It is safe to say that Plundering Eden is an exercise of the imagination. I, of course, do not practice what I preach to a degree I would desire. I am honored and humbled to have this conversation around my book by such excellent scholars.
Response to Brian Brock
I am grateful for Brian Brock’s engagement. I am encouraged that the substance of the book is communicated well enough that reading his summary felt like an accurate description of my intention.
I would like to chiefly respond to Brock’s contention that my view of worship is “too ephemeral” and should really point to the eucharistic host that is Jesus Christ. Perhaps I should have discussed the sacrament in the book. I have spent the last year working on a project for my denomination on the sacrament, however.The Lord’s Supper: ECO Theology and Resources. Accessed https://www.theology-eco.org/publications.
The first thing I would contend is that Michel Serres’s use of “host” is problematic as it rests on a confusion of separate etymologies hostia and hospis, which, though separate in Latin, eventually come to English via French as the same. The animal sacrifice, hostia, later extended to the eucharist, is thus not the same as someone who receives a guest or an enemy army, as used with parasites.
Historically speaking, it does not seem plausible to me that Jesus would have been engaged in the type of Hellenistic symbolic-ontological thinking (“Axial Age”) that later Christian theology of the eucharist requires. Jesus is a long way from Philo of Alexandria and from mystery religion (sacramentum). Jesus the Jew, in reinterpreting the Passover, is positioning himself both as the covering blood from the wrath of God, and as the bread which provides liberation. For the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the matzah was the last of the grain grown in imperial bondage. Henceforth their food would be manna, bread of heaven. In light of this, Jesus provides his Last Supper as a liberational meal after which his disciples would eat of shared labor rather than slave labor, as in Acts 2:42–47. Rather than the flesh and blood of the man Jesus as parasites upon a host, his people eat of the fruit of his body, the church.
So, whose version of worship is too ephemeral? I would argue it is those who find it necessary to produce ontological links between the Creator and the creation and by doing so bypass the need for a political reality rival with those of the world.So, whose version of worship is too ephemeral? The Last Supper is a Passover-political “kingdom” reality. It is among this exilic community that bread can be produced without extractive labor. It is by eating of the fruit of this plausible, tangible, holy, and invasive community that we celebrate communion with God’s people as the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is here that the veil of heaven and earth is lifted in revelation. It is the ekklesia that is the host (hospis) of liberation meals, not Jesus as host (hostia). The church fails to appreciate the subversive nature of the eucharist when it endlessly debates about the real presence of Christ in the elements, for the real presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit is the people, constituted by the bread and wine, the elements of shared life-together. This is the presence of God’s eschatological Sabbath reconciliation. The temple is the people. No need for sacrificial thinking rooted in estranged economic relationships.
So, I agree that Jesus is at work giving bread and wine today, for the liberation of slaves from bondage, including within that the creation-as-slave as well from the bondage of industrialized agriculture. I think it matters what bread and what wine we use, for those two elements, and their mode of production, represent the very being that Christians have as witness to the world. Do we eat manna or enriched, bleached, GMO industrial bread? Were it not for COVID this year, the plan was to harvest, thresh, winnow, mill, and bake einkorn I’d planted as just such a bread. Local wine from a friend could have been had too. And this is why I conclude the book with an ecclesiology not a Christology. As in following responses, I contend that Christianity has too long been enslaved to human state control by building God a house and hosting him in our communities as a guest whom we sacrifice and eat to empower our “common good” of species self-preservation. What if the eucharist wrongly conceived is not itself the emblem of the depth to which human parasitism will go: eating God to save ourselves?
Response to Alexander Stewart
Stewart’s response points out, as do some of the others, areas in which parallel tracks of my other projects are hinted at but not well presented. That represents a failure on my part to be restate important concepts in my mind. So I am grateful for the opportunity to provide some clarity here.
I think, if we are to talk less about office titles, more about particular functions, Stewart and I are largely in agreement. This gives rise to the question why I am so particular about rejection of religious language and imagery like temples and priests, when, as Stewart has rightly pointed out, Scripture is full of such imagery.
The answer is a particular theology I have developed with inspiration from, unsurprisingly Jacques Ellul, but also in line with Bonhoeffer and Barth. This issue formed a large part of my PhD thesis,Revelation and the Sacred Reconsidered: The Revelation of God in Christ as Desacralising Reorientation to ‘Milieu’ in Jacques Ellul and Beyond, University of Bristol, 2013. so for space, we can’t really get into much here.I think, if we are to talk less about office titles, more about particular functions, Stewart and I are largely in agreement. Suffice it to say, I see Christianity as the end of religion and thus as a politics without religion.
Specifically about temples and priests, those words mean something different in historical Christianity than earlier religions. Christianity adopted these terms and offices after a hiatus in its first few generations in a way that did not convey a rigorous New Testament theology, but more likely and imperially privileged desire to be an established “religion.”
