Criticism Religion

Ecocriticism: The Possibility of Developing a Christian Eco-theology

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Reading Time: 14 minutes

Ampat’s discourse for ‘Green Cross’, an ecological interpretation of the Bible is revolutionary. He reasons that the Bible might be seen not only as a spiritual blueprint but also as an ecological one that will restore everything to its rightful place so that in a new earth ruled, metaphorically, by Jesus and his disciples who will care for all things well there will be a new dispensation with no ecological problems too. Here’s an in-depth narrative, a brief overview, of the Eco-spirituality/Eco-theology/Environmental ethics, other words for Ecocriticism, according to him.

I want to examine the Bible as an ancient, Asian, religious, eco-critical text and make the effort to find an alternative Christianity within the Christian tradition that may still be other-worldly but is not, therefore, as is commonly considered, detrimental to the earth. Au contraire, it is instead beneficial to this world’s ecology. This will of necessity mean a deconstruction of some commonly held or perceived notions of Christian theology as well as of the ecological world’s perception of Christianity as a threat to the future well-being of mankind. My reading has been influenced by Derrida but it does not mean that it is Derridean.

I would like to start with the etymology of the name Adam.

“Adam is traditionally the first human male, but that tradition is presently under attack. See Eve or The Chaotic Set Theory for the counter argument.”

Adam is one of five words that indicate a man (words like dude, guy etc). This particular word indicates man as a being created from material; a dustling, or earthling. Adam is the masculine derivation of the root (‘dm 25 and 26, Hebrew sounds*). The feminine derivation (adamah 25b, Hebrew sounds) indicates the ruddy earth found in the Middle East and means acre, ground, land. The words (adom, adem 26a, b, Hebrew sounds) indicate the typical red color of that earth.

The name Adam means Earthling.

Other names from this same stock are Edom – the nickname of Esau – which also means red, ruddy, and Admah.

Other names that have to do with words that mean man are Enosh (Mortal), Gabriel (God’s Man), Methushael (Man Of God) and perhaps Zechariah (YHWH’s Male) and Ishi (My Man). A name that may be a playful reference to the name Adam is Javan, Mud Man.”

The binary opposition is between the heavenly and the earthly, throughout the traditional reading of the Bible. However the points of reconciliation are also there in an alternative reading of the Bible, in Jesus as he is represented in the Gospels, in some of Blake’s and Hopkins’ ideas, in Francis of Assisi’s yearning to preach the Gospel to ‘all’ etc.

To start with, a reading of some sections of Genesis may be essential. In the first section Adam is shown as one who can eat all the fruits in the garden including of the tree of eternal life, except one, and name – a divine function – all the living creatures. He is given Eve as a helper and it is more or less clear that their job is not looking after the garden or the living creatures but enjoying fellowship with God and remaining in their rightful place in the scheme of things, as the crown (high point) of creation.

When they fall, they are not tempted by the serpent, according to my ecological reading, though this can be combated – but either by Satan entering the serpent or Satan coming to Eve in the ‘form’ of a serpent. Having fallen, they are shown to be no longer in their rightful place. God does not want them to use the vegetation for clothing but animal’s skins. This might offend an ecocritic. However, the validity of such a decision would depend on the geography of the area that is unknown. But it is also double-edged, in that God seems to love plants and trees more than animals. Adam now has to work and vegetarianism is no longer the order of the day. Delight and Paradise are lost to both of them.

When Cain offers fruits etc., to God, God’s displeasure may be at the fact that he tried his hand at farming but is unable to do it well. He is unable to bring him the ‘best produce’. Similarly, the same care for agrarian products that should not be wantonly destroyed is perhaps shown. Contrary to expectation the early revelation of God as creator of the people in the land of Nod and the two in Eden- that is, of a special man and a woman who herald the next step in evolution as not just of the human race, ushering in a new age for the race of mankind – is “agrarian” in outlook. Cain is a ‘poor’ gardener while Abel tends the flock well though he continues the tradition of slaughtering animals, maybe in remembrance of the story of his parents as to where their clothes came from.

