I was taken this morning with a quote from Mary Oliver: “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” That quote resonates with a book I’ve been reading by former MIT professor John Ehrenfeld (and Andrew J Hoffman), Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability (Stanford University Press, 2013).
Ehrenfeld has serious questions about our contemporary use of the term “sustainability.” He argues our maps of the way the world works hinder our ability to navigate the complexity of the global landscape. Even our understanding of human behavior has been shaped by and is directed by these misleading maps. The contemporary use of “sustainability” in contemporary business schools, for example, only compounds our planetary debacle. We must look deeper. Pay closer attention. According to Ehrenfeld, we must redefine sustainable and we must cultivate “care.”
I find his analysis accurate, challenging, and dire. Ehrenfeld distinguishes acting from care and acting from need: “We are so habituated to act out of need, a focus on ourselves as needy, that a shift to authentic caring requires that we stop and reflect before acting until our habits change from satisfying need to taking care of the other.” [This quote from a blog entry on Ehrenfeld’s valuable website.]
I pay attention when someone thinking and acting outside the circle of Christian faith affirms (usually with different terminology) connections that are crucial to Christian faith. I find Ehrenfeld’s analysis of “flourishing” for example to be a wonderful explication of what the New Testament means by “reign of God” and “eternal life.” His analysis is rooted in science and economics rather than faith, but opens up our conversations in helpful ways. Developing a wider vocabulary increases our ability to converse and the extends the circle of conversation partners. It is part of the making a connection that I wrote about two weeks ago.
Ehrenfeld’s definition of caring sounds like the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. But with Ehrenfeld’s help, we see how care and love must extend beyond the circle of interpersonal relationships, outside the circle of congregation and community. Care and love must embrace the earth itself.
In some forms of Christian faith, God’s love for the world is emphasized but God’s love for the earth is ignored. Their apocalyptic hope (oddly) is that God’s love for the world will ultimately be expressed by God’s destruction of the earth. “It’s all going to burn,” I’ve heard Christians say.
These beliefs are not consistent with either Scripture or the witness of our own souls. When Mennonites speak of “creation care” we must unpack the depths of our understanding of care. We must question even our use of the term sustainable. Ehrenfeld is an enormous aid in that task.
As we pay attention, we cultivate care. As we cultivate care, we increase our ability to respond. As we respond, we flourish and the earth is filled with the glory of God.