This Forum features selected responses to Plough’s Summer 2021 issue, “Creatures: The Nature Issue.” The Forum is a place for commissioned responses by other writers to the questions raised by our authors, and for letters from you, our readers. Send contributions to email@example.com, with your name and town or city. Contributions may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.
Dog Eyebrows and Creation
On Peter Mommsen’s “The Book of the Creatures”: Thanks to Peter Mommsen for his essay on reading the book of nature, and his dog’s expressive eyebrows. John Cheever wrote that he woke every single morning to the realization of how much he loved his dog. My own dogs smile for the camera, tilting their heads to demonstrate they’re paying attention.
Less accessible expressions of nature are also godly. My daughter was recently given a just-hatched Australian crested gecko, only slightly bigger than her thumb. With peach-colored, silk-soft skin, Chickpea slurps up banana smoothie, and sips water from a tiny plastic cup. Christina built her a vivarium, filling the tank with earth aerated by microscopic insects that arrived by UPS. She added Hudson River driftwood and green plants. For hours, Chickpea rests on a leaf, breathing in and out. She has no appointments, no deadlines. Smooth and cool to the touch, she just is. From her, Christina says she’s learning an alternate way of being.
Mommsen bestows high-octane attention, with reference to many sound texts, on the book of nature: “All this strikes one powerfully as so obviously good,” he writes, “that it seems to suggest a Goodness behind it all.” Awesome.
Conversion Through Beauty
On Ian Marcus Corbin’s “The Abyss of Beauty”: Corbin’s description of his near-epiphany on seeing his urban “weed-tree” in a totally different light as it becomes “something marvelous” is beautiful. Perhaps we can indeed “see ourselves to life.”
Paul wrote that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – namely his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” Brother Lawrence’s epiphany, in The Practice of the Presence of God, on realizing that the leafless tree before him would become something quite other as its “dead” branches blossomed and bore fruit likewise led him to recognize his Creator’s hand, blessing his whole life, and those of many others.
As a boy who grew up in a city of concrete and rats, I loved visiting my aunt, confined to a tuberculosis sanatorium. My sister and I would lie on the grass naming the animals formed by the clouds passing by, a luxury we didn’t have at home. We made friends with the children of other patients, and played games. One was looking for lost coins in the grass where people picnicked with their hospitalized relatives. One day we found about three dollars’ worth and shared the bounty between us. We all ran to the Good Humor truck. Fond memories.
I am now close to eighty. I’d love to lie in the grass, but it would take a troop of Marines to get me vertical. So, I go into my yard, where my wife has made a sanctuary for birds, rabbits, and the occasional groundhog. In this primeval forest, I sit and meditate, pray, and write. I find peace in the wilds of my yard, and I find God. I wrestle with myself, but God lifts me from the depths of my depression and my worries. I think of God who thinks of me. I live in the comfort of the Sabbath, God’s day of rest in the grace of our world. I am in the peace of my wildness.
Can beauty be “true”? This is one of the questions that Corbin’s poignant essay invites us to explore, especially in the relation beauty bears to suffering. Can we trust the sense beauty gestures to of what Vaclav Havel called “ultimate happiness and harmony,” one that seems somehow to exist beyond the brutality of a fallen world?
Corbin suggests “we can’t finally know, of course,” and while I sympathize with his sense of ambiguity, I believe that we can indeed “know” that beauty is truer than evil because it arrives not just as an experience, but as a narrative. Beauty is intimately connected with suffering because it comes to renew what pain and destruction have stolen; the vision of a healed cosmos, the undoing of brutality, a world, not broken, but radically renewed.
Beauty allows us to “taste and see” the hope of a joy that endures beyond the touch of death, one that could even bring us back to life. Because of this, there is an empowering aspect to beauty. Only at the end of the essay does Corbin begin to describe what I believe is an integral element to beauty: it challenges us to act.
Beauty can restore, not just our vision, but our identity, the sense of ourselves as agents either of beauty or evil in this world. This is why Corbin can describe Havel’s vision of beauty in the midst of prison as “something like a conversion experience,” with the evidence of his life being that he worked to embody the vision of wholeness that visited him. This is, I believe, what our encounters with beauty are always beckoning us toward: the knowledge that we may be healed, the astonishing invitation to walk in the ways of beauty and thus to become healers ourselves.
Corbin is right in his closing: it is a demanding work of attention and reception, yes, but also of action. Beauty asks us to enflesh what we have seen, to order, to create, to save, to heal. But the farther we walk in the light of its vision, the more deeply, I believe, we will know its truth.
On Leah Libresco Sargeant’s “Let the Body Testify”: Christians are often pressured to follow a political agenda that would value either women’s bodies or unborn bodies. We desperately need voices like Libresco’s to call us to a comprehensive ethic. Many Christians are discipled by competing political parties or cable news outlets, and someone who cares equally about misogyny and abortion is looked at sideways.
But what if we let the teaching of Christ guide us?
What if the same impulse that causes pro-life people to cry out for the lives of unborn human beings who are killed every day also caused us to address sexism, the environment, racism, classism, war, and criminal justice?
What if those who espouse liberal principles of dignity, equity, and justice allowed the same impulse to extend that compassion toward unborn human beings? “My body, my choice” makes no sense when we’re speaking of the body of another being. How can we claim that a baby girl’s body doesn’t matter because it’s housed in her mother’s body? How can we use “viability” as an excuse to kill a person once we’ve recognized how interdependent the human family is? Is a person’s life really worthless because the natural stage of development she’s in requires her to live in her mother’s body and depend upon her for sustenance? Why does this change once she’s born? She continues to be absolutely dependent upon her mother for care and nourishment. Is breastmilk that different from amniotic fluid? Is the warm embrace of a mother’s arms that different from the warm embrace of her womb?