The things written so far have been addressed more to Christians to remove certain innate biases they have developed over the years in reading the Bible, to see it only as a spiritual text.

Now, we turn to a very interesting facet in the King James translation of the Bible. I do not know Hebrew or Greek but even in the Amplified Version, an echo – two echoes- of what the translators of the KJV brought out cannot be entirely stifled.

It is about the earth as a living being. Adam is earthling -child of the earth – from dust to dust – but the earth itself is different. Blood is also considered living, interestingly, metaphorically.

8And Cain said to his brother, [b]. Let us go out to the field. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. (B)

9And the Lord said to Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

10And [the Lord] said, What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.

11And now you are cursed by reason of the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s [shed] blood from your hand.

12When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth [in perpetual exile, a degraded outcast].

The earth has a mouth, – personification – does not want to drink blood, again an agrarian trait, – and turns against its murderous child by appealing to a higher power for justice – “by reason of the earth”. It will not yield its strength from then on to Cain.

Now the interesting thing is this: while the Amplified Bible uses ‘it’ for the earth the KJV uses ‘she’. Which translation is correct? I believe both are. Any scripture worth its salt deals with individuality, family and community as the foundation stones and the Bible which may be the archetype of all Scriptures deals, as it should, first with the individuality of the plural Elohim, with an unmentioned feminine aspect to Him that is hinted at in the verse that says “in the image of God created he them, male and female created he them” in the first version of the story of creation in Genesis, then with a brief mention of a community that seems to be not very relevant – the dwellers of Nod etc, then with mothers , Eve and the Earth and also with family, or children, sons , wives and grandchildren, dealing simultaneously also with the ideas of work, reproduction, fertility, sacrifice (of flora and fauna) and the formation of new communities. The humility of these early men and women is noticeable in that they understand that they have to be allied with the forces of nature – represented by how Adam’s disobedience and Cain’s murder is punished symbolically, and literally, both figuratively and metaphorically by references to the earth mother or the living “it” or organism that the earth is that is being displeased with their actions. Thus it will bring forth “thorns and thistles” to Adam for choosing mortality over eternal life and withhold its strength from Cain for murder.

The message is clear if we read it this way. The Deity and the earth preferred sheep-herders and genuine farmers to the artificers and metalworkers that then came up from Cain’s line – people like Tubal-Cain – the first industrialists, in a sense, because the latter would try to preserve the natural balance of the earth , instead of upsetting it. There had come about a lack of connection both with the heavens and earth. The earth’s position towards the fallen angel Satan who lives on it is also made clear in its/hers attitude to Adam and Cain. ‘It’ is antithetical.

Thus we can consider, as Christians, the Bible as an ur-text that actually exhorts us to repair the breach within ourselves towards God and the earth and to each other so that the earth may once again become a fruitful place. This is eco-criticism coded into the Bible at its very inception, in its nascent phase.

If we read carefully, the opposition is not between the heavenly and earthly but between, on the one hand the heaven and earth conjoined and, on the other hand, the force that was in the serpent that tempted Eve.

This force seems to have as its aim, ultimately, not just the destruction of mankind but also of the earth itself by turning it into thorns and thistles, and not allowing it to feed its own children, by making it use set laws of causality against its children if they go wrong, and thereby, tragically, turn against and destroy itself, in the final analysis.

However, the Bible seems to nose-dive after that in terms of ecological concern. Moses’s law expands social responsibility amazingly but seems to care nothing for the surrounding habitat or environment or animal rights. The division of animals into clean and unclean ones is a case in point. Even animal husbandry becomes slowly economic. Here too, it is possible to look at it in another way. A friend of mine points out that not gleaning the edges of the field, giving the earth a year of rest every seventh year, the jubilee year, not eating anything except a certain limited number of prescribed species can all be seen as ecologically sound practices. But for me personally, the high points in the Bible, ecologically speaking, after the beautiful book of Job that celebrates animal variety and then Noah’s care for all living things, are Isaiah pointing out that God doesn’t require animal sacrifice, David speaking of how the heaven and earth are full of God’s glory and Solomon conversing or at least communing with plants, trees, spiders, ants, horses etc., (Biblical and Quranic) by close observation somewhat akin to a naturalist’s but perhaps going deeper because he almost suggests what is considered by most a theological fallacy, that these creatures have a soulful kind of ‘intelligence’.

