The Moral Ecology of Judgement
In the aftermath of this summer’s bushfires, Luke Pearson, a NSW Fisheries manager, crunched through the burnt-out country to inspect the impact on Mannus Creek in the High Country’s Bogandyera Nature Reserve. What he saw brought ‘complete and utter despair’, as huge volumes of ashy sediment came down the stream, making it completely uninhabitable for all animal and insect life.
Adam Welz, a South African film maker and photographer who came out to document the fires, describes talking to biologists and ecologists who would break down into tears or stare blankly into the distance like a victim of violence. This seemed strange: Australia is a continent in which fire is a part of ecology; won’t the bush bounce back? ‘Without exception, every single ecologist, every scientist I spoke to in Australia said, “This is different. Things have changed. We are into an unknown future now.”’
‘My anguish! I am writhing in pain, my heart bursting. Disaster has followed disaster and now the whole land is laid waste.’ Such were the sentiments being expressed by ecologists from coast to coast. But actually, this quote does not come from ecologists, but from Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet of judgement.
The experience of Jeremiah and so many natural scientists in recent history is eerily similar. Both read the signs of the times and saw disaster coming. Both saw that disaster could be averted, but that it required a challenging reappraisal of life. Both had to find ways to speak this message to a public and ruling class which saw such predictions as heretical – a contradiction of the national faith. Both had to carry the burden of watching the land and people they loved plunge wilfully into catastrophe.
This summer’s bushfires were unprecedented, but they were not unpredicted. It was, in fact, exactly the sort of combination of weather events that climate scientists have been predicting for nigh on three decades now. They are entirely justified in saying, as earth systems scientist Will Stefan wrote recently in The Conversation, ‘I told you so’. But don’t imagine that anyone finds satisfaction in such knowledge. Jeremiah certainly didn’t.
2020 is turning out to be a very difficult year. Disaster has followed disaster: drought, fire, flood and pandemic. A good case could be made that one of the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have forgotten the bushfires.
Many have commented on the seemingly apocalyptic nature of this sequence; indeed, properly understood, it actually is apocalyptic. I don’t mean that in a theatrical sense (‘the end is nigh’), but in its proper sense. The word apocalypse (apokalypsis in Greek) means to unveil, or to reveal. The succession of crises just listed has laid bare a catalogue of hard truths that we have been doing our best to avoid. It is one of those liminal moments in history when a host of long-term trends come to a crunch point. It is a time of being held to account, a time of crisis. But as with all crises, it is also a time of hidden opportunity, offering a possibility for new choices.
Our word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek word krisis. In English translations of the New Testament, this Greek word is usually translated as ‘judgement’.
It is perhaps an understatement to say that the idea of judgement is deeply unpopular these days, including in the minds of many Christians. It is perhaps only rivalled in unpopularity by the associated idea of sin. But the idea of judgement as it has been presented in the Bible, like the idea of sin, has been largely misunderstood, including by many Christians. In this article, I will argue that to live well in these times, to live with hope, will require some sort of grasp of what the Bible means by the word ‘judgement’. Perhaps it is foolhardy to write an article calling for a recovery of the idea of judgement while we are in the midst of a global pandemic – there is a higher than usual chance that I will be misunderstood. And yet I feel compelled to do so. If we want to speak truth in these times, we have to come to terms with judgement; we simply cannot communicate the truth about the human situation otherwise. And until we can speak of judgement, we cannot communicate good news.
To make this case well will require a couple of articles. The idea of judgement has accrued such a weight of negative baggage, and is associated with such a difficult history, that we simply cannot tackle it head on without risking leaping to damaging conclusions. Rather than begin in a foreign world long distant past, let us begin a little closer to home.
The Judgement of John Butler
‘Don’t judge me!’ my daughter says as a reflex response to a mildly probing question.
‘You’re so judgey!’ complains Jack Black (Professor Oberon) to Karen Gillan (Ruby Roundhouse) in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
These two colloquial commonplaces are trivial examples of our extreme cultural sensitivity to the idea that someone might be weighing us on a set of moral scales. At one level, this would seem to accord with Jesus’ teaching of ‘Judge not!’ which is surely central to the gospel. But Jesus, and the rest of the Bible, had a lot more to say about judgement, which we have generally opted to forget. The other part of our sensitivity is more disturbing: it stems from a deep denial of the idea that there is any external moral scale against which I may be judged. The catchcry of our age is, ‘Only I know what is right for me’. The source of this suspicion goes back to the Enlightenment, when philosophers like David Hume propounded the idea that all morals and values are a merely human creation and, therefore, are historical and cultural artefacts capable of endless revision. This idea has taken steroids in our hyper-individualist age, so that now morals are not just cultural constructs, they are personal constructs. The idea of ‘what is right’ is increasingly self-referential.
