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A Hopeful Earth
Faith, Science, and the Message of Jesus
By Sally Dyck, Sarah Ehrman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Our Three Temptations
In 1968, when I was a boy, Apollo 8 sent back the first pictures of our planet, that blue-white marble floating in space. Well, those pictures are as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. The planet doesn't look like that or behave like that anymore—there's more blue and less white, more cyclones swirling in the tropics.... It's the image of the beautiful planet in space that we usually carry with us in our mind's eye. And yet that planet is rapidly browning through desertification. —Bill McKibben
The Laws of Life: Tropical Rainforests
The exact amount of life, even the number of types of living things (species) on this planet is unknown. Estimates range from tens of millions to more than one hundred million species. The tropical rainforests of South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa cover only 2 percent of the earth's surface but are estimated to contain more than half of the world's species. The rainforest supports a vast quantity and diversity of life because the conditions and the forest itself maximize the principle requirements necessary for life. For this reason, the rainforest is a prime example of the natural rules that govern the systems of life in overdrive.
All of life requires energy—energy that ultimately comes from the sun. Rainforests are located on or near the equator, and so they receive a constant twelve hour supply of sunlight year round. Trees and other photosynthetic life use the sun's energy to make the chemical food energy for all living things farther up the food chain. When we eat a cow we are indirectly eating the sunlight energy that the grasses the cow ate converted from sunlight energy into chemical food energy.
Life also requires water. Rainforests receive between 80 and 430 inches of rainfall per year. At least half of this rainfall is produced by the rainforest trees. A canopy tree in a tropical rainforest will produce 200 gallons of water annually, and an acre of rainforest transpires 20,000 gallons of water into the atmosphere each year. Rainforests make rain!
The sun and warm temperatures combine with the nearly daily heavy rainfall creating constantly high humidity in rainforests. Insects, decomposer fungi, and bacteria thrive in the warm, dark, and moist forest floor and quickly break down any fallen leaves or dead plants and animals back into their nutrient building blocks. These recycled nutrients are taken up quickly and stored in rainforest plant life, as opposed to being stored in soil; thus rainforest soil is nutrient poor.
The diversity of life is the final ingredient or natural law for sustaining a large quantity of life. Species in an ecosystem, and in the world, depend on one another for food, nutrient recycling, shelter, pollination, seed dispersal, protection, and more. They are interdependent, and therefore their lives are woven together into a fabric of sorts. Rainforests are masters of variety and specialized, interdependent relationships.
The enormous canopy trees in rainforests have wide bases (called buttresses) to support their weight, and their tops practically interlock to form a canopy or living roof meters above the forest floor. The plants that manage to survive along the forest floor have huge leaves to soak up the dappled sunlight peeking through holes in the canopy. Vines climb the trees to reach the sun, and once they are at the top they form a walkway-like system for creatures in the canopy. Plants working to access sunlight create multiple layers within the forest. These layers create a variety of places to live and a variety of plant species to eat; thus they support a variety of animal life. With dense vegetation and little wind, plants must rely on insects, bats, and birds to pollinate their flowers and move their seeds.
The combination of the layered forest, the need for pollination, and requirements for decomposition creates a variety of roles for organisms to play. These roles are called "niches." This is not too different from how the word niche is used outside of science (for example, "I hope as he travels the world and works in a few jobs that he'll find his niche"). A niche includes where an organism lives, what it eats, what eats it, and how it contributes to the ecosystem. The more niches there are to fill, the more variety in species an ecosystem can sustain.
For example, Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa), large canopy trees found in the Amazon rainforest, depend on the agouti, a small rodent that is the only animal with teeth strong enough to open the grapefruit-sized seedpods. The agouti scatters the seeds across the forest by burying caches far away from the parent tree. For pollination, Brazil nut trees depend on Euglossine orchid bees, the only insects to pollinate the Brazilian nut tree. For this reason, there has been little success growing Brazil nut trees in plantations; they appear to grow only in primary rainforests.
Breaking the Laws of Life
The rainforest's abundance of niches, sunlight, and water, combined with conditions for fast nutrient recycling, explains why rain forests contain half or more of the life on this planet. Unfortunately, when we break these laws by changing these conditions, the abundance of life is destroyed, and in the case of tropical rainforests, humans are unable to restore or rebuild them.