We have to come to the New Testament to see a new era begin in eco-theology with the advent of Jesus. The first noticeable difference is in the parables of Jesus. He harks back to Ezekiel’s nature parables in his style but his are better, as are his examples that are homespun and from close observation of nature around him that work well, whether used as similes or metaphors. For the first time after Job and Solomon, we see a God who cares for birds of the air (sparrows) and the flowers and grass of the field (lilies). In the wilderness we see Jesus dwelling with wild animals if we are to believe the narrative in Mark, peacefully. Noah’s dove reappears at his baptism, and he rides meekly upon a colt, the young one of an ass. Most eloquent of all is his ability to control nature; fishes, winds, storms and breezes respond to him. He fights for animals in the temple, setting them free, and talks of God as a gardener and himself as a shepherd dealing with fig trees, vineyards and sheep respectively, harking back to David but also looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. He also behaves like God destroying pigs and a fig tree with impunity but the measuring rod seems to have been taken out of our hands by this Jesus who seems able to act exactly like a force of Nature and not like man, as if he is not only one with God but also with Mother Nature or earth, a kind of tsunami or hurricane or twister. Nature not only creates, as Jesus does birds and gives them life in another apocryphal and Quranic story, but also destroys, and since he is united with God, man and earth in perfect harmony when Jesus dies people are resurrected, the earth grows totally dark and weeps – an eclipse? – , there is storm, thunder and lightning etc. The earth has been traumatized by the death of the first or greatest of the Eco-warriors or Green warriors or Rainbow Warriors, but also galvanized to hope that other such warriors will come up. In Paul’s letters, we read the hope, ‘creation’ groaning for the revelation of the sons of God. We also read of it metaphorically in John’s Gospel and Paul’s letter, of a seed that dies and comes back as something else harking back to the trend-setting parable of the sower and the seed. The journey of a new ecological awareness continues in Peter’s vision too, when he understands that all animals are clean.

I understand that my ‘reading’ of Jesus and aspects of the Bible are not of the usual kind. I have chosen to read the text literally and not figuratively in many points, to bring out the ecological aspect.

The ‘unity’ of my ecological reading, however, is not imposed. For instance, the earth that appears as a she in Genesis appears again as she in Revelation.

Revelation 12. 16 “And the Earth helped the woman, and the Earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.”

But this time, she is on the side of the “woman clothed with the sun having the stars for a crown, the moon under her feet.” They are perfectly aligned in protecting those, who have the same mind of Jesus, against Satan, the old serpent form, the dragon, that wants to destroy all of them. They finally win the battle.

Then, the millennium follows, and finally the new earth and new heaven.

Thus, the Bible can be seen not only as a spiritual blueprint but also as an ecological one that will restore everything to its rightful place so that in a new earth ruled, metaphorically, by Jesus and his disciples who will care for all things well there will be a new dispensation with no ecological problems too.

Unfortunately, this side of the Bible seems to have been lost to future generations except for a Blake who wrote of “the marriage of heaven and earth” and also poems like “the tiger” and “the lamb”, and, more relevantly, a Francis of Assisi, a G.M. Hopkins in a poem like ‘Inversnaid’ where he praises “the wild-er-ness and the wet” and perhaps, in India, a Sadhu Sundar Singh (both Francis and Sundar Singh knew how to be at peace with wild animals like their Master), so that it is more than partly right to speak of the wanton destruction caused by Christians to mother earth and Nature in their zealous evangelizing that concerned only humans. A Ray Bradbury posits telling the gospel to other planets and stars but the idea of a gospel for earth has percolated into the consciousness of Christians too slowly. The Romantics understood the need to connect to the circle of life much, much better. Francis Schaeffer alone glimpsed the need. In one book of his, he quotes Jim Morrison, therefore.