I’m pro-life when it comes to abortion – and healthcare, the environment, economics, and criminal justice. Pro-life and liberal ideals only make sense together.
Can we allow our beliefs and practice to be formed by the teaching of Christ rather than our political party? Can we see the image of God in every human being? May it be so in Jesus’ name.
This is spot-on about how the primacy of the individual has structured our society. How weakness, infirmity, and poverty are made invisible, by sequestering the very young, the very old, and the very poor out of our sight in nurseries, nursing homes, and ghettos. All the political battles going on right now are being fought within that framework. The disregard for care workers and educators is testimony to that structure. You can be an independent woman (or man) only for so long before illness and age catch up with you.
Jesus told us to let our light shine because the light makes invisible people visible. His encounters with the lame, the blind, the diseased, women, children, the marginalized are recorded in scripture as examples for us. We must let his light become our light, by which we rehumanize ourselves and others.
Lordship, not Tyranny
On Pater Edmund Waldstein’s “The Lords of Nature”: Head transplants? Perhaps we’ve mistaken our model of reality for reality itself. “Mind” and “matter” are categories that help us understand ourselves but it doesn’t follow that the reality of which they are a model is so tidy. Consciousness (mind) cannot be reduced to purely materialistic explanations – matter in motion. Yet mind does appear enabled by matter, and mind affects matter. There is a unity. Mind and matter cannot be torn asunder without changing both. Much like we can’t observe a particle or live in the world without changing either.
What we force apart we then clumsily try to push back together. Neither human rationalism nor Romantic authenticity (a compelling division of ourselves) are complete renderings of self. So we grasp at both to build a more complete representation of humanness – matter with mind, thinking with feeling – but fail to see the trap of subjectivism and relativism. We cannot engineer the merging of rationalism and authenticity in a purely objective way unless we have a Feserian “vantage point” outside both. And we don’t. The Christianity that “understands creation as deeply rational,” provides that vantage point in God. He is the Lord of creation. We are just lords.
That we think we are Lords is the scariest thing about modernity. Lords with flimsy self-constructed selves, “formed and re-formed by the arbitrary dictates of our will.”
Back to the Land, Again
On John Kempf’s “Regenerative Agriculture”: When I read Kempf’s article on regenerative agriculture, I immediately emailed it to my grandson who’s just getting started in agriculture (he had a rather unfortunate experience with pigs in college and lost a bit of money). Turns out he was reading on the same topic. We had a good conversation; I recommended Wendell Berry’s writings. Our abuse of the land has diminished our inheritance. Now, faced with floods in some areas and drought in others, we are being forced to adapt to save what we have left.
Decades ago, my forestry teacher advised us to ask some questions each time we observed a particular forest stand: Who are you? Where do you come from (that is, how did you develop)? Where are you going (that is, how will you develop)?
This means I have to see this forest as a specific part of God’s creation, often very much influenced by clear cuts of my ancestors, perhaps degraded, growing on a specific site and soil, having a specific natural vegetation mix.
Each stand, each forest, is an individual. Investigating its history shows me a great deal. In this way I develop a relationship with it. For me such a relationship to a piece of forest land is the key to finding the right steps for any kind of tending, harvesting, promoting natural regeneration, choosing the species of trees to be planted, etc.
A personal relationship with Jesus is the key to becoming a real disciple of Christ. A personal relationship to the land which has been entrusted to me as a forester is essential in order to treat it in the best way – for me and for future generations. I am appointed as a ruler over God’s creation (Gen. 1:26–28) but every ruler who as a king does not have a relationship with and love for his people, his land, will become an exploiting tyrant and not a steward (Gen. 2:15).
From an Incarcerated Reader
I am a prisoner of the state of Ohio currently residing at Grafton Correctional Institution. I received a complimentary issue of Plough in the mail, and in a letter that accompanied it, you invited suggestions for future coverage. I’ve got some ideas.
Having been incarcerated for the last fourteen years, my exposure to the outside world is limited. In 2009, I came across a book in the prison library from Plough – Eberhard Arnold’s Inner Land. Inside of the book was a mail-in card requesting more information. I received a response from Jeremy Wright, then of Spring Valley Bruderhof. I’ve carried on correspondence with Mr. Wright over the years; he’s sent me books, and I’ve mentioned to him how my exposure to Plough publications proved formative for my personal spiritual growth and development.
I’ve been enjoying the issues of the Plough Quarterly that I have received and am sincerely thankful for this blessing. I want to extend my gratitude to you and everybody at Plough. I know you all will be blessed abundantly for this great work for God’s kingdom.
For the past decade, I’ve worked as an aide facilitating classes (many of them faith-based) for prisoners. The last four years I spent as a mentor working one-on-one with men as well as running classes. Many of the issues that lead people to prison have been touched on in Plough (e.g., poverty, addiction, violence, veterans, mental illness). Yet, I have not seen very much on incarceration itself. (There was one short article recently, I believe.) Incarceration tends to be an overlooked issue because it is seen as the result of personal choice. The reality is far more complicated than that.
I hope you won’t take this letter as criticism – far from it – it’s high praise. I would just like to see some of these problems, so prevalent in American society, addressed more frequently.