In this discussion, recorded at the November 2018 Sinai and Synapses Fellowship meeting, Sarah Goss, Laura Donnelly, Ruth Shaver and Ashlynn Stillwell talk about how to uphold our obligations to repair the world, while acknowledging the Christian notion of its “fallenness.” Are Biblical standards of the Earth’s perfection and purity, and our knowledge of living as a “fallen species,” useful for motivating us to protect it? How do we create a standard of protecting creation that integrates the irreversible effect we’ve already had on it? And does our fallenness yield only knowledge – or wisdom as well?

The Sinai and Synapses Fellows raise these questions in an interview focusing on “God’s Creation and Our Creation,” part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum. This adapted transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Goss: So today we are going to talk about healing the trauma of the commons, the idea that our individual desires are creating a problem for the larger world. Was the Earth cursed after the fall of man, and what would creation look like on an unfallen Earth?”

I want to start with a quote here:

When Adam and Eve ate of that knowledge, they consumed something that changed their human nature, and imperiled not just them, but all of humanity. And eating of the fruit was a rejection of allowing land to be managed by God and His natural law, which mirrors humanity’s treatment of our bodies, minds and our communities. So our management of our ecological, spiritual and physical resources has become law-like, designed to govern land as if it’s a resource, and not a dynamic system that God designs to bring forth flora and fauna. And in Genesis, God commanded us to “let the earth to bring forth,” yet humans use land as if it’s an end for human use. So what would the Earth look like if God were still in control of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – when that good God created is allowed to be destroyed further, what happens to the spirit of humanity?”

Laura Donnelly: I’m thinking about the final question, which was: “what would the earth look like if God was still in control?”

And I think those two common elements, tragedy and trauma, would not exist. Especially in Reformed Protestant theology, tragedy and trauma are usually attributed to original sin. And that’s kind of a very deep theological notion. If we were to try and imagine what the earth or what humanity would look like, we would, in my opinion, not have this element, because a lot of our understanding of suffering comes from the sense of fallenness from the divine, from the imago dei, from the divine likeness. And then how that suffering, I think, has had an impact.

I think, moreover, to the Earth, and how we have been treating the earth, from an ecological justice standpoint – we have, as a result of our fallenness, have continued to harm and hurt other people, which again speaks to the trauma and tragedy aspects you brought up. Ashlynn, do you want to jump in?

Ashlynn Stillwell: I do, actually. Laura, you said that there wouldn’t be tragedy and trauma if God were still in control. I can see that, based on scripture and on faith traditions – that with an all-loving God, there should not be a tragedy and trauma that comes along with that.

But at the same time, I think my view on it is possibly influenced by a book I just finished last night, which was about the 2008 flood of the Mississippi River and its effect on Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The book is called “The 1000-Year Flood.” And I grew up in Missouri, which is just south of Iowa, and I had experience with these big rivers flooding. And it is a tragedy and a trauma – tragedy from the perspective of how many people were affected by such a large flood, and the fact that it’s mostly lower-income individuals and households that live in floodplains.

So it is a trauma for those individuals, but at the same time, I think it’s a perspective of for whom is this a tragedy or a trauma. And from the perspective of the ecosystem, floods are necessary for supporting life. They are part of a natural (albeit exacerbated by humans from climate change) cycle, for big rivers to flood on occasion, and to deposit silt and sediment and new soils onto flood plains – which, yes, wipes out a lot of life in the process – human, and other animal and plant life. But it brings about new life through that regeneration process.

And so, thinking about things like floods and wildfires, more of these natural tragic or traumatic events, it kind of depends on perspective. So for humans that have built homes in floodplains, or humans that have built homes in forests that have been destroyed by wildfires – yes, that’s a horrible thing, but it also leads to new life in a godly, geologic time frame.

