AUDIO ESSAY: Age of the Anthropocene and the Antediluvian Era

Updated: May 14

Building an Ark for Deep Water:

Bridging the Age of the Anthropocene with the Antediluvian Era



I’m going to tell you what you already know. I’m not saying anything new. But what I hope to do is show you how two stories can fit together. The idea is to recognize patterns, so that we can then learn to change patterns. It’s that simple. The first is the story of the Antediluvian Era. This is the period between the fall of humanity from Eden and the destruction of all life on earth by a massive flood. THE flood. The second is the story of the Anthropocene - a new geological epoch that has been proposed to describe a phase of the earth’s history entirely influenced by humans. In other words, we have tampered with the earth in such a way, and on such a scale, that our actions have been forever imprinted onto the geological record. Both stories - the Anthropocene and the Antediluvian - divide the world (and divide history) into before and after. This and then that. They represent ways of life which cleave a narrative into two, isolated parts. And they are two polarizing events related to the ecological trajectory of the world. Our concern with how to orient ourselves to such ecological events - this is the definition of stewardship. And it is my belief that this begins with water. So let us dive right in, and start at the beginning.


God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth.” - Genesis 6:13

The passage that I just read to you all is known as the “Decree of the Flood,” which is a declaration that God makes to Noah just before water was sent to inundate the world. Within just ten generations - from Adam to Noah - the behavior of humanity had deteriorated to such an extent that the people of the earth had forfeited their right to exist. Commentators[1] on the Book of Genesis describe this this decline in human behavior as a progression of corruption beginning with private actions and culminating with public perversion. At first, transgressions against God must occur within the privacy of one’s own home or one’s own heart. These are the sins of idolatry and immorality. Then, a habit is made of such violations and those misdeeds bleed out of the home and into the public sphere for all to see. These are the sins of murder and robbery. Shame just becomes a forgotten feeling as deviations from order become an established - even a required - practice. And this is how we lose all sense of right and wrong. The “Decree of the Flood” is delivered by God to provide Noah with the opportunity to warn (and save) his contemporaries from the looming crisis. But Noah failed. And this is why the Flood is forever referred to as the “waters of Noah.”[2]


We all are - in some form or another - familiar with the notion that history repeats itself. But this is only true for those who refuse to learn from it. There is a reason that flood mythology is present within the histories of many cultures throughout the world.[3] Floods serve as literal, and metaphorical, symbols for catastrophe and cleansing that are preceded by an imbalance. They should help motivate us to reorganize our understanding of life - if circumstances call for it - and shift both individual and collective actions. While explanations for the flood may vary across cultures, within the biblical narrative of Genesis, God sends forth the waters of chaos in response to human debauchery and a failed moral order. In the wake of global climate change, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to draw parallels between then and now, and to consider the Anthropocene as a contemporary flood myth. The polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and our oceans have been asphyxiated by plastic. But this doesn’t even begin to describe the root of the issue. With that being said, there is one point I’d like to make though. The elimination of ecosystems and the extinction of species, capitalism, materialism, the systematic degradation of sexual propriety through popular culture¾ are these not the cardinal sins of idolatry, murder and immorality? And were these not the same transgressions that ruined humanity before the flood?


I’d like to share a parable[4] from the Gemara[5] about a king with a beautiful orchard that housed lots of fruit. