Humane Religion Magazine
September - October 1998 Issue
STEPHEN R.L. CLARK
The following article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in the Modern Churchman in 1986. The author, Stephen R.L. Clark, is Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University, England, and has written many books and dozens of articles on the subjects of religion, animals, and the environment. Used by permission
In the book of Job "Yahweh describes himself as the wisdom that makes for the survival of the wild ass, the hamster, the eagle, the ostrich, of all living nature, and the wisdom that uproots mountains and annihilates angels."* The vision of things before which Job at last bowed his head, and repented in dust and ashes, was one that Philo of Alexandria also approved: a sort of cosmic democracy, in which each creature gets its turn, and is allowed its own integrity. So far from dictating that we human beings should think all nature at our own disposal, the Bible constantly insists that humankind is not alone, not privileged above all others, not like God. "Do you not know, have you not heard, were you not told long ago, have you not perceived ever since the world began, that God sits throne on the vaulted roof of earth, whose inhabitants are like grasshoppers? He stretches out the skies like a curtain, he spreads them out like a tent to live in; he reduced the great to nothing and makes all the earth's princes less than nothing. To whom then will you liken me, whom have you set up as my equal? asks the Holy One" (Isaiah 40:21ff.).*
Where humanist Christianity has borrowed from Stoicism, the self-congratulatory notion that "nothing irrational is capable of the beatifying friendship with God which is the bond of Christian love of neighbour"** and thence concluded that "the irrational" is only material for our purposes, the Bible expects us to accept our place within the creation, to live by the rules God imposes, to take what we need, no more, and to give up our demands so that life may go on....
Northrop Frye, in his attempt to see the Bible whole, concludes that one of its messages is that we shall not regain the world we have lost, with all creatures as our friends, ”until we know thoroughly what hell is and realize that the pleasure gained by dominating and exploiting either our fellow man or nature itself, is a part of the hell-world." ***
Things are not wholly at our disposal, and never will be, either in the sense that we can or that we ought to use them with an eye solely to our benefit, and avoid all inconveniences of this mortal life. We cannot by any technical means transform this world into a pleasure garden, nor ought we to try. Nor can we retreat within a denatured city, and imagine that we thereby fulfill the biblical prophecy of a world wholly suffused with humanly significant meaning, “when there shall no more sea, ” no more image of the unaccountable. The city that the Bible praises was imagined as a part of the land within which it stood, the holy mountain where wolf shall dwell with lamb, leopard lie down with kid (Isaiah 11:6), and the leaves of the trees serve for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22.2).
No one who reads the Bible can doubt that its human authors were deeply conscious of the natural world, the creation, the land flowing with milk and honey. Where we see "nature," the non-human environment ruled by powers alien to humankind, they saw God's creation, a world continually offering embodied images of the spiritual values they pursued.
“The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel spoke of [David]: He who rules men in justice, who rules in the fear of God, is like the light of morning at sunrise, a morning that is cloudless after rain and makes the grass sparkle from the earth” (2 Samuel:23:3). In the mouths of poets and prophets this is more than simile, more than a rather strained declaration that a just ruler is like the sun after rain.
The prophet sees God's liberating justice in the light when God sets His rainbow in the sky "sign of the covenant between [Himself] and earth." (Gen. 9:14)..." The whole world has rest and is at peace; it breaks into cries of joy. The pines themselves and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you." (Isaiah 14:7f.)
The whole world, not merely human history, embodies God's purposes to the prophetic eye, and no general distinction is drawn between humans and non-humans. God's purposes, indeed, may be more fully and obviously em-bodied in the non-human, and moral examples are drawn from them: "Mothers, cherish your sons. Rear them joyfully as a dove rears her nestlings." (2 Esdras 2:15)
Why, then, are there so few general injunctions to behave decently to the non-human? The word of the Lord to Ezra: "Champion the widow, defend the cause of the fatherless, give to the poor, protect the orphan, clothe the naked. Care for the weak and the helpless and do not mock at the cripple; watch over the disabled, and bring the blind to the vision of my brightness. Keep safe within your walls both old and young." (2 Esdras 2:20ff.) These commands could certainly be read as applying to non-human creatures, but just as certainly, they were not....
[But] what should Christians feel obliged to do in this new age, when God has given us the power to remake things if we choose, and in the remaking, find disaster? The first step is simply not to aim too high, not to expect a pleasure garden, not to demand our human comforts at whatever cost, not to "turn the world into a desert and lay its cities in ruins."(Isaiah 14:17) If we cannot live in the land on the terms allotted to us, allowing others their place, not disregarding the needs of the apparently defenseless, not claiming the right to decide how all things should go, we shall find that we have lost the land.
The natural historian of a future age may be able to point to the particular follies that brought ruin. Chopping down the tropical rain forests, introducing hybrid monocultures, financing grain-mountains and rearing cattle in conditions that clearly breach the spirit of the commandment not to muzzle the ox who treads out the corn. (Deut.25:4)
The historian whose eyes are opened to the spiritual will have no doubt that human beings brought ruin upon themselves..."How long must the land lie parched and its green grass wither? None of the birds and beasts are left, because its people are so wicked and they say, God will not see what we are doing." (Jeremiah 12:4) #
*H.M.Kallen: N.N.Glazer (ed.), The Dimensions of Job, 1969.