A Conversation about The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics: Humans, Nonhumans, and the Living Landscape, by Mari Joerstad

Paul Dafydd Jones (University of Virginia, Co-Director of Religion and its Publics) recently interviewed Mari Joerstad (The Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University) about her new book, The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Given the perilous fact of global heating, jaw-dropping rates of animal and plant extinction, the despoliation of previously “untouched” regions, and – were all that not enough – the continuing reluctance of industrialized nations to implement sensible and effective environmental policies, Mari Joerstad’s book is a timely addition to scholarship. It’s wonderfully ambitious, too. There is an interest in reading scripture well, facilitated by a deft engagement with historical-critical and literary resources and cutting-edge scholarship in the environmental humanities. Equally significant is Joerstad’s treatment of the “epistemological protocols” of life in the Anthropocene – habits of perception and reflection which, under pressure of western industrialization, have been so weakened that many of us are unable relate to the nonhuman environment in meaningful ways, and thus find ourselves baffled by the suggestion that the world “languishes and withers” for grief (Isaiah 24:4) or that “the pastures of the wilderness overflow [and] the hills gird themselves with joy … they shout and sing together for joy” (Psalm 65:13 and 14).


PDJ: There are a broad array of conceptual frameworks that might be used to crack open the topic of the Hebrew Bible and the environment. Given my own disciplinary location, I think immediately of a range of ecotheological works, stretching from the pioneering scholarship of Sallie McFague and Gordon Kaufman to more recent projects by David Clough and Melanie Harris. Your book leans on a body of scholarship that goes under the name of “new animism.” This standpoint ascribes agency and personhood broadly, thereby lending support to the claim that other-than-human creatures have relationships with God, with human beings, and with one another in the Hebrew Bible – while stopping short of the suggestion that creation is filled with minor deities which compete with God. But I know that there is more going on here. Could you say more about new animism and its relevance for biblical studies, environmental ethics, and religious studies in general?

MJ: When I started the project, before I had read any of the new animism literature, I kept stumbling over what Tim Ingold calls the “problem of agency.” The trees rejoicing in the Bible, the ground swallowing people – I was sure that neither ground nor trees had brains or minds, so how were they doing things? I kept trying to build a structure between the text and my own sense of what kinds of things are able to act, and it was awkward and apologetic. So the first thing new animism provided was a way to skip the whole issue. Yes, trees and soil do not have brains, but why is that important? Why are brains the prerequisite for acting in the world and for influencing others?

Second, and this issue has more long-term importance, attitudes towards animism in religious studies, especially in fields still closely tied to Judeo-Christian institutions, are still influenced by racialized hierarchies of religions. I don’t mean that religious studies professors are secret racists; just that we’ve all been raised with some form of the idea that animism is “primitive.” Making use of new animist thinking put me in a position of having to learn from people whose worldviews have long been denigrated, opposed, and (less so recently) outlawed. I think that experience of being ignorant and a beginner is helpful when it comes to rethinking the relationship between the major world religions and indigenous religions. Although it is easy enough to read up on animism, academic knowledge does not add up to experiential knowledge of what living in a world full of other-than-human persons feels like. That experience – knowing that there are peoples and communities who live with much more skill and insight than I do – felt like a helpful corrective to the idea that my religion is enlightened, ethical, and profound, while their religions are superstitious, backwards, and untrue.

Finally, it was important to me not to build a new theoretical framework. I wanted to show that the relationships between humans and other-than-human persons in the Bible do not amount to an unrealistic, unachievable dream, but reflect something about the way that people have lived and continue to live.

PDJ: Chuck Mathewes and I have called our project “religion and its publics” in order to press scholars to think capaciously about the ways that religious practices and commitments shape, and are shaped by, a wide array of spheres. “Publics” is proudly plural. We want to resist hasty circumscriptions; we aspire to attend not just to churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like, but also to diverse political traditions and ideologies, varied academic cultures and subcultures, different forms of secularism, literature and the arts, discussions of race, sex, gender, sexuality, and so on.

Although that orientation might initially seem very forward-looking, your book tells us that we might have missed something rather important: the public that is “the living landscape.” Each of the chapters underscores this point. Singly and in aggregate, they consider the disposition, the demeanor, and the activities of the nonhuman (and, specifically, nonanimal) world, and they’re packed with examples of how land, trees, rivers, mountains, and celestial bodies relate to Israel, to the world at large, and to God. Could one say, then, that the nonhuman and nonanimal world comprise a “public” in the Hebrew Bible – a public that always surrounds and shapes the complex story of God and ancient Israel?

MJ: Yes! For me, one of the big shifts in my thinking has been about care. Much environmental language uses vocabulary that evokes care, but human beings are typically the ones doing the caring. We preserve; we conserve; we recycle. Looking at the Bible, care is usually extended and performed by other-than-human persons. The trees carry their fruit; the land supports flocks; the clouds rain down moisture. This has made me think of how dependent I am, that we are, as a species. We eat nothing that hasn’t first been processed by trees, turning sunlight and minerals into stuff we can consume. Rather than thinking of that as automatic processes, for which I owe trees nothing, paying attention to the work of non-human persons in the Bible has made me more aware of the care I receive, and of the fact that that care could be withheld. It is both lovely and a little scary!

