This post reflects thoughts on how Christians can prepare and preserve a fitting, earthly place for God to dwell in and around us.
As I write this, my son has just returned from a college internship in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Wilderness Preserve in Alaska.
Many of us may not have heard of Wrangell-St. Elias, which is one our newer National Parks, albeit the largest, comprising an area larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland (which is not one of our parks!) combined.
It includes four major mountain ranges, nine of the sixteen highest mountains in the United States, and more than 3000 glaciers, all but a very few of which are rapidly melting.
Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the most pristine natural settings in the world, where the consequences of human behavior loom large, even where humans have never set foot.
My son spent the summer living in an army-style tent with a small wood-burning stove.
He learned first-hand about “living off the grid.”
Much of the food he ate came from the summer garden at the conference center where he worked.
He walked or rode a bicycle nearly everywhere he went.
His beard and hair grew thick.
In eleven weeks he took no more than five or six showers.
The focus and pace of his life shifted from the regimes of college life in Indiana toward the mountains, the glacial river not far from his tent, the garden, the people who visited the center, the wildlife, and the occasional plane flying over (many visitors, other than glaciologists, prefer to see Wrangell-St. Elias from the air rather than the ground).
My son is one of many in his generation who are thinking hard about how to live sustainable and humanely in a warmer, less stable, more threatening, and certainly more violent world.
Even aside from the many social and environmental crises that loom in our future, many of us are looking for ways to shift the pace of our lives, reanimate and refocus our perceptions, deepen our relationships, and reconnect the pieces of our fragmented world, including our relations with both humans and the earth systems in which we live.
Religions, at their best, focus on the ways we reconnect (‘re-ligio’) the pieces of our lives meaningfully.
Spirituality, too, encompasses the quest for meaning, integrity, and faithful, congruent practices.
Are there resources to help us accomplish this within the Christian tradition, or is Christianity, with its traditional focus on the salvation of human souls, one of the causes of our alienation from each other and from the earth, as many have argued in the past fifty years?
How does the Christian story relate to the disparate stories in which our lives are now cast, whether personal, social, political, economic, or religious? Most important, what does hope look like in times when both human systems and the earth itself seem less stable and more threatening?
There are more resources within the New Testament to address these questions than we usually imagine.
The Gospel stories have less to say about how Jesus saves our souls from this world than they do about how his life renews and restores the relationships between heaven and earth.
The Apostle Paul insists that the redemption of humans goes hand in hand with the redemption of creation.
The book of Revelation, which in popular imagination is thought to describe the destruction of the world, in fact looks for God’s judgment of those who destroy the earth and especially for the ultimate renewal of earth and heaven together.
Within the writings of the early Christians we find not a vision for the last-moment escape of Christians from this world, but the templates for hope, practiced by those who in the name of Jesus live their lives on and attend to the edges between life and death within this world.
Within their stories, especially the connections they drew between the stories of creation and fall in the Old Testament and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, are the seeds for spirituality attuned to the end of the age.
In Montreat this October we will gather for four days to explore these themes and to discern what an earthly and earthy spirituality in the name of Jesus looks like.
What practices make us people who prepare and preserve a fitting place for God to dwell with us?
The questions presented in this piece are some of the most prevalent for discussion in the upcoming CLL course, A Dwelling Place for God: Renewing Earthly Spirituality. To learn more about this topic and how you can register for the course, click here.
Stan Saunders is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA, where he has taught for 27 years. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). His course, “A Dwelling Place for God: Renewing Earthly Spirituality,” will take place at Montreat Conference Center, beginning Thursday evening, October 18th and concluding on Sunday, October 21st. Stan can sometimes be reached through email at SaundersS@CTSnet.edu or by phone at 404-687-4535.