Ecology and Theology

Ellen F. Davis

 Photo: Les Todd


I am a theologian who has discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that ecological issues are at the heart of my professional life--and "professional" in two senses. First, ecological issues are central to my work as an Old Testament scholar, and second, they touch on the heart of the Christian faith I profess.

Increasingly over the last dozen years or so, my teaching has focused on land stewardship--care of the Earth and particularly of the fertile soil--as a primary theological responsibility. In other words, I increasingly read and teach the Bible from an agrarian perspective. Now some of the writers and professional colleagues who inform my thinking the most are farmers, soil scientists, plant geneticists, and philosophers of the new agrarian movement, which is concerned with the connection between human beings and land. People whose minds are mostly on the dirt make me aware of a dimension of the Bible I did not see for years but that I am now convinced is fundamental.

What I did not see (consciously, at least) was the theological importance of fertile land. One of my teaching assistants had to point it out to me. We were making up the final exam for my introductory course in Old Testament interpretation, and he said, "Well, we need to have a question on land." "Why?" I asked. "Because you keep talking about it." Once he had said that, it was obvious. Land kept coming up in my lectures, because Hebrew Scripture--for Christians, "the Old Testament," for Jews, "the Bible"--is land-centered. Ancient Israelites were an agrarian people, occupying an ecological niche that they knew to be extremely fragile. Awareness of this fragility is reflected in the text itself. Israel's Scriptures recognize that the health and productivity of the soil is the first and best index of the health, good or ill, of the relationship between humankind and God.

Of course, this focus on the theological significance of soil starts in the Garden of Eden. The first task with which the humans are charged is "to work and to keep it" (Genesis 3:15). That might also be translated, "to serve and to preserve it." The word "serve" suggests that the fertile soil retains a kind of priority. We humans owe something to the humus from which we were made (the pun works in Hebrew, too: Adam from adamah, "fertile soil"). We owe it to God to serve the interests of the soil. So care of the Earth is a primary religious responsibility for Jews and Christians--even though the biblical writers are careful to distinguish faith in the One God who made heaven and Earth from pagan worship of the Earth itself, or the elements thereof. (In the parched land of Canaan, worshipping the rain god, Baal, was an especially attractive option.)

I will admit that when I first started teaching along this line, it ran against the grain both of academic theology and of the church's agenda. My academic colleagues were, at best, puzzled and, often, disappointed that my interests were developing in such an unconventional way. The students who enrolled in my seminars came on something like blind faith, not quite certain why I had chosen this topic. When I was invited to lecture to clergy groups, they asked me to choose a more "theological" topic. A dozen years ago, church people simply were not prepared to see any aspect of the ecological crisis as a respectable theological concern. That is, they did not see it for what in fact it is: a crisis in our relationship with God--in my judgment, the gravest theological crisis facing us in this generation.

All that has changed greatly, and, for me personally, the best indication of change is the fact that Duke Divinity School hired me in part because of my "professional" concern for ecological concerns. Of course, that is good news for me, although the underlying reason for the change is not good: namely, that our situation has deteriorated so that the ecological crisis--and the concomitant crisis of industrial agriculture in this country and around the world--are now too serious for well-informed people to ignore. Now many students come to the Divinity School already aware that they need to know more about ecological responsibility in order to be leaders in the church.

Moreover, environmentalists themselves are beginning to view the Bible and faith communities in a new way. The president of the Sierra Club wrote a few years ago that he once regarded "religious people" as unhelpful and possibly hostile on environmental matters; now he recognizes that they are essential allies, if our society is to make the kind of fundamental change that is necessary. Bill Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, recently told me that whenever he speaks to audiences in rural North Carolina, he mentions the Bible, because he knows people take it seriously.

That is a wise choice. The Bible is not an environmental tract, of course; the ancients did not experience ecological destruction on a global scale, and I do not believe that the biblical writers mystically foresaw our present crisis. But, nonetheless, they recognized that the human creature is "kin" to the fertile soil, adam from adamah, and that when we neglect that fundamental relationship or otherwise act in ways that disrupt the created order, the consequences are cosmic and disastrous.

Working in this area is disturbing, to me and to my students. Although I cannot honestly say that I am optimistic about our prospects, I am not aware that optimism plays any important part in the life of faith. Hope, however, is critical. And so, we work together in the hope that the changes we are seeing are signs that blindness and short-term self-interest will yet be overcome, that we humans may indeed "have length of days on the fertile soil" (Deuteronomy 11:9) on which life depends.

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