A Targum (Job 38-40)
I sit here with a glass of warm water in front of me. In the water is an ice cube. As I watch the ice, I see tiny bubbles of air escape that became trapped while the water froze. Within three minutes, the ice cube has completely vanished. How long does it take an icecap to melt?
I’ve never seen an icecap melt, until now. They tell me that the wisdom of the world is hidden in them. Tiny bubbles that became trapped when they were forming carry the story of earth’s history going back hundreds, no, thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of years.
These tiny bubbles buried in the thousands of feet of ice on our polar caps help conceal the story of forests and dinosaurs; a time when our earth was warm and garden-like. Each layer of ice and bubbles give an accurate, year-by-year account of the earth’s weather and temperature. The tiny bubbles tell the story of the rise and fall of temperature long before humans had a chance to walk the earth. They tell us of a time nearly 400,000 years ago when temperatures rose so suddenly that large species such as horses became tiny creatures roaming the tops of mountains searching for cool places to live. The tiny bubbles tell us of a time when meteors slammed into the earth, causing sudden changes in Earth’s atmosphere. The tiny bubbles record the rhythm of the glaciers which crept over the land during ice ages with their lumbering mastodons and giant sloths, bears, and tigers which lasted tens of thousands of years.
The tiny bubbles tell us of the time when humans burnt forests, creating vast grasslands in which to hunt the game they relied on. The tiny bubbles tell us when humans drained the forested swamp lands along the Nile, turning it into fertile farmland. They tell us about a time when volcanoes erupted, blocking the sun for years, causing worldwide drought and famine.
These tiny bubbles are wise. They know more than humans will ever hope to learn with all of their technology and science. As I watched the tiny bubbles escaping from the ice cube, they began to ask. Where were cell phones when all this happened? Where were solar panels when the earth turned hot? Where were electric cars when ice covered large parts of the earth? Do you think you can solve the earth’s problems with your flimsy tools?
Where do think all of the plastic bags go that you recycle? Where do you think the elements needed for solar panels, batteries, and computers come from? Do you care about the people and the places that are torn apart so that you can live a life of ease? Who gave you the right to tell others not to have children while you continue to fly Earth’s skies in jets?
I didn’t have an answer. I realized how insignificant I am, that we are, as humans in a world that has withstood a universe of adversity. Who am I that I think I can control earth’s climate?
During the latter part of his life, Aldous Huxley, a British-born philosopher and writer of the novel Brave New World, lived in southern California where he wrote and lectured, one of his favorite topics being humans’ mistreatment of the world and its adverse effects. In one of those lectures a year or so before his death in 1963, Huxley was lamenting about the unsightly overgrowth of the grassy hillsides he had played on as a child. The hillsides had succumbed to brushy growth because the rabbits that had kept the meadows clear of such brush had died due to a disease.
Someone in the audience pointed out to Huxley that the rabbits which kept the hillsides manicured were introduced to England nearly 800 years earlier to supplement the protein in peasant diets. The point is that wherever humans live, they alter their environments. The idea of the noble savage who treads softly in the forest without leaving a footprint is a myth that has never been realized. In fact, all living things alter their environments, from sea polyps which have created massive reefs under the ocean, to ants which farm aphids, to beavers which dam up rivers. Humans are not alone in their capacity to alter their surroundings.
However, over the past two hundred years, the damage humans have inflicted upon our planet has threatened our own existence. No longer can a person taking a walk find clean water to drink in the streams one encounters. No longer can a person rely on fresh air to breathe on a sunny day out-of-doors. Islands and coastal regions are threatened with flooding by rising ocean levels. Inuit hunters in the Arctic have noticed a change in the flavor of the caribou meat they rely on for survival due to the change in the grasses and lichen the caribou eat. We could go on and on. But that is unnecessary. We all know the news. None of this is new to us.
We grasp for reasons to blame our current ecological crisis on in hope that if we know the cause, we will be able to reverse the trend toward a warming that our world has not seen for nearly 400,000 years. We point to overpopulation, our carbon footprint, plastic bags, agriculture, and such, as the reason humans and other species face the threat of extinction. All of these may contribute to the course we are headed down, but do not necessarily explain why we are on the path. Meanwhile, we make feeble attempts at coming up with solutions to salvage the world and humanity, often only making matters worse. Both the path and the solution are indicators of a greater problem: humans regard themselves above nature, both physically and relationally.
The notion that humans are above nature can be traced to Judeo-Christian influences on our North American way of thinking which I am speaking to specifically. These influences lie along a spectrum beginning with man’s dominion over earth to earth’s final outcome.
Judeo-Christianity’s understanding of humanity’s relationship to the present world has largely been shaped by such passages as Genesis 2:15-17 where humans are given the charge to till the earth and care for it. Such passages have been twisted into a belief that nature is wild and at odds with God and humans, and as such, humans are given the task to tame it and bring it under control.
Early science of the 1500s was the child of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Scientists such as Isaac Newton, who is credited with furthering our knowledge of such things as gravity, movement, and planetary motion; Copernicus, who proposed that the planets revolve around the sun instead of the other way around; and Galileo, who built on the work of Copernicus, were all deeply embedded in the church, and their work was deeply influenced by the idea that it was the duty of humans to understand the natural world to control it.
When the Age of Enlightment, or Science, emerged during the 17th century, religion was abandoned, but the assumption that humans controlled nature remained. Technology and scientific advancements continue to be made with this assumption in mind: to bring the wild world under control. As products of these Western mindsets, we ride these advancements as if we had no control over them or have no choice.
At the other end of the spectrum is what Steven Prediger-Bouma has called an “eschatological ethic,” eschatological meaning what we think will ultimately happen to the earth. An eschatological ethic refers to the way we live based on what we think the final outcome of the earth will be. In this case, Christianity, at least in the last one hundred years, has largely held that the earth’s demise is just around the corner. Therefore, as humans, we are in a race to use as many of the resources the earth has to offer before it blows up.
In the circles I grew up, this was not a hidden assumption; it was an explicit statement. It is a sentiment that I heard repeatedly, even over the pulpit. But such sentiments are not reserved for those within the church; they run rampant throughout society. Armed with such assumptions, it is not hard to imagine how we have gotten ourselves into the predicament we are in. And it is not confined to North America; it has had a global effect.
There have been exceptions to this model in Christian history, most notably St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, it has been suggested that St. Francis be named the patron saint for ecologists. St. Francis was keenly aware of Christianity’s warped view of the human-nature relationship. He actively promoted an alternative view in which all creatures, including the elements, were seen as equals. Francis named the world around him: the sun and the fire he called “Brother,” the moon and water he called “Sister;” he named poverty “Lady” and death “Sister.”
The bulletin this morning portrays an incident in which the saint preaches to the birds, and the birds respond to his preaching by flying off in the form of a cross. Unfortunately, St. Francis’s alternative views have found little traction through the centuries for most beyond simple amusement.
What St. Francis was proposing is, or has been, a reality for much of human history. Granted, as mentioned before, creatures, including humans, have always altered their environments, but there is a difference. Let me illustrate.
Suppose you had been born into this Yanomami village in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Your whole life would have been lived in and around this village. At most you may wonder about hunting and gathering in a five-to-ten-mile radius around the village. Occasionally, someone from your village would wander up the river beyond those limits and contact other people, but mostly, only people like your own. What if all you knew were the trees, the rivers, the creatures, and the small clearing you made for gardens around your village? Think about how differently you would view the world if you were born into the Yanomami world. You would view yourself not as something separate from your environment. You depend on your environment, and your environment depends on you. Trees are brothers. The water is your sister. Such views have an ecological impact. Yet Christians, especially missionaries, have sharpened their axes and chopped down the sacred groves all over the world under the guise of advancement.
Once before, I spoke of an incident which occured when I went moose hunting in Canada. My partner and I came across a moose killed by an Ojibwe hunter along the river we were hunting on. All that remained were the guts and the moose’s beard hanging in the bushes. When I inquired about the beard part, I was told that the beard of the moose was hung in the bush to appease the “Moose” spirit so that in subsequent hunts the “Moose” would allow the hunter to take its life. Such a relationship in which creatures are viewed as being equals has an ecological effect in restraining the hunter from killing moose indiscriminately. Contrast that with seeing how many chicken wings you can eat in one sitting at Buffalo Wild Wings. The bird has one purpose and that is to satisfy human need. There are no restraints except one’s belly!