Sarah Goss: And to respond to that a little bit, I have been thinking about trauma in relation to the #MeToo movement. And it just happens that we’re all women in this room right now. And it’s not just a trauma for women, but it’s a cultural trauma, because men haven’t been taught how to ask for consent. And so they haven’t been taught different ways of interacting and respecting the bodies of women, or the minds and the spirits of women.

And so that connects to thinking about respecting the land and respecting God. And original sin – do we, in the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and just thinking about moral right and wrong, good and evil, and consuming good and evil morality think that we have as much knowledge? This was something that we were talking about earlier, knowledge. We think it’s so fascinating, we think it’s so wonderful, creation. And so we think it’s so fascinating – and it is fascinating – that we’ve been changing nature. We think we can’t change nature by putting CO2 in the air, but maybe that’s not how physics works, and now that theory is being put to the test. Now it turns out that we can have a couple 100-year floods or even 1,000-year floods in a century.

So yeah, we have knowledge, and we have power from it in so many ways, but would those floods have occurred, had we not changed the physics around the floodplain in the first place, and engineered around that?  In so many ways, the Army Corps of Engineers are a reason behind a lot of the floods that happen, but then they go back and try to fix it later. It reminds me of how, looking at that Knowledge of Good and Evil, that serpent that said “you could be like God” – and he was called crafty, he was seen as tricking Eve.

Ruth Shaver: I think there’s something to that, because for me, we got knowledge of good and evil in that story – we didn’t get wisdom. And you know, there’s this piece of me – I have two thoughts about the image of God in which we’re created. Because I don’t think it’s a literal, physical image. For one thing, I think part of our image of God is our creativity, and another piece of the image of God, for me, is wisdom –  you know, which goes to the Proverbs piece, and Lady Wisdom, and that kind of thing.

So if we already have that creativity and that wisdom within us, and we’ve got the knowledge of Good and Evil, where the disconnect is, and where the brokenness is, is in how our wisdom is not connected to our knowledge. And I think that’s the some of the source of these tragedies and traumas, because we don’t have the wisdom to recognize the role that we play in them. Floods are going to happen anyway, but the wisdom to not build in a flood plain, or to make it possible for people who are lower-income to build on a bluff, is huge.

The rivers that have a confluence in the White Mountains were deeply impacted by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The low-pressure system of that storm sat over the headwaters of several rivers that come down through the White Mountain valleys. And there are still people recovering from the damage, who thought “why in the world do I care about hurricanes now?”. And there’s a place in the Conways that’s on the floodplain, and they let them rebuild. And it’s like, do you not get this? I mean, I’m new to the community, but hello, don’t do this!

My hometown is Corpus Christi, Texas. We watched Hurricane Harvey take a bend and go north of the city. And they’re still now talking about building resorts and homes on the barrier islands that got missed with Hurricane Harvey. I’m going “Why!?.” I think it goes back to that sense that we have some sort of power over creation, and we can build things that are hurricane-proof, we can build things that are flood-proof, we can build things that are wind-proof, we can proof our homes and our businesses against anything that nature throws around us. But you know – the observatory at Mt. Washington, if you’re going to do an overnight stay in any season of the year, you have to be able to physically climb down that mountain, because they can’t guarantee they can get you out any other way. They’re at least smart enough to know, have the wisdom to know, that you may have to do it the hard way.

Laura Donnelly: If I can just jump in on that, too, I really like where you’re going with that. And I think I would definitely agree, in terms of knowledge and the wisdom aspect. And I think what you were saying at the end there  – we have all this knowledge, we have all this ability, to build, to create, to do this, to do that, but I think the wisdom is the question of “should we?”. And I completely agree, especially in relation to the examples that you described there about building around floodplains and where there has been previous flooding in the past, to me that’s just, yes, a big “should we” question.

Ruth Shaver: And if we shouldn’t, how do we then make it possible for the people who will be dislocated to build where it is going to be safer for them? Because that’s a political will question.

Laura Donnelly: Exactly. Ashlynn, just a quick question. When you shared about that book “The 1000-Year Flood,” you said that floods are necessary. Does that mean that they’re necessary in any context, or is it kind of relating back to what we’re saying, that they’re essentially manmade – woman-made, human-made. Or would they happen regardless of our influence or impact?

Ashlynn Stillwell: Hydrologically speaking, floods would happen whether we as humans were involved or not, but one could certainly argue that when we as humans start to engineer solutions or to floodproof something, we could actually make it worse. In a lot of flood situations, our response is to build levees and to sandbag levees. And what that starts to do in a temporary fix is  build up the walls around the channel of the river. And it’s the same amount of water, and that needs to go somewhere. So while we keep it away from us right here, it just sends everything downstream and arguably makes it worse for those downstream.

So – floods would happen without human influence, and that is the process of returning topsoil to the floodplain itself. And then it erodes away, washes into the stream, is carried downstream, and then the floods, over, time bring it back. So that’s kind of the thing we all learned about in elementary school, when you learn about ancient civilizations like the ancient Egyptians – that they would farm the floodplain, but they didn’t live there. They depended on the seasonal floods, but they lived somewhere on a higher elevation. And they farmed the floodplains based on that predictable cycle. But there’s also an element of religious ritual to it, where that became sort of a deified process, and if the floods didn’t come, or if the floods were too big, that was something that we as humans did wrong to made the god upset. 

Sarah Goss: Right. Now, extending what you’re talking about, agriculture was seen as a part of that curse on the land. Now “man is going to have to till the land in order to eat from the land. Thorns and thistles will grow from the land. By the sweat of his brow, he will eat.”

So now we’re farming so much on the land, and we’re applying pesticides and chemicals to the land, in order to grow more. But we’re not doing agriculture in a way that retains nutrients, so much as we’re washing them down into the flood and creating toxic zones into the Gulf of Mexico. Because of runoff from the fields and because of the channeling, it’s got a vector to go into these channels and to create more problems.

And applying fertilizers becomes problematic when we are only interested in field output, rather than keeping nutrients in the soil. So that’s another thing to think about as well, that we’re not necessarily considering the soil biota, and the ecosystem of that particular piece of creation, as “good.”

Ashlynn Stillwell: It’s so hard though, right, because you’ve got this mismanagement of the land and the resources in the land, but at the same time, we’re not doing that just for fun. We’re doing that to cultivate food for the world, and the global population does not all have a secure source of food. So it’s this weird whack-a-mole problem, where we’re trying to feed a global population, because as followers of a faith tradition, to borrow a Christian term, we are called to take care of the least of these – if someone is food-insecure, we should grow food and feed them.

But then, look at how we grow the food. Now we’ve got a tradeoff between all of the parts of this big system. A part of me wonders if the allegorical fall, the expulsion from the garden, is God as a parent essentially saying, “OK children, it’s time to grow up, and you need to start taking care of yourselves. I’ve been doing this for you, it’s your turn now. Yeah, it’s hard work. Welcome.” 

Sarah Goss: Coming from that perspective, I can also see it like somebody looking at what’s going on and saying “wow, look at what’s going on,” and then saying “you guys are really screwing up.”

Laura Donnelly: Time for a Second Coming!

Ruth Shaver: It’s interesting. I had a book group during the fall with several members of my congregation working through the stuff that came out of my dissertation. And we got started talking about the laws in Leviticus, particularly around the public health stuff, and the agricultural stuff. And one of my parishioners made the observation that we think science started in the 1500s – no, read Leviticus. It’s all science, it’s all observational. And she’s a gardener, and she said, “you know, what fascinates me is that when I was growing vegetables on a much more regular basis, I usually couldn’t grow the same thing in the same place for more than three years at a time. I had to rotate my crops through my garden.” And she said, “Isn’t it interesting that the Sabbath year seems to be about the time when you’ve exhausted the nutrients in a field of just about anything?” And she said, “Hmm… do you think there were some scientists among them?”

