A Return to the Garden

Climate Change
[1] While discussions about the environment might address a vast array of topics and problems, climate change has recently become the primary focus of attention in nearly all venues of public discourse. This is perhaps because the stakes are extremely high, it is a politically and economically charged issue, and it intersects with myriad other environmental problems. In the various media there is vigorous debate about the “truth” of climate change, debate that is bound up with seemingly intractable ideological differences between those who affirm and those who deny that the climate is changing and that humans bear responsibility for it.1 It is thus often instructive to pay attention to the social, political, and economic dimensions of climate change discourse (including how issues of power tend to reside beneath the surface), and to discern how science and scientific data are used either to prop up or dismantle the conclusion that humans are causing egregious changes to global climate systems. Of course, there may also be genuine debate among scientists about how to interpret some of the relevant data. In this context it is a challenge to discuss the ethics of climate change when the terms of discussion are so volatile and the various dimensions so complexly interwoven. In any case, though there is not space to make a formal argument here, I assume that 1) climate change is a fact and 2) that it is caused and/or exacerbated by human activity.2

Christianity and Environmental Ethics
[2] In the realm of environmental ethics one often encounters references to the seminal and controversial essay by Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,”3 in which White landed much of the blame for environmental degradation squarely on the shoulders of the Western Christian tradition. White argued that with its extreme anthropocentrism, its teleology of progress, and its tendency toward systemization, this tradition laid the foundation for the rise of science and technology by providing an a priori objectification of the natural world and its corollary instrumental view of the environment as containing “resources” for human mastery and use. He concluded that

what we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one…. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone.

[3] The reception of White’s essay has been mixed, and though he does not appear to cite it, his argument was preceded by an important article by Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler, who attempted to revise the Christian tendency toward spirit-body dualism by insisting that the kerygma of the Gospel is that the entire cosmos will be renewed — not merely the human spiritual condition but the entire order of creation is heir to the promise of redemption and restoration.4 Sittler’s essay was primarily a theological meditation whose aim was the re-sacralization of nature; it was not a work of environmental ethics, per se, but its implications for ethics and ecology were far-reaching.

[4] During the subsequent half century, many Christian theologians and ethicists have taken up the task of revaluing the natural world and rearticulating the relationship between “humanity” and “nature” within the context of traditional Christian claims about God, anthropology, and creation, and in conversation with developments in philosophical ethics. Indeed, it would seem that especially in moderate, mainstream denominations, a new appreciation for the natural world has emerged as regular fare, an eco-theology for the pulpit and the polis. Often this has entailed a move toward a more biocentric viewpoint that sees creation as an intrinsically good “web of life” made up of diverse members each with their own telos and worth.5 In contrast, in fundamentalist and charismatic circles one can detect a (rather suddenly) rising discourse about, and commitment to, “stewardship” models of environmental care — though in this case the environmental rhetoric often retains an anthropocentric focus on human value and responsibility, and does not accord inherent and autochthonous moral standing to non-human populations or ecosystems (or to the earth as a whole).6

[5] All this, it would seem, has accompanied a growing awareness among the general public in the Western world that human activity has resulted in widespread environmental harm and created the conditions for severe ecologic, social, and economic disruptions. In a recent work, Mark Wallace states that

a crisis is brewing, a crisis brought about in large part by our humanist legacy, and we need a paradigm shift in our thinking. The rich teachings of a revitalized green Christian faith is a living fund of ecological images and ideas that has the potential to transform the contemporary debate about the human-nature relationship in our time.7

In what follows I attempt briefly to reformulate a set of Christian “ecological images and ideas” as a way to frame an approach to the problem of climate change, drawing on a comparative (if not slightly revisionist) reading of the story of the Garden of Eden.

A Return to the Garden
[6] Any discussion of ethics consists at an elemental level of sorting out subject-object relationships. Environmental ethics usually entails an effort to characterize the relationships between humans and nature (or to decide whether such a dichotomy is even relevant in the first place), humans and any given member of an ecosystem, or humans and other humans (as, for example, in the case of environmental issues involving a problem of social justice, which ends up to be most of them). Thus, relationality is a foundational dimension of ethical deliberation, and the effort to define, rank, and relate objects of ethical consideration is par for the course.

[7] Following Paul, Ireneaus, and especially Augustine, traditional Christian readings of the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:4b-3:24) have taken the text to narrate a fall from grace, describing the origin of a state of alienation between God and humanity — and between and among humans — or in other words the disruption of divinely-ordered relating. This reading is constitutive of Christian theology insofar as it provides the question to which Christ is the answer: How will this state of alienation and estrangement be overcome? The answer to this question usually entails an understanding of salvation that is individual as well as corporate, spiritual as well as physical (if we include the doctrines of incarnation and resurrection). All sin and all sins are atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice, and his resurrection points forward to the complete restoration of humanity and creation in general.

