Bible reading: Psalm 148
This afternoon, we will be discussing the final section of the third chapter of Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology, in which he describes a ‘community of creation’ that both praises and mourns together. During the talk today I would like us to keep in mind the idea of testimony and counter-testimony, as it will be (hopefully) helpful in discussing what appear to be contradictory, even offensive passages. Indeed, I know I have been thinking about the idea of counter-testimony far too much since I first heard the term used. At the flat Tim and I have recently moved into, there were a few scattered dishes and cups that the previous tenant had left. I have a strange compulsion that insists on having matching plateware, glasses and so forth—it’s really weirded out a few of my flatmates over the years. So after a recent trip to IKEA in which we brought back six matching plates and six matching bowls and six glasses, I relegated the old plates and bowls to somewhere under the sink, only to be pulled out in times of dinner party desperation, and called these dishes the ‘counter-testimony’ plates as opposed to the ‘testimony’ plates and bowls which are easily accessible in the cupboards. Faith interacts with real life!
But that aside, I would like to open by re-considering Psalm 148. Baukham discusses the ‘community of creation’ and emphasizes the inter-relationship among humanity and ‘the rest of creation’. One of the ways in which this inter-relatedness is demonstrated is in the concept of ‘praising our maker together’—that is, all of creation joins together in praise: it is an act which unites the natural world. Baukham performs an extended close reading on Psalm 148, the one we read together just a short while ago. Baukham notes that the ordering of the psalm places human praise last, but he does not see this as a sign that human praise is somehow more valuable or necessary; in fact, any talk of valuation seems inapplicable. How are we to compare, for instance, the praise of a mountain—majestic, inanimate—to the praise of a ‘flying bird’? Or the praise of the stars to that of snow? Rather, the psalmist invites praise from the whole of creation, from the angels in heaven to the physical earth and the creatures—including humans—that inhabit it. This praise is not to be taken as some kind of animism that ‘attributes consciousness to all things’, but neither is it to be taken as mere ‘poetic fancy’. Instead, the metaphorical language of the psalm points toward a reality in which, to quote Baukham, ‘all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves and fulfilling their God-given roles in God’s creation’. Apart from its rather Lord of the Rings-like injunction (‘Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be!’), Baukham’s statement implies a fundamental self-identity, a joy in creation, a joy in being created that all of creation shares. We join nature in praise, on one level, by simply being, but at the same time our being is not in a solitary or self-serving manner; rather, our being points to a being created—a relational existence tied to a creator.
Yet often we find ourselves distanced from a sense of unifying praise. At home group this week, we were talking about isolation from nature in the urban environment, how even the nature we do encounter is a permitted nature, formed and bounded by human strictures and desire. We permit a commons green to grow, but we place walking paths in it and restrict its shape by the presence of roads and fences. The landscape of allotments is at once natural—plants of all kinds grow in them and creatures make them their home—but at the same time they are a direct product of human conditioning and formation: we command the ground and order it to our using, which is perfectly understandable, but we risk suffering a separation from the land and creatures that, like us, embody or point to praise of God. To quote Baukham at length:
Before the modern period, the praise of all the creatures seems to have been more widely appreciated in the Church. The reasons why it has fallen out of most modern Christian’s consciousness must be urban people’s isolation from nature, which deprives them of a living sense of participation in nature, and the modern instrumentalising of nature, which turns it into mere material for human use. But these reasons also suggest how valuable it might be to recover a living sense of participation in creation’s praise of God. It is the strongest antidote to anthropocentrism in the biblical and Christian tradition. When we join our fellow-creatures in attributing glory to God, there is no hierarchy and no anthropocentricity. In this respect all creatures, including ourselves, are simply fellow-creatures expressing the theocentricity of the created world, each in our own created way, differently but in complementarity. As Psalm 148:13 says, in this worship God’s name alone is exalted: there is no place in worship for the exaltation of any creature over others. Moreover, to recognise creation’s praise is to abandon a purely instrumental view of nature. All creatures exist for God’s glory, and we most effectively learn to see other creatures in that way, to glimpse, as it were, their value for God that has nothing to do with their usefulness to us, when we join them in their own glorification of God.
We normally treat nature as a neighborhood—the physical space in which we conduct our individual and social interactions, but Baukham would press us to think of creation not only as a neighborhood but also as a neighbor. As the expert in the law who tested Jesus by asking ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life’ and then attempted to justify himself by asking ‘And who is my neighbor’ received a life-expanding answer to his question, so too perhaps we could benefit from probing the question of not only who, but also what is my neighbor. How do we treat the world around us in such a way as to acknowledge is co-adulation of the God which we, too, praise? We can—must, really—move beyond a view which simply asks ‘How can this matter before me be useful to me’ since this results not only in resource depletion, but a fundamental lack of respect for our physical reality.
The Bible records, as we have seen in Psalm 148, creation’s praise to its creator, and humanity is included or invited to enter this cosmic praise. Humanity becomes tied to a community through its shared praise. But just as we share in creation’s praise, so too we also share in its mourning. The Bible describes several instances in which nature is said to mourn—nature withers, it is blighted, it suffers destruction. But Biblical passages in the Old Testament connect ecological suffering with human behavior. That is to say, the Bible assumes, much more than we do today, a direct relationship between human action and natural suffering. It assumes humans exist in a tight-knit moral relationship with and to nature. Hence we find passages such as this one from Jeremiah 12:4:
‘How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways”’
Or this longer passage from Hosea 4:1-3:
Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites,
because the LORD has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
2 There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3 Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.
This is pretty scary stuff. Human propensity toward evil results in even the fish of the sea being swept away. Nor is ancient Israel the only culture to make such a connection. In Shakespeare we often find evil deeds in the human realm reflected in the disorder of the natural world. After the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth, an old man comments:
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
And Duncan's horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind. 'Tis said they eat each other.
