Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day in the Morning: The Crèche, Biodiversity, and Human Ecology

Dear Brother Benedict,

Greetings on Christmas morning—a fine morning in Arkansas, with the sun rising over the tops of oaks bereft of leaves and the sky a soft, clear blue. It will be a nice day for family gatherings, including the one Steve and I will be hosting later today.

There’s an adorable little bird, a sparrow, perched in the trellis outside my east window. It’s now joined by a second. I can’t say for certain if they are male and female and decently coupled. What I can say is that they seem to be enjoying the light of the sunshine God has blessed us with today, after some days of bitterly cold weather.

I woke thinking of your recent statement about the rain forest and me. Perhaps that statement was in my mind because I went to bed thinking about Christmas and the message of the holy story of the birth of Jesus. Steve and I have several crèches from different nations, and they are all spread out now on the table in the dining room, with candles around them.

We carry on his grandmother’s Christmas tradition in this way. His grandmother Schindler (yes, an old Bavarian name; her husband’s roots were, as yours are, in the Oberpfalz) had an enormous crèche that she delighted in setting up each Christmas, across several tables. She loved to tell the story of each figurine and ornament, of the baby born down the hill in a stable while the “big shots” up the hill (her phrase) thought they had God in their pockets.

All through the crèche were pebbles given to her by each of her 72 grandchildren. She remembered who had given her each stone, and when. They became part of her telling of the Christmas story. It was her way of assuring that each grandchild knew he or she had a place in her heart—no matter who that grandchild was.

We carry on the tradition by gathering inexpensive crèches from around the world, when we see them at flea markets or garage sales. Each crèche in our collection seems to tell the story in a different way, as one would expect, given their cultural diversity.

It’s that theme of diversity that is in my mind today. Please forgive my presumption in thinking that I might have an idea to share with you, the chief pastor of the church. Still, it’s there in my head from the moment I woke up, and I have to share it with somebody. And, since your comments about the rain forest and me provoked the idea, I dare to share it with you—my tiny Christmas gift to the Holy Father.

Here’s my thought: if I dare say it, I think, Brother Benedict, that your biological science may be a tad off. And the mistake in your information about the natural world may well skew the very good points you want to make about ecology and respect for nature.

The obligation of believers as we deal with the intricacies of science is, after all, to respect what science demonstrates to be the case: not to impose our preconceived ideas on the natural world. And if, as we believe, the natural world is somehow a vast book full of information about the mind of God, to be read with reverence by those who believe, it is important that we hear what nature says to us, rather than place nature in a straitjacket and force it to say what we want.

Here’s where I think your science may be straying from what is into the realm of what you wish: your Christmas greetings to the LGBT community spoke of us as a threat to human ecology akin to threats to the rain forest. You spoke about the need of human beings to conform to nature and its categories—your categories. You talked about the illicit attempt of human beings to find gender roles natural for themselves when traditional gender assignments prove to be straitjackets. You suggested that the attempt to seek what is natural to oneself in a world of superimposed gender roles corrupts society.

You ecological theology implies, Brother Benedict, that diversity itself is a threat. And that is where I humbly suggest that you think further about nature and diversity.

If I understand ecological science aright, diversity is not a threat to the preservation of nature, but its mainstay. It is the reduction of biodiversity by the thoughtless intrusion of human beings into the balance of ecology that is eroding our environment.

Diversity protects. It heals. It assures balance. Biodiversity sustains a rich cycle in which one part of creation links to another in ways more complex than the human mind can fathom. Remove any tiniest strand in the rich and complex web of ecological relationships, and you may cause disastrous results. We need all—every piece—that God has created, in God’s infinite wisdom.

It is not our place to impose some rigid order on the infinite variety of God’s creation. It is, rather, our place to respect the diversity that is there, to marvel at its endless variance. And to find God there. In the diversity. Not in the rigid order we seek to impose in order to make the created world more comfortable to ourselves.

If I may say so, I think there are some interesting links between this scientific insight into God’s interest in the widest possible diversity in creation, and the Christmas story. Please think with me about this for a moment, and as chief pastor of the church, please correct my hearing of the holy story of the birth of Jesus if it is wrong.

Vis-à-vis your theme of respect for nature, it strikes me as significant that Jesus is born outside, apart from human spaces and the way in which those social spaces confine us from the moment of our birth. His parents are, as the story is told, not welcome. They are expelled. From the moment of his birth, Jesus has no lasting city here on earth.

Our crèches depict the holy child born in straw, among beasts of burden, with fields surrounding his place of birth, and shepherds watching their flocks in those fields. The crèche contains, symbolically, all the rich diversity of creation, to which God sends God’s son: donkeys, sheep, cattle, shepherds, stars, and people from various places in the world. Along with emissaries from the heavenly circles.

The crèche is a tiny story of diversity, I think: of God’s love of the entire world, of all the diversity in it. Of God’s embrace of the whole cosmos, in its wild life-giving complexity.

One of the lessons we as a human race are learning with tragic slowness is that what we consider dispensable detritus is often the key to it all—the single bit of the created world with which we absolutely cannot dispense, if we expect it all to work together. Write off any one species, and we may write off all species, all life on the planet. We need each bit.

Meditating on the holy story of Christmas makes me bold to ask you, Brother Benedict: are you so absolutely certain that you can write off gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered human beings? That we have no place in God’s world and in God’s plan? In the church? Unless we conform to your preconceived notion (and not God's) of who we should be?

Are you so convinced that we are a threat to the continuation of the human race that you can dispense with us—and continue the human race? Is it possible, perhaps, that we bear gifts that you and the church and world need?

When you look at the magnificent ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, does it really never occur to you to thank God for the gifts gay human beings have brought to the church and world? Do you really believe that those gifts threaten the ecological balance of humanity?

Remove any one of those precious figures in our crèches, and we might as well pack up the ensemble and stop telling the story—a story of God’s love for all the world. Write off any group of human beings because they do not conform to our preconceived notion of who God is and what God wants, and we might as well stop listening to all the holy stories, because we already have the insights they want to impart to us. We don't need to listen to God when we already have the answers. The holy stories only trouble our certainties, then.

That’s how I see it this fine Christmas morning, Brother Benedict. The Christmas story challenges the church to be what it is not yet, a welcoming place—as widely welcoming as the diversity of the created world is wide. This holy story urges us to seek God beyond the confines of our certainties, in the open stable, in the fields continuous with the stable—anywhere God is to be found. Even in those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered.