© Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture
Vol. 33, Special Issue, Fall 1998
The Role of Nature in Natural Disasters
by Dianne Bergant, CSA
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago
DIANNE BERGANT, CSA, is Professor of Old Testament Studies and Director of the Joint Doctor of Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author or editor of fifteen books, including the recent Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberationist-Critical Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press). She has also published more than a hundred articles dealing with biblical interpretation and many critical reviews and essays in a wide variety of academic journals as well as in publications for general readers. In addition, she is an associate editor of The Bible Today and serves on the editorial boards of such publications as The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Biblical Theology Bulletin. Her current research areas include biblical liberation theology and biblical theology and ecology.
Lewis University and Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture
Annual Seminar Fall, 1998
This publication marks a new series of lectures sponsored by Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture and Lewis University. The editors and staff of Listening take great pleasure in presenting you with "The Role of Nature in Natural Disasters," a lecture on biblical interpretation and ecology by Dianne Bergant, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Professor Bergant is the first speaker in the Lewis University-Listening Seminar, an annual event at which an established scholar addresses an area of interrelation between religion and culture. Listening thus continues in a new way its thirty-three year old tradition of addressing significant cultural and religious themes.
We believe that you will find Professor Bergant's discussion of how Old Testament theology can be related to present day ecological concerns to be of great interest and value. Certainly it represents the kind of creative and interdisciplinary thinking needed to confront effectively the many serious challenges faced by our contemporary world. Teachers as well as study and discussion groups are welcome to make photocopies of this lecture.
We hope you will find this and the following lectures in our series refreshing and serious, sensitive and clear, perceptive and honest. These characteristics, we believe, are necessary in listening and responding to the continuing and challenging dialogue between religion and culture in the modern world.
Brother Mark McVann, FSC, Editor,
Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture
THE NEED FOR REINTERPRETATION
Time and again it has been said that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (cf. Kuhn, 1970; Ming & Tracy, 1989). Our scientific-technological achievements have thrust us out of the confines of classical western civilization into a new age. However, our advances in devising a corresponding theological worldview have not always kept pace. Traditional patterns of religious thought and conventional expressions of spirituality, once so meaningful and reassuring, now too often seem empty and obsolete, making religion itself appear to be an archaic practice. Today we face the challenge of either devising a viable religious worldview that is more compatible with contemporary knowledge and experience or resigning ourselves to religious thinking that is either out of date, or if attuned to contemporary science, lacking a solid theological foundation.
Despite the present failure of theology generally to embrace such an ecological perspective, many maintain that certain biblical narratives do in fact provide us with a distinct understanding of creation's intrinsic integrity. If this claim is true, then perhaps what appears in some of the biblical material to be an anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview has been imposed by the biblical reader rather than implied by the biblical author (cf. Bergant, 1991:5), and therefore, new interpretation of biblical passages should be made. Such an optimistic understanding of the biblical tradition is a direct challenge to any view that lays primary blame for our ecological difficulties at the doorstep of the Scriptures themselves (White, 1967:1203-7). It is also opposed to other biases brought to biblical interpretation by readers, be they androcentric (malecentered) or gynocentric (female-centered).
No one would deny that creaturely limitations make it impossible for us to measure reality from anything but a human point of view. Such a perspective is inevitable. However, it is quite another thing to maintain that humankind is itself the actual measure of everything. Acknowledging this limitation, most biblical interpreters contend that the Bible really displays a fundamentally theocentric or God-centered perspective. In such a point of view, the principal value of creation lies less in its usefulness to humans, or its instrumental value, than in the fact of its existence from God, or its intrinsic value. It is this intrinsic value of creation and creatures that is presumed in biblical passages such as the creation narratives (Genesis 1-3), the account of the Noachic covenant (Genesis 9), the YHWH Speeches (Job 38-41), and various other poetic sections (e.g., Psalm 104, Eccl 3:1-9, etc.) In such passages, we see that the world has not been created merely for human use. Rather, "The earth is the Lord's" (Ps 24: 1).
One of the least appreciated books of the Bible is The Wisdom of Solomon, also known as the Book of Wisdom. It does not appear in the Protestant Bible because it was not included in the Jewish canon upon which the decision of inclusion was based. Considered apocryphal by Protestants, it is regarded as Deutero-canonical by Catholics and included in their canon. It gets its name by inference: although the author does not explicitly identify himself as Solomon, speaking in the first person he describes himself as such (7:5; 8:2 1; 9:7f; cf. I Kgs 3:5-15). The book itself is a form of royal testament, an ancient form of instruction from a dead monarch to those who succeed him in governance of the people.
The Wisdom of Solomon has been chosen for consideration for this paper principally for two reasons. First, it gives us a glimpse into the ancient cosmological worldview, a worldview significantly different from ours but one from which we can gain ecological insights. Second, it provides us with a wonderful example of how earlier biblical material was recontextualized and reinterpreted for a later community of believers, a process that continues to our own day.
In order to demonstrate these issues, we will begin with an overview of the tradition of the plagues of Egypt as found in the Book of Exodus. We will then examine the same tradition as it is found in the Wisdom of Solomon. The differences discovered will afford us insight into the process of reinterpretation of the tradition that resulted from its recontextualization. The entire process should offer some direction for our own recontextualization and reinterpretation.
SIGNS AND WONDERS: THE BOOK OF EXODUS
The narrative of the ten plagues or ten wonders covers five chapters of the Book of Exodus (7:14-12:36). From Israel's point of view, the events are considered signs and wonders, manifestations of divine power that worked to Israel's benefit. However, from Egypt's point of view, they were plagues, afflictions that wrought havoc in the land. Actually, the text calls them signs and wonders, manifestations of divine power. The narrative includes the accounts of the pollution of the Nile River and all other Egyptian water supplies, the infestations of frogs, gnats, and flies, the onslaughts of pestilence and boils, the hail and thunder, the swarming of locusts, and darkness, and finally, the death of the first-born.
Over the years, scholarship has detected clear evidence that what is now a literary unit has a very complicated source history. There are both repetitions in the various descriptions as well as discrepancies. Things are destroyed by one plague that had already been destroyed by an earlier one. Furthermore, several names for God are used. The literary character of this material has led scholars to assign certain sections of it to one of the Pentateuchal traditions (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly [JEDP]) and some sections to another (see Childs, 1974:130-41).
The demythologizing tendency that marked the early part of this century resulted in an interpretation that viewed this narrative account as a series of descriptions of very natural phenomena, the kind that frequently occurred in that area of the world in that particular type of climate. Some have even argued that one natural infestation or phenomenon actually causes the next. Regardless of the degree of scientific or historical accuracy detected by such an interpretation, it still does not explain why the biblical tradition arose in the first place or the nature of its theological meaning. Besides, the narrative clearly states that these phenomena, scientifically understandable or not, were the direct result of divine intervention.
Insights into one understanding of the biblical account lead to questions about the role played by the literary unit within the Book of Exodus itself. It may have functioned as a kind of cult legend, part of the narrative explanation of an ancient blood ritual which was historicized and became part of the Passover celebration. This is a reasonable theory since the plague account was probably a composite with the final plague, the death of the first-born, significantly different from the others. If there is any accuracy in this interpretation, one might conclude that the plagues describing natural phenomena were arranged in such a way as to suggest increasing severity. Each affliction afforded the Egyptians an opportunity to repent. Failing this, another affliction ensued, and another, until the final adversity fell upon them. As horrible as it was, perceived in this way, the final tragedy was understandable.
Whether this ritual theory is accepted or not, most interpreters agree that the central theme behind the tradition of the plagues is the manifestation of the sovereign power of YHWH, the God of Israel. This is not only presumed by the reader, it is clearly demonstrated in the text. In every case, it is God who sends the individual plague. Then, after the plague is removed, it is God who hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he really cannot respond positively to Moses' request for release (cf. Childs, 1974: 170-5).God is in charge; there is no question about this.
I will make Pharaoh so obstinate that, despite the many signs and wonders that I will work in the land of Egypt, he will not listen to you. Therefore I will lay my hand on Egypt and by great acts of judgment I will bring the hosts of my people, the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt. Exodus 7:34
The sovereign power of God is not an unusual theme. It is presumed throughout the entire Bible. In fact, all of the nations of the ancient Near Eastern world believed that their god(s) or goddess(es) exercised power over them and over all of the circumstances of their lives and their environments. However, these were usually patron deities whose exercise of power was normally territorially circumscribed. To move outside the boundaries of one's tribe, or city-state, or nation, whichever the case may have been, was to remove oneself from the protection of one's own god and to place oneself in some way under the control of other deities. The gods of Egypt, for example, ruled over all who dwelt there, Egyptians and foreigners alike.
Therefore, to maintain that YHWH was able to wield power outside the land of Israel was to make an extraordinary religious claim. It meant that the God of Israel was not limited by national boundaries. Though still perceived as a kind of patron deity, this was after all the God of Israel and not of Egypt or any other ancient Near Eastern nation, YHWH was more a God of the people, following them where they went and providing for them wherever they were. Even more than this, the claim that YHWH was able to wield power in another land meant that the sovereignty of YHWH exceeded the rule of the local deities. The account of the plagues is a startling demonstration of this claim.
This account was not merely the report of a contest between Moses and Aaron and the magicians of Egypt, each side demonstrating its magical skills. This was a battle between the Pharaoh, who was believed to be in some way divine, and the God of Israel. It was a battle between deities. Consequently, in a very real sense, it was a contest for the loyalties of the Israelite people (cf. Durham, 1987:96). Though in the narrative YHWH was already worshipped as the God of Israel's ancestors (Exod 2:23), in that same narrative the extent of God's saving power had not yet been revealed to them. Rather, the oppressive experience of the people in the land of Egypt suggested that God was either powerless in another land or disinterested in the Israelites' affliction.
The second suggestion is clearly not the case, for an earlier text states that God is indeed concerned:
But the Lord said, "I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey." Exodus 3:7-8
The account of the plagues will demonstrate that the first suggestion is incorrect as well. It will show that God does have both the power and the will to bring this salvation about.
Initially, the sides appear to have been equally matched. The Egyptian magicians were able to perform wondrous deeds that were comparable to those of Moses and Aaron. "But the Egyptian magicians did the same by their magic arts" (7:22; 8:3). This does not mean that YHWH was no more powerful than Pharaoh. Instead, it was a preliminary manifestation of divine power that rivaled that of the reigning sovereign. In itself, this was remarkable, for it was performed outside the confines of Israel. After the third plague, however, even the Egyptian wonder workers acknowledged the superior power of YHWH. "The magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.'Yet Pharaoh remained obstinate and would not listen to them, just as the Lord had foretold" (8:15).
The tradition does not suggest that God's initial plan was to defeat Pharaoh. Rather, it was a request of Pharaoh to free the people of Israel from bondage and to allow them to go into the wilderness in order to worship their own God. It was because of Pharaoh's refusal to concede to this request that God's mighty power was manifested. Again and again, through the agency of Moses and Aaron, the scope of God's might was revealed. It was shown to be superior to that of the deities of the land of Egypt and it was exercised through the orders of nature. God commanded the waters and animals of the earth as well as the hail and darkness of the sky. Finally, in the most terrifying event of all, the death of the first-born, God exercised control over life itself.
Several very important points are revealed through this final catastrophe. Paradoxically, the blood on the doorposts symbolized both life for the Israelites and death for the Egyptians. In a world of competition and limited resources (cf. Malina, 198 1), survival among more or equally powerful nations required assurance of God's power over life and death. Here, God's power was believed to have been manifested through protection of Israel and triumph over Israel's enemies.
The first-born of a family (Exod 12:12) usually signifies continuity as well as the very identity of the people. Here, God explicitly touches the lineage of both people. There seems to be an implicit parallelism between the households being protected and those being attacked. Using the life blood of the sacrificial animal, God both safeguards the life and future of Israel and strikes down the life and future of Egypt. The natural phenomena appear to have been individual skirmishes that built up to this final conflict. Pharaoh and all of Egypt with him have been conquered by the mighty hand and the outstretched arm of the God of Israel. There is now no question about the superiority of YHWH.
The complexity of the literary history of this unit makes identification of its historical setting very difficult. This is true about the individual incidents described within the narrative as well as the entire literary piece in its final form. It is as difficult to uncover the actual events that took place during the Egyptian sojourn as it is to ascertain the historical circumstances of the community to which the tradition was eventually addressed. From a historical point of view, this could be considered unfortunate. However, from a theological perspective, precise historical dating is not as important. This is so because the uncontested power of YHWH, the principal theme in this unit, speaks to every generation in all circumstances.
BLESSING INSTEAD OF AFFLICTION: THE BOOK OF SOLOMON
The Greek character of the Wisdom of Solomon is unmistakable. It is only found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible that appeared around the third century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). There its linguistic form is natural and free-flowing, suggesting that it originated in Greek rather than Hebrew. Its ample vocabulary from Hellenistic anthropology, philosophy, psychology, medicine, and the popular Isis cult reveals an author who enjoyed an exceptional grasp of the learning of this culture, a culture that did not exist at the time of the Israelite king to whom the book is attributed.
Several rhetorical devices found within the book resemble those developed by various Greek Cynic or Stoic philosophers. The technique that is used in the section under consideration here is the syncrisis, a Hellenistic form of comparison. All of this literary evidence suggests that the book originated in Alexandria in Egypt, one of the greatest intellectual centers of the Mediterranean world and the site of a large Jewish diaspora community. Most scholars date the Wisdom of Solomon somewhere in the last half of the first century B.C.E.
Despite the Greek characteristics, this is nonetheless a Jewish book. The influence of the Hebrew poetic technique of parallelism as well as certain Hebraic figures of speech can be detected throughout. The description of God's care during the exodus is a form of homiletic midrash, a method of Jewish interpretation that makes the biblical message relevant in new situations (cf. Reese, 1970:91-102). This kind of interpretation allows the traditional law, restated as halakah, and earlier narratives, retold as haggadah, to give faithful direction to a new generation.
In the past, the literary integrity of the Wisdom of Solomon was questioned (cf. Winston, 1979:12-14). Today, scholars generally agree on its structural unity. The book is usually divided into three sections, each of which appears to treat a very distinct theme. They are: Immortality as the Reward of Wisdom; Solomon and the Quest for Wisdom; God's Providence During the Exodus. However, a closer look shows that the book really does contain a coherent theology. God is encountered in the cosmos through Wisdom; eschatology or final fulfillment is built into the very structure of the cosmos; and history illustrates that same cosmic structure (Collins, 1977:128). In other words, in this book, creation is the matrix within which both history and salvation are to be understood.
The book's midrashic reflection on some of the Exodus events shows how Wisdom actually directed the course of history. The section under consideration consists of five syncrises, contrasts that compare the plight of the Israelites with that of the Egyptians (cf. Wright, 1967:177; Murphy, 1990:90f; Perdue, 1994:294; for seven contrasts see Reese, 1970:98-102; Winston, 1979:227). The contrasts themselves function in several different ways. At first glance they appear to demonstrate how God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. A closer look shows that what acts as the agent of Israel's blessing is as well the means of Egypt's affliction. "For by the things through which their foes were punished, they in their need were benefitted" (11:5). Even the Egyptians realized this. "For when they heard that the cause of their own torments was a benefit to these others, they recognized the Lord" (11: 13). Finally, the adversity is frequently effected through the Egyptians themselves: "That they might recognize that they are punished by the very things through which they sin" (11: 16). These comparisons constitute a reflection on God's preference of Israel over Egypt, a lesson aimed at the author's own contemporaries (perhaps Alexandrian Jews who are being seduced by the Hellenistic culture).
