Earth Process and the Wish for Human Exemption
by Keith Helmuth
Issue #25, Spring 1997, p 14-15
In 1967 Lynn White Jr., historian of technology and Medieval culture, published an essay titled, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, in which he identified the Biblical tradition of human dominion over the Earth as the origin of the environmental trouble we are now in. This essay marked the opening of a discussion on ecology and the Bible which is still gaining momentum and is now widely recognized as critically important for understanding and possibly altering our culture's eco-destructive behavior.
During this discussion many Christian thinkers have rallied to the defense of "dominion" by casting it in a stewardship mode. In addition, the Bible has been diligently combed in search of passages which reflect any degree of ecological understanding. Most of the references which can be read in this light are found in the Hebrew scripture and amount to a forceful reiteration of the fact that "the Earth is the Lord's," "all flesh is as grass" and that humans are accountable to God for the use they make of Creation.
From the standpoint of ecology, this re-reading of the Bible quickly runs into a limitation. The context of understanding is still ownership -- God's ownership and human management. Good management -- is certainly better than bad management. But management remains management and, with regard to what we now know about the ecological complexity of the Earth, the idea of human management is a stunningly arrogant delusion. Revising our understanding of dominion and rehabilitating a theology of Creation is not likely to alter the fact that the ethos of domination permeates Western culture. The technology and economics which are poisoning and disabling the Earth have come straight out of our Biblically-dominated culture. There is no escaping this accountability. The issue is obviously complex and involves a good deal more by way of cultural context than just the Bible. But the language of the Bible is, as Northrup Frye has so eloquently demonstrated, the "great code" of Western Civilization. There is no blinkering the fact that this code is deeply enmeshed in the tangles of domination. A growing range of cultural studies has shown that the categories of thought through which we organize our understanding of the world, and the structures of language through which we express that understanding, have been shaped by the ethos of domination. The urge to dominate is undoubtedly a pre-Biblical behavior. But the Biblical injunction to march under the banner of a progressively widening dominion, has amplified this tendency into such cultural prominence as to have become a virtual worldview, a generally unconscious assumption about the natural order of things and relationships. The problem of dominion, however, is just the tip of the theological iceberg. Looking deeper, there are two other configurations of feeling, thought, and language, intrinsic to the Biblical world-view, which are of even greater significance with regard to ecological dissonance. They are the misunderstanding and stigmatizing of death and the wish for exemption from the basic conditions of Earth process. Before outlining these elements of the Christian worldview, another question should be asked. What is the basic metaphor of the Bible? What is the pervasive storyline which has been carried in the Biblical tradition -- a storyline which has been shaped to an astounding range of uses for good and ill?
THE BASIC METAPHOR of the Bible is this: History has an intention. In the Hebrew scripture the intention is focused on bringing a chosen people together in the knowledge of the one God above all gods. In the Christian scripture the intention of history is the defeat of death, the ending of death's dominion over life.
The chosen people story flows from the wish for special status in the fabric of Earth's social ecology -- special status in relation not only to other life forms, but in relation to other human groupings as well. The defeat of death story is the core of the wish for exemption from the conditions of Earth process. These two cultural psychologies, these two transcendent wishes, deeply inform Judeo-Christian tradition and its utopian secular derivatives, such as, Marxism, various socialisms, capitalism, and technological utopianism. In combination they have driven the social and economic behavior which has set the stage, and has now dramatically raised the curtain on the disabling of Earth's biotic environments. The Christian misunderstanding and stigmatization of death is a more difficult problem, with regard to ecological integrity, than is the ideology of dominion. A whole theology of evil, sin, punishment, and salvation is anchored in seeing death as an enemy. In a still further theological twist, Christian doctrine developed the view that since death was pervasive throughout Earth process, Earth itself was in a "fallen" state. Earth was seen as beholden to the power of evil and in need of redemption. This unfortunate doctrine can, of course, be refuted from within the Bible itself, since God is clearly recorded as having declared Creation to be "good." The only part of it God is reported to have regretted making is the human. But despite this recovery, we are still left with the powerful assumption that death is the great enemy of life. The antidote to this profoundly anti-ecological view is not difficult to demonstrate. We are dealing with an error in language, thought process, and logic -- an error with great emotional and behavioral consequences. Think of the numerous times you have heard and used the expression "life and death." This expression sets up an opposition which seems self-evidently intrinsic to the natural order of things, a polarity which seems to come from the very dawn of our culture.
