Amending the Christian Story: The Natural Sciences as a Window into Grounded Faith and Sustainable Living, by Ron Rude
Merely reading the title of this book seems it would draw a reader in, maybe wishing to discover what the author means by “amending.” How will it get us to “grounded faith” and “sustainable living?” Having spent many years as a campus pastor, the author writes that as a student himself, he was not very interested in the natural sciences. However, once he began exploring them, long past his own student years, he became fascinated with sciences such as astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, ecology. His study led him to view his faith and the Christian story in a new light. His book offers a somewhat different approach to and understanding of the relation between faith and the natural sciences, and the relation between humans and ecological earth systems in the light of faith and the sciences.*
Published quite recently (2021), the book considers much of the data and knowledge that contemporary sciences have given us. He offers an extensive summary regarding the immensity of the universe, the vast timeframe of cosmic history, and earth’s geological history as well as the evolution of various life forms (Chapter 1: “Christianity and Judaism: Infant Religions.”) This leads to an assessment of the relatively recent nature of the Judaic as well as the Christian stories. The book suggests that a reworking of the narrative of God’s story of life and God’s story of Jesus is needed. It challenges the idea that is generally accepted, that the traditional framework of interpretation of the narrative of Scripture is settled. The implication is that with many of the findings of the sciences since the invention of the telescope and microscope and all the many instruments that have helped increase our scientific knowledge over the recent centuries, the way that many people of faith relate to parts of scripture should be reconsidered.
One of the major concerns of this book is that parts of the Christian story have contributed to humans’ ecological degradation of earth’s systems, species extinctions, and climate change. A frequent way that theologians deal with this problem is to focus on the troubling passages of Scripture and offer a reinterpretation. This book takes a different approach. “It is not so much that we need to better understand what certain passages in the Bible have to say about creation and Nature and ecology as it is that we need to return to and be engaged in Earth’s ecosystems and species diversities in order to understand what the Bible (and the Christian faith) has to say about anything,” (p. xiv-xv). In other words, what is somewhat different about this account as opposed to many of the multitude of works about the relation of faith and science or faith and ecology is that this starts with a re-examination of what it means to be human, and re-examination of parts of scripture.*
One way that the approach of the book is different in its presentation of the issues is in the use of the story of Cain and Abel. The author credits Daniel Quinn and his book Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit for inspiring his use of these biblical characters, writing of Cain Christianity (the regressive form) and Abel Christianity (associated with Jesus of Nazareth). By the end of the book, one can understand why the author uses this construct. This may bring across the tradition’s treatment of human sinfulness in a more understandable way.
The introduction discusses contemporary events and circumstances: the recent difficulties dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, movements for racial justice, greater awareness of climate change and coping with extreme weather events. Are we at a tipping point? The author suggests we are at a turning point in humanity’s story, perhaps at the beginning of a new era, and that a new look at the Christian faith would contribute to needed transformations. The book “describes what following Jesus could look like were we to set aside all forms of anthropocentrism and dominion-ism”. The natural sciences and ecological integrity are foundational. “What is needed is ecology-theology grounded Christian faith,” (p. xiii, author’s emphasis). This is pivotal in the book’s argument.
The book is divided into three main parts: The first, “Wondrous Universe,” after the summaries mentioned above, focuses on the creation as good. “It’s a Tov, Tov World” (Chapter 2). The next chapter, “God’s Word (Voice) in Two Sources,” digs more deeply into a re-examination of God’s story, treating “God’s story of life” as primary and “God’s story of Israel” (and Jesus) as secondary. (See the work of C.P. Snow and others on the “two books,” Nature and Scripture.) After another summary of the vast age and size of the universe, the author states,
God’s primary mission of tending to this evolving story is longsighted and large. … The history of this primary mission is also being recorded. … in the ‘earthen vessels’ of stardust and atoms, fossilized remains and geological layers, tree rings and polar icecaps, chemical markers and biomarkers, and the DNA, outward culture, and internal history of every living and extinct ecosystem and species…. I like to think of this record as a kind of ‘scripture.’…
God has been embedding this story for at least 13.8 billion years and continues to do so today. Christians and others will do well to be up to speed on these testimonies (pp. 21-22).