The equivalent of two football fields of rainforest is destroyed every second. That is 120 football fields slashed and burned per minute! At least 40 percent of the tropical rainforests originally on earth have been destroyed, and without significant measures to halt clear-cutting, all forests could be gone by 2050. As we destroy rainforests, we lose access to lifesaving medicines (120 prescription drugs used today are derived from rainforest plants, two-thirds of all plant cancer-fighting compounds come from the rainforest, and the periwinkle of Madagascar increased child leukemia survival rates from 20 to 80 percent), we destroy species that have not even been discovered, we change the formation of clouds and thus the weather system, and we cause countless other unintended consequences. But the main point is that when we destroy rainforests, we break the fundamental laws of life.
Clearing rainforests to plant soybeans, graze cattle, or log trees destroys the strongest, richest fabric of life on this planet and in its place leaves a hot (remember twelve hours of sun 365 days a year), nutrient-poor (remember that rainforest soil is nutrient poor since the nutrients are taken back into trees so quickly), and dry (remember that the rainforest created half or more of the rain that fell) plot of land. To clear a rainforest is to create a desert.
The desert is the opposite of the rainforest. It is still an ecosystem that has a variety of life, but unlike the rainforest that maximizes the requirements of life, the desert has the challenge of making the best of the minimally available principal requirements of life.
The First Temptation: Salvation Not by Science and Technology Alone
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, a place with the challenge of life. As Sarah says, if you were going to be stranded somewhere, you'd prefer the rainforest to the desert in terms of the challenge of living. The desert is a desolate and unforgiving environment in which to live. In the Jewish tradition, the desert was a place described as judgment: desolation and destruction.
However, the desert where the Holy Spirit led Jesus is different from our concept of wilderness. Wilderness, like the rainforest, is a place where the environment has continued to flourish with multiple species; the desert is a place where species have been reduced by desolation and destruction. It's a place where there is less life and hope.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" (Luke 4:1-4)
"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread" (4:3, emphasis added). As we're relating to what it must feel like to go without food for forty days, we might miss the real temptation. We think the temptation was to make oneself a sandwich and eat, but the devil was more subtle than that!
The test was to challenge Jesus' identity. "If you are the Son of God." If you really are who you say you are, then do something amazing, perform some magic, and in the process you'll be more popular than sliced bread, the devil seemed to be saying to Jesus. The devil was challenging Jesus to do cheap tricks to prove himself to others. Identity is an ongoing theme in the temptations that we face living on earth. Who are we going to be? The children of God? Or, as we'll discover in chapter 2, consumers?
Jesus performed miracles throughout his ministry, and through seeing or hearing of those miracles, people followed him. But his miracles were motivated by a desire to heal and care for people, not to perform cheap tricks for his own glorification. Turning stones into bread would satisfy his hunger, but it would also override the laws of nature that God had established in creation. We, too, are called to live within the laws of nature in order to find a sustainable lifestyle for ourselves and all the other citizens of this planet. Our first temptation when faced with the desertification and desolation of our planet is to trust in science and technology; surely, they will save us from the effects of what we are doing to God's creation.
Science and technology are the fruit of human endeavor and are disciplines, processes, and tools that we have developed. Through science and technology, for instance, we can find other sources of energy as we near the end of the fossil fuel energy source. Science and technology can help us solve our problems, even the accidents that occur when science and technology fail, but they alone will not pull us out of our predicament. Something else must change within us and change how we live.
Many people may be surprised by the concept that science and technology are compatible with Christian faith. But the first question that we need to address stems from "in the beginning." Is the story of creation in con-flict with modern science? We need to consider that question before making our case that we see science and technology as methods to help, and they cannot be our sole salvation.
Science and faith are not incompatible when it comes to their understanding of the origins of life. As Sarah often explains to her students, scientists don't know how life started. They have ideas, but no one knows with certainty. Life cannot be made from nonlife, even mimicking supposed conditions on earth billions of years ago. She reminds them that evolution means change, and biological evolution is change in life over time. This is something we can watch in insect populations, observe in the size of human beings over the past thousands of years, and document in fossil comparison. Both science and Scripture know that life began, and now we see life in all its forms is changing.
