I submitted this piece to the magazine Parabola. It remains unpublished.
The very real question must be asked – how can we sanctify the earth when we live so very far from it? As the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs, but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.” When we imagine the Earth, many people imagine a rain forest, or a lake. This conceptualization, however, keeps the earth at a distance. Two levels of distance exist there: nature to humanity, and humanity to the body.
The capacity to separate nature from humanity is what has enabled our exceptional control of nature, and similarly our exceptional disregard for our place within it. Bill McKibben noted in The End of Nature that, “[Natures] separation from human society” is what has defined nature for us in modern times. Nevertheless, humanity, and each human body, is a part of the earth.
In our construction of humanity, we have displaced that part of nature that is human – our bodies. The Environmental philosopher Michael Zimmerman considers this central to our relationship to the earth: “Perhaps the most profound aspect of our alienation from nature is being alienated from our bodies.” We can trace this understanding of humanity to Science but we can also trace it to older and newer philosophies. However it is traced, we must understand some of the framing that contributes to the physical distancing of humanity from our physique.
For various reasons, Judeo-Christianity has a troubled relationship to the body that has translated through to our science. Consider Darwins reference in The Descent of Man that “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” This comment must be considered in the context of a note he wrote in his “M” notebook: “Our descent then, is the origin of our evil passions!! – the devil under form of baboon is our grandfather.” This devil in the from of our body can be connected to – amongst other sources – Pauls Corinthian letter which, as explained by Peter Brown in The Body and Society, places the body between man and his god.
In order to reconnect the body to humanity, and so to the earth, we must learn to acknowledge its presence. David Orr certainly did not have this in mind when he wrote that, “A good way to start thinking about nature is to talk about it. A better way is to talk to it.” Nevertheless, body centered practices can be central to reconnecting to the part of the earth that is humanity, and to the body as part of that earth. We can learn to both talk and listen to our bodies. In so doing, we are conversing with the earth.
If we do not accept our organic humanity amongst the earth, we accept the terms that have led to our life in the sky. If we treat the holy earth as separate from our humanity, and our bodies, we are rebuilding the very world that has produced the skyscraper. These assumptions are quite tenable. Modern science and modern medicine have wrought extraordinary benefits. But in connecting to the purpose of life, and the science of the holy, we must expand our understanding.
The body is more than an engine, or carrier of the soul. As David Abram wrote in the seminal The Spell of the Sensuous, “Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears have attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves, and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherenece. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” At the same time, we are also holy only in contact, and conviviality with what is human.