The first syncrisis develops the theme of thirst in the wilderness. It begins with the Greek word anti, "instead of" (11:6; cf. H: 15; 16:2; 16:20; 18:3), and compares the plague that bloodied water of the Nile was for the Egyptians with the boon that the spring from the rock was for the Israelites. In this experience, the Egyptians suffered a two-fold affliction: not only were they plagued with the polluted water, but they were further distressed with the knowledge of Israel's good fortune in the wilderness.
The second syncrisis (11: 15-16:15), which develops into a very extensive digression, both begins and ends with anti (11:6; 16:2). It compares the way the Egyptians were plagued by certain small animals, while the Israelites were fed by other small creatures (16: 1 f). It also states a secondary theme (v. 15f), the manner in which the very agents of Egypt's sin, the reptiles and insects that were worshipped in that land, turn on the people as blight and pestilence. The third syncrisis (16:16-23) describes how the heavens poured down both water and fire, and how these consumed the fruits of the land of the Egyptians. In contrast (anti, v.20), the same heavens opened up and rained manna, which sustained the Israelites in their need.
In the fourth syncrisis (17:1-18:4) the author weaves together themes from legends that grew out of the Exodus narrative with data gleaned from Hellenistic psychology. The Egyptians were paralyzed by the darkness. On the other hand (anti, 18:3), the Israelites advanced in the light provided by the pillar of fire. This comparison moves the discussion of darkness/light to the metaphorical plane. Those who preferred the darkness of ignorance and had imprisoned the children of God deserved the terror of the night, while it is fitting that those who would bring the brilliance of the law to the world should walk in light. The fifth and final syncrisis (18:5-19:2 1) describes how the decision of the Egyptians to massacre the sons of the Hebrews reverted onto their own sons. Once again the author shows how God turns things around.
The ethnocentricity of this book is striking. Such chauvinism is not merely a characteristic of the work, it is its primary focus. Furthermore, as described here, the ethnocentricity is given divine legitimation. In fact, according to this version of the story of the signs and wonders, it originated out of God's preference of one people over all others. From start to finish, the author is intent on demonstrating the superiority of his own religious tradition, and he does this at the expense of Hellenism, the culture that appears to him to have posed a real threat to the commitment of his compatriots. Not content to deride this threatening culture which was contemporary with himself, he ridicules another nation and culture, Egypt, the culture by which his ancestors had been threatened in times past. He does this in order to show that the people to whom he belongs have from their inception been God's special people and their religious beliefs and practices have always been superior to the beliefs and practices of all others.
The notion of having been specially chosen by God has been at the core of Israel's self-perception from the very beginning. At times, this belief has brought the people to their knees in awe and humble gratitude (cf. Exod 19:3-8). At other times it has led them into attitudes of arrogance and false confidence (cf. Jer 7: 1 -15). It is important to understand such ethnic bias and not superficially reject it, or worse, consider it part of divine revelation. It seems that in the Wisdom of Solomon such ethnic bias may well be a defensive reaction to a perceived threat to cultural survival, a threat arising out of a sense of vulnerability in the face of Hellenistic acculturation rather than superiority.
Although the content of the tradition of the signs and wonders as found in Exodus and in the Wisdom of Solomon is fundamentally the same, the point of each respective argument and the audiences to which they are directed are quite different. In Exodus, at issue was the sovereignty of YHWH and the loyalty of the people of Israel to their God. In the Wisdom of Solomon, at issue is God's preference for the people of Israel and the superiority of their religious beliefs. It is clear that the circumstances that challenged God's people at various times in their history influenced their reinterpretation of the Exodus tradition.
A question that arises from both books is yet unanswered: Does God use nature as an instrument of reward and punishment? To put it another way: what is the relationship between the natural order and the moral order? Is there merely an instrumental connection? Is nature simply a device that God uses to reward or punish? Does it serve not only the God-given purposes intrinsic to it but human designs as well? If such is the case, then nature is somehow dependent for its unfolding both on God and on humankind. In other words, it will rain when God so decides, but God's decision hinges upon human obedience. The texts certainly appear to say this, but when they do, what do they mean?
