Chapter 12 – Direct Effects of the Fall on Nature
We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey. Today is Chapter 12 – Direct Effects of the Fall on Nature. Jon begins the chapter reiterating the notion that the good creation may be used by God in ways that cause us harm is not a sign of its corruption but of its continued obedience to him. It is a sign of our corruption that such judgments should need to occur. I am somewhat ambivalent on this Augustinian notion. On the one hand scripture has many references to the use of natural disasters by God as judgement on sinful humanity. For example, the list of curses in Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, for forsaking the Lord’s covenant with Israel include:
21 The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. 24 The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed…
38 You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. 39 You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. 40 You will have olive trees throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off. 41 You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity. 42 Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land.
It occurs to me that the notion of natural disasters being judgment of God is like geocentrism, a simplistic idea the writers of scriptures held that is no longer valid in the light of today’s science. Then again, what do I know, maybe that’s a result of my modern sensibilities? We have discussed this before in these posts regarding Katrina or the flooding of Houston or the Banda Aceh earthquake. In the post on the Houston flooding I said:
Which brings us to Christian Credulity. We talked about the eclipse and certain Christians ascribing God’s judgment to natural phenomena. That was on display again for Harvey; although why wouldn’t Matthew 5:45 apply (…for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust) since Christians and non-Christians both live in the Houston area. And anyway, who decides what God intends with any natural phenomena? So here, any pronouncement of God’s intentions should be met by Christians with incredulity. Shouldn’t Christians remember Luke 13:1-5 when trying to ascribe motives for judgement?
13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. ’”
Michael Spencer, in his reflection on the Banda Aceh earthquake and resulting tsunami said:
I don’t think these events have anything to do with direct expressions of God’s wrath. I think they have to do with creation. We don’t see this as something wrong- we see it as something terrible, in the “awe struck” sense of that word. We are to be put in our place by nature: in awe of what God has made, and how fragile we are. We are mortal, and death is a fact. Death that separates families and loved ones is painful. Death that separates from God is a true disaster. But death at the hands of nature is no surprise to anyone with their eyes open.
Could God bring some disasters as judgment while others are just the outworking of “normal” nature? Are the descriptions of such in scripture simply archaic? For now, I’ll stick with what I said in that post, either all natural disasters are God’s judgment or none of them are. In any event, Jon’s point remains; they have nothing to do with a fallen creation.
Jon then rehearses the long history of humans trashing the planet. From the desertification of Mesopotamia due to the inevitable silting up of irrigation channels to Plato’s account in 360 BCE of deforestation and soil erosion of his own Greek state of Attica; it’s a long history. Maybe even longer if the theory that early man hunted woolly mammoths to extinction is valid.
The Romans, supposedly ruthlessly exploitative and lacking any real environmental concern, extended deforestation empire wide. They had huge numbers of beasts pitted against each other and humans in lethal combat. Titus, for example had some 9,000 wild animals slaughtered during the three month’s dedication of the Colosseum. Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) was celebrated by games in which 11,000 beasts were killed (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, Ecoscience) When you consider that the present population of lions in the whole of Africa is some 30,000 and there are maybe 25,000 rhinos, those figures are sobering. Jon notes that 2016 saw the publication of a paper by a multi-disciplinary team of 22 authors in Science endorsing the thesis that, since the 1950s, the world has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, as a result of human activity (see here for a pdf of the article). The abstract says:
The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes. Biotic changes include species invasions worldwide and accelerating rates of extinction. These combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs.
Jon accuses Enlightenment philosophers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) of co-opting the language of Genesis to justify a completely non-biblical and actually quite new way of studying the world, based on a strong sense of human domination over all things. He says because this proceeded from a radical desacralization of nature that had come to regard nature as an entirely inert and passive work of God. So then it became legitimate to plunder it for any resources or secrets it held that might benefit humanity. Father Stephen Freeman and the Orthodox say something similar:
I have used the imagery of a one-storey versus a two-storey universe as a means of getting at the same point. When creation is removed from God and understood to exist and to have meaning as a thing in itself – then the world begins to lose meaning and to collapse upon itself as the product of chance and accident. Humanity collapses into the same randomness and absurdity…
Secularism is the great religious crisis of our time (perhaps the definitive crisis of human sin). Its critical temptation is the lure of religion – to carve out some small piece of our lives and our world in which we speak or think about God – leaving the rest of creation inert and unsanctified, bereft of the glory of God…
Within the Church this can occur by limiting the grace of God to certain defined moments or actions (sacraments) with those moments and actions serving not as revelations of the whole truth of our existence but serving only as a “sacralization” of unique moments. If the Eucharist is not a transformation of the world, then Christ’s death and resurrection are stripped of their power and significance.
Jon concludes the chapter with:
One could multiply instances of the way humankind has damaged, and still damages, God’s natural creation, and apportion specific responsibility in each case. But there would be few, if any, of us who could claim to be innocent, for the world is not damaged because people are scientists, politicians, soldiers, industrialists, jihadists, Catholics, air passengers, or anything else, but because they are sinners exiled from God’s wisdom by sin, and believers instead in their own wisdom.