Before creation ethics was a top publishing topic, before ecological theology was hip, I was a forestry major at the University of Georgia. And I wrote a senior thesis on God and Creation Care.
(It was not very good.)
I remember that at my paper presentation I was mildly attacked by one of the professors (not physically). I took it as a given that the Bible encourages our appreciation of the natural world. I had read about St. Francis and his affection for brother Sun and sister Moon. But this gentleman was openly frustrated with ugly skeletons in the church’s closet with which he was more familiar than me. Christians have had a rather checkered track record of emphasizing a responsible concern for the environment.
That was one of many lessons I now draw from my semesters as a forestry major. Now, I am plotting a course into PhD work in the New Testament, reading theology and writing about the church. But God is not wasting my forestry degree. Sure, Religious Studies or Ancient History would have been more obviously relevant choices. Theology, however, cannot be isolated as a tidy, encapsulated discipline—God encompasses all things, right?
Here is a hermeneutical lesson from my forestry training. Consider “dendrology.” In this course we studied individual trees. While chemistry and biology majors spent their “lab” courses under hanging flourescent lights and amidst the nose-wrinkling smell of chemicals, my “lab” course for dendrology was always outdoors in an expansive forest. The lab instructor would walk up to a tree and say, “Ok, this tree is question # 1 for your quiz. Identify the tree and give its Latin name.” We would study the leaves, the buds, the bark… sometimes taste a twig or sniff a snapped branch to figure it out. Fun.
Then I took a course on forest ecology. This is the study of the broader environment in which a system of trees and plants grow. Dendrology is helpful for understanding a particular tree. But without a grasp of its ecological context, much will be missed. For instance, if you find a chestnut oak on a floodplain, you know something curious is afoot—chestnut oaks grow on ridges. If a musclewood sapling is enjoying the company of chestnut oaks on the ridge, then you are faced with another curiosity—musclewoods like stream and river beds.
For many of us, our reading of Scripture is more like dendrology. We read a verse or paragraph here and there. Perhaps we memorize it. Maybe we get really motivated to pick apart all the syllables, chewing on that verse, soaking up all it has to offer. But without an ecological understanding, without a grasp of the broader context of that passage, then we are bound to miss something.
The ecology of Paul’s letters is a vast, complex webwork of Jewish-Gentile tension, Greco-Roman travel dangers, Diaspora Judaism, imperial propaganda, etc. The ecology of the wider New Testament is a sprawling, epic tale of God working salvation through a particular race of people on behalf of all races. Dendrology is easy in that it has a limited scope. You pick a tree and look at it. Pull out the microscope if you want, take soil samples from among the roots. But studying the ecology of the entire forest plot is much more difficult. There are ridges and gullies, multiple soil types in multiple locations, a variety of fauna along with the flora.
But we need more ecological readers of Scripture.
Okay, enough fun with my forestry metaphor. I couldn’t sleep, ok? Thanks for listening in….