There is no question that the God of Israel controls the forces of nature. At issue is the relationship between the natural order and the moral order. The basis of the connection between morality and the natural order is tseadqah, the Hebrew word for righteousness. The original meaning of the word is "to be straight," "to conform to the norm." In the tradition of ancient Israel, this norm is the nature and will of God. In reality, it is God who is righteous (Ps 145:17). Human beings are righteous to the extent that they conform to God's will. Furthermore, righteousness and judgment, or justice (mishpat), are the foundation of God's throne (Ps 97:2). And according to the creation tradition, the cosmic throne was set up only after order had been established.
God's cosmic rule is rooted in righteousness. Israel believed that the same principle of righteousness governs the order on earth, because all order was established in the beginning by the same creator (Fretheim, 1991a:111). What happens on one plane of reality, therefore, has repercussions on another. Disruption of one facet of God's created order affects the harmony of the entire system. Such a worldview holds that moral order and natural order are inherently interrelated (cf. Fretheim, 1991a:106). The covenant theology found in the First Testament does not create this relationship, it reflects it and builds on it. With its law, Israel believed that it made specific the moral order established at creation, the moral order that was to be observed. With the rewards and sanctions associated with that law, it drew clear lines between this morality and the natural order to which it was linked.
Israel further believed that when women and men live lives of integrity, submissive to the orders of the universe, the balance within creation is maintained and all creatures enjoy peace and ecological tranquility. However, sin upsets this delicate balance established by God at creation, and the consequences of this imbalance are felt in natural disasters such as flood or drought or infertility of any kind. Israel maintained that because of the structure of this order, fidelity to God would ensure it prosperity in the land, while faithlessness would put into motion a series of events that could wreak havoc on the whole earth.
The biblical texts often portray God as acting in a very direct fashion whenever God blesses or punishes. This seems to be the view described in the account of the signs and wonders found in the Book of Exodus (for a view that sees the signs as prophetic cf. Fretheim, 1991; 1991a:107-8). On the one hand, Israel certainly did believe that there is an inherent connection between and among all of the various facets of creation and that there was a cause and effect link through which God's will is accomplished. On the other hand, Israel also insisted that God is totally free, transcending all standards and bound by no criterion. The first mode of divine action might be considered the usual way that God acts, through the regular laws of the natural world. The second mode of action could be seen as the extraordinary manner of divine activity. When the biblical author wished to stress divine sovereignty and freedom as in the Book of Exodus, the second mode is developed. When, as is the case in the Wisdom of Solomon, harmony and interdependence are the focus, the first is employed.
According to the tradition of the signs and wonders wrought in Egypt, the Pharaoh initially had agreed upon Israel's safe departure but then he revoked this permission and pursued God's people with a vengeance. This pursuit was to no avail, for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, even nature worked to save the Israelites and punish their pursuers (16:24-9). It should be noted that what are being described in this book are not miraculous events. Rather, nature protected and provided for God's people according to its own law, as if reward of the righteous is built fight into the structures of the universe (cf. Collins, 1983:184). "For all creation, in its several kinds, was being made over anew, serving its natural laws, that your children might be preserved unharmed" (19:6).
The distinctiveness of the creation theology found in the Wisdom of Solomon should not be overlooked. It is clear that the author follows the creation narrative of the priestly tradition (Gen 1: 1-2:4a) in his teaching about creation. However, in a bold move, he has used this same tradition here to describe salvation (Vogels, 1991). The Exodus event is not viewed as a military feat, but as a refashioning of nature (19:6). Even the sequence of this description follows the pattern of the creation narrative rather than events in the Book of Exodus.
The Book of Wisdom makes a unique contribution to creation theology. Much of the First Testament moves from salvation to creation:On the other hand, The Wisdom of Solomon begins with creation and moves to salvation. In fact, the book itself begins and ends with affirmations of God's creative purpose: "He created all things that they might endure" (1:14); "The whole creation was fashioned anew, so that your children might be preserved unharmed" (19:6).
