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 Louisville, KY  -  11/9/2010
Festival of Faith Prayer Breakfast

            The Sacred ‘Neath Your Sole

The opening prayer is Henry David Thoreau’s.  I invite all who wish to join me:
    Lord of skies, you walk among us
    in the plain brown soil of earth.
    How you’ve chosen to be present
    often seems of little worth.
    You have chosen common bushes,
    kindled them with heaven’s fire,
    spoken through unlikely prophets
    heralding your love’s desire…
    Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. [Amen]
Ask a religious community this question: what’s the most important thing about being human? Answer: we harbor a soul.  Next question: why is the soul the vital element?  Answer: with our souls we touch the divine.  The soul is our medium of contact with the sacred, and it animates life itself (animus is Latin for soul). We’ve got soul.
Both answers are correct—the soul is the animating element of our humanity and the way we touch the divine.  But the spelling is wrong.  Soul is properly spelled s-o-l-e.  Where is your soul/sole? On the bottom side of your bare feet, in touch with the sacred ‘neath your sole, the soil.
Soil and sole, s-o-l-e, have always been in touch. So have soil and soul, s-o-u-l.  The latter takes a page from Socrates.  He is making the case for philosophy—here he calls it “the art of dialectic”—to Phaedrus, who thinks philosophy a pastime at best.  No, says Socrates, philosophy [which means love of wisdom] is about sowing seeds.
[A] man employs the art of dialectic, and, fastening upon a suitable soul, plants and sows in it truths accompanied by
knowledge.  Such truths can defend themselves as well as the
man who planted them; they are not sterile, but contain a seed from which fresh truths spring up on other minds; in this way they secure immortality for it, and confer upon the man who possesses it the highest happiness which it is possible for a human being to enjoy.1
Such passages remind me why I received a grade of “C” in
my first philosophy class, on the Socratic dialogues.  But the analogy of Socrates is correct.  Namely, soil and soul—s-o-u-l—share a natural affinity.  Both are living substances and to the degree that life “animates” them both, both lend themselves to cultivation, whether of immortal truth or new life.2  Given the connection ‘neath our feet—soil and soul/sole—we are evidently “bio-spiritual” creatures by nature, a humic substance that requires cultivation of the soul and an entity that, by virtue of its vocation, cultivates.
    Religious leaders know about soul cultivation, as do good parents, teachers, artists, and friends.  But do we understand it’s also about soils and soles—s-o-l-e-s?
“Cultivation”—the gardener’s and the farmer’s caretaking activity. Fast-forward from Socrates to Luther.  Luther read Hebrew and noticed our soil and sole connection—s-o-l-e.  Adam—Adam, earth creature, earthling, groundling—is created from ‘ādāmâ—living soil in some translations, “red clay,” “topsoil” or “humus” in others. And, as we will see, ‘ādāmâ is an active, generative agent in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish traditions.  Because of our very origins—Adam from ‘ādāmâ—our vocation is to be shomrei ādāmâ—soil guardians, earth custodians, the cultivators who till and keep and care. And who, in due course, is Adam’s companion? Hava, in Hebrew, Eve in English.  Hava literally means “living”; Eve, the bearer of life, its progenitor.  Stay close to the language here: Adam and Eve, “Soil and Life.” Such is the identity from which the human vocation of shomrei ādāmâ arises.  The sacred is ‘neath your sole; you arise from it, you live a little while upon it, you return to it.
The Koran, after spelling out the wonders of creation at the hands of Allah, asks a question: “If anything could make you marvel, then you should surely marvel at those who say: ‘When we are dust, shall we be restored to a new creation’?” (13:5)3 It’s a question of doubt on the part of those who, The Koran says, “deny their Lord.”  That is, If Allah created us from dust (soil), and rolled out the heavens and the earth and all therein, why would you doubt another, new creation?
But let us return to “cultivation,” where we left Martin Luther. God’s sublunar habitation in the sacred soil ‘neath our soles is somewhere near the center of his theology.  For him, “the finite bears the infinite,” nature’s creatures are God’s “masks”, or, in another image, the “wrappings” of God.  He not only says that the divine is wholly present “in a grain, on a grain, over a grain,” he goes on to find the very “footprints” of God in those of a mouse. They have “such pretty feet and delicate hair,” he says.  But then Luther thinks dung beetles, too, bespeak God so let’s move on to his portrayal of us as “cultivators”.  His Hebrew tells him that ha ‘adam, the farmer, in his translation, is of ‘ādāmâh, arable topsoil and is assigned to till and keep as the “cultivator.”  All of Adam’s descendents—Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—are farmers and landholders, tilling the soil and tending the flocks.  Shouldn’t it be striking for Jews, Christians, and Muslims that, unlike the heroes of the neighbors in Sumeria and Mesopotamia, the archetypal ancestral figures are farmers and shepherds and not kings and warriors? Of course you may prefer to be a king or warrior when you learn, from Luther’s commentary that the “cultivator came from a clod.”