Nevertheless, despite this extreme cultural sensitivity to judgement and judging another person, we are all actively engaged in judgement all the time. In fact, it is almost impossible not to be. I can think of a multitude of very negative examples where people who would aggressively denounce the idea of judgement nevertheless exhibit an alarming degree of ‘judgementalism’. But let me choose a rather more positive example to illustrate the point.
Recently, I was listening again to an album I have long enjoyed, John Butler’s Sunrise Over Sea (2004). As well as its kickin’ blues rhythms, and a lovely song about the birth of his daughter, it is an album animated by moral passion about what is happening in the world. Yet witness the language that comes so naturally to Butler. After an opening anthem, ‘Treat Yo Mamma With Respect’, that lays down a foundational principle for inhabiting the earth, it makes complete sense that he not long after moves to a song about ‘The Company Sin’, spotlighting a mining company’s despoliation of sacred indigenous land. Even more strikingly, a couple of tracks later, he gives a rendition of what I take to be an older folk-blues number, ‘Damned to Hell’:
Damned to hell is what you are
Can you hear the church bells toll?
And all the money you have made
Can’t save your sorry soul.
I don’t know what John Butler’s spiritual worldview is, but I doubt very much that he subscribes to a belief in hell and I doubt many of his listeners take his meaning literally. Without even thinking about it, I guess that most listeners to this song just ‘get it’ implicitly. This is a song that expresses a powerful conviction about the wrongness of a certain way of life and, moreover, a feeling that such a way of life is not without consequences, that it leads to a kind of death of the human soul. What is fascinating is that John Butler has found the religious language of judgement as such an evocative and visceral way of expressing this.
And when you reach the Pearly Gates
And Peter reads your tale
He’ll send you back from whence you came
Back to your living Hell.
[You really ought to hear the song to get its power.]
What is clear about this album is that John Butler has no difficulty in articulating that there is an external moral standard against which we are judged and that standard is found in the demand that we respect the earth and treat each other with justice. The transgression of that moral standard bears consequences for all humanity, irrespective of our ‘personal values’. What Butler is discerning and articulating is judgement and, in my view, it is true judgement; or, at least, partially true.
But where does such a standard come from? If Hume was right that morals are merely human constructs, there is no logical reason why someone might not simply disagree with John Butler: ‘I don’t believe that. I’m going to do what I think is in my best interests.’ In fact, that is effectively what our nation’s leaders (and many others) have said in keeping Australia as the world’s largest exporter of coal.
The modern assumption is that physical reality is constituted simply by brute ‘facts’ and that we humans then interpret those facts with systems of ‘values’ that don’t really exist as such. That is not how the Bible understands reality. The opening chapter of the Bible, whose importance cannot be over-estimated, describes God bringing an ordered creation out of chaos. At each stage of the ordering of this creation, God sees that it is good and, when creation is complete, God saw that it was indeed very good. Note the language: God did not pronounce creation good, he saw that it was good. That is, God looked and discerned that goodness was inherent to the created order. We might even say that God looked, understood and judged that what he saw was good.
The fact that what Genesis 1 describes is a ‘created order’ has deep and broad significance. Firstly, as ‘created’, it is understood as the purposive intention of a Creator who is also its ultimate sustainer and who the Bible ultimately reveals is the God of love: ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8). Secondly, as an ‘order’, it describes a coherent whole: the stuff of the universe is not random bits of matter that bump into each other, but rather many parts of an ordered universe that function together. To understand any single bit you must understand the whole. Moreover, as an ‘order’, creation is not just made up of millions of individual things, but of different kinds of things: oceans, mountains, rivers, fish, insects, dogs, cats, etc. Each of these kinds of things has particular core attributes that make all the individuals of that kind somehow similar to each other and different to other kinds. (Our English word, ‘kindness’, means a proper recognition of what is good for that ‘kind’: kindness to human beings might be to sit and listen to them deeply; kindness to a dog might be to take it for walks and throw a ball for it; kindness for a cat might be to leave it alone until it wants food or to be stroked.) Moreover, each kind doesn’t just exist for itself, but plays some role or function in the whole. Even cats.
