A moral and theological crisis

Daily Reading for October 13

In recent years, I have come to believe that anyone who wishes to understand Israel’s Scripture deeply would do well to learn more about the ecological crisis, and especially about its agricultural dimensions. At the same time, Jews and Christians who wish to understand the depth of the crisis would do well to ponder it in light of Israel’s Scripture. The mutually informative relation between ecological awareness and biblical study rests not only on the land-centeredness of the Bible but also on the nature of the ecological crisis, which is principally moral and theological rather than technological. That is, the problem does not stem in the first instance from technological errors or omissions that can be rectified by further technological applications. It is a moral and even theological crisis because it is occasioned in large part by our adulation and arrogant use of scientific technology, so that we make applications without rigorous critical regard for questions of compatibility with natural systems, of the integrity of the world that God has made. . . .

Because communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims remain slow to reckon with the now far-advanced mistreatment of the fertile earth, I begin by considering how the Bible may open our eyes to recognize that land care is an area in which theologically informed moral discernment is needed. I shall treat our lack of recognition as a failure of the religious imagination, an inability to imagine that this world could be significantly different, for better or for much worse, than we and every human generation before us have experienced it. It should concern us that “secular” intellectuals and activists are on the whole ahead of religious leaders, including theologians, in articulating the dimensions of both our unprecedented situation and our urgent responsibility. Speaking to a group of soil scientists, Stanford terrestrial ecologist Peter Vitousek recently said that now for the first time the human species as a whole must find the will to make a drastic change in our behavior—and to make it in this generation—in order that life on our planet may continue to be viable and to some degree lovely. A statement that radical from a theologian is still a rarity, even though drastic reorientation of human thought and behavior would seem to be directly in our line of work. To our traditions belong the texts that perhaps in all world literature speak most directly to the human will to change. The books of the Hebrew Prophets are in my judgment the single best biblical resource for awakening us to our situation, for they consistently speak of, and to, the faculty they call lēb, “heart”—which is, in biblical physiology, the organ of perception and response.

From Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen F. Davis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9-10.

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