And where do we clods go from here?  Switch to Latin.  It is no coincidence that the “cultivator” gives rise to “culture” and to “cultus” (worship).  All share the same root, and “root” is the right image for what arises here, from the soil.  Culture, agriculture, and the ritual response of marvel and wonder at the miracle of life ‘neath our feet and all around us—this is the matrix of our life together.  Do not be surprised, then, that the breath (ruah) that gives humans life is the same ruah that animates the other animals and plants.  They’ve got soul, too. Do not be surprised that virtually all the Jewish holy days had their origins in agricultural festivals.  In the “Jahwist” account of the Pentateuch, for example, the liturgical year is carried out at agricultural centers like Shechem, Hebron, Bethel, and Beersheba, at altars built by farmers near sacred oak trees, where the ritual celebrations are based on the three primary harvests of the Canaanite highlands: barley and wheat in the spring and first fruits in the fall. Do not be surprised, either, that the word for oak (elon) is related to the word for God (el) and that the ancestral theophanies are invariably associated with an oak tree or a grove, a mountain top [that has not been removed, I might add], or a spring of living water.  And do not be surprised that this Jahwist account in which the human is servant of the land is in tension with the Priestly account.  In the Priestly account, humankind is in the position of controlling ruler over the rest of nature, accorded such status by God.  The tension between the Jahwist and Priestly accounts, which is actually a tension within the human soul, shows in Israel’s altars.  In the Priestly account Moses receives instructions from God on Sinai (Exod. 27:1-8, 38:1-7). The altar is an elaborate human achievement—large (ten feet on a side), built with acadia wood overlaid with bronze and home to designated instruments and vessels for the priestly offerings.  This altar consciously reflects the highest human technology of metal and wood work of the time.  By contrast, the Jahwist altar is built of unadorned earth and no more.  More precisely it is built of arable topsoil, ‘ādāmâh, home to the farmer’s life and the source of it.  Field stones are permitted but there are not to be cut. Nor are the local stonecutters to make any inscriptions.  These are pristine natural forms, without human profanation.  The Jahwist altar symbolizes the dependence of the people upon the land God has given them.  The Priestly altar symbolizes the achievement of the people who rule the land, as mediated by priests.4  Humility, service and limit contrast with stewardly power and control, with both understood as commands of God.
But let’s not lose the main point: cultus (worship), culture and agriculture—we belong to these as the miraculous clods who are cultivators by calling.  We are here to maintain the fertility of the soil for on-going life, to “renew the face of the earth,” in the phrase of Ps. 104, and to give glory to God. The ancients would have understood Wendell Berry well.  “In talking about topsoil,” Berry says, “it is hard to avoid the language of religion.”5  So put aside the superstition that soul and soil are separate categories.  Decent land-use is not about economics, it’s about cultivation and the state of our souls.
Islam knows this intimately in its call to prayer (adhan) five times a day.  From the Arabic tri-literal root, f-l-h, we derive the verbs: to plough, to cultivate; to thrive, to have success.  The word falah includes the meanings of salvation and the attainment of spiritual success.  The farmer who tills is a fallah.  In the adhan, one hears twice repeated, hayy ‘ala as-salah, “Come to prayer,” followed by, hayy ‘ala al falah, “Come to (self) cultivation (i.e., the attainment of spiritual success).
     You can turn from Hebrew and Arabic to English. “Hum” is the root for “human,” “humus,” “humble” and “humility”, also homo as in Homo sapiens.  That we are good dirt is itself worthy of a little “humor” on our part.6  In any event, the next time some folk ask you, “Where are you from?” consider replying, “From six inches of topsoil and a little rain. How about you?”
     But let’s talk of dirt. What do we know about it?  Not much.  What Leonardo da Vinci said centuries ago still holds: we know more about the stars in the skies than about the soil underfoot.  Susan Lachine, a fine microbe scientist, says we have identified fewer than 1/10th of 1% of the microbes in the soil!  And it’s rather clear that what William Bryant Logan calls “the ecstatic skin of the Earth”—namely, dirt—is home to more life in the ground than all the life that proudly strides about above it. Annie Dillard has her census count of one square foot of Virginia topsoil one piddlin’ inch deep: “an average of 1,356 living creatures, …including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles, and various numbers of 12 other forms.”7 And those are only the critters visible to the naked eye.  Two billion or so bacteria and millions of fungi, protozoans, algae, and innumerable other creatures aren’t tallied in this ‘ādāmâh census.
Here is William Logan on “Clay and Life.”
At Christmas, I was out on the prairie again.  Third time
in a year.  It seems like I can’t stay away [he lives in New York City]. This time, I came up out of Council Grove, Kansas, at seven a.m., just around sunrise.  For about a minute and a half, I saw the sun and the full moon balanced evenly at the opposite ends of the sky.  And here was I, riding along the bald and slightly arched surface of the earth, halfway between the two.
    What are we doing on this planet, and how did we get here? It took only a glance to tell that there would not be anything like us found on the yellow sun or the fast-paling moon.  The Earth has one thing that neither sun nor moon has ever had.
    And that one thing is clay.8
Logan the soil scientist, who had his office in one of the
towers of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, writes elaborately of the microscopic structure of clay, and then says this, just as if he’s writing in church:
Isaiah, describing how God would cause righteousness and praise to arise, compared the act to a garden which “causes what is sown in it to spring up.” The ground itself is as active as the seed.  The seeds of organic life, attracted to the patterns of a clay matrix [matrix is the old word for ‘womb’], might well have found there the structure that makes all of us possible, and the means to maintain and reproduce it.9
    “The ground is as active as the seed.”  
    Here is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s version:
    Though he works and worries, the farmer
    never reaches down to where the seed turns
    into summer.  The earth grants.10
Here is the Hebrew Bible version.  “And God said, ‘Let the earth [soil] bring forth living creatures of every kind…And it was so.” (Gen. 1:24) “The earth” is the agent of creation, at God’s command.  “Bring forth” is, my Study Bible says, a maternal verb.  The ground mothers forth life; earth delivers.  Incidentally, and in view of last year’s Festival theme, God also says, in exact parallel fashion, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures..” (Gen. 1:20).  Water is the other agent of creation.  
In a nice touch Logan quotes biologist Hayman Hartman: “There are only two things in the universe that require liquid water for their existence: organic life and clay.”11
So in the beginning was the clay.  Water and the labor of living organisms turned it into humus.  Life itself, at God’s behest, created conditions that favor its continuation.  Give thanks to relentless bacteria over millions of years, those primitive gardeners with more soul than we knew.  They and other microorganisms, aided and abetted by the abiotic world, worked the soil and made it fit for growth in a riot of shapes and colors. A late manifestation of this “ecstatic skin of Earth” is you.  
Put it as Robert Pogue Harrison does: “Life is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.”12 An overload of vitality, a kind of surge of surplus, gives rise to life, then more life, and different life.  We do not create; we, when we’re at our best and most human, cultivate.  We cannot create a single blade of grass.  Soil and seed do that as their dance of self-ecstasy.  Earth grants.  But we can destroy soils so that grass does not grow and grass species themselves die an eternal death.  
Harrison draws ethical conclusions from this dynamic of the soil’s “overgiving,” this continuous “self-exceeding,” or “self-transcendence” of natural forms bent on creating and re-creating.  The soil must give a little more than it takes away if it is to replenish itself—it must run Genesis forward and not backward or it dies.  The same holds true for us bio-spiritual human cultivators and for human culture as a whole, for nations, marriages, friendships, institutions.  Like clay itself, they must be open enclosures who give of themselves in a responsive environment that demands reciprocity and mutuality. Nothing continues to live apart from this “self-imparting generosity”, this active tilling-and-keeping of Adam and Eve—Soil and Life.13  
We could end here with a homiletical flourish on the wonder of sacred soil and the wonder of what Maya Angelou calls “a brave and startling truth.” It is the truth about us.  “When we come to it [this startling truth]”, she says,
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.14
Angelou is almost right. We truly are a wonder of this world, but we are not the wonder. The wonder is overgiving life itself, the fruit of sacred soil.  So I must finish elsewhere, with the kind of warnings your Festival honorary co-chairs, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, issue.  But in my words, not theirs, we are now running Genesis backwards despite all of life’s renewable energies intent upon running Genesis forwards.  Topsoil, for example, is being lost faster than it is being created. In most places it takes about 500 years to create an inch of topsoil and we’re losing that in a measure of decades.
