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Norman C. Habel

The Earth Bible is an international project that was initiated in Australia about 8 years ago. In the context of the current ecological crisis, a symposium was held in Adelaide on Ecology and Religion in 1996. In spite of considerable literature on ecotheology and ecospirituality, it became very apparent that few scholars had undertaken a serious attempt to interpret the biblical tradition from an ecological perspective. No explicit ecological hermeneutic had been developed. While many read the biblical text with a view to understanding ecological topics, few have sought to read the tradition from the perspective of Earth or the Earth community.

A group of interested biblical scholars was recruited to form a team which came to be known as the Earth Bible team. While the project was initiated in Australia, our aim from the outset was to engage in dialogue with biblical scholars from around the world. Consultants were selected from diverse backgrounds and writers invited from numerous countries. We were especially interested in the contribution of Indigenous writers who, unlike most Westerners, still have a deep sense of kinship with the natural world.

One of our concerns was to develop a set of guidelines for all writers to consider as they approached the text 'from the perspective of Earth.' This led initially to the articulation of a set of aims for the project, namely,

  • to acknowledge, before reading the biblical text, that as Western interpreters we are heirs of a long anthropocentric, patriarchal and androcentric approach to reading the text that has devalued the Earth and that continues to influence the way we read the text;
  • to declare, before reading the text, that we are members of a human community that has exploited, oppressed and endangered the existence of the Earth community;
  • to become progressively more conscious that we are also members of the endangered Earth community in dialogue with ancient texts;
  • to recognize Earth as a subject in the text with which we seek to relate empathetically rather than as a topic to be analyzed rationally;
  • to take up the cause of justice for Earth to ascertain whether Earth and the Earth community are oppressed, silenced or liberated in the text;
  • to develop techniques of reading the text to discern and retrieve alternative traditions where the voice of Earth and Earth community has been suppressed.

Our guidelines for reading the text were grounded in a set of principles which we designated ecojustice principles. These principles were developed in dialogue with ecologists, such as Charles Birch (1990), and their writings over a number of years. The principles articulated below were refined in consultations and workshops concerned with ecology in general, and ecological concerns linked to the Bible in particular.

XXXXThe principle of intrinsic worth: the universe, Earth and all its components have intrinsic worth/value.
The principle of interconnectedness: Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.
The principle of voice: Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.
The principle of purpose: the universe, Earth and all its components are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design.
The principle of mutual custodianship: Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over, Earth to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community.
The principle of resistance: Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustices but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.

These principles provided the basis for posing questions of the text from an ecojustice or ecological perspective. This hermeneutic is, of course, a second-level reading of the text; writers first pursue a recognized biblical critical analysis in their reading of the text. The Earth Bible team has tried to be completely open about the orientation and principles involved in this articulation of an ecological hermeneutic. We do not believe this approach imposes a subjective perspective any more than a Lutheran, liberation or feminist approach does. We all have a perspective from which we read; the challenge in the current ecological crisis is to read the text from the perspective of Earth.

Where did this approach to reading the text begin? Some may argue that as an exegete born and raised among the emus and eucalypts of the Australian countryside, I was unknowingly nurtured as much by the Australian bush as by the rigorous discipline of a Lutheran tradition. It could also perhaps be argued that wandering with my brother for miles every weekend deep in the native scrub, where I felt quite safe amid snakes, spiders and goannas, I unconsciously developed a spiritual connection with non-human Earth phenomena.

Just as significant a factor in the Australian context is our growing appreciation of the deep spiritual bond with the land that our Indigenous brothers and sisters still possess. They read their stories written in the landscape and hear the voices from landscape in their very souls. They, in turn, have challenged us to discern the landscape in the biblical stories and discern its voices in the written story. To illustrate my point, I invite you to consider the article by Wally Fejo in Volume Two of the Earth Bible series. If I understand God to be 'within Earth' rather than in the sky, as Wally Fejo does, how does that influence my understanding of the flood story in Genesis?

