COP26 reflection from Professor Tim Gorringe
The fundamental rule of the interpretation of Scripture is that “Redactor is Rabbenu” – the redactor, or editor, is our teacher. This rule is often forgotten when we are looking at the early chapters of Genesis. The second creation story begins by telling us that “adam” – the man – was taken from the earth, adamah (Genesis 2:4b). In other words, humans are part of creation. They do not live in an “environment” but are indissolubly linked with every other part of creation: “everything is related to everything else” as the ecologists tell us. Of course this “adam” has gifts of imagination and intelligence which other creatures lack. The first creation story said that women and men were given “dominion” over all other creatures (radah – this may not mean “exercise lordship”). The second story explains it: “God put Adam in the garden to till and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
The word “garden” (gan) is, of course, a metaphor for the whole earth. The verb translated “till” is the verb “abad”, which means to work, serve or worship. The noun from it is ebed, servant, fundamental for the theology of second Isaiah and taken up by Jesus in Mark: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:43). Serving, in Scripture, is key to being fully human. The verb “to keep” (shamar), meanwhile, is the word used for keeping the commandments, keeping my brother (Genesis 4), and so forth. We serve by keeping the commandments. Serving and keeping characterise every aspect of human activity. Needless to say, this rules out all sorts of behaviour, from industrial agriculture to nuclear weapons, which are actually forms of domination.
Scripture is an ongoing conversation. Probably not too long after Genesis was edited Leviticus was also put together. The authors of Leviticus forbad usury on the grounds that we have the right to use what we need but not the right to accumulate (Leviticus 25:37). This was Gandhi’s principle that there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. Furthermore, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine: with me you are but migrant workers and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). As with the garden of Eden, this applies to the whole earth, and every society. Today it has been helpfully familiarised by Kate Raworth as “doughnut economics”. She took the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary limits and pointed out that there are social limits as well. In between the two sets of limits we have the safe and just space for the flourishing of both people and planet. Together with Leviticus she reminds us that care for creation is impossible without social and political justice, embodied in a just and sustainable economy. Following Deuteronomy the authors of Leviticus argued that every human family had its nachalah, its guaranteed foothold in the soil and means of earning a living and contributing to the whole. Today the nachalah might mean a universal basic income, but in any case it is a right to work with dignity. Failing that the planet will be overwhelmed with violence which will make living within our limits impossible (Deuteronomy 28:15ff). Serving God and keeping both my neighbour and the planet involves keeping the commandments, according to Deuteronomy. A world where a handful of billionaires earn more than the poorest 50% put together is, on this account, going to hell in a handcart.
But there is a further gloss. Possibly after Leviticus, the Psalmist (Ps 148) and the author of the “Song of the Three Children” (in the NRSV printed in the Apocrypha) wrote the poems which together give us the Benedicite. This is a glorious, baroque song of praise for all the wonders of creation, beginning with angels, and working its way through heavens, waters, powers, sun and moon, stars, showers and dew, winds, fire and heat, winter and summer, dews and frosts, frost and cold, ice and snow, nights and days, light and darkness, lightnings and clouds, the earth, mountains and hills, green things, wells, seas and floods, whales, fowls of the air, beasts and cattle and at last
“O you human beings, bless the Lord : praise God, and magnify God for ever.”
The gloss, in other words, understands creation as a magnificent gift, a vast hymn of praise, singing and dancing to the God who creates for no purpose, but purely for joy. “Serving and keeping” could be understood in a dour way, and economics does not generally fill us with joy. But if we ask the psalmists why we should support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill their answer is that it is because creation is gift, and elicits joy. To trash the planet is to throw God’s gift back in God’s face. As Wendell Berry said, it is the most horrid blasphemy.
The word “eucharist”, as we know, comes from the Greek verb “to say thankyou”. Western theology tended to focus exclusively on thanksgiving for the death of Christ, but in the second century Irenaeus already insisted that the eucharist rested on a grateful offering of the gifts of creation. Every eucharist, then, is a collective Benedicite. The eucharist is fundamental to our formation as Christians and understood properly should make every one of us a climate activist. This can and must involve prophecy – a continuation of the contentious challenge to greedy power we have in the prophets of Israel, whose mantle Jesus himself took up (Luke 4:21). But above all it rests on resurrection joy, the joy of the Benedicite, joy in the God who has no reasons, but does have loves and who calls us to love and serve the creation we both are and share.
Professor Tim Gorringe, MA, MPhil, DD (Oxon). Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies, University of Exeter. Author of Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture (Routledge 2017), and The Common Good and the Global Emergency (CUP 2011).
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Comments on "COP26 reflection from Professor Tim Gorringe"
Rev David Coleman:
Brilliantly scholarly support of the profound truth that care for Creation arises directly our of a wholesome appreciation of Christian faith, rather than as any sort of add-on
Good to see a scriptural justification for avoiding the attitude that the world is not ours to loot but to make careful use of. Contrast the approach and attitude taken by Gabe Brown (a devout North Dakotan regenerative farmer) and James Gaius Watt whom Ronal Reagan appointed as Interior Secretary (effectively head of DEFRA) in the early 1980s. JGW's stated attitude was that "If God hadn't meant use to use open cast mining, he wouldn't have put coal seams close to the surface". He may or may not have had vested interests (e.g. mining shares) and probably was convinced of his position but his failure to consider the consequences is becoming increasingly obvious. Tim's comments also find common ground with animist beliefs and the saner followers of most other religions.