In Part 1 of this series, I opined on the question of where is God as raised in the book Grounded by Diana Butler Bass. In this part, I will explore dirt, yes dirt, since it is so central to the human condition and creation itself. I continued to be amazed at the depth with which Bass writes and how she not only makes one think but makes one think differently about everything including the very nature of creation.
The chapter about dirt makes up a trilogy of chapters in the first part of the book that centers on our understanding or lack of understanding as I found out, about our natural world. Water and sky will be dealt with in subsequent chapters of the book, but for now, we turn our attention to dirt.
Before moving back to the city I maintained, poorly might I add, a small garden behind the house where I was living. Each spring I would make my way out to the garden plots and work the dirt. I was once corrected that dirt is what you get under your fingernails, soil is what we plant things in. I quickly learned that that dirt I was using was not great. Sure things would grow, but the plants would not reach their full potential, and when you are growing for food this becomes necessary. The dirt needs to be worked, it need have the sun’s warmth beating on it, and it needs some amenities added to it. So the dirt needs to be studied to find out just what it needs, but once the secret is unlocked, boom, stuff starts to take off.
Bass reminds us that there are two creation stories in the Book of Genesis that look very different. In the first story, humanity is created last, but in the second story, humanity is created right after the waters rise, and clay can be formed. In both stories humanity is created out of the soil, or dirt, that is right there. All that is needed for our creation is present, and God fashions humanity from those essential elements. We are primarily dirt!
Dirt is essential to life! Sure technology now exists to grow plants in soilless environments, but that is the exception to the rule rather than the norm. I grew things in the dirt, the dirt nourished the plants and provided stability, for the most part, for the plants that were growing. Dirt provided me with nourishment for my body and dirt provided the elements necessary for God to create humanity.
In the time of Jesus, the people were farmers, shepherds, and fisherman, for the most part, they made their living off the land. Jesus stepfather, Joseph, was a carpenter and the wood he used for the building came from trees that grew in the dirt, dirt was essential to their everyday life. There are several examples of Jesus using dirt to illustrate a point.
In one story, Jesus encounters a blind man. To heal this man, Jesus stoops down, spits in the dirt, and makes clay that he puts on the man’s eyes. He then tells him to wash in the ceremonial pool. The dirt was used as the vehicle for the healing, perhaps it was a poultice or something along those lines, but using the basic elements of creation, as related in the second chapter of Genesis, water, and dirt, Jesus restored the man’s sight.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus reminds those listening that the condition of the soil was essential if the seed was going to grow. Too hard and the seed will bounce off, to soft, and the seed will drown. All the necessary elements must be present for the seed to take root and grow to its full potential. Now this story is not about gardening tips, the dirt is us, and the seed is the word, as Jesus explains, but just as the soil conditions need to be right for plants to grow so does the soil of our humanity. If our soil is too hard the seed, the word of God will just bounce off. The soil needs to be worked by a skilled gardener, and we have to allow that gardener to work the soil that is inside each one of us.
Returning to this idea of the creation of humanity Bass quotes theologian Norman Wirzba from his book Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation.
“God fashions the first human being by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life. It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life – along with the life of trees and animals and birds – is possible at all. God draws near to the earth and then animates it from within.”
What the image is drawn from this quote is a loving creator that cares for creation. This is an intimate scene of creator and creation sharing in life, built from the very elements of that creation. The creator fashioned humanity out of creation itself and then placed that humanity as the caretaker of the very creation humanity was part of. Caring for each other means caring for the creation we were created from!
Humanity has a cosmic relationship with the dirt and an intimate relationship that makes us human. This chapter has taught me many things, but the most basic of them is that I need to get my hands back in the dirt and work that dirt, so it becomes fertile. Not only the dirt in my backyard but the dirt of my mind.