Sarah says that arguing about the details of evolution while the planet sits in crisis is a misplacement of focus, time, and effort. Her sense of judgment is sharp: "Can you imagine sitting in front of God, finding out that whatever you believed about the origins of life were true, only to have God ask you, 'And so, what did you do to save my species, keep my waters and air pure, find renewable energy sources, make peace in nations fighting over resources, and care for the poor among you?"
Genesis 1 is not a "how to create a universe" cookbook; it doesn't answer our question of how, but it does answer other questions, such as what our relationship is to God, to other creatures, and to the earth itself. The creation story at the beginning of Genesis (1:1–2:4a) is a beautiful liturgical poem about the home that God made for and gave to us.
Carefully reviewing Genesis 1 in terms of the order of creation, we can recognize that it's not meant to describe how creation came into being. What do you see in this ordering of creation? On the first day God created the heavens and the earth and light (1:3-5), but it wasn't until the fourth day that God created the sun and the moon, which give and reflect light on earth (1:14-19). If Genesis 1 were a how-to manual, wouldn't the sun and the moon have been created on the day that light, day, and night were created?
Likewise, on the second day the sky and the sea were created (1:6-8), but it was not until the fifth day that the species that fill the sky and the sea were created: birds and fish (1:20-23). On the third day earth's dry land, its vegetation, and the definition of the sea were formed (1:9-13), but it was not until the sixth day that the dry land was filled with animals, humanity, and vegetation for food (1:24-31).
Instead of giving a how-to approach to the story of creation, the ordering of creation in Genesis is a mnemonic device by ancient storytellers so they could remember the way to tell this beautiful story and thereby keep the telling of it consistent over time. Eventually the story was written down. Its beauty and message are in the proclamation and affirmation that God created all; it is God's creation, and God established the laws of nature as part of that existing order.
Out of Faith Came Science
People of faith began to develop the field of science. It's hard for our modern minds to understand the role that Christianity played in bringing about the development of science.
"What?" you may be asking. "I thought science and faith were always at odds with each other!"
We forget that science and faith haven't always been at odds with each other. That's a relatively recent phenomenon, spanning mostly the twentieth century. The history of science and Christianity is a complex relationship, but it has not always been one of conflict. In fact, the Christian faith actually encouraged scientific observation, exploration, and experimentation.
David A. Wilkinson has a PhD in theoretical astrophysics. At least that was his first career. But then he became a British Methodist clergyperson. He writes that our Judeo-Christian faith encouraged science because the universe was created by God, and as humans we can never figure it out solely with our minds. We need to observe it, ponder it, explore it, and experiment with it in order to better understand it.
Wilkinson also argues that since God created humanity in God's own image, our fundamental belief is that we can also come to understand these laws of nature as we observe them, record them, analyze them, and build on them over the ages. This is the result of a miraculous mind that God created and that is able to become sophisticated in methods of observation.
Therefore, the Judeo-Christian tradition provided the impetus for the gift of the scientific model of humanity. Science and technology aren't in opposition to our faith, but we're still to avoid insisting that science and technology should save us from our ecological sins.
What Will Save Us?
One temptation is to believe that science and technology will save us. I know people who think that they can eat and live however they want because by the time the effects of their habits influence their health, there will be a pill or a treatment to change their lifestyle outcomes. Too often we have had this perspective on the creation crisis: science and technology will take care of any accidents or the overall negative impact of our living. As the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in the spring of 2010, Tina Carter, a United Methodist clergywoman who also holds a PhD in chemistry, commented on this very point:
We have created an idol of science. We need to get back to worshipping God. We need to quit seeing environ mental disasters happen and pointing our fingers at those who are "godlike" enough to solve our issues— forgetting that every time we point one finger, there are four fingers pointing back at ourselves.
As a scientist, I can't help but think that we need to slow down—slow down our consumption, our demand, our desire for instant results.
Excerpted from A Hopeful Earth by Sally Dyck, Sarah Ehrman. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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