Monday, 30 March 2009

The Wisdom of Ants and the Storehouses of Snow: Fresh Readings of the Bible For a Planet in Peril

By Revd Dr. Lucy Larkin.

Come with me into a theological thought experiment. Just for the purposes of this blog paper and just for a little while, suspend your suspicions. Hang them up because I’m on an intentional quest. I’m seeking wisdom and I’m coming to the Bible as I would to a revered person, a wise elder, a mentor or a spiritual director to find some answers.

I often seek the counsel of this person. Sometime it is enough to rest in their presence. When I’m weary or assailed by the noise and complexities of life it’s good to sit, drink in hand, and say nothing. At other times I come for a rigorous dialogue, an engaging debate, a good laugh. I know my deepest and truest questions will not be scorned. This person is deeply attractive, relentlessly realistic, wildly hopeful. I have an assurance that our deliberations will yield truth. Sometimes I come knowing that I will find a new understanding which surprises and challenges me. Sometimes I have a list of questions that need working through. It requires patient and open listening and humility on my part. Sometimes, as now, I come on behalf of another; for one who is in trouble. In this thought experiment, the friend I mean is the earth, our planet, who is, of late, in a bad way. For this friend I come almost in desperation. Behind it is a sense of needing to probe, to test, to arrive at a place of peace about the integrity and authenticity of the elder and their ability to answer my questions on behalf of my friend.

My reasons for suggesting that it is possible to approach Scripture in this way are threefold. Firstly, to highlight the ways in which it, like a person, is nuanced and complex. It has a history, a memory, a testimony, a status and a life of its own. It has, at times, deeply mysterious qualities. What are we to do with ‘difficult’ passages, discordant or dark ones even? How do we sit with its propensity to send us somewhere else entirely to the place we thought we were.

My second reason for personifying the Bible is to give weight to the relational aspects that are present in any reading of Scripture. If I can borrow a notion from the philosopher Martin Buber, I would say that true dialogue requires an openness to the real ‘meeting’ that is in ‘the between’. Only here in the encounter of a unique ‘one’ with ‘another’ does the new and the potentially delightful emerge. There is a sense in which, although I read the text, the text reads me too. Moreover my coming to it is not entirely blank. I bring my own identity, my gender, ethnicity, social location, my education, my life experiences and preoccupations which condition my ability to receive what is being said. Thus I come searching wisdom but I am searched out too. As Jeremiah 17:10 has it ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind’.

Thirdly, there is an ongoing aspect to any relationship of depth. To access an authentic wisdom for each new generation and situation the Bible should be read and reread. Scripture itself records many breaks with, as well as renewals of, tradition. This is also to acknowledge the continual participation of God in the processes of creation through the Holy Spirit, and the sub-plot of God’s ongoing engagement with humanity. Part of my ‘non-blank’ coming to the scriptures is that I belong in the midst of a believing community in all its complexity. To read scripture as an Anglican is to read it ecclesially, as part of the church past, present but also not forgetting the future. My scriptural reading is thus informed by others and their encounters with God in worship, in meditation, in study and in conversation. There is another aspect to my belonging which is worth emphasising. Although I seek wisdom on behalf of the earth, I am part of the earth too, so this is not detached and dispassionate searching.

There is then, more than one dialectic going on whenever I read scripture and this is possibly where the analogy of scripture as a wise person breaks down. It is about me and God, but much more is going on than just that. Moreover, scripture is not equivalent to God. I can be confident in scripture’s revelatory and transformative abilities but it is the God behind scripture, not scripture itself, that I seek.

Scripture is not the same as God in another way. Feminist theology has alerted us to the silences of the texts and the marginal characters. Likewise certain of its words are embedded in cultural presuppositions that are no longer intelligible in or resonate with our own time. When it comes to an eco-theological approach to scripture I engage in what could be termed a hermeneutic of desire and retrieval. There are many desires I have in this regard but one is the desire to find the ‘hidden’ story of the earth and its relationship with God and to retrieve from that story wisdom that informs care for the earth. This is not exactly a hermeneutic of suspicion but it is to be aware of the anthropocentric blind spots in the interpretation of scripture through the ages. If there is no reading of scripture that is ‘a view from nowhere’ we can at least be upfront about our perspective and concerns.

David Ford has, in his book, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007), argued that God speaks in different ‘moods’ in scripture that can be understood grammatically. These are the indicative, imperative, interrogative, subjunctive and optative. I find these play helpfully into my hands in terms of my analogy of scripture as a spiritual director.

The indicative is about affirming and denying. Some examples from the gospels are when Jesus says, ‘blessed are you’, or ‘woe to you’, Luke 6:20ff. The imperative implies command and obedience. Jesus himself was obedient. Ford notes that arguably, the Christian faith has often been seen in terms of the indicative (‘this is the good news’), (‘do this and you will be saved’). The interrogative is about questioning and being questioned (‘are you the son of God?’, ‘why do you look for the living among the dead?’ etc). In Jesus’ life and death there is intricate questioning that goes on generating further questions. The subjunctive opens up possibilities and surprises, it is the realm of the ‘may be’ and the ‘might be’. This is the mood of the parables of Jesus; in which a different vision of God and society holds the potential for surprises and reversals. This is rooted in the possibility of interpreting Scripture, along with the Spirit, in new periods and situations. Finally the optative is about desire, desiring and being loved. It is in the longing for, the ‘might be’, the ‘if only’… it is about fulfilment and wholeness.

Ford argues that all these ‘moods’ are present in the scriptures and to read them together is the path of wisdom. He cautions against any of them dominating inappropriately, whether it be on the one hand a literalist dogmatism or a moral absolutism, or on the other, an indefinite questioning and openness which leads to confusion or an endlessly experimental exploration of attractive possibilities. For him it is part of discernment and wisdom to navigate between these.

If wisdom lies in hearing all the moods of the voice of God in Scripture then how do we listen to them in regard to the earth? A place to begin would be with the general demeanour, the broad brush strokes by which my mentor, the Scriptures, lives her life. Thus we could state that scripture mentions ‘the earth’ five times more often than it does ‘heaven’. There is no separate word for nature as we have it now. There is ‘erets’, which is the earth as a geographical place, the terrestrial globe. Then there is ‘adamah’ – literally, arable land, the soil, the growing medium. It is in this sense that Adam and Eve are ‘earthlings’. ‘Gan’ is also sometimes used to refer to a paradisical garden with trees. The New Testament adds ‘cosmos’ as in ‘God so loved the cosmos’. The Bible’s preferred phrase is ‘heavens and earth’ or ‘earth and all that is in it’.

In the Old Testament, themes of Creation, Jubilee and Sabbath imply a right ordering of relationship between God, humanity and the natural world, again broadly speaking: the Bible opens with the great statement of God as creator of all things. Creation is ‘good’, a gift and a blessing. But note, according to Proverbs wisdom was there from even before the beginning of the world. Proverbs 3:18 ‘Wisdom … Is a tree of life to those who embrace her: those who lay hold of her will be blessed. By Wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations…’ The unpacking of the creation stories in Genesis involves much more than I could possibly do here. You will have to be content with my big tip, which is that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are meant to be read together. That tricky verse, Gen 1: 28 (“Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”) is to sit alongside Gen 2:15 (‘The lord took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.)

In the New Testament, there are Christological themes of reconciliation, redemption and creation held together in Christ and a vision of a new heaven and earth. I shall say a little about these later. Suffice it to say ecotheologians have written whole books, have even devoted much of their life’s work to aspects that I can only touch upon here.

Now, lets look at those ‘moods’ in a bit more detail. The indicative in terms of affirmation and praise is certainly present in the psalms. I shall list a good many for cumulative effect, but these are certainly not the only passages with this theme, e.g. in Ps 104 …He stretches out the heavens like a tent…he makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind….he makes springs pour water into the ravines…the lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God….there is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number…when you send your spirit they are created, and you renew the face of the earth….I will sing to the Lord all my life…Praise the Lord O my soul. Ps 148:3 Praise him sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars…Ps 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Ps 50:11 I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine…for the world is mine and all that is in it. Ps 65 Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion who formed the mountains by your power…you care for the land and water it, you enrich it abundantly …the meadows and the valleys…. shout for joy and sing. Ps 8 O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Ps 96 Sing to the Lord all the Earth… let the sea resound and all that is in it…Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy…. Ps 95 Come let us sing for joy to the Lord… the sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

