STLT#207, Earth Was Given as a Garden

Hmm.

I’ve been staring at the screen for longer than is helpful, thinking about this hymn and what to say about it, wondering what it really is I feel about it that’s quantifiable. There’s something about it that bugs me, which actually makes me sad, as it’s perfectly suited for the beloved Hyfrodol hymn tune, and I’m always happy to connect the earth and our sense of the Divine.

I can see why, in 1993, it won a competition held by the Hymnal Commission, seeking new hymns. This lyric, by UU Quaker Roberta Bard, has everything you could want, for its time. And I say that, because as Jacqui James points out in Between the Lines, “her lyrics reflect her concern for gender-inclusive and spiritually-inclusive language.”

In 1993, I could see how this would be true.

And yet.

By now, you now I will point out the binaries, which 25 years ago was fine, but as we now know doesn’t accurately reflect our current understanding of a gender spectrum. (I recently saw someone brilliantly compare this new understanding to the relatively late human understanding of the color blue.)

But even that’s not quite what’s stuck in my craw.

I think it’s that I bristle against the use of the Genesis lens, the idea that earth was given to humans, as though we were so special that all of this is ours to do with as we wish:

Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity;
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.

Show to us again the garden where all life flows fresh and free.
Gently guide your sons and daughters into full maturity.
Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power,
how to touch the earth with rev’rence. Then once more will Eden flower.

Bless the earth and all your children, one creation: make us whole,
interwoven, all connected, planet wide and inmost soul.
Holy mother, life bestowing, bid our waste and warfare cease.
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing. Teach us how to live in peace.

I know Bard tries to redeem it in the third verse, making sure we know we’re part of one creation, but it feels too little too late for me. I know it’s hard to say I don’t love this hymn, given that there’s a lot of good stuff within it, but it has an overall feeling of ‘ick’ to me. The parts do not make up a good whole.

One more thing – and this is something I would not have thought of except for a long conversation with my colleague Marisol Caballero, whose ancestors are from east Texas long before Europeans conquered the Americas. When we talk about discovery in connection to land, it reinforces a long and hard doctrine of discovery that dates back to the 16th century, which “sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.” This isn’t to say that discovery in and of itself isn’t important – Mari would likely agree with me that discovering new cures, new planets, and new species is pretty awesome. But ‘discovery’ of lands that are inhabited already and taking dominion over them? Not cool. And that first verse suggests we do just that with the entire earth.

(I should note that our memories are short – this is all we talked about just five years ago when we prepared for Justice GA in Arizona.)

So yeah. I’m not a fan of this hymn – despite some good parts, and despite its award-winning status 25 years ago. It’s proof that as times goes on, our knowledge and our faith evolves.

5 Comments

  1. I do like this hymn — a favorite — but I will think about it in a new way thanks to your commentary. For now, here I go with my reading. I’m curious to know if you think it makes any sense.

    I have thought that this hymn talks back to Genesis (or at least to the mainstream interpretation of Genesis). By saying that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were placed for our discovery, Bard is saying that living and learning are not wrong, but rather what we are supposed to do. (“Take that, people who preach about the fall and depravity of humanity!”) For Bard, humanity’s error is a failure to live together in peace, and a failure to “touch the earth with reverence”, not a failure to blindly obey a god.

    I teach Colonial Latin American History every fall, so I’ve chewed over all the implications of “discovery” a lot over the years; like you, I don’t use the word about land (except in this sentence: “Columbus discovered Hispaniola in the way that a new student here might discover a restaurant — he didn’t know about it, and he bumped into it while he was out looking around — then he stole the restaurant”). But to me this “discovery” is more about study and science than about land (it’s the trees, after all, not the garden, that we’re to discover).

    And I have always assumed that the second half of the first verse means “Here was home for all the plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, etc., all of which are created in the image of God — who is not an old man, but an infinite idea with infinite appearances — and all of which should live in harmony with each other.” Thus, the earth is our cradle, but not our estate. So for me, these three verses are basically an anti-Genesis (or at least anti-Dominionist) statement hung on a Genesis framework. Now, either I’m wrong, or it doesn’t work that well, because you see more or less the opposite of what I see, and you’re more expert than I am.

    I do wonder about this and other hymns that even slightly buy into creationism; I agree with you about that. (With a passion for discerning how the world has been designed, for example.) And “wonders still the world shall witness” sometimes sounds kind of Dominionist to me too: They shall make it’s something and woodlands beautiful from sea to sea, they shall rule with winged freedom worlds of health and human good. Not that those things are necessarily bad, but, as you say, that kind of talk can make us think we are more special than we are.

    • thats exactly how we read it..as a kinder and wiser interpretation of an ancient story in Bereshit’ Genesis that originally wasnt about creation or science, but was something of a satire on the Sumerian/Akkadian stories around them. so many in our congregations were raised in evangelical congregations that taught that old YHWHst text as a literal science text, we were glad to show a more metaphorical exegesis. (Fortunately i was raised in a Catholic tradition that taught us both evolution and metaphors, so i never had to fight those Genesis battles.) The whole of English is awash in the older worldviews. there was a woman in my church who upbraided me for using the word sunrise, since the earth spins, the sun does not rise. shes right in a literal way of course, but the puritanism of that approach drove me up the wall… literally.

  2. One of the things I love about this spiritual practice that you are doing is the fact that you think about the lyrics. I mostly just sing because I like the tune and don’t always pay attention to what I am singing. That’s how I get through the Hallelujah Chorus. I guess I need to start paying more attention to lyrics. Thank you for bringing that into my awareness.

  3. Pingback: STLT#304, A Fierce Unrest – Notes from the Far Fringe

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