[8] While I do not wish to confute such traditional readings (I hope I am no Pelagian), they tend to overlook certain aspects of the Garden story itself as well alternative readings that can provide a different perspective. Instead I propose that we might recontextualize the story long enough to see what it can teach us about human nature, God, and environmental ethics. By reframing the story and comparing it with the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, another reading becomes possible — one that in my opinion is not incompatible with Christian theology.8 As Joseph Blenkinsopp has stated, “the primary intent [of these stories] is not to provide information of a historical nature but to present paradigms of the possibilities, limitations, and complexities of human existence.”9

[9] With this in mind it becomes possible to derive another message from the story, one that constitutes a commentary on the human experience of alienation from nature (itself a product of our ego-consciousness or self-reflective capacities) as we move from a state of harmony and innocence toward a state of civilization. The Garden of Eden story begins with a description of a bountiful paradise, ends with a banishment and a curse, and the very next passages deal with the conditions of post-garden life: there is murder, hierarchies are established and cities are built, and evil proliferates upon the earth. Adam (who is made from adamah = “earth” or “dirt,” i.e. he is a dirt-being) and Eve (who is “mother of all living”) serve as the narrative fulcrums between nature and civilization, and their transgression leads to their self-awareness: “their eyes were opened” to their wildness, and the clothing they fashion represents the end of nature-harmony and the beginning of human culture. But they gain knowledge of good and evil as they lose the possibility for living eternally and unself-consciously in relation to their environment and to one another. In other words, they are equipped with moral sense as they make their way out into the world of “limitations and complexities,” the world in which they and their children move and live and consume.

[10] It is useful here to compare the story with the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the semi-divine hero undertakes a journey in pursuit of immortality. He begins his journey in the city of Uruk, encounters and befriends a wild-man-turned-urbanite (Enkidu, his alter-ego, who has made his own transition by way of a sexual encounter with Shamhat), makes his way to the dwelling place of the all-knowing Utnapishtim (at the “mouth of the rivers,” cf. Gen. 2:10), obtains a plant with life-giving powers and then loses it to a snake, and finally is sent back to the city whence he came. Before he departs, Utnapishtim grants Gilgamesh knowledge of the gods, and having “looked into the deep,” Gilgamesh returns with the wisdom that came from his journey. In other words, the story is an ancient meditation on human civilizational life, wisdom and self-knowledge, and the facts of death and alienation. The movement of the Epic involves a similar dynamic interplay as the characters relate to one another, to the gods, and to both nature and civilization; Gilgamesh, returning from his ordeal, re-enters Uruk with new knowledge and a transformed capacity for wise kingship.

[11] Thus do both the Garden of Eden story and the Epic of Gilgamesh — the former “knows” and reworks the latter — dwell on the question of how humanity is caught between nature and civilization, at once of the earth and yet separated from it by our edifices, systems, and rivalries. And both stories conclude that what separates us is the very thing that might help us in our state of alienation: we possess knowledge of good and evil, which is another way of saying we have the capacity to become wise, or that we might be able to navigate the complexities of life outside the garden. Both stories give frank recognition of the fact of our compromised and contingent condition, yet suggest that our hard-won wisdom is both a curse and a potential blessing.

[12] If we continue to read beyond the Garden of Eden story, we learn that the first eleven chapters of Genesis highlight the further breakdown of relationality, and thereby extend the critique of human culture and civilization and its attendant evils and contradictions. For all the arguable benefits of our consumption-driven, fast-growth, technological and industrial civilization, climate change is one disastrous product of a vast breakdown in relationality — a failure to discern and properly rank the objects of our consideration — and it remains to be seen whether we possess the wisdom and the will to reverse its effects. But as Blenkinsopp concludes,

we are under no illusion that ethical values alone, whether drawing their inspiration from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures or from some other source, will provide solutions to the environmental crisis. For some solutions it is probably too late anyway, much is beyond our control, and we soon develop immunity to exhortation, however well intentioned. But we are not entirely at the mercy of impersonal social and economic forces either. We can begin with ourselves…. We can begin by getting the point, circumscribing our natural and endemic acquisitive and incorporative instincts, and redirecting our moral energies toward responsible use of the resources at our disposal.10


[1] The website http://climatedebatedaily.com is a useful clearinghouse of information and argumentation.
[2] See the recent summary by James B. Martin-Schramm in the February, 2009 issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, “Human Rights and Climate Change.”

[3] Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.

[4] “A Theology for Earth,” Christian Scholar 37 (1954): 369-74.

[5] See for example Robert Booth Fowler, The Greening of Protestant Thought (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[6] This is in contrast to the persistent tendency among fundamentalist Christians to emphasize and reify traditional dualisms and to focus on the “end times,” which by their own definition entail the destruction and refashioning of the world — which is not a solid basis upon which to build an eco-theology.

[7] Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 93.

[8] See Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Gilgamesh and Adam: Wisdom through Experience in Gilgamesh and in the Biblical Story of the Man, the Woman, and the Snake,” in Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 85-101.

[9] Idem., 86.

[10] “Creation, the Body, and Care for a Damaged World,” in Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 52.

Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas, Assistant Professor of Religion, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California.