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April 14, 2008

Being ‘Earthy’

No, nothing on environmentalism in this entry. I actually find it quite unfortunate that the long standing idea of Christians being “earthy” is so often redefined as being “green” today, amidst those Christians who have embraced the contemporary fearmongers take on climate change. Inconclusive science, Darwinian assumptions, and faulty perspectives on the Biblical teaching of human beginnings and ends are all at work here.

Still, much more common and at least as unfortunate (perhaps even more so) is the idea that Christians are not to be “earthy” at all. This comes when “earthy” is misunderstood as “worldly” in a way which separates the spiritual and physical in a sort of pseudo-gnosticism. This is something quite prevalent among contemporary Christians and owes its origins more to Greek philosophy than to Biblical teaching.

In the Christian economy of things, the division is not between the spiritual and physical (which God pronounced “very good” in the Garden), but between Creator and Creation.  The Creator is sovereign, and He created a world in which physical and spiritual co-exist as a metaphysical whole (especially the imago dei: “...and God formed man out of the dust of the ground [physical], and breathed into him the breath of life [spiritual], and man became a living soul [imago dei]).”

What has brought these thoughts to mind is a particularly intriguing, though brief, article in the latest Touchstone (April 2008, p.7) in which Peter Leithart recalls that many early pagan critics of Christianity, including Alcinous and Celsus, accused Christianity of being too “earthy.” In pagan spirituality, one had to transcend the physical in order to commune with the gods and goddesses which were of a higher, spiritual reality instead. Of course, in a theistic worldview, God is the ultimate highest reality as creator, with created things being both spiritual and physical. And then, the story goes, God enters the created realm by becoming man!

For these pagans, it was a scandalous thing that God had not only created the physical as good, but had also become flesh (the ultimate endorsement of the physical as legitimate reality!)! This meant that truth, beauty, and goodness were not merely disembodied concepts existing outside of the real world of the human predicament. Leithart writes,

Instead of ascending past sensible things to the intellectual realm to find God, Christians said that God could be found in this world, since he had made himself known in flesh, and continues to give himself in water and wine, bodies and bread.


According to Leithart, the pagans complaint was that “those early Christians (were) so earthly minded they could be no heavenly good.” It is unfortunate that this critique could hardly be leveled against us today. While we build insulating churches complete with our “Christian second life” versions of arcades, bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, support groups, bands, radio stations, and clothes, the things of earth become strangely dim - and we like it that way.

We do Christianity injustice by our modern-day dualism. The Christian life is not about valuing the spiritual over the physical, it is about embracing the Lordship of the Creating and Redeeming God of the Universe over all realms of existence.

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