Part Two is entitled “Amiss and Awry.” These chapters tell us how humanity went wrong by forming patterns of domination (“dominion-ism”) over other groups and the rest of the natural world, as if separate from it. Chapter titles here include “Humanity’s Recent Regression” (6000-10000 years ago); “Man is the Measure? Not”; “Implications of Decline”; “What Does it Mean to be Human?” (in all of its earthiness); “Cain’s Ecocide, Genocide, Biocide”.
In Chapter 5, the author alleges that “versions [of Christianity] that we have inherited are in certain ways inadequate to the daunting trials facing us. … Generations of ecological irresponsibility by Christians and others are reshaping Earth’s biosphere,” which will influence “future Nature-damaging and human-society-degrading incidents of climate volatility, new disease outbreaks, refugee migrations, freshwater scarcity… and wars. We as a species, including those of us in the Christian community, need to dig deeper,” (p. 34).
Chapter 9, “Cain’s Genocide, Ecocide, and Biocide,” refers to the story in Genesis (4:1-16) of Abel and Cain, again with reliance on Quinn, the author explains that Abel, whose way of living and giving was pleasing to the Lord, represents many Indigenous cultures… “embedded with and within the wider community of life.” Cain, the murdering brother, “represents all the human ideologies, industries, and deeds of I-centeredness that daily wage war against all that the Deity holds dear, including Nature and including other humans,” (p. 58).
Part Three is “God’s Response” and includes two chapters (Chapters 10 and 12) on “God’s Secondary Mission: Israel,” a mission of healing based in a chosen people. In Chapter 11, “Troubling Deeds and Occurrences,” many stories that include violence (apparently sanctioned or commanded by God) are listed, from books such as Numbers and Deuteronomy. The author inquires, “Could it be that the writers of these stories underachieved, especially in their attempt to present the heart of God?” (p. 78)
“God’s Secondary Mission: Jesus” (Chapter 13) gives the author’s assessment of Jesus’ incarnation: His mission “zeroes in on the disorder of perishing….To be perishing is to be out of relationship – with my human neighbor, with Nature, with my own inner spirit/soul/self, and with God. This is what Jesus came to heal.” Jesus offers forgiveness and the instruction to “Follow me,” which means “Come along with me…I want you to meet your neighbor… I want you to meet my creation,” (pp. 91-93). Here the author challenges the generally accepted statement that Jesus came to save us from death, but instead emphasizes that our perishing can occur while we still live, and that death is part of what it means to be human.
The last chapter of this part is the book’s only direct treatment of Christian doctrines, “Reassessing Original Sin and the Atonement Theories.” These are both brief and it is quite clear that they are not the main point of the book, but they offer a concrete example of what is meant by the title’s “Amending” the Christian tradition.
The book’s theme is reiterated in the final Part Four: “The Way Forward,” and its only chapter, “Abel Christianity.” Here is the declaration: “My goal in this book has been to reframe and recast Christianity’s version of God’s story of life and God’s story of Jesus.” In this chapter, the author also offers a reinterpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.
The book would be of interest to anyone who wants to investigate a new way of appreciating their faith. While some readers may think that the book goes too far in certain areas, others will probably find the author’s bold assertions about needed change refreshing. While the book covers many topics, sometimes rather briefly, and gives a broad sweep of cosmic history, it includes references to some of the writings that have influenced him, as well as a good bibliography. At the end of each chapter is a set of questions that would lend themselves to a group discussion, or perhaps just allow the reader to consider the chapter a bit more deeply.
All in all, I recommend this book, especially to those who are not already familiar with the many works that are available on the relation between faith and the natural sciences. Even those who are familiar may appreciate the starkness with which the author challenges parts of Christian traditions, considering climate change and other troubling contemporary issues. There is no doubt in my mind that the author’s starting point, in our understanding and deep-seated sensibility of ourselves as part of the natural world, is highly significant and crucial to a transformation of our harmful ways of relating to Nature.
*Of course, neither side of this is completely new. For a thorough study of the relation between anthropology and the natural sciences, see the work of Philip Hefner and Wolfhart Pannenberg (who also deal with the social sciences) and other theologians. This book is written for the general reader.