Shelly Dennison reviews: Refugia Faith. Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders and the Healing of the Earth. By Debra Rienstra

Refugia Faith by Debra Rienstra

Debra Rienstra is a professor of English, specialising in early British Literature and creative writing, at Calvin University. “Refugia Faith” is, in part, the story of how she found herself reading scientific papers and learning about environmental theology. The book is a fascinating blend of theological reflection, memoir and nature writing which, in less capable hands, might feel disjointed but Rienstra has an engaging voice and the elements make a coherent whole.

The book explores whether the biological concept of refugia has anything to offer to people of faith at a time when several different crises (e.g. climate, politics, the pandemic) are unfolding. To explain refugia, Rienstra uses the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, vividly painting a picture of the devastation that followed.  The expectation was that it would take several human lifetimes for the area to recover but after only 25 years nature was returning. There were small pockets where life survived and these are known as refugia, “habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to, persist in, and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions.” Refugial conservation biology looks at why some places survive and how we might partner with natural processes to support threatened species and restore biodiversity. Learning about these ideas led Rienstra to delve more deeply into the science and think about refugia as a metaphor that might be helpful to the church.

This personal journey is one of the key threads of the book and Rienstra’s experience of getting to grips with an unfamiliar discipline through reading, attending classes led by her colleagues in other departments, taking part in field research and visiting projects, will resonate with readers who come from non-scientific backgrounds and who have been on similar learning curves. We also follow a more practical journey as she and her family choose how to plant and manage their own garden.

Starting with the local is important for Rienstra, and her love of Michigan shines through the nature writing segments that break up the book. These evoke the sand dunes and changing seasons beautifully, linking place to memory and family. Throughout the book we learn more about the history and ecology of the region, including nineteenth century deforestation and the impacts of climate change today.

The bulk of the book explores seven transformations that seek to answer Rienstra’s big question – if we are to imagine ourselves as people of refugia, what do we need to leave behind and what capacities do we need to build? She takes as her premise the idea that God works through the small, the hidden and the remnant, giving examples such as Noah’s Ark or the use of seeds and yeast as metaphors in the parables. The transformations are mapped on to the church year, giving churches and Christians a conceptual framework for understanding them.

We start in Advent with ‘Despair to Preparation’ which focuses on the incarnation and wilderness. ‘Alienation to Kinship’ is Christmas and thinking about repairing the disconnect between people and creation, recognising that in Christ ‘all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17). The season from Epiphany to Lent is ‘Consuming to Healing’ which thinks about the life and ministry of Christ, particularly Christ as healer. This considers a Christian vocation that goes beyond stewardship of the earth to the healing of it.  Lent is used to consider species extinction through ‘Avoiding to Lamenting’, thinking about grief, limits and repentance. Easter takes us back to the local by thinking about the familiar image of Jesus as the gardener encountered by Mary on Easter morning. ‘Resignation to Gratitude’ therefore asks how we can make a difference where we are when climate change feels like too big a problem. ‘Passivity to Citizenship’ is mapped on to Pentecost and thinks about refugia as particular expressions of global movements, acknowledging that what we do, we do through the work of the Holy Spirit. Finally, ‘Indifference to Attention’ takes us through the long stretch of Ordinary Time, the place where we can find the practices that nurture and sustain us for the work ahead such as sabbath rest, gratitude, the sacraments and attentiveness. These sections are not purely theoretical and we encounter a number of people and projects putting this kind of thinking into action.

Any readers hoping for a glimpse of how Rienstra’s professional background intersects with her theological and scientific thinking won’t be disappointed. Dante, John Milton and Shakespeare all make appearances. There are also references to nature writers and more modern novelists tackling environmental themes, along with some reflection on what science and poetry might share, such as “a quest for keen observation and precision.”

“Refugia Faith” is an imaginative and thoughtful book. Rienstra’s refugia metaphor offers a rich seam of thinking to Christian readers engaged with the question of how we respond to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

Shelly Dennison is Digital Engagement Officer at CPRE Bedfordshire, the countryside charity.

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Debra Rienstra spoke about “Refugia Faith” at Hazlenut Community Farm’s 2022 Sustaining Church Conference. The session was recorded and you can watch it here: