Tuesday, January 03, 2006

God and Nature

Noble Savage Hypothesis Refuted
Environmentalists frequently indict the Biblical dominion mandate--that human beings should "subdue" the earth (Gen. 1:28)-for causing the heedless modern exploitation of the natural environment. Other passages are blamed for the advent of genocidal warfare. These indictments follow from the mistaken perception that the Bible encourages us to see the earth, and other people, as objects to exploit and conquer. Some suggest that humans once worshipped a benevolent Mother Earth, and saw nature as a bounteous provider to be loved and respected. But once "patriarchal" religions like Christianity became widespread, Earth and her bounty were supposedly seen as something we were free to exploit as we saw fit.

These arguments against what is taken to be the Bible's teaching about the use of nature run smack into some plain facts. In recent times no one has done a better job of ruining the earth than those who do not, even nominally, obey the Scriptures. After the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, it was discovered that environmental pollution and degradation under Communism generally far surpassed that in capitalist countries (Edwards 1993). The atheism at the foundation of Communism proved to be no protector of the earth's resources. Rather it permitted their ruthless misuse.

More fundamentally, however, environmentalist accusations against the Bible can be answered by actually examining the lives of "primitive" peoples. Since such peoples have usually not been influenced by the Bible, one might suppose that they live in a "natural" state of peaceful coexistence and harmony with their environment.

A recent study (Alvard 1993) casts doubt on this view. After citing a number of earlier studies which demonstrate that aboriginal peoples do not function with an attitude towards the conservation of nature, Alvard examined the Piro Indians of Amazonian Peru. He found that their hunting is guided, not by any pre-Christian reverence for nature, but only by their immediate practical needs.

Furthermore, Alvard warns against confusing one's relative inability to harm the environment (because of primitive technology) with a deliberate choice to avoid harming it:

That these groups live within the limits of their environment is evidence that some sort of apparent equilibrium has been achieved. However, as discussed above, such a circumstance does not rate the hunters the label of conservationists. . . . [T]he appearance of balance between traditional native groups and their environment has more to do with low population densities, lack of markets, and limited technology than it does with any natural harmonious relationship with nature. (p. 384).

We should ask whether the notion of "reverence for Mother Earth" is a genuine phenomenon of anthropology, a true "natural state"--or a hopeful myth that can become a form of idolatry.

A popular corollary to the myth of "Mother Nature" is the claim that, before European contact, warfare among Native American tribes was ritualistic, and relatively free of bloodshed. The warfare became savage, according to this view, only after European Christians armed the Native Americans.

Recent archeological evidence, however (see Bamforth 1994 and Krech 1994) shows that genocidal warfare between native tribes, including such brutal practices as scalping and mutilation, predated the arrival of Europeans. As Bamforth notes:

The Missouri River data, particularly the evidence from Crow Creek, would seem to refute Blick's (1988) assertion that tribal warfare is a post-contact phenomenon on the Plains and, by extension, elsewhere: tribal peoples were clearly capable of engaging in extreme violence without access to European weapons and without the process of cultural change such access brings with it. (p. 108)

Unfortunately, there are Christians numbered among those who carelessly exploit the environment. But one need look no further than the sinful human heart to find reasons for genocidal warfare or the misuse of nature's resources. Since Adam our "state of nature" has been one of sin and its consequences. We ought to be surprised, therefore, not by finding destruction and hatred in nature--but by finding theories that claim humans in their natural state lived in harmony with the earth and each other. Such theories imagine a time that never was.

Web of Creation
Biblical Views of Nature:
Foundations for an Environmental Ethic
by Marcia Bunge

A common perception is that the Bible shows little concern for our relationship to nature and has perhaps even encourages its exploitation. This perception is often supported by reference to the biblical commands to "subdue" the earth and "have dominion" over all living things (Genesis 1:28), which are interpreted to mean that human beings can treat the non-human world in whatever way they please. This interpretation of Genesis 1:28 and the perception that the Bible has little else to say about our relation to the earth have led many people to reject the Bible as a resource for developing a sound environmental ethic.

The view that the Bible has fostered the exploitation of nature is expressed in an influential and often-cited article by Lynn White entitled, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis."1 Although several scholars have exposed weaknesses of White's position,2 elements of his argument still prevail in discussions about the Bible and the environment. Alluding to verses in Genesis 1-2, White claims they emphasize that God planned creation "explicitly for [human] benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve [human] purposes."3 For White, Christianity accepted this biblical view of creation, fostering the attitude that human beings transcend nature and may exploit it. He argues that this attitude has shaped the development of modern Western science and technology, which have posed threats to our environment. He concludes that Christianity therefore "bears a huge burden of guilt" for our ecological crisis.

