[Patricia K. Tull, A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, previews her book, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)]
Inhabiting Eden: A Resource for Christian Communities
In 2007-2008, I took a year-long Lilly sabbatical from teaching Hebrew Bible at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary to write a commentary on the book of the eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Isaiah (my commentary on Is.1-39 available here; Is.40-66 is forthcoming). During that same year, my spouse and I attended a Master Gardener class through the Purdue Agricultural Extension Service in Indiana. These two activities converged as I noticed, more clearly than I had seen in many 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 (see my article in The Desert Will Bloom), but he is certainly one of the oldest who is still read today.
Isaiah begins by calling heaven and earth themselves as witnesses to divine frustration with God’s human “children,” who, Isaiah claims, know less about what is good for them than domestic animals do. In Isaiah’s first speech, Judah is compared to a spent cucumber field and an empty vineyard. Listeners are told that social justice will allow the community to “eat the good of the land,” but continued inequities will cause them to be “eaten by the sword.” Rebels are warned that they will wither like desiccated trees and unwatered gardens.
Isaiah goes on like this, drawing imagery from a deep reservoir of natural knowledge. Empires, kings, and merchants might rise and fall, even the Nile may dry up, but the earth and its wild inhabitants remain. Lebanon’s giant cedars live to taunt the tyrant who would clear-cut them for profit. Mountains and trees break into song as they witness ever newer acts of creation. People resemble grass; princes are mere stubble. Thorns and thistles thrive where civilizations have fallen to ruin. Streams water the desert.
In short, Isaiah’s imaginative world vibrates with nature’s buzzing. Yet the Bible knows no word for “nature,” nor for “culture,” and no division between them. Humans inhabit the earth the way grasshoppers inhabit a field. We may call ourselves great, but on a cosmic scale, even whole nations are as insubstantial as fine dust.
The prophet invokes the larger-than-human world in very particular ways, ranging far and wide in botanical imagery, filling his poetry with trees, vines, crops, and grasses. But he is not alone in this fascination. Other biblical prophets hone in on agriculture, criticizing an international economy based on exported cash crops such as wheat, wine, and olive oil that enrich the elite at the expense of subsistence farmers. Yet other writers draw lessons in human humility from the wild animals with which we share the earth, or direct humans to live lightly with their land because it is only a loan from God.
Students of other traditional cultures and religions observe parallel interests among ancient writers worldwide. In fact, it is only relatively recently that humans have ignored the nonhuman world, trivializing it as vacation scenery or saleable resources. For most human generations, the earth has been viewed as home. Home, perhaps in the sense that our families are home: not always warm and fuzzy, not always safe, nor comfortable, but absolutely inevitable and fundamentally formative.
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 Christian scriptures offer modern people a blueprint for ecologically sensible living, but because so many Christians do 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 the Bible without noticing its grounding in nature.
The book begins by exploring the problem of change and the many precedents for productive changes in human thinking and action. It goes on to discuss relations between humans and nature as they unfold in the first four chapters of Genesis, and to bring biblical ethics to bear on several interrelated ecological issues: consumerism, agriculture, toxic waste, and climate change.
I hope groups of Christians will read and discuss this book together, and allow a different vision to take shape in their communities, a vision of human flourishing in a flourishing world. I also hope it will be a useful tool for religious leaders who regularly teach and preach. What follows is a brief 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, ties we must now reclaim, ties that will not only lead us into restoring our surroundings, but into joys that consumer culture cannot offer.
Scripture tells us that our original forebears lost the garden of Eden before they realized what they had. Not ever having been there myself, I have trouble picturing a world more exquisite than our own. It’s not just the snowcapped peak of Fishtale Mountain behind my daughter’s house in Pokhara, nor the vast red hues of the Grand Canyon, nor the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. It’s the mockingbird practicing its repertoire in the burning bush; it’s the maple tree in the backyard, changing with the seasons from greens to oranges to intricate, rugged browns. Each locale has its bits of Eden, habitats to inherit, enjoy, tend, and bequeath to our descendants.
We are approaching a turning point in history, one that will tell us whether we truly are the homo sapiens, the “wise ones,” we call ourselves. It’s time to dig into our spiritual heritage to find wisdom for crucial decisions that face us all.
We are not alone in this. Every generation faces challenges for which our upbringing has not directly prepared us — challenges economic, military, moral, religious, and social. To overcome problems our parents and grandparents did not foresee, we find ourselves forced to reexamine established assumptions. Change is hard enough for individuals. It is far more difficult to motivate a whole society to work together, particularly in a time as contentious and individualistic as our own. Until a critical mass of people are convinced of the necessity, convinced in heart and soul as well as mind, change does not take root. Such conviction is hard to find when the crisis is unprecedented. What the world has not seen before, we resist seeing now.
Christians who rely on Scripture for guidance are sometimes dismayed that the Bible does not give clear direction about contemporary issues unknown to the ancient world. We search the Bible to see whether passages overlooked in the past, when asked new questions, may offer unforeseen wisdom. This study contends that careful reading of Scripture can indeed lend insight for approaching the current ecological crisis.
[Patricia K. Tull is A. B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and the author of several books, including Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. This article is excerpted from her book and from “Inhabiting Eden: Introduction to a Resource for Christian Communities,” in the January 2014 edition of Minding Nature .