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Politics of Scripture

Lent in the Anthropocene

Humans may very well not survive to the end of the century, but in faithfulness to the Creator, between fasting and serving the Garden, hope is alive. The liturgical season of Lent is such a time.

2:15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7 (NRSV)

Here in the Anthropocene geological era, one species has fundamentally changed Earth’s bio-sphere, invoking the planet’s sixth great mass extinction event. Climatologists, including James Howard Kuntsler, sounding the alarm bells describe our time as “The Long Emergency.” As people of faith, we might call this “The Long Lent.” Forty days might turn into 40,000 years until Earth returns to the lavish biological diversity humans enjoyed just 100 years ago, not counting Sundays.

In light of indigenous peoples defending rainforests from agricultural “development” and defending fresh water from oil pipeline “construction,” I question if those of us from the Judeo-Christian tradition subscribe to a spirituality and theology sufficient to defend and live in harmony with Earth’s bio-sphere. If we do, though, the Yahwist creation story must be our starting point. Surely, the Holy Spirit cries out through burnt Australian koala bears, pleading for us to reexamine the roots of our tradition with an ecological lens.  

Genesis 2:15–17 simultaneously contains the human’s primary vocation and first commandment. Conveniently, these two elements also address the two most critical elements of the climate crisis, as I will explain later. First, scholar Theodore Hiebert points out that the verb “to tend” (or cultivate) comes from the Hebrew root abad, intimating service in a subservient role. Here, Adam, created from the apar (topsoil) of the adamah (ground) in verse 7, is not the height of Creation. Rather, this farmer or earthling, if you will, serves as a servant to a larger project of the Creator—the flourishing of all the garden’s life forms together. 

I would add Norman Wirzba’s inspirational insight here, too: human’s subservient role of serving the garden is not demeaning; rather, it is the first entry point into God’s grace. To serve the Garden’s soil is to bow before millions of micro-organisms per square inch, composting death into life, retaining moisture in times of drought, and slowing the flow of rainwater to keep rivers clean and stable.

Second, we find the Bible’s first commandment to humans: the warning about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Walter Brueggemann suggested once in class that the Yahwist author here draws parameters and boundaries necessary for a human ethic of restraint. Humans are not free to consume as they please. When I meditate upon this passage from an ecological, earth-centric lens, I contrast this command of restraint with a bold, popularly supported statement made from the sitting U.S. president leading up to the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. As attending scientists decried unbridled, destructive consumption of Earth’s resources, George H. W. Bush drew a line in the sand when he proudly proclaimed: “The American [sic.] way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”

We find ourselves now three decades later, where consumption of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) and misuse of land propel us well beyond a safe 350 parts per million of CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere, seemingly with no restraint in sight. For example, the current administration recently opened not only national monument land to oil drilling in Utah, but it also opened the ecologically sensitive Alaskan Wildlife National Refuge to the same.  If there is a forbidden fruit in today’s Garden of Eden, I suggest it is fossil fuel. Indeed, the text states the consequence of eating that fruit: death. The U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper reports a recent study showing that fossil fuels cost the global economy $8 billion per day and cause an estimated four million pre-mature deaths per year. 40,000 children under the age of five die each year due to particulate matter from fossil fuel burning.

And while fossil fuel burning gets most attention for driving the climate crisis, critical attention must also be given to unsustainable forms of agriculture—estimated to drive a full half of the crisis (via soil disturbance, livestock emissions, energy-intensive fertilizers, deforestation for agriculture, etc.). Such fruit, alongside fossil fuel, must also be considered a forbidden fruit.

To address the climate crisis, the twin calls of Genesis 2:15–17, the vocation of sustainably serving the Garden and fasting from forbidden fruits, must take on, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “the fierce urgency of now.” Fasting from fossil fuels and supporting the now exponential growth of clean energies is an obvious and increasingly available move. Theologically and practically, we should be using “Energy from Above, not from Below!”

And on the other side of these twin calls of the text, we find more hopeful solutions. Climate scientists are bringing to light that, in addition to planting trees, regenerative forms of organic agriculture build up the soil base while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Such bio-diverse farming practices increase resiliency for many species, including ours. Building up farm lands’ soil base retains more moisture to help withstand drought, creating healthier crops, and fostering more bio-diverse farming methods good for bees and butterflies.

As suggested above, serving the Garden is about more than a human-centric project—it is about the flourishing of all life together. In the context of impending ecological collapse, faithfulness to these three verses is, indeed, about life and death. In fact, there may be no other more pressing, urgent vocation for us today. The human species finds itself in an “all hands on deck” moment—a long Lent season of fasting, a long Lent season of serving the Garden for a new way of life where the Garden, not humans, demands primacy.

Psalm 32 inspires the reader to confess our transgressions, followed by forgiveness, thanksgiving and rejoicing. In the context of today’s climate crisis, in the context of our sins against the eco-systems of creation, forgiveness, thanksgiving and rejoicing may seem a long way off. We may not immediately be able to fast from the sins embedded in the infrastructure of our economic and nutritional lives. And, yet, organic, regenerative farmers are truly rejoicing now. Families are enjoying healthier food, and, in one such farm in south Georgia, bald eagles have voluntarily returned, finding a new home free from toxic chemicals and vibrant, clean ponds and streams. In Bogota, Columbia a weekly car-free day policy is producing positive health benefits for children.

The Gospel reading of Matthew epitomizes the spiritual practice of fasting, begging today’s readers to meditate on the interplay between service to God and the temptations of comfort and power, which misuse of the Garden enables. Where a U.S. president once proclaimed that the consumptive U.S. lifestyle was not up for negotiation, such a Gospel passage draws us to deeply question such entitlement.

In closing, I draw our attention not to a theologian or exegetical scholar, but, rather, a scientist who looks to the likes of spiritual leaders to transform the climate crisis. Gus Speth is the former dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and former top U.S. Advisor on Climate Change. He challenges those of us in the religious world: “I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

A cultural and spiritual revolution must take place if humans are to survive the narrowing bottleneck of extinction. Such revolution requires ‘all hands on deck,’ especially leaders in the religious community-shapers of culture and spiritual life. Humans may very well not survive to the end of the century, but in faithfulness to the Creator, between fasting and serving the Garden, hope is alive. The liturgical season of Lent is such a time.

2 thoughts on “Lent in the Anthropocene

  1. Thank you dear Alan for addressing such a controversial issue from a Christian perspective. Awesome!

  2. Thank you for your superb call for action and especially to fast from fossil fuels and the other forbidden fruit that you name. Thank you.

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