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Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 47–53 

What Are We Fighting For?

Will Friesen

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”

Frederich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

For several decades the message has been building: we face an ever-increasing environmental crisis. So pervasive is this message that we find purported environmental sensitivity almost everywhere: from the rhetoric of self-proclaimed environmentalists like President Bush and Prime Minister Mulroney to the slick commercials of corporate giants like Dupont, BMW, and McDonalds. Everyone seems to be jumping onto the wagon—what can we do to save the planet, our country, or, at least, our own backyard?

Ours is not an “environmental crisis” but one of values and priorities.

But, it seems to me, that the nature of the {48} threat which causes so many people to adopt the language of crisis is unclear. I am not sure we all mean the same thing when we invoke the language of crisis. Different definitions of the environmental crisis will result in different responses to it. We cannot, I believe, begin with the assumption that everyone shares the same sense of the crisis we face, and then move on to think about how we should respond and in what ways we should respond.

I wish to share some thoughts concerning the need to get the story straight. Or, to put it more technically, I would like to reflect on the language of crisis and how our sense of the crisis, particularly as it is related to the environment, makes a difference on how we must think and act if we are going to address the so-called crisis.

First of all, the crisis we face has very little to do with “the environment.” True, there is something to be said for the notion of the “biosphere,” and for the word “global” as a qualification of “warming,” and for the fact that acid rain produced in the sky above the northeastern United States falls in Canada and leads to the notion of an international “environment.” And yet we do not really experience abstractions like “biosphere” and “environment,” especially when we are describing the experience of crisis. Rather, we experience concrete and particular changes within the horizons of a particular place—horizons which are never so broad as to be captured by the word “environment.” So when we sound the alarm of crisis, what we mean to say is that something has happened to the places in which we live, that something has come between us and the fields and forests and the rivers, and between here and the mountains that have marked for generations the places we call home.

A CRISIS OF OUR SENSE OF PLACE

Our words of crisis, our language of crisis, signals our sense that we no longer root our homes in the world with the care that farmers have for soil. Put this way, the crisis we face is one of erosion, not simply the erosion of mountainsides and streambeds and topsoil, but also the erosion of the Christian stories that once allowed us to inhabit to live in places with that same sense of intimacy farmers have for their fields.

My father-in-law is a farmer. Joined by his two sons and their families, they broke the soil on the harsh plains of Western Montana. Dan Kemmis writes about such experiences, noting the one thing all such have in common: “the effort to survive in hard country.” Kemmis continues with a comment profound for its simplicity: “And when the effort to survive comes to rely upon shared and repeated practices like barn {49} raising, survival itself is transformed—it becomes inhabitation. To inhabit a place is to dwell there in a practiced way, in a way which relies upon certain regular, trusted habits of behaviour” (1990: 79).

For Kemmis, the environmental crisis is not a crisis of survival, but a crisis of our sense of place in our communities. The habits and practices which once gave our existence the depth of a meaningful life are fast eroding. That is, the tendency to think in terms of survival because of this so-called environmental crisis is itself a symptom of the crisis of our time. When we sound the alarm of crisis, we signal that we no longer embody the ways of inhabitation. Thus, our trust in the world and in each other continues to erode. The erosion of this trust yields to a sense of panic, which in turn creates an almost untempered desire to control and overpower both other people and nature.

So how do we regain trust and overcome the desire for control over each other and nature? The answer, I believe, lies in working toward inhabitation. Kemmis suggests that farming embodies this sort of work, but so does fishing.

When I speak of fishing, I have in mind fishing as we find it portrayed in Norman Maclean’s story, “A River Runs Through It”--the story which begins, “In our family, there is no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (1976:1). The story is about the relationship between the narrator, his troubled younger brother, and their aging father, and between all three of them and the Big Blackfoot River. The binding thread of these various relationships and of the story itself is the art of fly fishing. For Maclean fly fishing has connective power. It joins companions with one another; it joins humans to nature; and joins generations together.

Fishing in Maclean’s story is also a theological activity. As an art, fly fishing is perfected only by the bestowal of grace. We learn of this connection between fly fishing and grace in the opening pages, just as the two sons learned it from their father:

To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy . . . As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace . . . I never knew whether my father believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty . . . If you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it both factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess . . . Until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back and loose all his power somewhere in the air. . . . since it is {50} natural for man to try and attain power without recovering grace (1976: 2-4).

What I am proposing is that, as an example of working in a very concrete way in our communities, farming suggests that we learn to inhabit the places in which we live with care and intimacy, and that we tend to both our Christian stories and the land in order to prevent their erosion. The activity of fishing adds another dimension to this sort of work; it cannot be the work of control and power, but instead involves the art of submitting power to grace, which is to say that such work is inherently theological.

SUBMITTING POWER TO GRACE

With the suggestiveness of farming and fishing, let me propose that the so-called “environmental crisis” is a sign of our failure to submit power to grace and to work toward the inhabitation of the places in which we live. I can think of no better way to reflect on this failure than to ponder Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature.

