Dr Jeremy Corley: Bible and Ecology: Friends or Foes?

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Eco Crisis

In December 2018, David Attenborough reminded us of something we all know: “Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Many signs of climate change exist. In January 2019, temperatures in the South Australian city of Adelaide reached 46 degrees Celsius, while Chicago’s temperature tumbled to minus 30 degrees Celsius, and the temperature reached minus 33 degrees Celsius in Minneapolis.

Looking around the world, we see polluted oceans and landfill tips full of unrecyclable waste. In several regions, we see severe water shortages and the depletion of natural resources. The loss of biodiversity is accelerating, and many species are becoming endangered or even extinct. Due to overfishing, more than half the European fish stocks face collapse.

While the ecological crisis continues, many communities have experienced a decline in the quality of human life and social breakdown, made worse by local and global inequalities. The aid efforts of Trócaire now place a great emphasis on climate justice, because the world’s poorest people suffer most from environmental destruction.

Bible Texts

Does theology offer any help to the crisis of climate change, or is it part of the problem?

In a famous 1967 article, Dr Lynn White blamed the ecological crisis on Christian attitudes derived from the first chapter of Genesis, where God tells humanity to subdue the earth.

Yet the second chapter of Genesis contains a different perspective, because God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. How do these two scriptural statements relate to each other? Are human beings meant to “subdue the earth” or to “till it and keep it”?

Pope Francis’ recent document Laudato Si’ draws an insight for today from Genesis. “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, recognizing that they tell us to till and keep the garden of the world.”

Another important ecological text is the concluding divine speech in the Book of Job. Whereas Job is looking for explanations of his great suffering, God’s response is unexpectedly different. God points attention to the marvels of creation, which are beyond human fathoming. Concern for the earth also appears in the stories of the prophet Elijah, the preaching of Amos, and the laws for the biblical Jubilee.

Ecology Course

To help people today to discover some of the Old Testament insights on ecology, one of the Scripture modules (SC 337) is entitled: “Full of your Creatures: Ecology and the Old Testament.” This module explores some of the rich insights into creation and ecology in the Old Testament, in light of the Psalmist’s declaration: “O LORD, the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).

During the course, we look at the use of Scripture in Pope Francis’ document on the environment (Laudato Si’). We reflect on insights for faith, society, and ecology in the two contrasting creation stories in Genesis 1-3, with special reference to the responsible meaning of human “dominion” over nature. We also look at passages on the wonder of creation and sense of purposefulness within the psalms and wisdom literature, especially the Book of Job. Finally, we consider the understanding of creation and care for the environment in selected prophetic and legal writings.

To be sure, problems of climate change and environmental destruction cannot be solved quickly or easily. Technology cannot solve the problems alone without an accompanying change of outlook and lifestyle. This course on “Ecology and the Old Testament” allows us today to rediscover some of the ancient wisdom about the timeless value of the creation.

- Rev. Dr Jeremy Corley
Lecturer in Sacred Scripture / Director of Research