Such interpretations of the Bible and our growing environmental problems have prompted scholars to analyze carefully the biblical view of nature. In contrast to common assumptions, they are discovering that the Bible contains insights that can help form the basis of a sound environmental ethic. Although interpretations of particular passages may vary, they indicate that the Bible affirms the goodness and intrinsic value of all living things; it points out commonalities between human beings and other living things; and it contains the mandate that we treat the natural world with care and respect. Such insights provide powerful grounds for environmental responsibility. This brief essay introduces some of the important biblical passages that have implications for environmental ethics.

Genesis 1-11 contains several fundamental ideas about the natural world and our place in it.4 For example, the opening verses of Genesis clearly state that God is the source of all life and that creation is good. Furthermore, the formation of Adam from "the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7) highlights the connection between human beings and the earth because adam, the word for "human being," is a play on adamah, the word for "ground" or "earth." The story of Noah and the flood illustrates God's concern for all creatures because it states that God made the covenant not just with human beings but with "every living thing" and that God desires all creatures to "be fruitful and multiply." The ideas that God is the source of all life, that creation is good, that human beings are connected to the earth, and that God is concerned for all creatures strongly suggest that we are to value and respect the earth and its many forms of life.

Several recent interpretations have shown that Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 call human beings to preserve and protect the earth and its creatures. James Limburg, for example, interprets Genesis 1:28 in this way on the basis of a careful study of the Hebrew word, radah, which is usually translated as "to have dominion" or "to rule."5 By examining the use of this word in other passages in the Old Testament, he finds it is most often used in political contexts to speak about the rule of a king or a nation. Limburg discovers that when the characteristics of the rule are discussed, the biblical texts emphasize a humane and compassionate rule that displays responsibility for others and that results in peace and prosperity. He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:28 does not advocate tyrannical exploitation of nature but rather responsible care of it.

Many of the Psalms, such as Psalm 8, 104, and 148, reaffirm the goodness of creation and provide additional insights into our relation to nature. For example, according to Terence Fretheim,6 many of the Psalms indicate that God is active in nature and intimately involved in every aspect of the natural order. Furthermore, the Psalms suggest that all creatures, not merely human beings, witness to the glory of God. The language of Psalm 148 even seems to suggest that "it is only as all creatures of God join together in the chorus of praise that the elements of the natural order or human beings witness to God as they ought."7 This insight implicitly calls human beings "to relate to the natural order in such a way that nature's praise might show forth with greater clarity."8

Insights relevant to an understanding of our relation to the natural world are also found in Wisdom literature.9 It emphasizes the importance of nature as a medium of God's revelation, for it presupposes that God's wisdom can be revealed through observation of the natural world. At the same time it points out the tremendous diversity and ultimate mystery of God's creation. Other wisdom texts, such as God's first speech from the whirlwind (Job 38 39), indicate that God takes great delight in non-human creatures and did not create them for human benefit alone. Such passages all imply that human beings need to respect nature, to recognize the intrinsic value of its many creatures, to learn from it, and to preserve its incredible diversity.

Passages from letters of the New Testament, such as Romans 8:18-25,Colossians 1:15-23, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and Ephesians 1:10, indicate that Christ's redemptive power affects the whole creation. The passage from Romans reveals that Paul had a universal vision of the "liberation of all the creatures of nature, along with human beings" through Christ's death.10 Colossians 1:15-23 also claims that all things will be reconciled through Christ. Even if readers disagree about the nature of this universal reconciliation, the passages express God's concern for the whole creation and suggest that we, in turn, should respect God's handiwork.

All of the biblical passages that command us to love our neighbor also have strong implications for environmental responsibility, even if one does not extend the notion of "neighbor" to include non-human creatures, as some theologians have done. As we better understand the dimensions of our environmental problems, it is clear that they are often connected to social injustices. We cannot adequately show love to our neighbors, therefore, without taking into account the environmental problems that affect them.

The passages outlined above and many others11 provide very strong grounds for respecting nature and its creatures and for living in ways that preserve and protect them. Although certainly not all elements of the Bible depict our relation to the natural world in this way,12 the Bible clearly contains ample grounds for environmental responsibility. It provides valuable insights for building the foundations of an environmental ethic that, if lived out, can help solve today's environmental problems.

Marcia Bunge, PhD., is Assistant Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, lowa. She has authored educational materials included in the booklet Our Children at Risk: Hope for the Future Together, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991. Dr. Bunge has taught courses on sustainable agriculture, environmental ethics, and theological perspectives on the environment, and has participated in various conferences on the subject of theology and ecology.

