The Breath of Life

CHRISTIAN ECOLOGY BEGINS WITH INCARNATION

The idea that we must be as good as we can be to this damaged world is essential, as is the idea that it is damaged and that until it is restored in God's time, we can't think of it in any other way. Reading the Bible one recent morning, I saw both this need for a close-to-impossible level of compassion toward a wounded creation, and the fact that Jesus really is in deep trouble with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Some years ago, PETA sponsored billboards claiming “Jesus was a vegetarian.” Come again? He said, among other “speciesist” things, “You are worth more than many sparrows.” (Peter Singer would disagree.) Jesus has the merciful father of the prodigal son call for the slaughter of a fatted calf. And as proof of his bodily Resurrection, Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish.

For Christians, our relationship to nature as stewards is very important and can't be relegated to the sidelines. The fact of our embeddedness in nature, our embodiment, relates us to nature in a complicated way. Evolution shows that we are related not only to other primates (and if you don't believe that, take a good look at your bare feet), but to every living creature. Like all other animals, we are radically contingent on God's calling us into being. We depend in large part—not to put too fine a point on it—on our ability to eat other animals. Some vegetarians have a hard time with this, but most of us don't. In the case of Aleuts, Inuits, Yupiks, and Tibetans, the vegetarian route would probably be an ecological impossibility.

At the same time, most of us meat-eaters have been really insensitive to what the factory farming of animals subjects them to. Pigs, chickens, and cattle are forced to eat unnatural diets, confined in tiny spaces, and shot full of antibiotics that in the long haul will hurt all of us. We must be more careful about this part of our life, not only in gratitude for the lives of other species, but also because of the fellowship we have with all sentient life.

One of the blessings the idea of evolution has brought to us is the interconnectedness of all living things. On the one hand, we human beings are the only animals who care about the ethics involved in eating other animals; on the other hand, we are nevertheless still creatures, created, mortal, sentient.

The Incarnation is what makes Christian monotheism unique, and radically different from both Judaism and Islam. While the holiness of creation is certainly central to both these other traditions, the idea that what is essentially animal and mortal can be inhabited and transformed by God, that flesh itself can be transcendently holy, a created place where the uncreated resides, like the burning bush—this idea is central only to Christianity.

This idea has to do with a heartbeat whose rhythm is the basis for music, with our consciousness that is a kind of constant incandescence—we take the fact of consciousness itself for granted, which seems to me the ultimate ingratitude—and with the simple fact of our breathing. It is not a small thing that the words for breath and spirit are the same in Greek and in Hebrew. “When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 142). There is not much of what we usually consider ethereal in this very real approach to spirituality. We are at every level incarnate beings, breathing meat. At this level of being, there is no reason for spirit other than the flesh it inhabits and animates.

This spring and early summer were full of rain in the part of New York where I live. Maybe because the rain brought out the insects, we had more mockingbirds than I've ever seen before. This is a wonderful bird to be plagued with, since around here they imitate everything from cardinals and robins to cell phones and car alarms. The mockingbirds seem to have no automatic order in the sequence of their songs; they do what they do with what looks like a kind of improvised joy.

The rainy weather has also inspired a similar spontaneity in neighborhood kids. Before they get too old, kids move and dance instinctively, stomping into puddles and skipping. At a very young age they let their bodies orient them to the world, and they take un-selfconscious delight in doing so. Dance comes naturally to them.

We lose this ability as we get older, and probably lose a great deal in the process. Most great music begins in dance, in song, in what people did for a long time with friends and family on back porches and on happy occasions. What I have loved about the Greek and Albanian weddings I've celebrated is the dance that includes old and young, men, women, and children. This is the way it should be. It has to do with our embodiment at its most lovely level, and it goes very deep—as deep as the song of mockingbirds and what must be their delight.

Published in the 2009-08-14 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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