It needs to be emphasized that this orientation is not be identified with belief in Earth as a goddess like the classical Greek figure of Gaia. My experience of the Indigenous world led me to recognize a dimension of life and thought that has been lost to most of us in the Western world, at least since the Enlightenment if not before. The Earth community is not only a part of creation reflecting massive diversity; it is also an extensive family, a network of interconnected beings. Everything from the platypus to plasma is my kin in some way.

Given my Western orientation, I — quite understandably — had viewed the natural world in the biblical text as an object of investigation, rather than as kin to be encountered, experienced, known and respected. What happens when I begin to read with a view to meeting members of the Earth community as relatives rather than topics for study?

A further contributing factor in the development of an ecojustice hermeneutic has been the emergence of what I am calling a new 'Earth consciousness', a consciousness that assumes a variety of social, psychological and spiritual forms of expression. These diverse expressions of awareness are responses to the ecological crisis facing Earth and appear in a wide range of disciplines and domains of contemporary society.

Planet Earth, after the initial trip of humans to the moon, was no longer viewed as an indestructible mass of matter that could be exploited for oil, soil and endless resources selected for human consumption. Quite suddenly, Earth was a fragile green-blue planet that many sensitive and Earth-conscious humans regarded in a new way. Earth was no longer a cluster of conflicting countries; Earth was home. And a new question was posed: How should we relate to this precious planet and why is it in such jeopardy now?

There have been many responses to this scenario of our precious planet in jeopardy. Very few, however, represent what I would call honest readings of the text from the perspective of this planet or the life of this planet. More significant perhaps in this debate are those theologians and biblical scholars who have responded to Lynn White (1967) and other critics of the Christian heritage. These writers tend to develop an ecotheology that does not articulate a governing hermeneutic for reading the text. Ecotheologians, I would argue, have often indulged in what I would term exegetical 'cherry picking': selecting biblical texts that seem to endorse Earth as sacred and humans as God's stewards chosen to tend Earth and rule it justly. These theologians and exegetes tend to base their approach on a more traditional creation theology; creation — and hence Earth — is a topos for revelation and reflection rather than a subject with a voice to be heard.

As we proceeded in the writing of articles for the Earth Bible, it became apparent that the principles led us to focus on a broad hermeneutic of suspicion and retrieval. With each principle we could ask whether the text reflects an explicit anthropocentric bias that devalues, silences or negates Earth or whether traditions and voices can be discerned in the text that value and affirm Earth and the natural world as more that the place or property of humans.

We were fortunate that Sheffield Press was willing to endorse the project and publish the initial five volumes of the series. The first volume includes several articles introducing the approach and its background. At the beginning of each of the subsequent volumes, we engage in dialogue about one or more of the hermeneutical principles involved. For a more extended discussion about the origins and challenges of this approach I refer you to my article in the Martin Buss Festschrift entitled Relating to the Text.

At the Annual SBL Meeting in San Antonio (2004) we will lead a Consultation on Ecological Hermeneutics that, we hope, will extend this dialogue with an even wider range of biblical scholars. This may lead to a second series of volumes using this approach, perhaps in a modified form, as we refine our hermeneutic in the context of an extended international dialogue.

In America volumes in the Earth Bible series are distributed through Pilgrim Press. Elsewhere the distributing body is Continuum and its subsidiaries Allen and Unwin and Orca Book Services. Those interested in exploring possible avenues for the future of this project are invited to contact me at mailto:earthbible@flinders.edu.au or check the website http://www.flinders.edu.au/earthbible.

Norman Habel has been a member of SBL since 1958, editor of The Earth Bible Project and Professorial Fellow at Flinders University of South Australia.

References

Birch, Charles (1990) On Purpose (Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales Press).

Fejo, Wally (2000) 'The Voice of the Earth: An Indigenous Reading of Genesis 9' in Norman Habel & Shirley Wurst The Earth Story in Genesis: Earth Bible Volume Two (Sheffield: Academic Press).

Habel, Norman (2003) 'The Origins and Challenges of an Ecojustice Hermeneutic' in Timothy Sandoval & Carleen Mandolfo Relating to the Text London: T & T Clark)

White, Lynn (1967) 'The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis', Science 155: 1203-7.

Citation: Norman C. Habel, " The Earth Bible Project," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=291

 
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