At first hearing, it is very difficult for many contemporary people to imagine God having anything to do with dirt. We are the offspring of an earlier revolution – the Industrial Revolution. A few hundred years ago, our ancestors decreed that the Earth and all therein were “resources” to be used for profit based on technical advances in labor, production, and science. This revolution did many things – some good, some bad – but it fundamentally transformed how we understood the dirt. The soil became an object to be managed (in the case of productive farms) or removed (in the cases of mining and urban development). Over the decades, we moved to cities away from the land, severing both spiritual and physical connections humans had known through most of history. People became estranged from the land; the dirt became an “it.”
Generations ago, though, no one would have wondered about God and dirt, for divinity and soil were easy companions. In a preindustrial world, Creator and creation were part of the same theological ecosystem: the ground was created and sustained by a gracious God who walked about in a garden and whose son, Jesus, spun agricultural tales for his hearers’ spiritual benefit. For the better part of the last two centuries, however, most of us have forgotten the deep earthy perspective of sacred texts. And most of us have had to relearn the relationship between God and dirt. Except farmers. They remember.
A mile from my house is a seasonal farmers’ market, the place where I buy most of our family’s food during the summer. One Wednesday, an unusual announcement stood at the entrance of the parking lot:
BOOK SIGNING TODAY!
Forrest Pritchard, author of Gaining Ground
I had seen the book in the window of a local gift shop a few weeks earlier and almost bought it then. At a table under a tent sat a fortyish man with a pile of new paperbacks at his elbow, pens at the ready. People were hurrying past, their reusable bags stuffed with produce.
“Slow day?” I asked.
“Yes.” He sighed.
“I’m an author too,” I replied. “Writing books is about as tough as farming, I figure. At least book signings are.”
“What’s your book about?” I asked.
Gaining Ground, he explained, was a memoir about becoming a farmer. Although he was raised in a seventh-generation farming family, his parents had pretty well given up farming the ancestral land. When he graduated from college, they tried to get him to earn a master’s degree and take a city job, but he felt a different call. He returned to the farm. Over the decades, the land had become increasingly unproductive, making it difficult to earn a living from farming. The story recounted a journey in which he gave up using the conventional farming practices that had “broken” the land and instituted those that restored the pastures to an organic and sustainable state, where he now raises grass-fed livestock.
“I’m working on a book right now about food and faith,” I told him. “Does religion play any role in your story?”
“Not really. Not church, if that’s what you mean. I’m not a religious person,” he offered. “I was raised an Episcopalian, but I don’t practice anymore.”
“So you’d consider yourself secular?”
“Well, no,” he replied, a sly smile on his face. “You see there’s no such thing as a secular farmer. The seasons are spiritual. The soil is, well, spiritual. Farmers are a spiritual lot.”
Then he told me a story, one also recorded in Gaining Ground, of a cold day in February when he found himself kneeling on the ground:
A small swatch of earth was now revealed. The soil was soft and dark. I slid my fingers into the dirt, cupping a handful of earth to my nose. The aroma of the broken ground was profoundly rich, at once mysterious and inviting. In the depths of winter – with the pastures grazed low, the sycamores stark and leafless, the creek banks rimmed with ice, and the sky a gray blanket spread from mountaintop to mountaintop – here the earth abided. The soft warmth spoke to me, saying, I’m waiting now, but I will be ready. We are mutual participants, you and I, intertwined.
The language was as clear as if spoken aloud. It was no accident that I found myself on my knees, held there, transfixed. My ancestors knew this communication. It tapped into who they were, and who I was. We flowed together.
“The earth speaks to me,” he said as his cadence slowed. “The soil, spirit, and us, it is all of a piece. We can know that, or we can ignore it. But it is real.”