The social role temples and priests play pre-Christianity was cosmic-economic. There isn’t space here to narrate any kind of evolutionary history of religion from spirits and shrines to massive temple complexes with professional castes of priests. But to connect modern Christian worship events that are focused almost entirely on reading, preaching, singing, and praying with “priesthood” seems troubling to me. These activities were not restricted to priests in ancient religions. Think of the host of the Greco-Roman deipnon-symposium who hosts a meal, makes a libation offering, leads prayers and singing, and provides after-dinner entertainment or education.See R. Alan Streett, Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013). That’s closer to the Christian version of worship than the divination, votive offerings, animal sacrifice, and banking services of Greco-Roman priesthoods and temples. The restricted priestly activity of Christianity has primarily been the administration of the sacraments and authoritative interpretation, linked back to sacrifice and oracular speech in pagan priesthood. Thus, I don’t see Psalm 148 as priestly, nor any other aspect of humanity participating with the creation in its praise.
As to the cosmic temple of Eden … I’m aware of the copious and well-agreed opinions about Eden as a cosmic temple. I’ve written, presented, but have yet to get around to trying to publish my contention for viewing it as a cosmic palace garden.G. P. Wagenfuhr, “Toward a Palatial Biblical Theology,” accessible at https://www.academia.edu/35217406/Toward_a_Palatial_Biblical_Theology Since those more detailed arguments are publicly available I won’t include them here in any detail.
Temples exist to house the gods, as shrines to minor spirits, to cosmize them, to take the wild forces beyond human control and enhouse or enshrine them. It is both an act of valuation and subjugation.The expansion of the dominion of Jesus the King, however, is a liberation narrative. The story of Enkidu could be the story of the gods, for it is by being civilized that Enkidu is both weakened and made “godlike.”
If Eden is a cosmic temple, it is a portrayal of the Creator as enshrined, as domesticated. If Eden is a palace, it is a portrayal of the Creator as enthroned in a house not built by human hands. This controls the narrative we craft thenceforth. The expansion of the temple narrative given by scholars like G. K. Beale is a cosmizing or colonial narrative.G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004). The expansion of the dominion of Jesus the King, however, is a liberation narrative.
Why restrict human functions to offices, then? Ambassadorship is an office representing a king. Jesus’s gospel was both about the coming of God’s kingdom and the destruction of the temple. I contend it was about transforming religious worshippers into responsible agents of an invasive foreign power. Priest and ambassador are not compatible metaphors, as I see it. A priest exists to support the status-quo of the cosmos. An ambassador represents a different sovereign people group.
And thus connecting with James K. A. Smith, and why I didn’t use his work here, I think it all comes down to what we see as “worship.” I see worship as a political activity, a declaration and sign of fealty. It is made religious when offered to a cosmocrat-god. Where I disagree with Smith is substance for another larger discussion, but in essence it’s that my experience as a pastor has led me to see the formative power of religious ritual as being overstated. This is why I focus on the creation of an environment of plausibility, which modern Christianity does not do.
Response to Celia Deane-Drummond
Many thanks to such an eminent scholar as Deane-Drummond for her reply to this book. It seems that I have both promoted and denied the possibility of virtue as a solution to ecological issues, while also underestimating the role that the work of the church through people like Pope Francis are able to play. Mea culpa. But forgive my skepticism of the Paris Climate Accord. Somehow limiting only one aspect of our global destruction to a certain degree Celsius temperature rise dramatically falls short of the kind of action necessary. Further, we’ve seen what a single election can do to derail even that moderate commitment to less-than-total destruction.
While I come off as critical of Laudato Si in Plundering Eden, it is out of a shared desire and similar faith that our different approaches raise strong critiques.It seems that I have both promoted and denied the possibility of virtue as a solution to ecological issues, while also underestimating the role that the work of the church through people like Pope Francis are able to play. Similar faith is an operative word here, though, because this theology is unashamedly Augustinian-Calvinist in hamartiology. In other words, it’s a work of ecological anti-Pelagianism. So, that clearly invites a clash with virtue ethics. I suspect that theological friction lay at the root of our differences.
As Deane-Drummond quoted, I see the problem with virtue lying in that it is integrational and contextually relative. If that’s the case, then virtue starts to look like a social engineering project of the aristocracy. The benevolent states of the world can indeed promote virtue through education, structural reform, etc. But as what Aristotle believed was generally agreed upon in his time (by his fellow aristocrats), so too our current virtues may be seen as colonial assimilation a la the Hellenism of Alexander the Great. I fail to see how virtue does not end up being paternalistic. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what Deane-Drummond is suggesting, but developing global reform approaches to develop multispecies virtue sounds like the rule of philosopher kings through social engineering.
While aware of the Gaia hypothesis, I have specifically spoken of creation instead of nature. Creation is not personified. It is something perceptible only in relationship to the Creator. This is, to me, the ethical crux of my book. Ethics is secondary to epistemology. If we cannot rightly perceive creation through the Creator, we necessarily see chaos. Virtue that integrates us into our environment is bound to a certain form of perception. Aristotle’s perception was enabled by and justified the Athenian empire and its slavery. Why do we imagine ours to be otherwise? We live in an inescapable and progressive feedback loop of destruction. Why is not virtue part of the problem?
