Sunday, October 4, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 2:18-24.

I love to watch science documentaries about the beginnings of the universe. Each time I watch one I learn something new. Because even though by now I know the broad outlines of the history, each retelling gives new details that the previous ones didn't. It may be because science has uncovered things the makers of the past documentaries didn't know. But sometimes it is a matter of what they want to focus on. By putting emphasis on, say, black holes and dark matter and galaxies they may overlook details necessary to understand how life on earth became possible. Focus on the steps needed to prepare for life and they will skip over other things not strictly necessary to tell that story. I recently saw a documentary that actually got the story of creation off to a galloping start with the Big Bang and covered the first important thresholds that led to the universe we have and then rewound the events to look at some of them in greater detail in order to focus on the elements important to the story of our earth.

Genesis does the same thing. The first chapter covers the grand story of the creation of everything on earth. The second chapter rewinds and gives us previously skipped details on the creation of humanity. Genesis 1 is the outline of the whole process; Genesis 2 takes a closer look at what the author thought was the part pertinent to the overall theme of the Bible: the relationship between God and human beings.

This is emphatically not a scientific account. Science, as we know it, did not exist as a discipline at the time of its writing. In fact science is a very recent thing. Until you have universal standards of measurement and the formulation of the scientific method and the ability to replicate the experiments of others, all you have is little more than the accumulation of observations by amateur enthusiasts. So you can't fault the Bible for not having everything written in modern scientific terms anymore than you can fault ancient peoples for not recording the exact time of the day down to the minute that major events happened. Before the invention of the clock, how could they? And before the invention of biology and geology and astrophysics, how could the writers of the Torah give us a scientific account of creation?

Besides, the Bible is interested, not in the exact mechanism by which things were created, but their significance and purpose. If you want to know what a person is physically made of, ask a chemist. What the Bible is concerned with is establishing that we were created in the image of God. It is the moral and spiritual dimension of human beings that is the focus of the scriptures.

That said, Genesis 2 shows God doing something very odd. God creates the man and then, realizing that man needs a helper and partner, God brings all the previously created animals to the man. The man names them but they are do not exactly correspond to him. They are not of his species. So God causes Adam to fall asleep, takes a rib, closes up the flesh and makes Eve. (Which, for those of you who simply must see science in Genesis, means God is pro-anesthesia, pro-organ donation, pro-surgery and pro-genetic manipulation.)

The woman is the man's suitable helper, or, as Richard Eliot Freeman translates the Hebrew here, “a corresponding strength.” The woman is, in other words, fully the equal of the man. Any other interpretation makes nonsense of the narrative purpose. The animals are not equal to man; the woman is. Subordination of women is the result of sin, the Bible says, not God's intention. That's why when we are restored in Christ, there is, as Paul says, “no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) (Again for those of you framing things in modern terms, God is pro-equality of the sexes.)

But the reason I wanted to look at this passage is because this is the feast day of St. Francis when we focus on nature and animals, things that concerned the little friar. And there is a point lost here. No, none of the animals are the equal of a human being. But why would God even present them to the man? Because, as those with pets know, they can be good companions nevertheless. And the message is that we should not regard our fellow creatures as mere things to be mistreated. In fact Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal...” Lots of rules concerning the welfare of animals are found in the Bible. If you see a donkey lying on the road under its burden, even if it belongs to your enemy, you must set it free. (Exodus 23:5) You are not to muzzle an ox while it is treading the grain so it can eat. (Deuteronomy 25:4) God's attitude towards animals is seen in the fact that one of the reasons he doesn't want to destroy Nineveh is that there are many animals there. (Jonah 4:11)

Some people don't see this in the Bible because of language in Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.'” The note for this verse in the NET Bible points out that the Hebrew word translated “subdue” can mean in other contexts “enslave” or “conquer.” In one passage in Esther it is used of Haman, the villain of that book, to mean “sexually assault!” (Esther 7:8) But the same note says that obviously God is not saying that man should be in an adversarial relationship with the earth (especially since he has pronounced everything good). The verb means “to bring under one's control for one's advantage” and could be paraphrased as “to harness its potential and use its resources for your benefit.” And some people say the Bible is therefore saying it is OK to exploit and despoil the world and its creatures in any way we want.

But they forget a few facts. First God made us in his image. And even if all we had to understand this concept was the first chapter of Genesis, we must conclude that God is at the very least creative and life-giving and takes delight in what he has made. So that would mean that humans, made in his image, should rule over the earth in that same spirit. A wise ruler doesn't destroy his kingdom or his subjects.

Also in Genesis 2:5, the prologue to the creation of humans, says, “Now no shrub of the field had yet grown on earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.” So God goes ahead and plants an orchard in Eden. In other words it looks as if man is meant to be the gardener of the earth, again in imitation of God. And a gardener doesn't ruin his garden. He weeds it and does everything he can for the benefit of the garden.

Nor are we to rule the earth and its creatures with unlimited authority. God is our king. We humans were to rule as vice-regents, not absolute monarchs. We are answerable to God for what we do. The world and its creatures belong to God. We are to be stewards of the earth. And in fact, after the moral fall of humanity, it says in Genesis 6:11, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” This is given as the justification for the flood. We have misused the power granted us to subdue the earth and rule it. We have been bad rulers, bad gardeners, and bad stewards of the earth God has given us to take care of for him. So God decides to start afresh.

There is another reason why we cannot do whatever we want with the earth and for this I must thank Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale. I was listening to q, a Canadian talk show from the CBC, and she was talking about the connection between the environment and the command to love one's neighbor. She pointed out that loving one's neighbor meant being concerned about the air he breathed and the water he drank and the food he ate. In other words, we can't very well say we love our neighbor and then let him breathe polluted air or drink polluted (or flammable) water or eat polluted or poisonous food. You wouldn't want to be subjected to that yourself and Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. Loving our neighbor means we must keep habitable the environment in which he (and we) must live.

There are, of course, entirely pragmatic reasons for being good stewards of this earth. We now understand how interconnected everything is. Should bee colonies continue to collapse, it will affect as much as one third of the crops in the US, including “almonds, peaches, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries” which are pollinated by bees. (source here)  If the glaciers, polar ice caps and sea ice continue to melt, we will see increased erosion of our coasts, higher storm surge flooding, changes in the quality of surface and groundwater, and loss of coastal property. If each year keeps getting hotter than the last, we will see more fires, more droughts, decreasing crop yields and more food insecurity.

You know that problem they are having in Europe because of Syrian refugees? That, and the Syrian civil war, started in part because of the worst drought ever recorded in Syria which “resulted in a widespread crop failure, increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.” (source here) This helped fuel the already present political problems of the country and encouraged other groups from outside Syria to try to start a revolution along the lines of the Arab Spring movement. As history shows, people will put up with decades of political oppression. But threaten their ability to feed themselves and their children and they will revolt. It doesn't take a Nostradamus to see that increasingly hotter years and more widespread and longer droughts, and fires like we are seeing in drought-stricken California, where much of our food is grown, are going to lead to political instability, more refugees and more chaos.

I remember being taught in school about the balance of nature. Say the population of wolves in an area keeps increasing. Eventually the number of their prey, let's say deer in this instance, will decrease because the wolves are eating too many of them. At some point there aren't enough deer to feed all the wolves and they start starving. When the wolf population gets down far enough that they aren't killing most of the deer, the population of deer will begin to rise again. My point is that we are smarter than either wolves or deer. We know about the balance of nature and can work out the carrying capacity this earth has for our species. If we don't achieve the balance by peaceful and rational means, the impact on the environment of an estimated 9 billion people by mid-century will do it for us. Decreasing land mass due to rising sea levels, widespread food insecurity due to droughts and fires, dust bowls as we saw in this country in the 1930s, mass movement of refugees and the political unrest and wars that result from all this will start culling the herd of human beings. These are the easily foreseeable consequences if we don't get serious about these problems and start putting real solutions into action.

Of course it would be better if we did these things not merely out of self-protection but out of love for our neighbor, our fellow creatures and this marvelous earth God gave us. And in that spirit I would like to end with the Canticle of the Creatures composed by God's troubadour, St. Francis of Assisi.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears a likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air
and clouds and storms, and every kind of weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful and humble and precious and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and cheerful and robust and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colorful flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure infirmities and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Happy are they whom she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord and give thanks
and serve Him with great humility.


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