IT TAKES only a moment's reflection, however, to realize the monumental error of this expression and the whole skewed psychology of the culture behind it. Death is not the opposite of life. Death is the opposite of conception and birth. Life is the realm which contains them both. Birth and death are the way life hands itself on from generation to generation, from community to community. Birth and death are like right and left hands folded into each other for the presentation of a gift. When this realization dawns over us, our siege mentality in relation to death releases its grip and we have the opportunity to stand at ease.
This mentality surrounds the story of the Children of Israel at the level of competition with other peoples and emerges in Christianity in relation to death and the place of death in Earth process. This sense of opposition, battle, victory and domination which has powered Western Civilization in its geographic and technological exploits, has now proven to have been a singularly inappropriate way of relating to Earth process. An appropriate understanding of death and the abandonment of the siege mentality may, perhaps, foreshadow the emergence of a truly ecological culture. In addition to the defeat of death, there is, throughout the Bible, a more generalized wish for exemption from the Earth's normal conditions. The occurrence miracles feed the wish for exemption. After the removal of the Israelites from Egypt, the miraculous plays a relatively minor role in Hebrew scripture. But in the Christian scripture, the miraculous is not only high profile, but comes to be the whole point. The suspension of the house rules, a waiver of compliance with the Earth's normal conditions, is seen as the culminating and authenticating component of the Christian story. Psychic attachment to the possibility of miracles is not in itself a problem. Strange things do seem to happen. But to rest the entire case of eternal truth and the Divine-human relationship on an exemption from the Earth's normal conditions is to open the door on a staggeringly difficult theological task. The Christian story of salvation was thus detached from any Earth-based reality and failed to generate an ecologically grounded ethic. Its theological credibility became increasingly diminished as the culture of science, technology, and economic development gained ascendancy. What did not become remote, however, was the Biblically rooted wish for human exemption. It was no longer a matter of waiting for miracles. Miracles could now, increasingly, be designed and produced -- made to order. Through the accumulation of wealth and the control of technology, the social relations and economic behavior characteristic of ecological adaptation could more and more be set aside in favor of privilege and aggrandizement. If water could no longer be turned into wine, wine could certainly be made to appear, quite magically, on the tables of the rich without requiring one iota of their personal energy.
AS WE SAY, "the rest is history." Nothing succeeds like success. And the success of the rich in creating a system of exemption from the fundamental tasks of personal, family, and community maintenance within a sustainable ecological context -- this huge technological success -- became the miracle of a new secular religion to which a new "chosen people" began to aspire. Thus, we have traveled deep into the logic of consumerism, a logic which is poisoning the planet.
Do I really think all this can be laid on the doorstep of the Bible? Not quite; the issue is far more complex in terms of cultural influences at work throughout our history. But I do think the development of Western culture cannot be understood without careful scrutiny of the Biblical code and the worldview which flows from it. The Bible is central to our culture and is a deep formative influence even, or perhaps especially, on those who have never given it much thought. The Bible study reflected here is an effort to rescue our heritage. It is, after all, the only scripture we have. I am suggesting that if we disentangle and extract the anti-ecological elements of the Biblical worldview, then the truly vital and enduring values of our heritage -- namely compassion and justice -- may shine through and help us build reasonably harmonious social ecologies within the various wild ecologies of the given, ongoing Creation.
Keith Helmuth is a market farmer, community development activist and writer who lives in Houlton, Maine. A member of the New Brunswick Friends Meeting, he is active in regional and national Quaker programs and was a Quaker delegate to the World Council of Churches' Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea in 1990.
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