The newspapers report today on the discovery of a new species of orangutan named pongo tapanuliensis after the highland region of Sumatra where it lives. There are only 800 of these creatures, which means that it it goes immediately on the list of endangered species. The discovery increases the number of great apes to 8: the chimpanzee, the bonobo, the two species of gorilla, the now three species of orangutan and ….homo sapiens. US.
The classification of humans as a species of ape, clashes with the cultural assumptions of many civilisations, including our own, and with the religious tradition of Christianity, derived from the Bible, which draws a sharp distinction between humanity and the other creatures of God. Human beings were made in the image of God, as images of the god- kings of ancient empires were erected to represent their rule over a territory. In the name of God they were commanded to fill the earth and have “dominion” over it. Modern critics of religion see this as a characteristic piece of human arrogance enshrined in religious tradition. They forget that the whole book of Genesis shows how God came to regard exactly this special creation as a mistake, and how he tried to rectify it. The classic arrogance of human beings is depicted as their eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This phrase in Hebrew is all inclusive, as if it said, “from A to Z”- it means the knowledge of everything.
Genesis shrewdly sees the human desire for the power of knowledge as a fundamental human flaw, which is nevertheless linked to human creativity and progress. Far from being an being an uncritical assertion of human specialness, the Genesis tradition is a sorrowful critique of human folly. Given the latter, it’s not surprising that the true meaning of Genesis was neglected in favour of the separateness of humans from other living beings, culminating in the depiction of the podgy lump of Adam as God’s greatest creation on the Sistene Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. More wisely, the Roman Catholic poet, Alexander Pope expressed the appalling paradox of humanity in his couplet:
” Great lord of all, in endless error hurled;
the glory, jest and riddle of the world!”
However conscious it was of human evil, the classic European tradition never departed from asserting a radical discontinuity between humanity and other living things. Even its scientific tradition has tended to glorify homo sapiens as the discoverer of truth, the only inhabitatant of earth capable of venturing beyond it. In sharp distinction from that, the modern discipline of ecology sees human beings as part of the ecosystem of the planet and its biosphere, and perhaps as the only creatures capable of destroying it.
Ecology is the study of the universe as a house of life, all of whose tenants are intricately linked to one another and to the planet, which in turn is intricately linked to the universe and its processes. Ignorance of these intricate connections, combined with the ability to step outside them, at least for periods of time, is what makes humanity so dangerous to everyone else in the house, who are limited by their own DNA to their own biological niches, unless impelled to change by some mutation.
Of course, mutation has constantly taken place under the pressure what Darwin called, “natural selection”; indeed, his revolutionary theory made humanity itself the result of natural selection. The development of a great variety of post-Darwinian views of humanity makes it possible to see human beings as no more “final” in the process of evolution than the dinosaurs who dominated the earth and are gone. If human beings in their arrogant folly destroy their environment, the story of the earth will continue, as will the story of life, here or elsewhere.
There are consequences in this way of thinking for those, like me, who share its depiction of humanity as part of nature, but share also the Christian tradition of faith; the two seem incompatible. My own solution is to admit the shortcomings of Christian theology of life and to import ecological thinking into a revised theology that honours the intention of the Genesis writer while correcting his/her view of humanity as a unique creation of God. Indeed I would also want to correct the view that creation is in the past; as St Paul knew, God continues creating until all God’s children are born and set free. And God creates human beings as part of the life of the universe -which may be much more extensive than we yet know – that is, as tenants of the house of life, who must understand and respect the house rules, if they and other creatures are to flourish. The most important of these is:
never imagine that your welfare can be separated from the welfare of the whole house of life
from which we can deduce:
never imagine that you are more important than any other form of life
you are part of the evolution of life
from we can deduce:
your body (meaning your physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual equipment) contains wisdom learned by your species over millions of years of development- be conscious of it
I began this series of reflections by asking why my church had declined so significantly in my lifetime. One part of my answer is that it was insufficiently aware of its role as a tenant of God’s house of life, to exemplify the house virtues of ecumenism, ecology and economy. In this blog, which focuses on ecology, I am suggesting that because of an inadequate theology of creation, which in turn led to a inadequate understanding of human beings on earth, the church failed to express an ecological worship or announce an ecological gospel. The current sucess of Blue Planet 2 as the UK’s most watched TV programme shows that ecological material is ideal for provoking wonder; and that persuading human beings to receive ecological wisdom as good news for them and their great grandchildren is an urgent necessity.
The church failed to see what David Attenburgh has clearly seen and transmitted in the same culture, through the same period of time. This has been due to its obsessions with forms of worship and evangelism to the exclusion of content. We thought our theological content was eternal and required no revision, forgetting that God speaks in the present and the future as well as the past, as if we had no doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We also neglected the ecological wisdom that in times of rapid change, species that fail to adapt will die.
Meanwhile, a big hello to my brothers and sisters in Christ, the tapanulas, who will need all the nelp they can get to survive in a world dominated by the most dangerous species of great ape.
Hello, indeed, in Christ to our newest known neighbours in the oikos of God’s creation. How marvellous to share life with magnificent creatures! Thank you for the precious thoughts here.