I will make a covenant for them on that day,
with the beasts of the field,
with the birds of the air,
and with the things that crawl on the ground.
Bow and sword and war
I will destroy from the land,
and I will let them take their rest in security.Hosea 2:20
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be
remembered or come to mind.
As the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make
Shall endure before me, says the Lord,
so shall your face and your name endure.
A QUANTUM WORLDVIEW
The ancient Near Eastern worldview may appear to be too simplistic for contemporary believers whose perception of world order includes sophisticated scientific understanding. However, the ancients were not unlike those modern physicists who believe that all of creation is in some way connected and who are in search of a Grand Unified Theory that explains how the electromagnetic force, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity may have originally been united (Davies, 1985; Hawking, 1988). Although we understand the natural world in a way very different than did our religious ancestors, we have come to realize that interdependence is a fundamental characteristic of every ecosystem and the natural world is really a simple yet intricate arrangement of interconnected ecosystems.
Today we are not faced with the same challenges that faced the people of ancient Israel. We do not deem political vulnerability evidence of the superiority of a god not our own. Nor do we believe that accommodation to a new culture will necessarily undermine the fundamental principles of our religious heritage. Consequently, we will not comprehend the tradition of the signs and wonders in the same way as did those who preceded us in faith. However, when we recontextualize the tradition in order to understand it from the perspective of our world, it challenges us no less than it challenged the others. One of the issues facing us is twofold: the viability and the sustainability of the earth.
So much of the ecological devastation from which we suffer today is the direct result of our anthropocentric imperialism, our unbridled greed, and our disdain for what cannot immediately satisfy our needs or desires. These attitudes are both sinful and foolish. We, like every other creature of the natural world, are embedded in the reality of this world, we are not above it. Furthermore, like every other creature of the natural world, we are subject to its laws, laws established in the beginning by the Creator. In many ways, we have experienced what the ancients professed, that is: those who live in accord with these laws are blessed by the very creation that they respect; and those who violate them experience nature's revenge.
This does not deny certain social disparity; too frequently the innocent do suffer consequences of actions not their own and the guilty are often able to avoid the havoc that they have caused. This disparity notwithstanding, when elements within the world are altered, nature follows its course, even to the detriment of living creatures. We cannot afford to disregard the order of nature; we can no longer live with the myopia of chauvinistic anthropocentrism. The natural world works synergistically and if we are to survive within it, we must abide by its laws and not expect it to live according to ours.
As we read the biblical texts, we gain new insights when the horizon of our contemporary scientific world interacts with the horizon of the world projected by the biblical tradition of the signs and wonders. It is in this "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer, 1975:341-374) that understanding takes place. It is only when these insights are really appropriated into our thinking and acting that transformation and conversion are possible. Human ignorance and sinfulness have threatened the earth's ability to provide a viable habitat that can sustain life. This biblical tradition calls us to a real metanoia, a real conversion. Will we accept this challenge?
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- Wright, Addison G.
- 1967 "The Structure of the Book of Wisdom." Biblica 48:165-184.
Listening's thirty-three year old, wide-ranging and adventurous dialogue across the spectrum of religion and culture will continue in the journal's upcoming issues:
· The Winter, 1999 issue will address "Women and Violence" with contributions from various parts of the world, including the United States, Poland, and El Salvador.
· The Spring 1999 issue will address Religious Meaning in Electronic Culture. The ways in which religious meanings have altered and can persist in a radically new ambience will be the theme of the issue.
· The Fall, 1999 issue will be concerned with Prayer and Ethics. This theme is becoming a prominent one in discussions of the interrelation between religion and ethics.
Listening is published three times a year in Winter, Spring, and Fall.
1 year individual ($10) 2 years ($18) 1 year library ($13) 2 years ($23) 1 year individual foreign ($12) 2 years ($23) 1 year library foreign ($15) 2 years ($27)
- Please pay for the subscription at the time it is ordered.
- Editor Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture
Lewis University -- Box 1108
Romeoville, IL 60446-2298
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