STLT#207, Earth Was Given as a Garden


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.

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