Last month I gave three lectures and two workshops at the
biennial Presbyterians for Earth Care conference at Montreat, where 140
dedicated people gathered from all over the U.S. for worship, workshops,
learning, and enjoyment of western North Carolina’s exquisite countryside.
Since then I’ve spoken nine times in five different cities. The
air everywhere is electric with excitement over Pope Francis’s encyclical and
his U.S. visit. Catholic environmental advocates are rightly proud and hopeful,
but so are Presbyterians, Disciples, Mennonites, Episcopalians, Methodists, Muslims,
Jews, and Unitarians. One Protestant said, “Finally, a religious leader in the
news whose views I share.” Someone else, commenting on the encyclical,
suggested to his pastor that there were six months’ worth of sermon material
With all this excitement, I’ve once again fallen behind. So for
the next little while I will offer snippets of my Montreat lectures, just so
you have something to read for your pains in visiting this site.
In my first lecture, “Rethinking Scripture, Humans, and
Creation,” I expanded on some of the themes I have been discussing since Inhabiting Eden came out, and suggested
five biblical claims that may help move us toward a saner relationship with the
earth, its inhabitants, and future generations.
Our ancient forebears’ sensitivity to the natural world is
clearly reflected in the scriptures of Christians and Jews, as well as in the
Muslim Qur’an and in ancient wisdom from around the world. This makes sense,
since preindustrial peoples were far more cognizant than many of us today of our
absolute dependence on nature. Scriptural descriptions of nature that modern
readers take for metaphor or embellishment, and thus ignore, ought to be read
more carefully. We can read the Bible as if its writers really meant it when
they said, for instance, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm
Ancient writers of the Hebrew Bible did not seem to view the
nonhuman world as a separate category from themselves, “ecology” as opposed to “economy,”
as we often hear today, or “nature” as something standing outside of human
culture. There was no biblical Hebrew word for “nature” as a category, nor one
for “culture.” Rather, humans were conceived as living within the wider world,
as part of it.
The dominant image that Christians today use to describe our
relationship to the wider world is probably not the most helpful biblical image
available to us. There is a strong tendency now, when reading the Bible’s first
chapter, to bypass everything that is said about God’s delight with the many
species and elements of the world and to talk almost solely about verses 26-28,
“Let us make humankind in our image and let them have dominion.” Sometimes this
dominion idea is softened into “stewardship,” but we still tend to forget that
stewards aren’t owners. Many people think of the earth’s elements and species
as resources provided mostly for our use and profit. This idea has gotten us
into a heap of trouble.
Genesis 1 emphasizes with great awe and reverence the many
dimensions of God’s good creation that came before us—the world’s structures
that respond directly to God’s creating command, the plants and animals “of
every kind,” the blessing of birds and sea creatures, the common food source
given to all animals, including ourselves. In context, not even the command to
“have dominion,” or to “rule” implies exploitation. Dominion in God’s image suggests imitating a
creator who intends that the earth and its creatures flourish. We cannot be
living in God’s image if we are destroying.
But immediately after this follows another creation account
entirely. It’s is the one we might do well to take to heart for the next
millennium or so. Here, as in the first story, it is God alone who makes all
things. But this second story offers a very different picture of what it means
to be human. Here we aren’t given dominion at all. The account focuses instead
on the land—on a garden filled with fruit, the garden of God. It says God made
out of the soil not only the plants, but also the first human being, shaping
that human out of dust as a potter would shape a clay figure. In Hebrew, it
says that God made the adam—or as we say in English, Adam—God made the adam
out of the adamah, the ground. Adam from adamah. We
might translate: humans from humus, earthling from earth, or farmer from
This earthling is not called ruler, but servant of the
ground. Translations have obscured this role. The NRSV for instance says: “The
Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep
“Keep” is accurate enough here, but “till” is not quite
right. When it’s intransitive, when it stands without an object, this Hebrew
verb can mean “to work” or “to serve.” But when it takes an object, as it does
here, its meaning doesn’t become, as in English, “to work it,” that is, “to
make it work.” Rather it means to “work for” it, “to serve it,” to serve the
Garden of Eden. So God puts the first human in the garden, as many biblical
translators are reading today, “to serve and preserve it.” This story pictures
the human not as ruler but as caregiver, or tenant farmer.
Furthermore, at the end of the flood story in Genesis 9, when
God promises Noah never to destroy the earth with a flood because of humans, what
is often overlooked is that this first covenant is made not just with the
humans but with all creatures.God repeats, not once or twice, but six
times, that the covenant is with every species, repeating “the earth” four
times, “every living creature” four times, and “all flesh” five times. Not once
is the covenant with humans only.
These early parts of Genesis are by no means alone in
drawing the human role differently from what we might expect. Psalm 104
displays knowledge about the natural world—from meteorology to astronomy to
physical geography to natural habitats of many species. It describes the
ecological niches of several kinds of animals, saying,“the
high mountains are for the wild goats, the rocks are for the coneys.”
Now if you have been to Israel you may have seen a few
coneys, or hyraxes.They
look like this. They are humble creatures. They look pretty much like ground
hogs without the bushy tails, but according to Wikipedia, their closest
relatives today are elephants. They get their own ecological niche in this
psalm. The Psalm goes on to put humans in their place too, in a timeshare with
the lions, who roam the same haunts at night that humans do in the day. Nothing
in this psalm implies that humans are anything more than one of the many
fascinating creatures that share the earth.
Descriptions of creation in God’s speeches in the book of
Job don’t emphasize human superiority or control, but our transience, weakness,
inability to comprehend the world. Poor Job can’t claim to know anything about
the earth’s expanse, the origin of snow, or how to make rain. He can’t explain
the life cycles of mountain goats and deer. According to God’s voice from the
whirlwind, even a domesticated horse is too powerful for his command.
Other biblical writers likewise imagine us inhabiting a
world far more powerful than we, which we can neither understand nor rule.
Biblical poetry and narrative announce over and over what scientists keep
trying to tell us now—that we are by no means in control. Dominion is, in fact,
a minority view in Scripture, occupying four verses in over 30,000. Taken as a
whole, Scripture voices reverence toward the natural world.
What the Bible has to say about nature isn’t window dressing.
God made the whole creation to flourish, and loves every being in it, not just
the humans. And far from being masters of the universe, we are in fact
absolutely dependent on the ecosystem and its members. The story of Eden
instructs us in tending the earth, but in fact, it’s the earth and its
community that is tending us.
To be continued…