Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bauckham on Bible and Biodiversity

In 2010 theologian and biblical scholar Richard Bauckham published a book called Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. It is short (178 pages) and covers the surprisingly (to some) strong scriptural bases for taking our responsibility and privilege to care for creation seriously. I highly recommend it. Around the same time, he gave this talk on biodiversity, which summarises some of the main themes of his book. The book covers more ground than this, but the talk might give you a taste.
H/T Mike.

Below are my notes on the talk, which are generally the parts of it that struck me as interesting, new and/or put well, without trying to be comprehensive:


Introduction: We are confronted by mass extinction of species today, likely to keep getting worse. What do the scriptures have to say to this situation?

1. OT recognises biodiversity
The poetic account in Genesis 1 repeats the formulaic phrase "of every kind" or "according to their kind".

2. God delights in biodiversity
God saw that it was good. The sheer abundant diversity is one of the major focuses of the passages and God delights in that. Also in Job. Final chapters of Job are a panoramic tour of the creation in the imagination.

3. All creatures live to glorify God
Whole of creation worships God. This is the corollary of God's delight in his whole creation. Animals don't have words, or even consciousness in many cases. Simply by being themselves, they bring glory to God. Other creatures are fellow-worshippers.

In the ancient world, many people worshipped creatures. Creatures are creatures, not gods who should be worshipped. On the contrary, the creatures themselves worship God and our proper response is to join in their praise of God.

This is thus a de-divinised creation, but not a de-sacralised creation. Non-human creatures are not divine, but they are sacred to God. Creatures are our fellow-worshippers (Psalm 148), therefore don't instrumentalise them, reducing them to merely a tool to use in the satisfaction of our desires.

4. Various creatures have specific habitats
Psalm 104 is a picture of interdependence. Some creatures depend on others for their life. A first step in the direction of recognising ecosystems. Can't consider each species independently of others.

5. Human kinship with other creatures
Humans have sometimes been elevated above the natural world as though we didn't belong to it. We've tried to relate as demi-gods, rather than fellow creatures. Catastrophic results. Humans are distinctive among the creatures, but the creation narratives make our kinship with other creatures quite clear. Genesis 1 places creation of humans on the same day as creation of all other land animals. We don't get a day of our own. Genesis 2 offers a more vivid and emphatic depiction. Ontological relation signified by a play on words: 'Adam (man) from 'Adamah (ground/dirt/soil). We are earthy creatures. We belong with the earth and with the other creatures of the earth. Other creatures are not dispensable.

6. Humans and other creatures are fellow creatures in the community of the earth
A community of creatures is worth highlighting as a useful model for thinking about our place in creation. Term is not from scripture, but like many of the terms we use to talk about what the Bible teaches, I think it encapsulates a way of thinking which we do find in scripture. Most potent expression of this concept is in Genesis 9, which records a covenant between God and the earth's creatures. All the creatures of earth are interested parties. With them, we form the community sharing a common home. We have no right to evict others from the home that God has given us. Let us have no illusions about this community, which contains much conflict and violence. These are not eradicated in the Noahic covenant, but they are restrained; a price is put on life. God doesn't surrender his intention that his creatures should share the earth that he has given. This covenant is the first step towards renewing and perfecting.

7. Adam as the first taxonomist
Genesis 2: unlike Genesis 1, animals come after Adam. Naming them is not an act of authority but of understanding.

8. King Solomon as naturalist
The embodiment of wisdom. And he spoke of trees.

9. Subdue the earth
The double blessing/command at the end of Genesis 1 implies two distinct relationships: relationship to the earth vs relation to other living creatures. Humans are to subdue the earth, exercise dominion over other creatures.

In understanding these words, first note that it is not only humans which are told to multiply and be fruitful and fill, birds and fish are too. We can assume that creatures of the land are also to be fruitful and multiply.

However, only humans are told to fill the earth and to subdue the earth. Only by means of agriculture were humans able to fill the earth (to live in large portions of available land). To subdue is to take possession and till the soil to make it produce more food than it would otherwise do.

Are humans to supplant other animals? Humans are told that the produce of the earth is not intended to feed them alone, but also the living species of the earth. We are not to fill the earth and subdue it to the extent of leaving no room for the other creatures. Other creatures have a right to use of the soil. Human right is not unlimited but must respect the rights of other creatures. We are one creature among others.

10. Dominion
This second command in relation to other creatures tempts us to forget our own creatureliness and to set ourselves over against the other creatures. This is only possible if we take it out of context. Dominion is a role within creation, not over it. Other creatures are first and foremost our fellow creatures. Our distinctive role can only take place once we appreciate that. Dominion is not the only way we relate to other creatures. Dominion means a caring responsibility, not exploitation. This is widely agreed. We have a responsibility for our fellow creatures. This is a royal function and so it is worth recalling the only passage in the Law of Moses that refers to the role of a king within the people of Israel and there it is emphasised that the king is one amongst his brothers and sisters, one amongst his fellow Israelites (Deuteronomy 17.14-20). The king is not to be exalted above his subjects, and in the same way humanity is to wield authority for the benefit of other creatures.

11. Dominion begins from appreciating God's valuation of his creation.
This is an implication of the Genesis 1 six day creation account. Before we humans read of our responsibility for other living creatures, we are taken through a narrative of creation that stresses God's delight in each stage of his work. We are invited to share God's appreciation of his creation before we learn of our distinctive role within it. Our approach to exercising dominion should be rooted in that fundamental appreciation of the created world as God has made it.

12. Dominion is to be exercised in letting be just as much as in intervention
We are used to thinking of dominion as activity. In modern period, human task conceived as constant ongoing activity to transform the world into one that would suit us much better. Dominion seemed to require from us constant interfering with creation and constant attempts to change and transform it. Now, there is little left that hasn't been affected by human activity. There is a lot we would really like to preserve as it is. It is vital that we re-conceive Genesis dominion as letting be. This is clear later in the Mosaic Law in discussions of how to relate to the land and its creatures. Notice the Sabbatical institutions. First a weekly Sabbath: no work even by domestic animals. Also a Sabbatical year: fields, vineyards and orchards left to rest. So that the poor of your people may eat and wild animals. Even within the cultivated part of the land of Israel wild animals are expected to live. This is a symbol of respect for nature.

UPDATE: I took these notes some months ago while listening to the talk online at the link above. Some proportion of the above text is verbatim quotes from Prof Bauckham, though I now don't remember which parts are summaries of his message and which are his exact words. I think that all the titles at least were his own, and many of the phrases are likely to be either precisely or somewhat close to his words. If anyone has a problem with these notes as they stand, then please let me know so that I can adjust them.


byron smith said...

Onion: Consumer product diversity now exceeds biodiversity.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Is an ethic of biodiversity enough?

An argument that we have moral obligations for the flourishing of other species, not merely the preservation of their genetic information.