Beyond "the Historical Roots":
Genesis and Environmental Ethics

Jay Vest
Arizona State University

SCHOLARS OF WILDERNESS AND ENVIRONmental ethics have declared the Judeo-Christian attitude towards wild nature to be "anthropocentric- anthropomorphic" in disposition. Foremost among these critics, historian Lynn White, Jr. asserts that "the traditional Judeo-Christian view of the creation is precisely that it was planned in every detail for man's use and edification and for no other purpose".1 A doctrine of anthropocentric dominion is thus implied for the Judeo-Christian tradition by these claims.

Christian theologian, Paul Santmire argues, however, that the Judeo-Christian approach to nature is "not ecologically bankrupt" but that it holds an "ambiguous ecological promise." Santmire outlines two motifs that sponsor the Judeo-Christian understandings of nature. These motifs constitute a theology founded upon both spiritual and ecological ways of thinking, according to Santmire. Defining the spiritual motif, Santmire explains, that it "is predicated on a vision of the human spirit rising above nature in order to ascend to a supra mundane communion with God and thenceforth to obey the will of that God in the midst of the ambiguities of mundane history." For Santmire, the ecological motif "is predicated on a vision of the human spirit's rootedness in the world of nature and on the desire of self-consciously embodied selves to celebrate God's presence in, with, and under the whole biophysical order, as the context in which the life of obedience to God is to be pursued." Furthermore, Santmire says, "Ecological is understood here as pertaining to a system of interrelationships between God, humanity, and nature".2

Santmire further identifies metaphors which constitute the two motifs. For Santmire, the spiritual motif is fostered upon a metaphor of ascent which is connected with transcendence of the mundane and awe of "the infinite reaches of sky above" - the abode of God. Santmire's ecological motif is supported by two metaphors: first, the metaphor of fecundity constitutes a vision of the diversity of living forms and material shapes; and lastly, the metaphor of migration to a good land promises a land "where the lamb will lie down with the lion and the streams will flow with honey and all swords will be beaten into plowshares" thus "ending, once and for all, the strife and darkness of this wilderness world".3

In this reflection upon the Judeo-Christian ecological ethos, it alarms me that Santmire identifies primarily agricultural values - fecundity and "good land" - as reflective of an ecological motif. Moreover, such agricultural themes are anthropocentrically utilitarian, and therefore reflective of human instrumental valuation rather than the acknowledgement of intrinsic value. If we are to properly assess the Judeo-Christian understandings of wild nature then we must use wilderness (the place of absolute intrinsic values) as the ecological benchmark. While to an urbanite, the pastoral landscape may appear ecologically more promising than the city, it nevertheless is another anthropocentric approach to wild nature. In consideration of this concern, we must modify Santmire's approach and thereby judge the Judeo-Christian nature ethos against an ecological motif of wilderness, where the metaphor is the "will-of-the-land" and its absolute inherent value. Although the standard of assessment may be shifted, there is no reason, pending further investigation, to deny Santmire's claim to ecological ambiguity for the Judeo-Christian tradition.4

Critics and defenders alike of the Judeo-Christian nature ethos, commonly cite the account of creation in Genesis as supporting their claims. This account of creation offers a positive accounting of Judeo-Christianity with God's reflection upon the value of creation. Moreover, of creation, "God saw that it was good..." (Gen. 1:10) and "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Furthermore, there is an aesthetic translation of this account which concludes that not only is all creation good but it is concurrently beautiful, very beautiful in God's "eyes".5 Thus in accepting God as Creator and this reflective evaluation of creation, we must recognize that God in fact acknowledges value in all creation.

For my own need of simplistic understanding, why would a God create other non-human animal life and not consider it of value? Granted the human race is atop the food chain, but for a religion to see no intrinsic value in nature other than as a utility isn't exactly respecting what a Creator created in the environment. If all other animal and plant life is only a utility, why give it life, feeling, the need to grow and in the case of the animal kingdom, a brain?

Indeed, God appears to value creation in giving it the blessing to "Be fruitful and multiply..." (Gen. 1:22). This blessing is attributed to creation prior to its association with humanity. It, therefore, appears universally and beneficially intended for all of creation. Hence, all creation is blessed by the Creator.

A serious question, however, remains; is this claim of aesthetic good and/or beauty intrinsically of God? or of creation - i.e., wild nature? Creation is called upon to praise and glorify God (cf. Psalm 148:3-10; Isaiah 55:12; and Micah 6:1-2). Implicit then is a continuing concern by God for creation and creation's ability to respond to God. If creation is able to respond to God and God in turn values it, then one must conclude that all of creation has intrinsic value.

The ambiguity of the Judeo-Christian account of creation emerges with God's especial interest in humanity. Moreover, humankind is graced in his or her creation by God's image or likeness and by her or his dominion over all creation. Hence, this doctrine authorizes an apparent anthropomorphic and anthropocentric ethos. Nevertheless, if humanity is of God's likeness, and given God's delight in the intrinsic value of creation, then we must conclude that humanity is obliged to delight in the intrinsic value of creation or wild nature as does God. To do otherwise would result in a fall from the grace of God. Consequently, the creation of humanity in God's image or likeness, and humanity's dominion over creation constitute a moral covenant of God and humanity with creation; lest God not be God, and humanity fall from God's grace.

