Ecology & the Bible: Part II
Will There Be Any Toads in Heaven?
by Keith Helmuth [EL #26, Summer 1997, p 18-19]
We have a great fondness for toads on North Hill Farm and they seem to have great fondness for us -- or rather for the particular environment we have helped shape. There seems to be a direct, positive correlation between garden development and toad population. Toads, of course, are champion insect eaters and we value them as working members of the farm crew. I suppose they must value us as champion insect growers since gardening brings on great blooms of insects as well as vegetables and flowers.
I am concerned about toad populations. According to a variety of recent studies, toad and frog populations world-wide are crashing. Whole species have disappeared from what were thought to be relatively pristine environments. Their disappearance indicates that yet another level of environmental deconstruction has been reached. Ecological collapse is not a fantasy of doom-minded environmentalists. It is happening! Now! Toads and frogs are among the oldest species in the community of life. Their sensitivity to the generalized toxification of Earth's environment is an omen of Biblical proportions. What is going on here? More and more I have come to the conclusion that the destruction of Earth's biotic integrity has to do with much more than just the overt necessities of economic behavior. The struggle to center our lives in Creation-in Earth process as we have come to understand it -- is also about excavating the deep psychic structures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, structures which have created our worldview and have driven our collective behavior in ways that are often antithetical and sometimes stunningly inappropriate with regard to the biotic integrity of Earth. It has come to me that we need to conduct a kind of archeological dig into the Christian worldview in order to redeem it from a variety of ecological errors. In my effort to do this "spiritual" archeology I have received particular assistance from the toads with whom we share North Hill Farm. Encountering toads always brightens my mood, and good humor sometimes opens the door on an innovative thought. One summer day a few years ago, while weeding in the herb garden and having met a toad in the basil, a question popped into my mind; "Will there be any toads in heaven?" Now the juxtaposition of such a down-to-earth creature with such a lofty theological concept may seem whimsically absurd, and, in fact, it was exactly this dissonance which intrigued me. Why does the thought of toads in heaven seem so incongruous? The answer is not hard to find. Looking back over the centuries we see how theological interests have risen and fallen in popularity. One of the interests which has enjoyed a consistently high profile until recent times is the nature of heaven. Based on the references in the Bible, an image of heaven has been built up in the Christian tradition which has had profound social, economic and ecological consequences. Even though, in modern times, it has become increasingly difficult for Christian thinkers to undertake sustained speculation on the nature of heaven, the old image of this promised land has remained a sub rosa component of the Western world-view. It seems, in fact, that the eclipse of heaven as a topic of theological inquiry and general public interest has not diminished the tenacity of the cultural orientation which arises from its history. If anything, the promised land orientation in our culture has grown stronger even as its theological prominence has faded. It has simply shifted from the eternal to the temporal and re-emerged in economics, technology, and social planning.
The idea of heaven derived from the Bible, and developed over many generations by orthodox theologians and preachers, is based entirely on the image of an urban environment-the heavenly city, the city of God. As far as I am aware, there are no rural or wilderness images of heaven in the Bible. The Isaiahian image of the peaceable kingdom on Earth has generally been regarded as a temporary arrangement. The ultimate goal, the environment of heaven, has always been portrayed as a great and good city.
What is this heavenly city, this promised land orientation? As a package of cultural values, it has a variety of notable features: Ultimate convenience and total leisure. No work, no struggle required. Total peace, joy, and contentment. No conflict, sadness or suffering. No decline, decay or death. And all this is framed within an entirely urban environment. The concept of the heavenly city is the exact opposite of a rural or wildland life and economy. Nor does it draw on the social and economic arrangements of small town or village life. The concept of heaven, like the design of our central urban environments, is based on transcending the fundamental meteorological, biophysical, energetic, metabolic, and economic conditions of Earth process. The hold of this vision on the collective imagination of Christendom as it turned into Western Civilization, did not wane. It simply moved from the ethereal to the concrete, from the sky to the earth, from theologians and preachers to the political economists, engineers and entrepreneurs. The whole modern project of economic development -- both capitalist and socialist -- has been driven by the utopian image of overcoming, through technology, the basic conditions of Earth process, and the establishment of human habitation in an environment which realizes as fully as possible the values and conditions of the heavenly city.
Is this a noble vision worthy of allegiance? Many intelligent persons over the past few centuries have thought so and worked hard to achieve it. Or is it a recipe for ecological and social disaster? A dissenting minority has been voicing this warning. It seems to me the issue is now clear. The roots of the economic and technological behaviors which are poisoning and disabling the Earth are lodged in an image of deliverance and salvation; lodged in a wish for privilege and exemption which starts in the Bible, which has been carried and nourished in Western culture, and has now, through the agency of the capital-driven market economy, exploded in ecologically and socially damaging consequences over the whole Earth
An image which started with a theological warrant -- the image of the heavenly city -- has now been translated into a license for bulldozing the ecosystem, undermining the value and dignity of labor and offering shopping malls and theme parks in their place. If this seems exaggerated, consider the meaning of the toxic, metallic tasting haze which now routinely overspreads vast regions of our continent and makes public respiratory warnings almost as common as weather forecasts. We are talking about the breath of life. Cancer rates climb. Forest environments collapse. Lakes go dead. Loons diminish. Toads vanish. However we conceive of it-as an urban rest home in the sky or the promised land of total convenience on Earth-the answer to the question in my title is, "No. There will be no toads in heaven." Obviously, a great confusion has occurred. The attempt to establish the heavenly city of maximum convenience is wrecking the Earth. Somehow we must pull this image -- this "ghost in the machine" -- out of the drivers seat and put ecological wisdom in its place. I'm not sure what should be done with the idea of the heavenly city. It is a powerful image. Perhaps theologians could issue a recall and try to make appropriate modifications in its character. Personally, I would not want to inhabit a heaven without toads and since a heaven of total convenience and ease -- wherever it is located -- seems to rule them out, I vote for a new image of heaven; an image which includes trees and turtles, birds and insects, labor and rest, and plenty of toads. I want a heaven which jumps around my feet. In the past, those who understood the ecological dissonance of the Biblical tradition mostly just ignored it and worked to create an ecologically accurate world-view in the hope of altering the environmentally destructive behavior of modern culture. This re-education is not working, or at least not working fast enough. It appears to me we should now raise the ecologically dissonant elements of the Biblical worldview into full consciousness. Perhaps if we can gain a freeing perspective on these elements of our cultural heritage we will awaken the clarity and courage of the changes we need to undertake -- the changes of adaptation to the way our amazing natural home actually works and the changes which enable human communities to lift their social relations into a better harmony. Keith Helmuth is a writer, market farmer, commmunity development activist, and Quaker living near Woodstock, New Brunswick.
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