McKibben’s book is an eloquent and extended and slightly misguided reflection upon the agony of living in times when “nature” is dying in obvious ways. The focus of McKibben’s attention is the extent to which human beings seem bent upon turning the entire planet into a shopping mall. It is with this imagery in mind that McKibben speaks of the end of nature. The prospects of global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain suggest that we have fundamentally altered the earth. Having changed the atmosphere and the weather, we are creating an insidious artificial world, even with regard to the most fundamental elements of wind, sun, and rain. In addition, we have extended our assault upon “the natural” with the advent of genetic engineering, which promises that whatever we have done to ourselves and nature we can change. Genetic engineering, according to McKibben,

promises crops that need little water and can survive the heat; it promises cures for new ailments we are creating as well as old ones we’ve yet to solve; it promises survival in almost any environment we may create. It promises total domination (1989: 161).

In short, for McKibben climatic changes and genetic engineering raise serious questions about the restraints and limits within which we live. It used to be these limits “helped to define nature in our minds,” but now, according to McKibben, in times of seemingly limitless change and pervasive alterations of the environment, nature is at an end. This is the {51} conclusion McKibben reaches. He states his conclusion in what I think is a profound moment in his text:

If nature were about to end, we might muster endless energy to stave it off; but if nature has already ended, what are we fighting for? Before any redwoods had been cloned or genetically improved, one could understand clearly what the fight against such tinkering was about. It was about the idea that a redwood was somehow sacred, that its fundamental identity should remain beyond our control. But once that barrier has been broken, what is the fight about, then? (1989: 210)

McKibben’s account of doom and gloom is particularly eloquent, but it is not new or profound in a time when the media saturates us with such daily accounts. Rather, McKibben’s text is important because with just one question, McKibben elicits a sense of the contemporary crisis which is rarely echoed in the so-called “environmental” literature. “If nature has ended, what are we fighting for?” “What is the fight about, then?” The answer to this question is not as obvious as the stream of environmental junk mail that lands in my mail box seems to suggest. What we are trying to save and why we are trying to save it is no longer clear. The increasing desire to save something suggests that we live in a time of great crisis. But being unable to state clearly what it is we are saving is problematic. Surely abstractions like “the planet” and reasons like “survival,” whether it be of humans alone or the earth generally, are superficial at best. In a world where technology reigns ultimate, where we simply invoke more technology to replace outdated technology, questions of survival are no longer interesting nor alarming. Or so it seems.

What is alarming is the fact that rampant ecological destruction and new technologies, particularly biotechnologies, exist and proliferate side by side in a world where the question, “What are we fighting for?” has become possible. The power of McKibben’s text comes from its ability to pose this question as the crisis of our time. Faced with more than a century of escalating ecological destruction and with the new horizons of technology, we catch ourselves responding to these pressures by asking, and attempting to answer, the question, “What are we fighting for?” Put this way, the crisis we face is not “an environmental crisis” at all, but is rather a crisis of values and priorities.

CONNECTING OUR STORIES

And so here we are. Wholesale ecological destruction all around us and the frightening promise of technological control and domination lead {52} us to echo the cries of Nietzsche’s madman: “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” For Nietzsche, the sponging of the horizons had the hint of a new freedom, but it was a freedom that ultimately led nowhere—simply the reflexive act of staying alive. And so the sponge is ours. But what is it? What are its purposes? What shall we do with it?

The answer may come from people like Oliver O’Donovan and Walter Brueggemann, who have identified our “loss of a sense of place” and thus the need to recover a sense of place. The loss of a sense of place has thrown us into a world without horizons; it has caused us to recognize ourselves in the ranting and raving of Nietzsche’s madman, and it has made the question “What are we fighting for?” pressing.

To speak of the loss of a sense of place is to imply something has gone wrong with the connection between our stories, our Christian stories and the physical dirt with which they are in dialogue. To lose a sense of place is to deny the meeting of our Christian stories and earth, or it is to tell a story which changes a particular patch of earth into something other than it should be. The lake I once fished with my father is now biologically dead. My children cannot fish nor swim there because a paper company dumped sludge into its waters for too long. Such a situation speaks eloquently about moral choices. That lake reflects the quality of our priorities, it reflects the quality of our choices; indeed, it reflects the quality of our theology.

Our response to the contemporary crisis must be to take stock of our stories and their relationship to “physical dirt.” Put this way, we are farmers of sort. We are called to what Wendell Berry calls “the inescapably necessary work of restoring and caring for our farms, forests, rural communities and towns” (1990:125). This sort of work by its very nature is concrete; it is political, it is economic. It is always the work of somewhere in particular—a particular farm, a particular forest, a particular community.

This then is our task: to tell our Christian story and to build local soil, to be farmers of sorts. In this way we begin to answer the question “What are we fighting for?” We work toward the restoration of horizons, even towards hope.

So we need to answer Nietzsche’s madman—or join him. To answer him is to take up farming and fishing--the transformation of what we inhabit. Because this work is always in conflict, to answer the madman is also to tell the story not of a God murdered, but of a God crucified, which, among other things, is the story of submitting power to grace. To join the madman is to yield to erosion and to become “unstuck” and to live in a world of crisis. {53}

REFERENCES

  • Berry, Wendell. What are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).
  • Brueggemann, Walter. The Land. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
  • Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
  • Maclean, Norman. “A River Runs Through It.” In A River Runs Through It. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. (New York: Random House, 1989).
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
  • O’Donovan, Oliver. “The Loss of a Sense of Place.” Irish Theological Quarterly 55 (1989):39-58.
Will J. Friesen is a teacher in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies, Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California
The essay is an abbreviated version of a College Hour presentation, October 29, 1991.

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