So there is this innate knowledge that comes even out of our care for the earth, and our care for each other, in the process of providing food for each other. Modern farming techniques basically tried to obliterate the need to allow crops to lie fallow, or to rotate them through, by pumping new chemicals into the soil, and that has turned out to be very disastrous.

And what I find interesting is that with all of the different federal programs for supplementing farmers’ income and that kind of stuff, I had farmers who were able to allow a third of their cropland to lie fallow in a given time after the first cycle of their supplements, because the other two-thirds of their land was doing so much better – after lying fallow. And I said “Hmm, I seem to recall reading something in the Bible about that.” “Oh, they didn’t know anything about that.” I was just going “agggh!”

There is that sense that, you know, there is ancient knowledge that we have lost in the process of using our newer knowledge, and sometimes we have to cycle back to that, and sometimes, you know, what we didn’t know back then didn’t hurt us. And what we did know back then was really helpful. You know, you see nature getting more and more out of balance as the generations go by.

Ashlynn Stillwell: We’re also more and more removed from nature. More and more of the world’s population lives in cities than doesn’t, as of a few years ago. So we are increasingly becoming a species of indoor dwellers. We spend something like – I forget the statistic, 93 to 95% of our lives indoors. One of my colleagues who does work on indoor air quality says “our buildings are our ocean. If we were whales in our ocean, our buildings, and the air around us, is our ocean, and we are constantly in contact with that.” And so consequently, it is easy for us to not know where food comes from, what is in season and what is not in season, and what does it take to actually grow and cultivate our own food, especially as it comes to things like expanding and increasing meat consumption globally. Meat was a delicacy and a luxury item, and now meat is a food staple? 

Ruth Shaver: Well it is for me – I’m a carnivore, sadly. I need to become much more of an omnivore and shift the focus of my plate. But, that’s one of those things, talking about the bigger picture of climate change and that kind of stuff. That’s the area of my life where I have the knowledge, and I have the wisdom, I just haven’t connected them. So I’ve got to do that, and that’s a something that’s on me to do, to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It’s just getting the motivation to do it – because I like meat!

Laura Donnelly: Amen. Me too. So I’ve got a couple of thoughts. I have a great book title if anyone wants to write on Leviticus – “In the Weeds with Leviticus.” I think would be a really good topic. Because I think there’s so much there yet to learn, and I haven’t read Leviticus in years, but the way you described it is just refreshing my memory of it, like absolutely.

And my first question on that basis would be this: does anywhere in the Bible, does it refer to like the slash-and-burn technique, or is that something that in terms of like agricultural methods, is that something that’s still kind of encouraged, and is that something, in terms of modern and ancient agricultural methods, and that we would see producing more benefit to the land?

I’m remembering that after one of the wildfires in California, could have been a couple of years ago, but there were the most gorgeous flowers that came as a result of the fires there. I think it was a couple of years ago. And it was absolutely stunning. And to me, that was just kind of recalling my days studying geography. I recall that, yes, slash-and-burn was a technique, a farming technique that was used, and they always seem to say that it had positive results from it. But yeah, that was just – it was gorgeous, like all these daisies and wildflowers, just so, so beautiful. 

Sarah Goss: Hmm. I want to say that there’s something in the Bible about it, but I don’t know if it’s a direct reference to burning and then growing–

Ruth Shaver: In terms of destruction?

Sarah Goss: – or if it’s something that did burn and grow afterward. But I want to say there’s something in there. 

Ruth Shaver: Well, I found interesting that when Yellowstone burned, they’ve done the long term follow-up studies on how much has come back that they thought was gone forever, including the fauna. It turns out these animals found safe havens and came back and have repopulated. It’s the cycle of nature. It goes along with the floods. You know, forest fires are a part of the natural cycle. And there’s wisdom in the way the world works – going back to that idea that “God wrote the rules and the rules work.” 