“What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her. Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn. And tied her with fences and dragged her down.” Jim Morrison

This is the empathetic voice one wants to hear. It is a voice that connects everything as did St. Francis in his addressing of everything as brother or sister.

The Canticle of the Sun
by Francis of Assisi

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the 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 brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those 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.
(Translated by Bill Barrett from the Umbrian text of the Assisi codex.)

Amazing revelation for one who had never been to India! Yet different as Assisi talks of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, leaving fatherhood and motherhood to divinity, the same, as a Bede Griffiths or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The question is, having traced out the lineage of a Christian eco-theocentricism for my personal satisfaction, primarily addressing the Christian population that consists mainly of evangelicals, fundamentalists etc., in the course of which I’m sure I’ve said nothing new, there being “nothing new under the sun,” how can all this be connected to today’s pressing ecological problems like global warming, the use of coal, carbon footprints, environmental degradation, lack of conservation, the rent in the ozone layer or to a natural disaster like the one that happened to Haiti? Is all this due to the dragon or mother earth in action, to use my own metaphors? And what can ecologically minded people do to bring the earth back on course to avert such natural ‘disasters’ and bring about a new earth? Or are they not ‘natural’, these new earthquakes etc., but brought upon ourselves by our Cain-like misdeeds, in which case is a spiritual remedy the one that should be sought?

My experience in India, Saudi Arabia and in Libya has convinced me that India is better off than the so-called Islamic nations – Arabic nations is better nomenclature – in trying to care for the earth. In India, the philosophies of monism and ‘Advaita’ have no doubt helped and ignorance or lack of awareness is often more the root cause of non-alleviation of environmental problems and concerns than unwillingness. I think the presence of these philosophies act as a healthy balance on other religious philosophies, so that in a place like India the Christians at least, are not at all averse to taking suitable measures for sustainable development etc.

I do not know much about how other religions. In India, react to the global crisis regarding environmental issues. In Saudi Arabia and Libya, two oil-rich nations, the wastage of resources has to be seen to be believed due to lack of education dealing with environmental concerns. This was especially so earlier in Saudi Arabia where, for instance, in the university, in which I worked, lights would be on 24 hours, paper would be used recklessly (in stark contrast to the international school I taught in, in India, where it was compulsory to use two sides and recycle paper) and petrol is never meant to be conserved, to name only three things. Libya is not as bad in its ways, by comparison. However, in Libya too, there is a crying lack of awareness. The difference between someone like me who gets regular updates by email from activist political and environmental organisations like Greenpeace, Avaaz, etc., in my mail-box daily, not to mention emails of local, zonal and national groups and those, who are at the other extreme of the information spectrum, in that they haven’t even heard of an organisation called Greenpeace. It reflects the uncertainty of post-modernity as a phenomenon in its full measure. The deduction or inference is class based, meaning the richer one is the chances of less concern for ecology or environment! Facebook offers ‘green’ internet games, but these countries do not encourage games in the public sphere. They are not considered welcome in the spaces of learning as tools and would be labeled a ‘waste of time’.

green cross

In keeping with the concepts of a Red Cross that has its refreshing counterpart in the Red Crescent and a Blue Cross, allied to these as a sister institution or asset, what Christians could do is start a Green Cross. The question must arise as to how it would be different in its greenness from other such organizations and how, at the same time, the same or similar, and in or of what its ‘pan-Christianity’ that would still be so that it can be of practical and spiritual use to the entire material worlds of the here and now and the future. Since these issues go beyond this paper, I will not venture there but will end on this abrupt note, constrained as usual by time and space.

*the root can be expanded in different ways using vowels and that changes the meaning, in Hebrew.

(c) KOSHY AV (Unpublished paper still being refined. Thus, no end-notes and references/bibliography)

Pix: From Net

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  1. Joyce Yarrow 3 years ago

    This re-interpretation of the Bible as an ecological blueprint is both revolutionary and inspiring.

  2. Ampat Koshy 3 years ago

    Thanks, Joyce!

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