That is to say, the created order is constituted by relatedness or, more precisely, by relationship. The English theologian, Oliver O’Donovan, sums up the Biblical description of created order by saying that every created thing has its own ‘ordering-to-flourish’ and an ‘ordering-to-serve’ and that you cannot understand the flourishing of anything without understanding the service it is created to perform. The flourishing of a worm is dependent on the presence of decomposing organic matter and the service it renders is to transform that matter into valuable nutrients for plants. For humans, as for the rest of creation, we only flourish when we serve the whole.
This created order is therefore constituted by relatedness, by purposiveness, by flourishing and by service, all of which is described as very good. The created order is therefore also a moral order: morality – by which I mean a certain ‘rightness’ – is inscribed into the very fabric of existence. Of course, the whole point of the Bible, introduced in chapter 3 of Genesis and representing the primary concern of the rest of the book, is that there has been a rupture in God’s good order: we experience a certain ‘wrongness’ in the very structure of things. This rupture is identified as beginning with humans and then spreading to the rest of creation. We might say that the core sin of Adam and Eve was to deny their status as a ‘creature’ – humans wanted to be on the same footing as God. In doing so, humans denied the true nature of their relationship to the Creator, and, in denying their creatureliness, they also denied their fraternity with all other creatures. In essence, humans denied the nature of their relationship with the divine and with creation.
At root then, that big little word, sin, describes a rupture in the relationships of the created order, a breakdown in the great communion of love between the Creator with all of creation. According to Paul, it is this communion of love that God, in Christ, through us, is working to restore. The resurrection is God's great re-affirmation of the created order. As Paul put it, wherever there is union with Christ there is 'new creation': that which is sundered is being restored.
This last point is critical: it is only in Christ that we see the full shape of the moral order inherent in creation. We cannot simply try to read morality straight off the page of nature, as many in the 19th century did, and some are again trying to do now. That led to ideas like 'survivial of the fittest' and social Darwinism. Nature itself is broken and we ourselves are broken creatures who can only ever comprehend part of the whole. It is Jesus who shows us that this world that can be so brutal is, in fact, held together by love and destined for love.
That is obviously a very quick summary of the message of the Bible! Much more could be said and needs to be said. But for our purposes here, I want to draw attention to how ecological this story is. I mean that in two senses: (i) it is a story that it is centrally concerned with the natural world, but also; (ii) it is a story whose shape and message is profoundly ecological.
Ecology is the study of the vast web of relationships that make up the great household of nature. Whereas zoology is the study of a single organism, ecology is concerned with the complex relations between organisms (animal, plant, fungus, virus, etc), and how these are all shaped and influenced by topography, geology and climate. In the preceding discussion, we noticed that there is a certain rightness to a set of relationships in the created order and a certain wrongness when those relationships fracture. In a structure defined by relatedness, actions produce consequences, like a pebble dropped in a pond.
In saying this, we are in fact describing the ecology of morality. Where we have generally thought of morality as either an arbitrary set of rules dreamed up by a distant and demanding God or an elaborate construct of humans, the Bible reveals morality to be something that describes the relational structure of goodness. We never act as morally independent beings, but always as creatures defined by relationships, whether we recognise them or not.
In our moment in history, we are now being brought very painfully to the realisation that certain sorts of human action, irrespective of our ‘personal values’, lead to consequences that can only be described as bad. Not so long ago, some theologians debated whether we should really be bothered by the extinction of a species here and there; now, as we see ecosystems collapse around the world and species disappearing at an alarming rate, only the nut jobs maintain that this is not a problem. Morality is imposing itself upon us, in spite of our values.
Strikingly, it has largely been scientists, not theologians, who have been making this discovery. Gus Speth, a US Government climate advisor, has made this comment:
I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.
As John Butler has understood, the earth itself is making a moral judgement upon our way of life.
We have now laid some groundwork that allows to us get to first base in discussing judgement in the Bible, which we will undertake in the next article. There is no doubt that this is very challenging literature, but, as we shall see, it is also remarkably prescient in describing our own times and, in a strange way, unexpectedly empowering. Obviously, a central concern will be seeing if the Bible helps us understand the bushfires and pandemic, but it will also be important to locate this within a bigger frame of historical reference. While it is true that in some ways we are at a novel moment in human history, in another sense, there is nothing new at all about what we are experiencing. We have been here before and what we need, more than any new discoveries, is to remember.
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