A Theophany of Plants?
Last week, Union Theological Seminary—perhaps the epicenter of liberal Protestantism—tweeted out a photo that was roundly mocked across the internet: students “confessing to plants” in a chapel service, offering their “grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow” to “the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.” In follow-up tweets, Union explained that the rite was a response to a recent visit by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American botanist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
Beyond the very obvious response—that this is merely one of many excesses of a mainline tradition bleeding members and desperate for publicity—I’m willing to admit that there are a few interesting issues bubbling under the surface here. And so, for the sake of argument, I’ll engage on Union’s turf.
I’m actually fairly familiar with Kimmerer’s work, having read her book Braiding Sweetgrass a few years ago. I’ve even met her in person: she was a guest lecturer for the “Law, Environment, and Religion” course I took in partnership with the divinity and forestry schools during my final semester of law school.
I rarely say this about anyone, but—for better or worse—the word that leapt to mind when I met Kimmerer was saint. She had the kind of existential tranquility one sees in certain priests or pastors who intuitively see God’s hand in all things, and who have complete confidence about their eternal destiny and the final restoration of creation. What was absent was the kind of conscious angst, rooted in a modern sense of the self, that is so prevalent in contemporary culture—the desperate, anxious need to control things and order the world according to one’s will. In her presence, a Yale University professor—panicked over the threat of climate change—simply seemed like an upset child. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. And I think there’s a lot of truth in her work, albeit not in Union’s rite.
One theological concept I’ve always found compelling is the idea of creation as theophany—as a kind of immanent disclosure of God’s transcendent goodness. Describing created things strictly as “God’s handiwork,” as some Protestants are wont to do, risks implying that God made the world and then exited stage left, rather than serving as the active and immediate sustaining source of creation’s being, the One whose beauty unfurls across the horizon of our experience.
Catholic phenomenological philosopher Jean-Luc Marion distinguishes between treating created things as icons and revering them as idols. The former view sees all things as pointing beyond themselves to their divine source; the latter treats them as “sufficient in themselves,” unrelated to any higher unity or goodness. One might extend Marion’s argument to consider how human beings, as God’s image-bearers, have the icon/idol tension inscribed into their being: in our capacity for love, intellect, and will, and our ability to exercise causal powers, we analogically reflect our Creator and exist as icons pointing to Him; in our capacity for pride, we set ourselves up as idols.
This distinction illustrates where Union’s rite goes so fundamentally wrong. Kimmerer’s book, while written from a Native American religious perspective, seems to intuit the distinction: individual plants are not treated as autonomous “persons” uprooted from their source, but as participants in a “covenant of reciprocity . . . a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again” established by a “Creator.” In that spirit, confession in the Christian tradition, always entails an encounter between two persons: human and human, or human and God the Creator. The necessary corollary of confession is absolution—a kind of act by the person to whom the confession is made.
Since plants are incapable of extending absolution, a rite framed around “confession to plants” is totally unintelligible from a theological standpoint. Additionally, when viewed from a different angle, there is a strange kind of cultural appropriation at work here. The Union rite forces Native American religious insights into a quasi-Christian theological register, a context alien to those insights’ original milieu. From a Christian standpoint, a similarly strange admixture might be the use of the Eucharist in a Hindu ceremony.
In short, plants may properly be spoken of as icons because, in the very fact of their existence, they reflect a Creator beyond themselves. More Christians, perhaps, would do well to think of them as such—and refrain from pointlessly destroying individual instances of God’s beauty on display. But like all other created things, they must never become idols; the distinction between the infinite God and finite creation is an absolute rift, as is the gap between persons who confess and absolve and entities that do not.
And that, perhaps, is the deepest way Union goes awry.