by Patricia K. Tull
Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 200 pp.
Several years ago I took a year-long sabbatical to write a commentary on the book of Isaiah, and noticed, more clearly than I had seen in years of studying Isaiah, the ancient prophet’s own observations of the natural world. He may not have been the earth’s first naturalist poet, but he is certainly one of the oldest who is still read today.
Isaiah’s imaginative world vibrates with nature’s buzzing. The prophet invokes this world in particular ways, filling his poetry with trees, vines, crops, and grasses. And he is not alone: other biblical prophets discuss agriculture, criticizing an international economy based on cash crops—wheat, wine, and olive oil—that enriched the elite at subsistence farmers’ expense. Other writers draw lessons in humility from wild animals, or direct humans to live lightly on land that is only a loan from God.
Parallel interests can be found among ancient writers worldwide. In fact, it’s only recently that we’ve been trivializing and ignoring the nonhuman world. For most human generations, the earth has been viewed as home.
After completing the first volume of the Isaiah commentary, I paused to write another book, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. I wrote this book not because I believe the Scriptures offer modern people a blueprint for ecologically sensible living, but because so many Christians seek to learn from the Bible and consider it authoritative. Yet, just as most modern people fail to see the natural world alive around us, most Christians read Scripture without noticing its grounding in nature. What follows is an excerpt from the book’s beginning chapter.
One January I was traveling in South India with my daughter Claire, who lives in Nepal. When our host in Coimbatore took us to the train station to return to Bangalore, he boarded with us, settling us across the aisle from a nun in full habit, explaining to her in Tamil who we were, where we were going, and for all we knew, how ignorant we were about Indian transit. She nodded in our direction. She was wearing the white and blue habit of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and I was entranced. All my romanticism about Mother Teresa, about nuns, and about travel in India drowned out apprehensions about finding our way.
We set out among the mountains. Throughout South India’s flatlands, everywhere we had traveled, along every road, we had passed masses of people working, walking, driving, biking, sitting, eating, sweeping, bathing, cooking, laughing—as if all humanity had congregated on the tip of South Asia to sink it. But there was no road beside this track, and for the first time in three weeks we saw open countryside, mountains almost close enough to touch. I smiled at my daughter and then at the sister, who was eating her lunch, a box of chicken. We ate a couple of bananas and I looked for a waste bin and, finding none, wondered if it was proper to throw the peels from the train. The sister finished her chicken, stood up, leaned over the two people sitting between her and the open window, and tossed box, drinking cup, napkins, fork, bones, the whole litter of a fast food meal, into the mountain, and then sat down and took out a prayer book.
It’s tempting to shrug and say, that’s a different culture. But on the Ohio River near our house, hundreds of thousands congregate for the annual fireworks display that wakes up all creation, Thunder over Louisville. The trash that strews roads and sidewalks from the river to downtown the next morning puts American manners badly on display. This is something more: a mentality that the earth is our waste bin.
Once I was talking to a colleague, a left-leaning scholar, in her office. She commended some environmental deed or another as she threw an empty, recyclable Coke bottle into her waste basket.
I tell these stories not because they are so egregious but because they are so common. If being religious, or being in public, or even being verbally committed to ecological causes cannot help us reexamine small actions, what will change us in the large ones? I myself am just as guilty: if the nun trashed the mountainside, I had trashed the stratosphere by jetting across the world, even if it was to see my daughter. Although ecological awareness has often inspired me to stay put, it has not led me to cease flying altogether. And perhaps this is part of the issue—we are social beings, and while some may be more committed than others to improving ecological behavior, we are limited both by personal habits and by what society as a whole makes possible.
In his book The Creation, written as a letter to Christian preachers, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson calls religion and science “the two most powerful forces in the world today.” He comments:
If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved. If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment (p. 5).
We may search for technological answers to the multiple ecological problems we face, but the questions are really human ones: What do we value? How do our lives and values line up? Do we see ourselves as part of the magnificent web of life, or do we, like Esau, trade our birthright for a momentary mess of stew?
Wilson argues that science can provide information about the biosphere, “the totality of all life, creator of all air, cleanser of all water, manager of all soil, but itself a fragile membrane that barely clings to the face of the planet”(p. 27). Religious leaders, he said, help shape awareness of and gratitude for this complex and tender sphere. There can be no change in action without changes in perception of who we are and to whom and what we owe allegiance.
This book is written as a resource for people who look to the Bible for guidance in contemporary life. Scripture doesn’t by any means tell us all that we might like to understand. But if we remove some modern blinders we will find it says a great deal more than we think about our ties with the rest of creation.
Images: Ooty India by Raj on Flickr via a Creative Commons license. Thunder over Louisville image courtesy of Courier-Journal.com, Meadow Walk by Nicholas A. Tonelli on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.