PDJ: I often feel rather bleak about the ways that the churches engage the issue of environmental ethics. I’m not entirely despondent: there are some laudable ecumenical initiatives and I’m cheered by the somewhat warm reception given to Laudato si’. Still, I worry that some liberal efforts at consciousness raising obscure the need for radical structural changes, and, correspondingly, that many white evangelical churches have turned climate denialism into an art form. Is your focus on scripture, then, a challenge to liberal bromides and a way to contest white evangelical donothingism? Are you hopeful, to pose the question more delicately, that sustained attention to the Hebrew Bible can go some way to building the broad coalition needed to address the environmental challenges of life in the Anthropocene?

MJ: The good bit first: I do think scripture and conversations about scripture are the routes most likely to lead to some kind of common ground around environmental issues and what to do about them. Although evangelicals, especially the fundamentalist kind, are often derided for focusing on a small sliver of scripture, in my experience most evangelicals take scripture very seriously. Their methods of interpretation are different than mine, as are their conclusions, but they are committed to the books of the Bible. My hope is that grounding environmental ethics in scripture may give people the room they need, even the permission they need, to act on environmental issues. No one wants to leave their kids an unlivable world – that is as true of evangelicals as it is of the rest of us.

Now for the bad part. When I am less hopeful, I worry that the perspectives discussed in my book are too far out from where people are starting. Like I said earlier, most of us are raised with some form of the idea that animism is primitive. I have had my first experiences of internet trolls in response to this book – people claiming that it is pathetic tree-hugging, pantheism, and nonsense. I am not yet sure how to get past that, how to talk about the vibrant life of other-than-human persons in the Bible without immediately making people think it is blasphemy and idolatry.  

PDJ: “It is difficult now to imagine human beings as good news for other-than-human persons, but this is the challenge the prophetic corpus sets for us. We must live in such a way so as not only to stave off ecological apocalypse, but so that animals, trees, and pasture lands may be pleased to host us, to live alongside us. This is more demanding than splitting land into parks that must be preserved, and cities and suburbs … Instead of asking us to engage in wilderness protection and environmental protection,” the prophetic corpus “calls on us to be good neighbors” (155). This is from the conclusion of a chapter on the Former and Latter Prophets, and it captures beautifully your hope that human beings might rediscover relationships with other-than-human creatures. The first step in the process, you suggest, is akin to the patience valued by animist perspectives: a willingness to tarry with other-than-human persons, to attend to their actions, relationships, and concerns. A second step seems to be more a matter of companionship, collaboration, and interaction – something like Bonhoeffer’s vision of “life together,” but dramatically enlarged.  Could you say more about this?

MJ: I sometimes find environmental discourse a bit nihilistic. For example, Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is beautiful, but also sad. I don’t want the human race to die out. I also don’t think we can build any broad-based movement on the idea that the best solution to climate change is the end of humanity. Any long-term solution to the environmental crises that we face have to have a place for humans to live, and a good one. When I talk about companionship, collaboration, and interaction, it is just as much for us as it is for the rest of the world.

Moreover, I don’t think an ecologically responsible way to live is unsatisfying or unbeautiful. We are going to have to give up things we like (international flying is probably out, as much as I hate to say it, even while doing quite a lot of it myself); but I think we’ll gain other wonders. Most people, when pressed, will say that human relationships are one of the most fulfilling parts of their lives, are what gives them purpose and hope. When I imagine having a wider circle of such relationships, what I see is something worth striving for, rather than a long list of self-denials. I also think it might make us more aware of our own beauty – the beauty, that is, of being human. In nihilistic discourses, humans are often compared to diseases or parasites. Not unfairly: that is how many of us currently inhabit the world. But I don’t think that is the only way to be human, or that we can’t learn better ways.

PDJ: I loved the end of the book. It’s a short section titled “The Promise of Delight,” and it considers the possibility of joy, given a restored relationship between human beings and the nonanimal world – for “if we pay attention, if we act with circumspection, respect, and love, we might be met by a host of friends, a community that extends beyond our humanness, beyond our limited knowledge” (220). Given my own bleakness about the prospects for human and nonhuman life in the Anthropocene, this conclusion was really – ahem – a breath of fresh air. It also prompts me to ask if delight is a term that should receive wider attention in environmental ethics? Do we need, to put it a bit more riskily, a theologically charged “eco-erotics” to accompany the eco-poetics of the Hebrew Bible?

MJ: Yes! As suggested in my last answer, I do think environmental ethics requires sacrifices of us. But there’s something off-putting about an ethics that is made up of a list of things you should not do (no plastic, no flying, no chicken nuggets, no A/C, etc.), not least because there is always someone close by or on the internet who is better at denying themselves this or that. In fact, many prohibitive eco-ethical codes assume that solutions depend primarily on individual consumptive choices, while also assuming that a healthy, thriving world is not that tasty, not that fun to live in. (Kind of like steamed brussels sprouts: someone says they’re good for you, but you don’t want to eat them). To my mind, the world is more beautiful than we know, and that kind of knowledge is actually within our reach. I want people to be motivated to live differently in pursuit of that beauty, rather than feel guilty when they look at berry clamshell containers. I hope environmental ethics, rather than depending on people’s fear and guilt, can become more akin to making friends and building community – motivated by desirable outcomes, rather than by all the bad things that will happen to us if we don’t change.