He did not use the word, “God,” but he was talking about religion – although not institutional religion, of course. Rather, he was explaining what is perhaps the source of the most primal of all human impulses toward God-fertile land. This is seen in many different contexts, from tribal religions to the practices of ancient Druids, structured Egyptian prayers and priesthoods to rites of human sacrifice, Green Man to pagan priestesses, rain dances and celebrations of wheat and corn to Near Eastern creation myths, including one still well-known story in which God makes life from dirt. For millennia, land was the beginning of faith: gratitude for it, struggling with it, reflecting upon it, recognizing its power, fearing its loss, or seeking its increase. Without the long human relationship with the soil, there would be no great cycles of feasts and fasts, no appreciation of ritual foods, no practices of tithes and thanksgivings. Indeed, the God we know – as well as the God we hardly remember – is the Spirit of the Soil.
If we had had this same conversation twenty-five years ago, I am not sure I would have understood Pritchard’s point. I would have thought him some sort of New Age-y spiritual type, certainly a pantheist. Pantheists believe that God is everything, and everything is God. Western people, especially those who grew up in Christian or Jewish families, do not generally embrace pantheism. There was, even in Pritchard’s lyrical description, a subtle theological distinction between soil and farmer. There were recognizable actors in the scene: living soil and a grateful cultivator. A third participant was invisible, the spirit of the land that speaks, the spirit that allows the farmer to hear, the spirit that pulled him to the ground. “We flowed together,” he said. The spirit is with and in the soil and the farmer, a binding power beyond and yet still a part, where two become one. Indeed, this is the mystical marriage of land and human, joined in holy union to bring forth fruit, entwined by God’s love.
Theologians call this sort of intimate with-ness “panentheism,” a word that sounds like “pantheism” but is changed by the introduction of en in the middle. Panentheism is the idea that God is with or in all things. A nuance to be sure, but an important one. Panentheism recognizes the distinctions between things, at the same time that it affirms the indwelling form of spirit (typically called God) that draws all things into relationship with all other things. To put it simply, a panentheist says, “God is not a tree; a tree is not God. But God is with the tree; and the tree is with God,” (prepositions matter). I do not know if Forrest Pritchard has ever heard the word “panentheism,” but I do know that on a particular summer morning, he shared with me, a fellow writer at the farmers’ market, an experience of it.
Although a story like Pritchard’s would have been relatively common at a time long ago in human history, following the Industrial Revolution this kind of spiritual intimacy between land, creature, and Creator made less sense. Not only did that revolution move us away from the soil; it also turned the land into an object to be managed instead of a relationship to be experienced. When something becomes an object, it is much easier to use – or abuse – for one’s own purposes. Western religion, often afraid to lose the Creator-creation distinction, quickly baptized theologies that distanced God from the dirt and emphasized human lordship over the land. The soil-y God was left to mystics, monks, women, and mostly the poor – people on the margins of the religious community whose orthodoxy has always been suspect and whose institutional power was negligible. And farmers, evidently.
With more people paying attention to the environment, the state of the soil has emerged as a widespread interest, especially among those involved in local food movements, issues of food and health, and the relationship between food and justice. For many contemporary people, these social and political concerns have directed them to the ground, since the health of the food depends on the vitality of the soil. New connections are being fashioned between farmers and consumers about the importance of the land to our lives. A good deal of this awareness arises from science, but part of it seems to be a spiritual longing to rediscover the grounded God of our agricultural ancestors.
Some contemporary thinkers, especially those shaped by ecological or feminist concerns, have wondered what this earthy reorientation means for faith. Theologian Sallie McFague sounds a note that harmonizes with Forrest Pritchard’s experience when she writes: “God’s love is the power that moves the galaxies and that breathes in our bodies. One way to imagine this relationship between God and the world is with the metaphor of the world as God’s body.” She continues:
The world, the universe, is the “body of God”: all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God. God is not just spirit, but also body. Hence, God can be thought of in organic terms, as the vast interrelated network of beings that compose our universe. The “glory” of God, then, is not just Heavenly, but Earthly.
This, she concludes, is the “radical intimacy” of God and the world. Pritchard and McFague, a farmer from Virginia and a scholar from British Columbia, are saying pretty much the same thing.