Evolution and Environmentalism

I am reading through a book of essays, Theology After Darwin (available from amazon UK or, as pointed out by a commenter, a search of Abebooks.com on author = Berry and title = Theology After Darwin will yield a USA-based source for a new copy of the book at a reasonable price (HT PB)). The fourth chapter, written by Ellen F. Davis is something of a sidestep from the general topic of evolution and theology. Nonetheless the issues she raises in her chapter Reading the Bible after Darwin, Creation and a Culture of Restraint raises some questions well worth considering.

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. According to her bio on the Duke Divinity School web site:

…her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. Her most recent book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.

Dr. Davis’s chapter in this book reflects her research interests. She suggests that reading the bible after Darwin, in the light of what we learn about creation from science, should lead us into a greater understanding of our role within creation and of the need for restraint.

My Purpose in this essay is not to add fresh fuel to the Bible-versus-biology debate. Rather I intend to consider how a Christian sense of the human place in the world may be clarified, and our sense of responsibility deepened, by reading the Bible in the light of modern biology and ecology, as those disciplines are informed by Darwin’s thought. (p. 58)

Do you agree with Dr. Davis that our reading of the Bible and our understanding of modern biology should lead us to an active concern for environment?

These ideas are expanded on just a little later in the essay:

Again, Darwin has taught us that humans share a complex history with other life forms, and that all are subject to the same laws; when species exceed the limits of their environment on a regular basis, they will die. … But we have very recently come to recognize, and in a way very different than Darwin himself could possibly recognize it, just how fully this applies to us humans. As terrestrial ecologist Peter Vitousek has recently observed, now for the first time the human species as a whole must find the will to make a drastic change in our behavior in order that life on our planet may continue to be viable and to some degree lovely.

There is no biological or theological reason, according to Dr. Davis, for humans to expect to be exempt from the normal biological processes or from the consequences of actions exceeding the limits of the environment.

Dr. Davis sees three points of correlation between the biological views of material reality and biblical views of material reality (paraphrased from the text):

1. Both modern science and the Bible say that the world is ordered as a complex and internally dynamic system, or a set of interlocking systems. (p. 59)

Her biblical support for this ideas comes from Genesis 1, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Colossians.

2. Both modern science and the Bible agree in their affirmation that humans occupy a distinct but not separate place within the created order. (p. 61)

Here she looks at the creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Both affirm that humans and animals share a relatedness. This she also finds in Genesis 9, Psalm 36, Hebrews 7, Colossians 1, Ecclesiastes 3. The implication is that it is a thoroughly biblical idea embedded within the text.

3. Both modern science and the Bible say or imply that the fit between a creature – Homo sapiens included – and its place in the created order has much to do with the act of eating. (p. 63)

Dr. Davis touches on many ideas here – from the original implication of a vegetarian diet in Genesis 1,2 to the animal sacrifice by Abel found acceptable to God (vegetarianism is not the general ideal). Yet there is an ethic of restraint. She thinks the food laws are something we could learn from. After condemning many modern practices for meat production (confined animals contributing to the poisoning of rivers, forests razed to grow livestock feed) she notes that the food laws restrained consumption by limiting the kinds available for food and through the rather restrictive commands with respect to the slaughter of animals. She concludes:

Thus the Bible consistently affirms that eating the flesh of another creature is a covenantal act, a privilege granted by God that must be exercised with mindfulness and restraint. (p. 65)

She concludes her essay considering the idea that Sabbath introduces a culture of restraint. There are material limits and we would do well to recognize them and live within them. After the Exodus God provided manna in the wilderness. But the manna was provided on a daily basis. Taking more than necessary was forbidden. The manna rotted overnight. But the Sabbath is an exception. Here “every Israelite is to relax in the holy presence of God;” leftovers are permitted on the day of rest.

The intertwined symbols of manna and Sabbath point to the biblical understanding that only an economy disciplined by restraint does justice to the God who created heaven and earth, and therefore to all the creatures that God sustains in life. Like Deep Darwinian thinking, the manna economy and Sabbath observance bespeak an understanding that the existence of life remains a mystery, a gift beyond calculation. A living world with sufficiency for all is a trust and a responsibility, not simply a resource. (p. 71)

The bottom line as Dr. Davis sees it is that both scripture and our modern understanding of biology and ecology cohere in a call for restraint and responsibility.

What do you think? Is Dr. Davis onto something as she describes the need for responsible use of resource, sustainable farming and husbandry, maintenance of Ecuadorian rain forests; as she sees the command for environmental responsibility embedded in scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Evolution and Environmentalism at Jesus Creed

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