When Contemporary Christian Music became popular in the 1980’s and 90’s, the most well-known singer was Michael W. Smith. His music played frequently in my home and at youth group events. His 1991 song, “My Place In This World,” struck a chord with angsty teenagers (like me😊) struggling through adolescence. And the song endures. A version of the music video that was uploaded to Youtube in 2010 has been watched over 4 million times.
Here’s a sample of the simple lyrics:
Looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find
My place in this world, my place in this world.
Not a lot to lean on, I need your light to help me find
My place in this world, my place in this world
The song resonates because we all want to feel like we fit; we want to belong to a community and live a purposeful life. Yet many of us feel disconnected and aimless, flirting with despair as we hurtle towards an unknown future. I can't help but think that our personal struggles are connected to humanity's struggle as a whole to find contentment and peace.
Though not the song's original intent, it speaks to the predicament we find ourselves in as we face growing ecological damage caused by humanity's unsustainable way of life. We have assumed a place in this world that was not ours to take. We have deluded ourselves into thinking we are independent creatures, lords of creation, masters of fate, shapers of worlds. Yet we are increasingly anxious and unsettled as we go about unraveling the cords of creation that make our life possible and connect us to this world. We are, indeed, roaming through the night to find our place in this world.
The Tragedy of our Discontent
The roots of this mis-placed ambition to set ourselves apart from and above creation lie deep in our souls and our histories. The Bible begins with the placing of Adam and Eve in a garden as divine image-bearers and partners with God in the care and future flourishing of the world. The temptation they encounter in Genesis 3 is to stretch beyond their limits, to attain a higher place in the order of things, to be godlike. They find the proposal irresistible, but the result is dis-placement. The harmony of the garden is disrupted, and they are exiled from Eden.
We fare no better today, particularly in cultures shaped by Western philosophy and theology. A major strand of early Greek philosophy taught that we are fundamentally souls trapped in bodies. We are not and cannot be “at home” in the physical world, and should seek a higher, more “spiritual” life free from the trappings of materiality. The birth of modern Western philosophy is frequently traced to René Descartes, whose famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” continued to set humans apart from the physical world by defining us primarily as thinking, rational creatures. It should be no surprise that he also declared that the purpose of the sciences was to make humanity “masters and possessors of nature.”
Advances in science and technology have, for the most part, followed Descartes’ prescription. As our power has increased, so has our desire to control and manipulate the world. We have flattened mountains, reshaped rivers, felled forests, and dredged oceans. We have paved our way to everywhere, and built comfortable houses with pantries full of whatever kind of food we desire. Many of us can have almost anything we want delivered straight to our doorstep. We have no need to hunt, gather, farm, build, etc. A recent book called Losing Eden reports that Westerners spend less than five percent of their time outdoors. Why go out when we have everything we need - everything except connection, contentment, and peace.
The Christian faith has both blessed and furthered this understanding of human exceptionalism. Many Christians have been taught that the world was created for us and for our use, that our bodies are vessels of temptation serving as temporary homes for our immortal souls. Many have also been told that the earth is not our home, for we are destined for a distant heaven. Why spend time focusing our prayers, preaching, and practices on caring for the earth and all of its creatures if we are, in the words of a popular gospel song, “just a-passing through.”
The tragic irony is that we are reliving the Eden experience on a grand scale. We continue to reach for forbidden fruit, seeking power without responsibility, information without wisdom, blessing without generosity, grace without sacrifice. Environmental teacher and writer David Orr describes our predicament as a new kind of exile:
We are in the process of evicting ourselves from the only paradise humankind has ever known – what geologists call the Holocene. This 12,000-year age has been abnormally benign with a relatively stable and warm climate, more or less perfect for the emergence of Homo sapiens. But CO2 levels are now higher than they’ve been in hundreds of thousands of years and rising still higher each year. We are creating a different and more capricious and hostile planet than the one we’ve known for thousands of years.
What will it take to find our place in this world?
The Joy of Becoming Human
We must shift from being apart from creation to accepting (and celebrating) that we are a part of it. The place to begin might be the very earth under our feet. In Genesis, God creates a man, which in Hebrew is “adam,” a word closely related to the one for earth/land/soil, “adamah.” Adam from adamah: in English, we might say humans from humus—the dark, incredibly fertile layer of soil that helps trees and plants grow. From a biblical perspective we are, quite literally, creatures of the soil. Despite the physical and technological barriers we put in place, we are “wired” to connect with the earth. A growing number of researchers are finding that touching the earth with our bare skin – a practice called grounding - enables electrons from the Earth’s surface to spread over and into our body, bringing a variety of immediate physiological benefits. Talk about standing on holy ground!
Recognizing our connection to the earth allows us to find our place within it. This begins by acknowledging how completely dependent we are on the basic elements (sun, moon, sky, water) and living creatures (plants and animals) in creation (another insight of Genesis 1 and 2, as well as Psalm 104). God is the ultimate source of life, yes, but God shares the divine life in and through the created world. Finding our place comes first through gratitude, and then by imitating God’s generous, life-giving service to the world. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, to be fully human.
Accepting and celebrating our place within creation helps us embrace our role as caretakers, but even here we have much to learn from God’s world. We are learning, for instance, that the world is far more cooperative and generous that we imagined. Recent forest research has shown that trees share water, nutrients, and warnings through complex webs of interconnection under the forest floor, many across species that until recently were thought to be competitors. We are even beginning to see how trees intentionally redistribute their resources as they are dying. Sacrifice for the good of others - sounds a lot like Jesus!
“Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." John 12:24
“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:25
Finding our place in this world requires that we lose our false sense of independence, superiority, and dominance, and that we accept our role as servants caring for the gifts we have been given. This is the pattern of Jesus,
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8.
Jesus took his place in creation and showed us the depths of God’s sacrificial love for the world. Only then did his place change:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord. Philippians 2:9-11
Three Ways to Find Your Place
If you want to accelerate this shift in your life, here are three practices that can help:
- Get outside. Take your shoes off and feel the earth. Touch the rough bark of a tree. Breathe in the goodness of oxygen, and breath out a prayer of gratitude. Connect!
- Try new language. Sometimes we need fresh words to help create new pathways in our minds and hearts. Try praying the Lord’s Prayer with the word “kin-dom” instead of kingdom. Few of us live in monarchies, but all of us live with other creatures, human and non-human. They are all our kin, and this includes Jesus, our brother. Louise’s post about St. Francis’ Canticle of The Creatures is a good introduction to this.
- Eat well. Nothing connects us to the earth more than food. As Wendell Berry has said, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.” As much as possible, eat well grown, nutritious food grown close to where you live. For many, this is easier said than done, but even small efforts count.
There are many other actions one can take to connect with and care for creation, and I’m sure you know and practice many yourself. I would love to hear them (as I’m sure our readers would), along with any other ideas and questions. Share them freely in the comments; by doing so we can help each other find our place in this world.
With you on the Way,