wood’s angle is that the candidate sounds more like a fiery eighteenth-century puritan than the Catholic he is, and he dusts off a stack of influential protestant voices as the tradition from which Santorum’s ideas come: Bunyan, Hooper, Jonathan Edwards, even Herman Melville. Unlike biblical Judaism, rooted in the earth, protestantism has cultivated detachment from the earth and the hope of heaven as a reason not to get too settled here. I’m familiar with the contemptus mundi as a branch of the protestant psyche; like Wood, I grew up in a low church that aimed high. And I am sympathetic to the aim. I want to go to heaven too.

But I think Wood via Santorum exposes a gap in protestant thinking about how to be in and of the earth. To many, creation has to do only with a fight about when and how the universe began, not with what the earth is and how to live in it. Language about the sacredness of the earth seems to border paganism in a confusing way, and to present just that temptation that world-renouncers are trying to avoid. A view of the earth as foredoomed has led to a lot of apathy about injustice and destruction, and a failure to reckon with how embodied our religion is, how much of the creator is more than metaphorically in the creation. Elisions of creation like Santorum's don't reflect the reality of who, what and where we are, nor how long we are here. And I think we protestants do share this particular border with the pagans. If their grass is greener, it’s only because we haven’t watered ours.