As promised, I’m going to offer some reflections on Steven Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth. The book begins much like I expected, with depressing statistics about the present state of the earth and our inevitable demise if we don’t drastically correct our influence on creation. This is, of course, a necessary starting point for the case he is making; but, unfortunately, will do little to persuade those who are convinced these statistics are slanted and inflated by those with something to gain politically. In spite of Prediger’s well-substantiated evaluation of the ecological problem, many of us have no problem walking away unaffected. (And this reality, I believe, is truly one of the biggest impediments for Christians in taking this issue seriously: It has become so politicized and even fashionable lately, that any recognition of the ecological problem is seen as a political and secular move that many conservatives and evangelicals aren’t willing to make. I’ll have to address that troubling dilemma later.)
After spending some time explaining the charge some ecologists make against Christianity as the primary cause of our ecological crisis, Bouma-Prediger does a nice job debunking this accusation. Not only are our ecological problems the result of a complex interplay of industrialism, modernism, consumerism, population growth, etc., he asserts that Christianity, rightly understood, actually places a high value on the created order. Even if Christians and the church haven’t always faithfully applied this, Scripture and the Christian vision are not to blame.
This leads to what for me has been the most interesting and helpful section of the first half of the book. Bouma-prediger visits five biblical texts from which he draws out thick themes significant for ecological ethics. He seems hermeneutically faithful with these scriptures and avoids the temptation to simply dance around waving his arms every time the term “creation” shows up in the Bible. I’ll highlight two of his more unique and refreshing interpretations:
Looking at the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, Bouma-Prediger asks the question, “With whom does God make a covenant?” Those who are familiar with the story are aware that it ends with a rainbow as God promises to never flood the earth again, but Bouma-Prediger makes some interesting observations.
First, it should be blatantly significant to us that God deems it necessary to preserve two of every species on the earth. This wasn’t just about saving righteous humans, it was about saving all God’s created beings. More important, however, is the covenant made by God in Genesis 9:8-17. Most notable here is that the covenant is between God, Noah, and every living creature; and the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and the earth. In all my hearings of this story throughout my life I had never caught the significance of that reality: Every living creature on God’s earth is covenant-worthy. There’s no minimizing the significance of covenants in the biblical narrative, and the fact that God makes a covenant with even non-human creatures says something about the importance of the created world in the divine program.
The second argument that caught my attention was Bouma-Prediger’s explanation of the ecological significance of the Job story. He focuses on the divine speeches, which, if we recall, are those humbling words of God that ask Job to stand in awe of the overwhelming magnitude of God’s creative power. For Bouma-Prediger, the question being answered here is “Who is at the center of things?”
We may be (or try to be) the measurer of all things, but we are not the measure of all things. Behemoth and Leviathon – not to mention the mountain goat and the wild ass – remind us that the scope of God’s creative will reaches farther than any human individual or community.
Then, quoting Carol Newsom, he writes:
The contrast between the horizon [of meaning] within which Job presents himself and the horizon within which God asks Job to locate himself could not be sharper. Job’s primary horizon of meaning was the village and the family. God challenges the parochialism of Job’s moral imagination by making the starting point nothing less than the whole of creation. We, too, often tend to think of the moral world as having simply to do with the relation of humans to other humans…
This was so startling to me. It’s as if, in the midst of Job’s unthinkable tragedies, God says, “Look around you, Job, there is more to consider here than yourself and your own present experience.” As much as this is relates to our self-understanding in the midst of suffering, I think Newsom is right in showing how the divine speeches assert that the human perception of goodness and justice is only properly formed when considering the vastness of the created world.
And finally, dealing explicitly with suffering, Bouma-Prediger writes:
…in times of grief and pain, there is great solace in fierce landscapes. When God is at the center, and the human thereby displaced, there is a world wide and wild enough to absorb the pain of human suffering.
Most of us can relate to that last point, and I think Christianity across the spectrum has done a pretty good job of asking people to appreciate the wonder of God’s creation on things like spiritual retreats and camps. We have no problem doing that. The problem comes when we are asked to consider the ways our lifestyles and habits may be adversely affecting this creation.
I’m wrestling with how we are going to get past this hang-up. More on that later.