However there are also quite a few passages that starkly make a link between the beliefs and behaviour of humans and their effects on the earth. Here we have the ‘woe to you’, so for example in Hosea 4:1-3 ‘There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder… and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away: the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying’. Or Jeremiah 4:23 ‘I looked at the earth and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains and they were quaking;….the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark.’ Or Isaiah 24:4 ‘the earth dries up and withers…the earth is defiled by its people…. A curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.’

The cries of the earth in mourning and desolation as the result of the sin of humanity are ones that we are to take seriously in our time.

Likewise the imperative mood is expressed often in passages about the earth. e.g. Deuteronomy 20:19 ‘When you lay siege to a city…. do not destroy its trees…Are the trees of the field men that you should besiege them?’ Here are a couple of my personal favourites; Deuteronomy 22:6 If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life. And, Proverbs 6:6 Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!’ (This is something my kids instinctively do).God commands us to watch ants in order to gain wisdom!

Interrogatives also abound, (Isaiah 40:21 ‘Do you not know? Have you not heard?.... He stretches the heavens like a canopy…Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these?’) but are perhaps most poetically expressed in the closing chapters of Job where God speaks out of the whirlwind. So, for instance Job 39:1 ‘Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?’ God responds to the suffering and despair of Job with cosmology, meteorology, ornithology and animal husbandry! Whereas Job has related everything to his own condition, God’s answer is to celebrate creation for its own sake. Creation has a dignity, freedom, beauty, mystery and intense life of its own and God is intimately related to it. So in Job 38:22 ‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail which I reserve for times of trouble?…’

Subjunctives are harder to find but are surely present in passages such as Romans 8 ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth…’ There is complex theology here, which again is impossible to deliberate on at length here, but there is certainly the suggestion that the time has come for liberating what has come to be enslaved and that the liberation of nature is tied up somehow with the liberation of humanity.

The great Colossians hymn of 1:16 is worth hearing too. Here is the statement that the world is made not only by Christ and for Christ, but in him all things ‘hold together’, and it really does mean all things, thus Christ is the agent of redemption and creation. In a cosmic drama of reconciliation our redeemer is also our creator, our creator is also our redeemer. Redemption then is the restoration of creation too. Redemption does not mean the annihilation of creation but rather its renewal. This renewal of the old is a bringing of it to fulfilment. God does not make all new things, but all things new.

There is also much to ponder in the opening words of John’s gospel; that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. What implications are there of this from an ecological point of view? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Apart from one of those passages that surprises and challenges us (Revelation 11:18 The time has come for…. destroying those who destroy the earth) much of the visioning of the book of Revelation operates in the optative mood. In Rev 22 1-2 the river of the water of life flows from the throne of God and of the lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stand the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. This tree along with its counterpart in Genesis ‘frames’ the scriptures such that we could say that the whole Biblical witness stands between these trees of life.

Belonging to this mood is also the great vision of Isaiah 65:17 Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth…..The wolf and the lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox’. Someone is bound to ask me about the vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (ouranon kainon kai gen kainen). ‘New’ here connotes new in quality, in contrast to what is old. Thus there is the sense of renewed, not disposed of in the Biblical passages. What seems to be in 2 Peter 3 a vision of great destruction (vs 10 ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare’) is counteracted by vs 13 (‘but in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’.)

The optative mood is also glimpsed in Leviticus 25 where there is a full working out of the command to rest, to restore and to equalise in the justice concepts of the Sabbath and Jubilee. (vs11 ‘ The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and to be holy for you…’) and note that in Genesis 9 God makes a covenant with all living things (vs12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you….I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” )

It must be possible to say from even this brief foray into the scriptures that God deeply values the earth. Indeed the Trinitarian God, as creator, redeemer and sustainer is inextricably bound up with its history and its fate, as are we humans. To hear the wisdom contained within Scripture it is necessary to be attuned to each of the moods and voices and not to let one have ascendancy. That is, those which affirm and arrest, those which summon, those that question, those that are open to possibilities and those that display God’s vision and desire for the future of the world. In practice this means that we are to be alert to the cries of the vulnerable ones, even the vulnerable of the earth such as coral reefs and for such attentiveness to inform our action. Scripture discloses to us that there is a kind of wisdom in the act of crying itself. I need not have worried then about arriving at a place of peace.