Contrast it also with the way that we view the world. We literally can choose to be out of this world. We have literally figured out how to be above nature. With our technology, we are able to drill to the depths of the earth to extract resources and to propel ourselves to outer space to explore new frontiers. We have clung to the advance of technology and science as though we were strapped to a rocket ship out of control. Nothing has stood in our way until now. Now, what we thought had become our ticket to a “brave new world” has instead created a “Frankenstein.”
What makes us think that better and shinier technology will solve our ecological problems? What makes us think that humans are smart enough to figure out our problems when we have trouble even knowing what the problems are? At the moment that we think we have come up with a solution, or at least part of the solution, the ill-effects of our plan squish out the sides like a balloon that has been sat on. Let me give you an example.
One of the solutions to our ecological crisis that has been given high priority is educating women in the use of birth control. The premise being that our crisis is caused by overpopulation. Besides bordering on xenophobia, thinking that someone else is the source of my inconveniences, there are other more ecological impacts to this approach that are not taken into consideration that are disturbing to me as well.
Currently, there are nearly 7,000 languages around the world. Only fifty of those languages are used by the masses. The rest are spoken by small pockets of people around the world,many of then in danger of going extinct. Languages form an ecosystem of knowledge, not just about those peoples’ past, but about the places in which they live. Languages carry the knowledge about how to care for specific places. Embedded in local language is the knowledge of plant life, creatures, minerals, and weather patterns that are not available in any other language.
It is not coincidental that the very people we want to give contraceptives to are the same people whose languages are in danger. By reducing the population of “uneducated” people, we are jeopardizing the very languages we need to help us understand how to care for the world.
We live in a global world that has seemingly conquered nearly everything, including time and space. We have compressed time and space in such a way with our technology that we can be anywhere in the matter of twenty-four hours. With cell phones we can be in real-time conversations with people on the other side of the world, a privilege none of us are readily willing to surrender. Yet there is an ecological cost to such conveniences. We can fly anywhere in the world for pleasure or for work with little thought of the carbon being belched out of the engines to get us there. We are getting discontent with our habitat on Earth and are contemplating how to settle on places like Mars.
I must confess, I am a bit pessimistic that humans have the ability to solve the problems they have created for themselves and their posterity. However, I am hopeful that the earth will continue on, with or without humans. How we react to that may indicate how we feel about our importance. We cannot decide, we cannot control where our world is headed. To think that we can is an indication of our willful pride.
To think that recycling, solar panels, electric cars, smarter family planning, carbon capturing, local foods, and such are going to change the course of our world is bordering on pride. I am not discouraging such efforts, but asking us why we undertake them. Are we pursuing them because we think we can slow down climate change? Or are we doing them because we know that it is the right thing to do even if climate change were not upon us?
One of the early voices that raised the alarm over the state of our current crisis was Lynn White who wrote an article in 1970 called the “The Historical Roots of Our Current Ecological Crisis.” In it he suggests that our way out of our predicament is to follow St. Francis’s “belief in the virtue of humility—not merely for the individual but for [humans] as a whole.” Prediger-Bouma has written extensively on the way virtues such as humility can help us change our views and understandings of how we relate to our world. Virtues are shared and shaped by the stories we tell each other in our schools, in our churches, and in our homes.
In Psalm 32, the psalmist calls us to acknowledge and confess our sins of pride and stubbornness. Then God will guide us into the hiding place of his loving kindness. Then God will come to us in our distress, holding back the rising waters.
St. Francis wrote many poems during his lifetime, “The Canticle of the Sun” being one of the most widely known. It is in this poem that St. Francis most clearly gives creation a soul: Brother Sun, Sister Moon; Brother Fire, and Sister Water. He does not name ice, let alone the tiny bubbles trapped in the massive polar ice sheets. But would he have known of them, he very likely would have called them his “Little Brothers.” But ice is solid water, and he did name “Sister Water.” I would like to close with a few lines from St. Francis’s poem “The Canticle of the Sun” which he wrote in the local language of Umbria:
Praise be my Lord through Sister Water
Praise ye and bless ye my Lord, and give him thanks!
Which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.