A failure of the “corporate heart of humanity” created the global climate crisis, and science alone cannot deliver the world from this predicament, according to a Duke Divinity School biblical scholar.
During the March 7 Hinson Lectures at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, Ellen Davis said the biblical writers are “inspired diagnosticians of the human heart,” whose wisdom speaks to the climate crisis and other contemporary problems.
“Like the best physicians, they speak to us plainly, sometimes in ways that are very hard to hear, and yet their goal is to help us live wisely in our current circumstances, observing the limits of our finitude,” said Davis, the Amos Ragan Kearns distinguished professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke.
Davis acknowledged that many in “our fact-driven information society” say “the most up-to-date science, not ancient stories” is the appropriate response to the climate crisis.
“But that’s a false dichotomy because information is characteristically weak in discernment and deaf to certain kinds of truth,” she said. “So, I would argue that precisely in order to be an authentic culture, that is, one properly informed by knowledge of every life-giving kind, we need to draw attention to modes of speaking that complement what we can learn from scientists.”
Davis advocated reading the Bible with a “critical imagination,” which she called an “identifying activity of the church” and a “survival strategy.” She explained that approaching the Bible with imagination is consistent with New Testament references to “a new way of thinking” and the phrase in Ephesians related to enlightening “the eyes of our heart.”
When read through the lens of critical imagination, the story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is one of the biblical texts that speaks to the climate crisis, Davis said. “If we are to have any hope of getting out of this God-awful mess that we are in, hope of at least mitigating the worst effects of the climate change we have precipitated, we need to summon the courage and the humility to recognize our society as a whole is sort of a corporate Pharaoh.”
She added: “Being healed of our heart disease means finding the political will to stop, yes, stop economic, industrial and social practices that are currently wreaking destruction on a pharaonic scale.”
Davis said “Pharaoh’s death-dealing ban on Hebrew children” in Exodus also should be considered when pondering climate change. “There is no more hope-filled human act than providing for the well-being of children, whether one does that as a parent or in less direct ways.”
“No act,” she added, “requires more courage of discerning vision.”
She criticized those who oppose abortion but who fail to address the climate challenges that threaten the welfare of children. “It is simply disingenuous to defend the rights of the unborn by focusing exclusively on abortion, while ignoring the need for the far-reaching structural changes that must happen soon, so children may grow up in the carbon-neutral world that God made and we have wrecked.”
“It is simply disingenuous to defend the rights of the unborn by focusing exclusively on abortion, while ignoring the need for the far-reaching structural changes that must happen soon, so children may grow up in the carbon-neutral world that God made and we have wrecked.”
Davis pointed to the “risky love” women in Exodus gave to children. She mentioned the midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies, the mother and sister of Moses who sought to protect him, and Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued him.
They are viewed as “minor characters” and little is known about them, she said. “Now, I want to suggest that it is exactly what makes it important to pay attention to the so-called minor female characters, because biblical women stand for all the ordinary people of whatever gender who do not get to shape history — or so it seems. Yet in Exodus change happens through women who are practitioners of faith, hope and love.”
In today’s world, much could be learned from how Israel dealt with fear, Davis emphasized. Once the fleeing Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the nature of their fear changed, she said.
“At the Red Sea, natural fear is converted to holy fear, fear of the Lord, which is the biblical term for what we would call true faith. Fear of God is nothing other than knowing where the real power of the universe resides and acting on that knowledge.”
Davis stressed that learning holy fear is crucial for human survival. “The future of humanity depends on our learning fear of the Eternal/Lord, which is not paralyzing but genuinely empowering, for holy fear is simply the flipside of the love of God. This holy fear sets us on the way that leads to life, for ourselves and for generations yet unborn.”
The Hinson Lectures, held annually at BSK since 2009, were delivered virtually this year because of the global pandemic. They are named in honor of E. Glenn Hinson, retired professor of church history and spirituality. In addition to BSK, Hinson taught at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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