The ancient texts have at least one clue as to why we are wayward. It is this: the cultivator has become alienated from his and her origins in ‘ādāmâh itself and, when the alienated human musters enough power to try and control nature, the cultivator violates creation’s integrity.
The first violation of creation’s integrity is the death of Abel at the hands of Cain.  Strikingly, it is not Adam and Eve who cry out at this slaying, according to the text, but ‘ădāmăh, the ground. (Gen. 4:10) And the death is “in the field.” (Gen. 4: 8). The consequence of this primal violence is that the ground “will no longer yield to you its strength” (God to Cain). (Gen. 4:12)  The ground itself is cursed (“because of you” says Gen. 3: 17). Here fratricide is ecocide because everything is integral, of a piece.
Cain’s response is further testimony to creation’s many-sided wholeness, it’s integrity. To be alienated from ‘ădāmăh is a punishment heavier than Cain can bear. “Today you have driven me from the soil,” he says to God, “and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on earth..” (Gen. 4:14)  Cain, alienated from his very origins in fertile soil, the sacred ‘neath his soles, is homeless on earth and estranged from God.  Banished from Eden, he settles in the land of Nod (Gen. 4:16).  But it is a strange settlement, since “Nod” is Hebrew for Wandering. And, with this primordial divorce from the soil (the ground was to receive water, not the blood of violence), even God’s face is hidden.  God, however, does not abandon Cain.  Cain cries, “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” (Gen. 4:14) The All-Compassionate and All-Merciful One then marks Cain so that he does not receive the very same death he inflicted upon Abel.  Mercy exceeds justice. And by now it’s our only chance as well.
This alienation from the soil and God, and the resultant curse whereby the ground does not yield its strength, is accompanied by one last vital dimension.  Cain, “a tiller of the ground” says the text (Gen. 4:2), answers God’s question of Abel’s whereabouts with his own question: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9b) The question is actually a denial.  It means: I am not my brother’s keeper.  What is my brother to me?  Cain actually never calls Abel his brother until God’s question puts it that way, and then he only turns it back so as to deny the tie.  Is this the reason Abel in Hebrew (hevel) means a vapor, nothingness, meaninglessness?  
But the tiller is to be the keeper.  Tilling and keeping belong together as the human vocation of those whose life is of the soil and whose task is to renew the planet’s ecstatic skin.  Cultivation is about care.  When these miracle clods are genuine cultivators, they join the soil’s ecstatic giving, they nourish its self-imparting generosity, they keep as they till. When cultivators till without keeping, when they become consumers and receivers only, when they are no longer brother or sister or neighbor, but only fugitives alienated even from the God of life, then soul and soil are no longer joined and the sacred is leached from both the ground and ourselves.  
Hear Wes Jackson.  “Our very being was shaped by a seamless series of changing ecosystems embedded within an ever-changing ecosphere over hundreds of millions of years,” he writes. “Its ability to support humans into a distant future was not on the line.”15 But now it is.  Why?  Because we’ve been burning through the five pools of relatively non-renewable energy: soil, forests, coal, oil, and natural gas.  We’ve become a species out of context, wandering fugitives, defined by consumption rather than cultivation, by receiving rather than giving, by a way of life that defies mutual enhancement.  But there can be no future in endless ecological debt and asking Mother Nature for bail-outs when she doesn’t go bail-outs.  The colonizers must be repatriated as keepers.
I close with an example for later in the day [the visit to the site of mountain-top removal].  
Why is mountain-top removal wrong?  Because, to quote Harrison, it “has nothing to do with the humility, devotion, and curatorial vocation of the gardener.” Mountain-top removal is modern technology par excellence and, when “it comes to the soil—that is, the entirety of the natural resources locked away in the earth—the drive of modern technology is to extract, remove, and deplete rather than to cultivate, enhance, and foster.”16  It takes away far more than it gives back; it tills, violently, but it does not keep.
Where is your soul—s-o-u-l?  It’s where your sole—s-o-l-e—is, under your feet, in touch with sacred soil.
Let us pray.
Lord of skies, you walk among us
    in the plain brown soil of earth.
    How you’ve chosen to be present
    often seems of little worth.
    You have chosen common bushes,
    kindled them with heaven’s fire,
    spoken through unlikely prophets
    heralding your love’s desire…
    Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. [Amen]
-Larry Rasmussen, Santa Fe, NM