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Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth

Debra Rienstra
Published by Fortress Press in 2022

Refugia Faith is one of the best books in print on how people of faith can summon the hope and the courage needed to heal and restore our home planet. Debra Rienstra employs an astonishingly wide range of sources–from Lutheran theologian Paul Santmire on the Christian tradition to atheist biologist E. O Wilson on biophilia, from Dante’s medieval beatific vision to sociologist Robert Bullard’s contemporary take on environmental racism, from arborist Suzanne Simard on the magic of the mother tree to the insights of Protestant Reformer John Calvin on creation as a theatre of divine glory. Rienstra weaves a brilliant web of wisdom from a wide range of times and places into beautiful prose to make her case for the importance of refugia—“tiny coverts where plants and creatures hide from destruction, hidden shelters where life persists and out of which new life emerges“ (pp. 3-4). 

So refugia are small, humble, safe places where ecological restoration can take root. They are “neither bunkers nor beachheads” (p. 5) but places to find shelter, though only for a time. By analogy, refugia faith is “a posture not of retreat or conquest but of humble discernment and nurture.“ (p. 6) Neither a puritanical withdrawal from society nor a triumphalistic dominance of society, refugia faith bears witness to the gospel by adapting Christian faith in such a way as to enable and inspire followers of Jesus to become healers of our damaged home planet. So the central questions this book seeks to answer are these: “How must we adapt Christian spirituality and practice in order to become healers of this damaged earth? How can I join with like-minded people in this work?” (p. 7) 

The written web that is the response to these questions includes rich readings of biblical texts and insightful theological reflections as well as personal vignettes of people and places that illustrate different kinds of refugia. For example, with chapter titles such as “From Despair to Preparation” and “From Alienation to Kinship” and “ From Avoiding to Lamenting” Rienstra puts the riches of the Bible and the Christian tradition in conversation with the rugged reality of the world in which we live. Along the way she insightfully criticizes consumer capitalism and the myth of progress. She notes the ambiguity of the term “nature” and the persistent problems with a dualistic view of humans and an anthropocentric view of the world. She rightly argues that the term stewardship ought to be jettisoned and proposes a much better alternative, namely, “community of creation,” taking her cue from Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley. She rightly leans into the earth-affirming eschatology of the Bible, noting that “significant trees frame the whole arc of the biblical narrative.” (p. 209) Indeed, she is one of the very few authors to notice that the first and last chapters of the Bible speak of rivers and trees. In her search for a hope fitting for our witness to the Resurrection, she mentions lots of local examples, such as Plaster Creek Stewards and Eighth Day Farm and Hoffmaster State Park. 

Perhaps most notable is Rienstra’s unflinching honesty about the obstacles we face, combined with her clear-eyed hope about living in a world facing a climate crisis. She clearly acknowledges the pervasive allure of consumerism, the ugliness of our cities, the rapid disappearance of much rural land, the blinding inequity of environmental racism, the glaring ecological ignorance as to how our world works, and perhaps most disturbing, the widespread indifference to anything that doesn’t show up on the economic spreadsheets. But Rienstra also speaks of how, when faced with solastalgia, we can lament with a God who knows our loss. She shows how grace begets gratitude and how gratitude begets care for creation. She shows how attentiveness to the world evokes the virtue of wonder. Most of all Rienstra provides example after example and story after story of this-worldly hope, rooted in the One who is our Creator as well as our Redeemer. 

So take up and read, everyone who cares about the air you breathe or the place where you live or the children you love. Take up and read especially all those who find despair gnawing at your reservoir of hope. This book is in its own way a refuge for all those seeking to make their little piece of God’s good earth a more corporeal and visible place of shalom. 

Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steve Bouma-Prediger joined the faculty at Hope in 1994 and is currently the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including For the Beauty of the Earth, is a former board member of the Au Sable Institute, and regularly writes and speaks on environmental issues.

3 Comments

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Yes, yes yes. All of this!

  • David E Timmer says:

    I join you in your high praise for Refugia Faith, which elicited a full range of responses for me: insight, inspiration, comfort, and provocation, to name a few. One of the provocative moments for me was Rienstra’s discussion of the concept of stewardship (see the link above to her blog post, “Stewardship Is Not Enough”). While I agree that the metaphor of stewardship can be abused, I don’t think that possibility should eliminate its discerning use. And I’m not sure that the proposed alternatives I’ve seen so far offer the rhetorical scope conveyed by stewardship rightly understood. Of course, no single metaphor can do everything, but I’m loath to jettison one with such deep roots in the Christian (and particularly Reformed) tradition – at least not without a bit more discussion.

  • David Stravers says:

    Perhaps we can salvage “stewardship” if we take seriously Jesus’ prescription for “rulers”? Rulers are servants, whose primary responsibility is to serve others, not to dominate them. Human stewardship of the nonhuman creation means serving creation, enabling it to thrive. not dominating or exploiting it.

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