“Foundation” is an unfashionable word in some theological circles, and not entirely without reason. For the word “foundation” carries more than a whiff of foundationalism, a method for building theological and philosophical edifices that is no longer considered up to code. Foundationalism works like this: I declare that there is some principle of certainty, some process or procedure, whereby I can trust in what I believe. That philosophical or theological foundation is, unlike the rest of this foolish and fickle world, unchanging and fully trustworthy.
Therefore, anything I build on top of that foundation will be solid and unassailable, a fortress against the hostile forces that surround me. And, too, against the hostile forces within me. Crucial to this theological strategy is the idea that I didn’t make any of this up, that it isn’t an interpretation on my part, that it’s just The Truth As Such. Whether it’s a literalist reading of the B-I-B-L-E, a belief that the scientific method can never steer one wrong, or an inner experience that justifies everything that is later done in its name, the firm foundation offers a promise: whatever is built on this site will be okay.
Even typing it out, I am still stirred. How wonderful to be protected, not only from outside change, but from one’s own propensity to be wrong. How wonderful to have such confidence and not worry that it’s based in self-aggrandizement. The problem, of course, is that it can make you a truly terrible neighbor to others – namely, to those whose lives and bodies challenge the confidence you’d held to be unassailable. What if some people are being crushed by my claims about “what the Bible says”? What if it turns out that bias and cognitive distortion are not eliminated by science, and are sometimes shielded by it? What about my neighbors whose hearts were strangely warmed by something that seems foreign to me?
“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord….” It’s a stirring song that begs to be sung with gusto. But is that gusto something that compassionate folks can endorse in a time after the Crusades, Dachau, and Matthew Shepherd?
Well, let me tell you about a toad I met this morning. I love gardening. I didn’t used to, because the only gardeners I knew were people who did it because they believed it to be morally superior to not gardening, and that turned me right off. But I married a Mennonite, so I couldn’t fight off gardening forever. What I love about gardening is how it has both expanded and shrunken my community. Expanded, because now I am acquainted with neighbors of mine I’d never have known before – the next door neighbor whose neglect of his yard sends invasive vines and feral cats into ours; the family of robins that lost an adult to a predator but successfully raised a juvenile to independence; the microbes that we’ve coaxed out of dormancy in the compost heap; the praying mantis whose discovery on bean plant was met with cheers. (Praying mantises are incredibly helpful in the garden.) It has also shrunken my world, slowly, year by year, as we’ve worked to improve the soil and to nurse trees that will take several years to bear fruit.
Suddenly, the kind of goalsetting I’d been taught – where you stay ready to uproot yourself should a professional opportunity require it – no longer seemed sensible. We’d planted these trees, after all. We had these chickens. And what about the compost? Who would tend the compost?
This morning as I made the rounds in the garden, I found a toad tangled in the bird netting that we’d draped over the tomatoes. I picked it up and gently plucked its cool feet out of the tight plastic bands, while it struggled to get free. Then I set it down in the toad habitat that we’d built to attract toads to our yard. (They, like praying mantises, eat pests. We like them.) In a moment of theological whimsy, I said these words to the toad as I plopped it in the habitat: “Come, inherit the kingdom, prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” That is a very silly thing to say, not least because I am not God and I’ve certainly not been deputized to dispense holy rewards. (Also, I think saying anything to a toad is inherently comedic.)
But despite – or maybe because of – the silliness of the situation, it prompted me to think of new possibilities for a foundation. Layers of rock and soil and microbes, coating a solid ball orbiting a particular star in a particular galaxy, make a pretty decent foundation. I don’t have to hold it in your brain or enshrine it in my claims; I can feel it under your bare feet in the morning sun while you converse with a garden toad. And if I’m looking for unassailability, being a creature in a web of relationships to other creatures is pretty unassailable. The waters may rise and the credit scores may sink, but my creaturely finitude isn’t something I can shrug off, even by accident. And the actual neighbors I have – from the family of robins to the guy whose backyard is an inconvenient jungle – are handier for me to love than a theological category.
This is the firm foundation: the fact that we are creatures in a world not of our making, filled with other creatures who (thank God!) were not designed to optimize our experience of them. And God loves that world. All of it. God loves it, and will never – no, never! no, never! – forsake it. What lucky stiffs we are, to find ourselves in a world of toads and neighbors and microbes and people that God loves.