“And God Saw That it was Very Good” – by Fr. Bud Grant
“Thinking the unthought” is the theological attempt to find guidance from the ancients for problems that they would never have imagined, like global warming, for example. The Bible is our most obvious resource, but caution is needed. It is a collection of wildly diverse theological treatises written and redacted over hundreds of years from around 1,800 B.C. to about 120 A.D. Each contributor was shaped by distinct historical, cultural, economic, linguistic, social, and even ecological conditions. The cumulative effect is daunting: the messages of the Bible are not self-evident. I suggest the following caveats:
1. There will never be one perfect-for-all-time interpretation of the scriptures.
2. There will always be more than one good interpretation.
3. Some interpretations are better than others.
4. Some interpretations are flat out wrong.
With that admonition, it is still possible to apply Biblical wisdom in negotiating today’s ecological crises. It is also necessary: the Scriptures are the founding narrative of Western civilization. Whether or not we even subscribe to them, they have indelibly shaped our culture and they continue to exert enormous influence on our corporate decisions. Those of us who do believe in their divine inspiration have a particular responsibility to interpret them well, which is to say with equal parts of caution and courage. By way on a very brief introductory survey, we can look at Genesis, the Psalms, and the Prophets then St. Paul, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation.
In Genesis 1: 1-27 the word “good” (ToV, in Hebrew) is used six times. This tells us that non-human nature is God’s Creation and consequently, that it is intrinsically good. Note–intrinsically good–in itself, not because it is useful, but simply because it exists.
Genesis 1:28 offers a dramatic theological shift with “subdue” and “dominion.” These terms are hard on the ear of an environmentalist. The Hebrew term for “dominion” may be softened to mean something like “responsible use,” but subdue… the meaning is ruthlessly consistent: we are to do to nature what victorious armies do to their enemies. The implication of 1:28 is that God intends creation for human use. That is, it is instrumentally good–because it provides resources for human flourishing.
The Psalms illustrate a different approach to creation by distinguishing between wild and domestic nature. Wild nature is either a metaphor for chaos (i.e. it is demonic) or is indicative of God’s mighty power. Domestic nature is a sign of God’s blessings on humans, though too often illegitimately stolen from the poor by the rich. Not uncommonly, many of these notions are found in a single text. Look, for example, at Psalms 29, 65, 77, 80, and 97.
The great prophets like Isaiah, Hosea and Amos, interpret nature through their prior emphasis on social justice. Thus, creation is the Promised Land of the Covenant–God’s gift to all God’s people, not just the few wealthy. The Land (the definite article distinguishes the Promised, or Holy Land from all other) is a promise to those faithful or repentant ones wandering in the wilderness. Landedness — the reward of fidelity. Infidelity triggers a divine threat of exile, and unrepentant sin results in landlessness (c.f. Hosea 2: 14-25). One can read much of the Hebrew Bible as with a compass: where the people are geographically in relationship to the Holy Land is the measure of their status in relationship to God.
In sum, the Hebrew Bible teaches that God’s creation is both instrumentally and intrinsically good. Wild nature is either ominously dangerous or sign of God’s omnipotence; domesticated nature is gift to God’s chosen people, whose sin can drive them from cultivation into the “wilderness.” The New Testament is different. The theologians who wrote and redacted it tend to treat creation as an eschatological marker separating sinners from the New Creation. Unavoidably, the most popular text in this vein is St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 8: 19-22. It is a difficult text. Creation is ‘subject to futility’ and will be “set free from slavery to corruption,” as if creation, like humans, can sin. But this is the “groaning” in “labor pains” that leads to a “glorious freedom.” Moreover, creation is to be redeemed, whether for its own sake or for our use is unclear. This leaves us with such a strange message that I suspect the entire interpretive line is misguided. The Biblical word translated as “creation” often means, not nature, but simply non-Jewish Peoples.
In the Gospels, Jesus is very fond of earthy parables, usually featuring domestic scenes of sowing, pruning, harvesting, shepherding, and fishing with the occasional wild fox or bird flock added with what seems to be the spontaneity of the moment. Christ, like virtually all of his contemporaries, was much closer to nature, both wild and domestic, than are most of us. He uses nature images as eschatological symbols that distinguish this “age” from the “Kingdom of God” which is to come.
This eschatological theology is most evident in the Book of Revelation, a fantastic vision-scape of a temporary and transient world teetering on the edge of the eschaton, a place where the Holy Ones are sorely tried by the powers and principalities of this age. A New Heaven and a New Earth will replace this sorry world. For many Christians, the message is clear: concern for the environment is a misguided waste of time. But I would urge my fundamentalist sisters and brothers to pray over Rev. 21 again…God’s Creation, no less than God’s Chosen, is to be given a New Beginning.
What are we left with? Is there a biblical environmental theology? No, or rather, yes: many. God’s creation is intrinsically good. Moreover, it is to be used to advance human flourishing, with a particular care for the poor and future generations. The eschatological theology that dominates the New Testament assures us that this earth gives us signs of God’s presence among us and that though this age is passing, we are to be a people of a New Earth–not just a New Heaven.
We can either bemoan as annoying the lack of Biblical clarity or we can embrace the exquisite beauty of our narrative-based theology. The more we immerse ourselves in what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the “World of the Text,” the more we live and move and have our being IN that story…we perceive ourselves to be participants, not merely readers. I tell my New Testament students that I expect them to be able to “smell the dung on the road to Jerusalem,” that is, to experience the story in real time. That is why, I suspect, we call the saints our “brothers and sisters in Christ.” They aren’t dead, and the Gospel is not mere history, and Christ is not an artifact. He lives. We live in Him. And that is why we can dare to ‘think the unthought’ of our Bible. . .we are its latest words.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.
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