  1. Dr Pauline GrantMonday, March 30, 2009

    My daughter and I watched in amazement, at the local zoo, when some tiny ants rescued a huge soldier ant as it was about to fall off the platform into the water below. They gripped its head tight and you could see them bracing their fett and pulling for all they were worth until the soldier ant was back to safety. We were amazed at the complexity of this, as they had to realise that the soldier ant was in danger-knowledge that there was water below (with lots of dead ants floating in it). They had to value the soldier ant as worth saving, and they were willing to risk their lives to do so.

    I have been struck very much recently by the blind spots we all have when we come to scripture- each tradition has their own particular blind spots. Some sermons i have heard recently in my church have totally ignored a very uncomfortable part of the passage which has been preached on because it doesn't fit with our view of theology. It is uncomfortable taking a few steps backwards but in the end hopefully profitable.
    I always find that I can worship God more deeply when I come through the vehicle of His creation, because it is an expression of Himself.
    Maybe there are other issues about which we have current blind spots-how about the way we run our economy? Maybe a reintroduction of the jubilee would stop rampent economic growth with the associated crash?

  2. Thanks for your comment Pauline. We could write a history of humanity described through our blind spots!

  3. Sounds great to me. I think the concept of using 'moods' gives a 'feel' to inspiration that I'd not considered before. I need to think more carefully about this. Your sense that the imperative and indicative shouldn't be the only signifiers of scripture is a good observation.

  4. Hi Lucy,

    It's strange the things you can find when you're not looking for them!! But in the spirit of indicatives and imperatives I offer the following from Alan Torrance on the theological vision of his father, James.
    "As James Torrance (JBT) would point out, Liberals and Lutherans have tended to stress free grace. Conservatives and Calvinists stressed the costly claims of grace. Liberals can sometimes turn free grace into cheap grace. Puritan Calvinism can sometimes turn costly grace into conditional grace.

    It belongs to the essence of the argument here that the indicatives of grace are always prior to the imperatives of law and human obligation. The Ten Commandments begin, in Exodus 20, with the Lord's indicative affirmation of his prior, faithful commitment to Israel and his deliverance of Israel from slavery in the land of Egypt. The structure of the law possesses, therefore, the following form: I love you and I have redeemed you (indicatives)...Therefore, be faithful to me and each other, that is, to all those to whom I am also committed and faithful (imperatives).

    The universal temptation of humanity, however, is to reverse the order of the indicatives and the imperatives - implying that if we enact the imperatives, God will be faithful. To do this is to turn a covenant into a contract.

    Gerrit Scott Dawson, 'An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour,' London: T & T Clark, 2007

  5. Thanks Phillip for teasing that out a bit more

  6. I think the balance of this very fine paper gives us a sense that there is more at stake in the interpretation of scripture than just finding the right answer. Or even worse trying to assert the supremacy of "my right answer" over "your right answer".
    This complex struggle for wisdom seems to me to be a very legitimate Anglican struggle.

  7. I think perhaps part of the issue here is that so many people from our cultures and schooling in modernity require there to be a right or a wrong answer.

    I think you offer a great analogy Lucy, for a good Spiritual director does not give an answer but more often than not puts a question back to the one who is asking the question. Sometimes it is one of compassion, sometimes one of challenge and other times of exploration and excitement. It is never, you should go and do ....

  8. Thanks Stephen for taking that a bit further. As I said in the piece there are always problems with taking analogies too far, but sometimes they do shed a different light on things.
    Its true that a good spiritual director/wise elder or friend can try to unlock a bit more by putting the question/challenge back to someone- as frustrating as that can be! However the 'indicative mood' in the Bible is quite direct too.

    Thanks for your response