Sarah Goss:  Also, going back to this original idea of kicking Adam and Eve out of the garden, and saying “no, you can’t come back in because you ate of this fruit, you consumed this knowledge of Good and Evil.” And so, I’m just thinking, now they have this ability to choose between right and wrong, to decide good and evil, to be like God – well, at least they think they do, they were deceived by this serpent.

And so they’re kicked out, and God doesn’t want them to eat of the Tree of Life either. But that’s not the tree they weren’t allowed to eat from. The tree they weren’t allowed to eat from was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So I think this is an interesting distinction as well: they were allowed to eat from the Tree of Life when they were in the garden. It’s still there, in the stories, just angels are guarding it now, and you can’t go in, you can’t eat it. And you know, in my mind, of course, Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans, because that would be absurd, and there would be nobody for them to mate with, or for their kids to mate with, and then there wouldn’t be Cain and Abel.

Ruth Shaver: And there would be no Cain’s wife.

Sarah Goss: Right. And so that’s the thing that makes them not the first humans, but perhaps the ones that God is speaking to in this first story about humans. And so if before that, allegorically, humans were not fallen – before that, none of the earth but sinning, right. And so we’re saying – this is 6000 years ago.

No. It’s a story. Thank God. Sorry, sometimes I can’t help going back to my job. So, this distinction – and it’s only for humans, right, it’s not for the rest of creation, until it is. But man makes it – the fall of man transfers it to the rest of creation. That’s how it’s read, right, in the Bible? Or does it not transfer to the rest of creation, it’s only for man? Because I don’t think that anywhere in the Bible does it say that cats (speaking of cats as we were earlier), need to have their soul saved.

Ruth Shaver: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because if we hold that the knowledge of Good and Evil is sentience of some sort, and we think that humans are the only sentient beings on Earth, at least from our perspective, then how could the rest of creation be fallen, because they don’t have the capability of being fallen? So is it our interaction with creation that makes it appear that creation is fallen, you know, or is it our perception of the things that are natural in creation that we feel like we’re persecuted because of that original sin. Did either of those things make sense?

Ashlynn Stilwell: I think it depends on what perspective we take on sin, too. Because there’s the Evangelical Christian view of what seems to be labeled as “doing things wrong,” but then there’s also another perspective of sin as separation from God, or more of a Jewish perspective on sin, which is “missing the mark.” We tried, and we just didn’t get there, but we can keep on trying. So from a perspective of doing things wrong, especially maliciously doing things wrong, I don’t know if that’s where creation goes, but in a separation-from-God perspective, maybe that’s what the allegory of the story is trying to tell us.

Laura Donnelly: Definitely, I mean I completely agree, Ashlynn. I do think that’s how I read the doctrine of sin, especially in Mainline Protestant theology. It is that separation, and that was essentially the reason for the atonement, to be at one again with God, to reduce that distance that we have self-imposed.

But in terms of if that transfers over to creation itself, like to the earth, the sin aspect, I think it would be helpful in this situation – because I only studied Catholic social teaching, but I do think this would be an interesting perspective to hear – Catholics who primarily would support an agenda of natural theology, that everything that is created is not only a reflection of God, but is actually divine. And I wonder if someone could, either in our group, or maybe we could do a bit more research on this, see if there is any strains or strands of Christianity in general that would support a notion that creation itself has been consumed or subsumed within a notion of sinning. Nothing is springing into mind for me on that, so I would have to probably say no.

But I think it’s an interesting concept, because if we see ourselves as creators, as we talked about earlier today, what we essentially create, and whether that be farming the land, and whether that be other human beings, whether that be through our creativity in many ways, we have to have a certain sense of responsibility as well for what we create. So I think that would come under, I think, an understanding of what we do create in this world, however fallen it still is, has a sense of sinfulness to it as well. But there’s something about that that’s very heavy, and I’m so reluctant to arrive at that. So I’m just thinking through it a bit more, but I think, you know, that’s a really interesting question – and a pretty deep one at that, too.