In response to the unnatural murder of the king, nature reverses itself. The falcon, the chief aerial predator, is killed by an owl who normally hunts mice for its prey. And elegant horses suddenly ‘turn’d wild’ and reportedly begin to eat each other. Act 1, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar opens with ‘thunder and lightning’. Casca describes unnatural portents, foretelling the (unnatural) assassination that will occur within the ‘two hour’s traffic’ of the stage:
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.
I could go on with several examples, in part because nature’s stormy response to the events of humankind is an effective way to increase dramatic tension on stage, but also because, to the Elizabethan mind, in a world in which all nature is ordered and intimately interconnected, the untimely death of a king requires a response from nature. So what are we to make of these passages—Biblical, Shakespearean or otherwise, which form a direct and uncomfortable link between human moral behavior and ecological disaster? Baukham is comfortable enough to say, though not in a terribly straight-forward manner: ‘The natural order and the moral order are by no means unconnected’, which he qualifies by examining Paul’s writing in Romans 8:19-23:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the reaction waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning and in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Creation suffers with us as we await redemption. To quote Baukham again:
Paul and the prophets share what Ellen Davis calls ‘the biblical understanding of the world, in which the physical, moral and spiritual orders fully interpenetrate one another—in contrast to the modern superstition that these are separable categories’. This is not to say that Paul or the prophets understood the connection between human behavior and ecological degradation in the way that we are now able to do, but what modern scientific knowledge makes possible is mainly a fuller understanding of how human physical behavior (burning fossil fuels, over-fishing the oceans and so forth) has extensive and destructive consequences for the ecosystems of the planet. For the ethical and spiritual dimensions that pervade such human behavior it is we who can learn from the biblical writers.
That is to say, science can instruct us in how precisely over-harvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay (near my home), for instance, can lead to destructive environmental consequences. But Buakham points us back to a spiritual search for why such over-harvesting takes place.
To go on a bit of a tangent before closing: To be frank I have been a bit wary of aspects of our entire discussion of creation, especially in dealing with concepts such as ‘the fall’ or this idea that humanity’s moral choices are made apparent in the natural world. I am wary because of the way in which this thinking has been used to blame destructive natural events on certain groups. So, for instance, we have Pat Robertson blaming hurricane Katrina on the prevalence of abortion in America, and, as we discussed last January, sickeningly, the earthquake in Haiti upon a supposed pact the Haitians made with the devil. So I’m interested in probing this question of how we can say ‘humanity and the rest of creation are intimately linked’ because there is a logical benefit of argument in doing so, without wandering into territory in which ideas on teenage premarital sexual activity are bringing about natural disasters. Perhaps this is merely a matter of re-defining ‘moral choice’ away from, say, whether a woman decides to have an abortion or not or whether or not it’s okay for two men to love each other (gay people historically have also been blamed for natural disasters), and to a moral imperative more closely related to human interaction with the earth—how does our ‘need’ for fried (or raw, if you’re into that sort of thing) oysters affect the health of the Bay? Or, perhaps this involves bringing in counter-testimonies—the sun does shine, after all, on both the evil and the good.
It is difficult for me, at least, to fully conceive of being part of a community of creation. Life in London is a bizarre mixture of human manipulation of physical matter—the Tube, for instance—and patches of nature in a more traditional sense—Highgate Wood, etc. I recall a few weeks ago we read together a modernised form of Psalm 148, in which we said something along the lines of ‘Skyscrapers, praise the Lord!’ (or buses, trains and so forth). Sitting on the Tube to come over to the LMC today, I was thinking about this psalm for an urban environment. What does it mean, how can it possibly be that a community of creation can include something like a telephone pole? Does a bicycle or a Tube carriage join in praise of God? I’m not sure what to think, nor could I formulate anything overwhelmingly pointed to say in the trip from Goodge Street to Highgate, but I do think that our interactions with the material world, especially in an urban environment, require some understanding of urban landscape as, too, existing as part of our community of creation, even, paradoxically, as some of the very ‘urbanness’ we co-exist with is demonstrably harmful to other aspects of the material world.
To draw to a close, we have looked at how we are joined in and with the ‘community of creation’ in a shared way—in a sharing of praise together—as well as in a causal way—human actions bring about environmental consequences. As members of a community, we bear a responsibility to our neighbors, both human and non-human. Baukham’s most prescient point perhaps lies in his link between the liberation of creation discussed in Romans and Jesus’ discussion of the Kingdom of God. The realization of both events is set in the future, yet co-exist in the present, or we ourselves act to bring them about. As Baukham says: ‘We cannot achieve the liberation of creation but we can anticipate it’. In so far as humanity’s spiritual struggling ties into nature’s own suffering, we are incapable of setting nature free from its ‘bondage to decay’, yet like the Kingdom of God, we actively can be bringing it about.