On this interpretation, the consequent blessing unto humanity to "replendish" and "subdue" the Earth (Gen. 1:28) remains a matter of serious concern. What is to be made of it in terms of a Judeo-Christian environmental ethos?
Dominion may imply humanity's biological subsistence in this case. Moreover, like the other creations, humanity is organic and dependent upon organic matter for biological maintenance. Hence, the dominion power given humanity by God is done so to authorize humanity's biological continuation as it requires subduing life sustaining prey. Many questions remain: Is this biological dominion absolute? Is humanity free of an ecological egalitarianism in his or her biological maintenance? Moreover, does humanity enjoy a unique dominion over and above the rest of creation? In order to address these questions, we must examine the second account of creation.

The second account of creation - Genesis II - may be entirely consistent with the first - Genesis I - given that Genesis II primarily recounts creation as recorded in Genesis I. As an explanation, Genesis II is primarily concerned with humanity's ecological disposition within creation. We are told that the creation did not have a "man to till" it (Gen. 2:5); hence, God created Adam of the dust of the earth and placed him in Eden. But Eden may be something other than a consummate garden, since Adam was put there "to dress it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). Humanity's purpose in Eden may metaphorically be to protect and preserve it.6

The "tree of life" implies biological maintenance via the tenets previously outlined. Conversely, the "tree of knowledge" implies knowledge of agriculture - e.g. in Genesis III we see that "the tree was good for food" and that woman took the first step (Gen. 3:60). Humanity is expelled from Eden to practice agriculture for violating the tree of knowledge - "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Gen. 3:19). The concomitant concern for humanity's nakedness (Gen. 3:19), furthermore, implies the birth of civilization. This account is then the transition from hunter-gather economy to agriculturally centered civilization. Because of a concurrent human population irruption, it is an irreversible commitment to civilization. Hence, "the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken" (Gen. 3:23).7

God's garden - Eden - must therefore not be construed as a consummate agricultural endeavor, but rather, it more properly reflects wilderness and ecological egalitarianism among the species of God's creation therein. Conversely, humanity's invention of agriculturally centered civilization, as sponsored by the "tree of knowledge," constitutes humanity's fall from the grace of God. The birth of agriculturally derived civilization is therefore a sin against the covenant between God, humanity, and creation or wild nature.

Inheriting humanity's fall from the grace of God, Cain and Abel represent humanity's agricultural dominion. Abel - the "keeper of sheep" - reflects nomadic pastorialists and their practice of domestication. Cain as "tiller of the ground" reflects sedentary agricultural practice in concomitant "city-state" civilization. In that God respects Abel's offering and rejects Cain's offering, we must conclude that there is a complex moral standard by which God judges the practice of agriculture. And with Cain's transgression, then humanity is further cursed for her or his violation of creation.

The account of Noah and the deluge-flood completes the logic of humanity's covenant with God and nature. In this account the ground is "not to be cursed for man's sake again nor is every living thing to be smitten again" (Gen. 8:21). Furthermore, the ecological cycles are to continue into perpetuity - "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22).

While humanity is to continue his or her biological maintenance, the covenant of the Rainbow constitutes an environmental ethic between God, humanity, and all living things (creation) - "the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh" (Gen. 9:15). With God's instructions to preserve all living things from the deluge-flood, it is clear that species extinction is a grievous sin against God. Most emphatically, the covenant of the Rainbow is made by God between humanity, and "every living creature" with "perpetual generations" in mind (Gen. 9:12). In consequence, species extinction is a violation of the Rainbow covenant. This covenant, therefore, implies a most significant regard for ecological egalitarianism and humanity's moral responsibility unto wild nature. God's Rainbow covenant furthermore reflects the intrinsic value which God acknowledges in nature.

The area I believe needing clarifying is it cannot be a sin on humanity for every single extinction of species. It may well be for some of the rather unjustified excesses in commercial development, etc., which take habitats away from species, but given nature itself has killed many alone with the ice age or crashing meteor catastrophies, it cannot.

By this accounting, then, the Judeo-Christian understanding of wilderness is quite positive in affirming an environmental ethic sustaining all creation. Other problems are evidently responsible for the scholarly criticisms directed at the Judeo-Christian tradition. Foremost among these difficulties I believe, has been a serious transmission problem of the Judeo-Christian nature ethos into new cultures and their descendants. Judeo-Christian theologians would be well advised to re-examine their tradition and thereby re-affirm this important environmental ethos.

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