Thoughts on Rewilding in BLC (or: A Version of Eco-Theology) – Benjamin Ong

BLC Tree Planting - 31 Jul 2016

Last week, we planted two trees in church: a neem tree, dubbed the Luther Tree, and a wild cinnamon, dubbed the BLC Tree.

Left: Sivin blesses the neem tree, a tree of Indian origin with many medicinal and cultural uses. 
Right: Leigh and Clarice plant the neem, near the path where its fragrance can be felt.

Now tree planting is, to say the least, not the most common of church activities. But in this time and age, nothing could be more appropriate. Let me begin by recalling an anecdote Sivin used in his sermon: he compared the fascination of children, seeing taugeh germinating from the seed, to the jaded eyes of those of us who are older—‘OK taugeh, so how to fry ah?’ It reminded me of how an anthropocentric worldview—one that places man at the centre of the universe—ultimately results in a distorted perspective of nature that has all living things defined according to their usefulness, direct or indirect, to humans. But if we as Christians are serious about the salvation of the world, then we must recognise that—as Soo-Inn once pointed out—the entire narrative of the Bible is sandwiched between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. We preach the salvation of creation, not just of humanity.

The imagery of Leviathan from the book of Job is appropriate. It is good to create a space where it is not about our dominion and manipulation of nature. While horticulture and agriculture have given us the means to sustain human civilisation—I, for one, love eating and exploring Earth’s bounty and all the diverse cuisines that humankind, over the ages, has wrought from it—we would be missing something if we perceived nature primarily through the eyes of edibility or even usefulness. Who are we deceiving? In our efforts to culture the world and all that is in it—to make it subservient to our needs, to make it conform to our systems—have we perhaps missed out on appreciating raw, wild beauty?

Some may counter this by saying, let us accord to the city that which is the city’s (man’s dominion), and to the wilderness that which is the wild’s (nature’s dominion). But I think such dualistic thinking has no place in a theology that recognises one God as the maker of all things, man and otherwise. It seems humans have dominated everything: we have collected and sorted our specimens; we have organised knowledge of nature into convenient categories. Botanists, zoologists and farmers are to nature perhaps what theologians, scholars and pastors are to religion. And maybe that is why wilderness (in this case, the “urban wild”) is needed: to remind us of our place in creation. Maybe here lies the intersection between God, man and nature.

Sivin credited the donation of the wild cinnamon to me, something I later clarified. It is useful to repeat the lesson here: I started the ecology project that got us looking at trees in urban neighbourhoods; Van harvested the wild cinnamon from a drainside slope; Fitrah runs the nursery that nurtured it. But ultimately it is God who makes a plant grow. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

Left: Planting the wild cinnamon; I didn’t notice the crowd of curious onlookers!
Right: The children then watered both trees.

“Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus said, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The lilies of the field are the wildflowers, not the ‘cultured’ flowers created by genetic manipulation or artificial selection to look good in Valentine bouquets or funeral wreaths. The latter speaks to the genius of man; the former, to the genius of God. Again Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” That is only half true: having eaten the fruits of trees, a bird sows the seed (though it knows it not) that becomes the tree of life that, in time, comes to bless the hundreds and thousands of birds and myriad creatures that take shelter and sustenance from it. Consider the banyan at BLC’s corner—a fine example of this phenomenon.

Left: The banyan at the corner of our church, December 2015.
Right: The treeshrew skull discovered in our backyard, June 2015.

I remember when we discovered the treeshrew skull last year. It was as if to say, here is life. Whether that life has any bearing on man or not, it doesn’t matter. Here is life we may not be able harvest for our curries, or arrange for altar decoration; but here is life nonetheless, wild and free, imbued by the spirit of its Creator.

So, back to our two trees. On the one hand, represented by the neem you have sustainable greening, urban farming and permaculture, where we cultivate that which is useful to us in a way that is environmentally friendly and harmonious with nature. On the other, represented by the wild cinnamon you have rewilding, where we more or less let nature chart its course and reap indirect benefits. We need both for a sustainable future—the yin and the yang, the dark side and the light. BLC has long had a reputation as a “safe space”—may we even now be a safe space to that which is chaotic and chthonic: nature in its wild, resplendent beauty.

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