Faith, Humility, and Pedogenesis

Colin Hoogerwerf

If you stare closely at soil for long enough, you will see that it is alive. It is filled with micro and macro invertebrates, fine roots, fungal hyphae, and decomposing material. It is structured with pores that flow with water and gas. It is rich with color and odor. This should be no surprise, for the life of the earth comes out of the soil. Soil, as we know it, makes its first appearance in Genesis 2. Before Adam arrives there is no one to do the farmer’s or the gardener’s work of tilling and cultivating. The first human came from the soil, molded out of the dust of the earth. God takes the dust of the ground, the aphar of the adamah, and makes the first human—adam. Adam is made from the very earth. Not only is Adam made from the earth, he is made for the earth. Adam is created out of the earth and put into the Garden of Eden to work the soil. Looking deeper into the language here we find that the word for “work”—avod—is used also in the context of service, as in performing the service of ministry. God created human to work the ground, and in doing so, to serve him.

I love to think about this first creation, the molding of Adam from the clay of the ground and the breath of God. God the Gardener grows Adam out of the soil of Eden. There must have been a good amount of rich dirt beneath God’s fingernails after this creation. Then Adam and Eve, made in the image of God, become the caretakers of the loam and clay and all that grows from it.

Humus is described in science textbooks as dark brown to black organic material that stains the soil particles. Humus is what you see falling through the fingers of the calloused hands of the farmers in video clips and photographs. Humus is the Latin word for earth, synonymous with adamah. Although the link between humus and human in English may be a coincidence from an etymological standpoint, we might benefit from pondering the connection between the words today. Humility also comes from the same root as humus, and means, literally, “from the ground.” Understanding this connection is important to following the teaching of Jesus. When Jesus preaches humility we can trace that idea back to understanding that we come from the dirt and will return to the dirt. Our decomposition will nurture the weeds and the fruit trees. Maybe we should not think of ourselves merely as rulers of the weeds but realize that the weeds will grow from what we will eventually give back to the earth with our bodies.

Soil doesn’t have much of a place in the minds of most Christians, but this hasn’t always been the case. In past centuries soil held a very important place in the lives of most of the people who relied on it to provide them their daily food and living. Early Christians were much more connected with their reliance on the ground to keep them alive and were aware of their faith in the ground to continue its work.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the connection between the words “human” and “humus,” adam and adamah. We don’t often think of humans as referring to something created from dirt. More often “human” implies something made from some cleaner, higher, heavenly material. Not at all humble! Our theology too has lost its connection to dirt, removed from farmland, forests, and grasslands, and placed instead inside stone cathedrals, tightly sealed off from the soil below.

What if we worshiped in churches with no floor, our Sunday shoes sitting atop the bare ground? We might recognize the differences in earth from place to place like the soil scientists who have identified and named the soils. We might kneel to pray on top of the Mollisol soils of the Great Plains with their thick A horizons; or the Alfisols of the Great Lakes, sandy and young; or the Inceptisols of the Northeast. Would we leave church with dirt under our fingernails, remembering that we are made in the image of God, the dust-covered Gardener Creator? Would we better understand faith if every Sunday we knelt over a garden and witnessed the miracles of life sprouting out of the ground?

Pedogenesis is the creation of soil. Soil is often formed over millennial time scales, weathered slowly from the bedrock, moved about by huge geologic events and by small biological processes and sculpted by climate. Recently some soil scientists have added humans to the list of potential soil-forming factors. With the right agricultural, forestry, and urban-development practices, humans can help to build new, rich soil. So far this movement has been quiet and kept within the narrow field of soil science, but it is ultimately spiritual. Humans were created to cultivate the earth. If we remember our connection to soil we might learn the humility that will cultivate our faith and allow us to become the gardeners of Earth that we were created to be.

Colin Hoogerwerf is an outreach coordinator at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters in Grand Rapids, Michigan.