I would also contend that virtue language is not present in the Bible as virtue language, in the vein of the Aristotelean tradition. Aquinas translated Scripture into Aristotelean language to see virtue in Scripture. Faith, hope, love, are not virtues, but characterizations of actual interpersonal relationships. Virtue is the simplification through categorization of these things. “Character” is formed in relationships and is always particular. “Virtue” is the abstraction of character into universal categories. Virtue is the myth of management through simplifying character into instantiations of abstract virtues.
Many of Plato’s dialogues are fraught with this Socratic logical error of abstracting e.g. “justice” from relationships that might be judged to be so. What is justice? There is no such thing. The real question is, who is the judge? My contention is that humans have no right to make that call and it is our belief that we do is the very motive behind the civilizational project to make sure that whatever “justice” is, we are the ones with the power to declare it, so long as we can keep it masked behind religion, even the modern secular religion of liberal modernity.
Response to J. Richard Middleton
Again, I am thankful for the critical engagement from a careful Old Testament scholar. Since there is some significant overlap between critiques here and with Stewart, I will not cover the same ground about our modern misconstrual of the function of ancient priesthoods and temples read back onto the biblical text.
With regard to agriculture in Eden and Genesis 2:5 in particular, my reading of Genesis here was particularly informed by simultaneous reading of anthropologists like James C. Scott. The newer findings about the relative youth of grain agriculture and its seeming confinement to settled civilizations inspired a counter-reading of Genesis 2–3 in which agriculture represents a fall from freedom into drugery, as Scott himself notes.James C. Scott, Against the Grain (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2017), 72. From this I think we can read Genesis 2 in another way while still respecting the text. First, Genesis 2:5 is setting the scene of the soil-based formation of the man, out of land that had not yet grown for it had not yet rained and agriculture had not happened yet. After the man is created and life breathed into him, the man is placed (2:8) to a garden God had planted. Out of this garden YHWH Elohim made spring all the trees that are good for food (2:9). The food supply of Eden is thus in tree-fruit planted by God, not in agricultural labor, since those fields from which the man was formed are located elsewhere from the garden of Eden. The man is introduced/invited into God’s garden, but outside will be civilized agricultural toil.I find the direct links here less convincing because of the context of Revelation 22 in which Jerusalem is countered with Babylon, the city of humanity. When they are exiled from the garden, we do not even need to posit that the land itself changes. The man is brought back, now with the woman, to the land of his formation to till it by the sweat of his brow. I see no reason why that reading is not plausible from the text.
As to the link between Eden in Genesis 2 and the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 22, Middleton notes the prevalence of gold in Eden and how it has been worked in Jerusalem. I covered a similar point in the book (pp. 139–42). I find the direct links here less convincing because of the context of Revelation 22 in which Jerusalem is countered with Babylon, the city of humanity. The facticity of gold here seems secondary to the symbolic content of its uncorruptible nature, as is fitting a city built by God. The author of Hebrews specifically describes the city of God as not built by human hands (11:10, 16). So, if there is a golden Jerusalem, and if we bracket what gold symbolically means in apocalyptic literature, we’re still left with the problem as to who made it? Given the book of Hebrews cited above, along with much else, e.g. Sodom, commands against altars being made of hewn stone (Exod 20:25), the description of Egyptian bondage as a construction project for store-cities linked here with Solomon’s disobedience in building just such store-cities,Disobedient of acquiring many horses, silver and gold, and wives, then having to build store cities to supply their food needs. See Deut 17:15–17, 1 Kgs 9:19. that God gave his people a land with cities they did not build,Deut 6:10, Josh 24:13. the ease of jumping from Eden to Jerusalem in Revelation 22 seems a little too easy and convenient a way to legitimize human construction. In fact, I think it ignores a significant thrust of the biblical narrative in which God gives his people things prepared ahead of time, rather than celebrating their accomplishments by enshrining them in a divine museum to human civilizational achievement.
So, I agree with Middleton—we bring a theological lens to these texts. I’m not convinced that the texts cited speak against my points. I’m not going to say that God will not preserve some of our works, though as they have passed through a refining fire. The question I’m raising is “what is the foundation of our works?”As Paul describes in 1 Cor 3:10–15. My concern is that Christian or not, humans worship themselves through their works, as is related in the Babel story of Genesis 11. My concern is that, if the creation passes through fire (whether divine or human caused) we will be desperate to ensure Bach’s music is saved, even as millions of species are now going extinct. What would Bach himself say, but soli deo gloria?
And I will conclude by saying mea culpa to his points about my hypocrisy. This is a book written on a computer. I own a car. I travel for work. I’m part of it. But that’s the whole point I’m trying to make. It’s not about ethics or judgment. The field of ethics itself imagines that humans are capable of self-management. Historical evidence suggests the opposite. And as Deane-Drummond notes, the responsibility for all of this is not shared equally, a point I did cover in the book. The irony is that it’s often those with the greatest impact who believe they are the right ones to try and fix it through ethical, political, philanthropic, and technological systemic management.