Most weekdays, I walk my son half a mile to his elementary school. After we wave goodbye, my workday as a theologian, writer, and not-for-profit organizer/nature educator can begin. However, I try to preserve the walk home as a liminal space between my mom mornings and the workday ahead. Holding back the avalanche of daily tasks is a spiritual discipline. As I walk, I practice abiding with my neighborhood. For ten minutes, I give the world my full attention. On a recent spring morning alongside the new buds on the trees and the white and purple crocuses, I heard a robin singing a cheery song from her perch on a chain link fence, and I stopped to listen. When I stopped walking, she stopped singing.
I waited. So did she.
We stood there in the sunshine looking at one another in silence.
At first, I was delighted to have an accomplice extending my walk home. By waiting, I was delaying the inevitable start of my workday. But as she continued to hold her tongue, my delight gave way to disappointment and then frustrated impatience: “Why wouldn’t she sing? Why was this robin withholding her song from me?”
I continued to wait, arms folded with growing irritation. As she persisted in her silence, uncomfortable questions began to form: “Why was I getting so upset with this robin? Why did I assume that she would—or should—sing for me simply because I wanted her to?” They were uncomfortable because the questions were no longer about the robin; now, they were about me: “Why did I think I had a right to this robin’s song?”
On the one hand, it’s obvious why I might have thought this. The assumption (often unspoken) of both my home church and the rural, farming community I grew up in, was that animals, including robins, are here primarily for human use and enjoyment. At best, we are to care for them—not as family, but as useful extensions of our own needs and wants. We are their stewards not their kin, because humans are supposed to be closer to angels than animals. After all, Christ came as a human, not a robin.
However, on the other hand, I have spent much of my professional life trying to excise the belief that humans are the crown of creation. I taught evolution and creation in Lutheran churches and seminaries and, when the topic of humanity’s status as an evolved creature came up, the intellectual disagreements were usually predictable. We’d interrogate how to interpret the Bible, ethical responsibility, and theological doctrine. There were plenty of differences, but both evolutionary Christians and creationist Christians usually assumed that their theological positions left humans at the top. For evolutionary Christians, humanity was the culmination of a long evolutionary process; for creationist Christians, humanity was God’s special creation. It was a curious common ground for a conversation that was usually extremely divisive.
Christians usually assumed that their theological positions left humans at the top.
I challenged my students to imagine ways to hold their positions and see humans in God’s creation rather than above it. Could creationist Christians embrace humanity’s shared status as one among many created creatures? Could evolutionary Christians see humans as sharing evolutionary genetic material with animals? Unfortunately, these intellectual discussions could only get so far because there was often unspoken shame, guilt, and embarrassment at the prospect of taking off the crown of creation. Another curious common ground. These big feelings made themselves known with visible head shakes, downcast eyes, and slight body shudders. There was impatience, folded arms, irritation, and defensiveness that signaled the emotions underneath our theological discussions. Many of my students were reckoning – some for the first time – with being “demoted.” Because it is very difficult to engage in healthy theological discussions when feelings like shame and anger lurk in the corners, my approach changed. I tried to begin with a more connected, holistic sense of who we are as humanimals. Instead of working from a deficit-model, we took a strength-based approach.
There was often unspoken shame, guilt, and embarrassment at the prospect of taking off the crown of creation.
For example, in some classrooms I asked students to look at their families like a flock of birds or a roost of monarchs and trace their seasonal and generational migration patterns. Sometimes, I drew on a past colleague who used to say that humans in the greater Chicagoland area are an extension of Lake Michigan. The human body is mostly water, and the water Chicagoans drink comes from that watershed. Therefore, humans are tributaries. Other times, I’d borrow another colleague’s admonition to future pastors to put the churchyard and neighborhood trees in the church directory because our lungs are basically extensions of this arboreal respiratory system. Include the trees as part of the congregational chorus!
When these deep connections to the natural world are seen more clearly, the shame of humanity’s animalness gives way to belonging. Without the shame and anger, there was new space for the theological questions to shift. Christ did come as a human. And, if human bodies are part water and human breath is part bark, part leaf, then the very human Christ was also part tributary, part tree. If the human experience is aquatic and arboreal, then Christ’s experience was as well. There is no shame in taking off the crown of creation; it is part of being Christ-like—in and alongside God’s creation.
There is no shame in taking off the crown of creation; it is part of being Christ-like—in and alongside God’s creation.
As I stood before the silent robin with my demands that she sing and help extend my liminal reverie, I recognized old patterns. She is my neighbor, not an accomplice in my procrastination; she didn’t owe me her song. With a slight bow, I offered her an apology for assuming she did, and I left her sitting on the fence along with the crown of creation I had mistakenly picked back up.
Once my back was turned, she cheerily resumed her song.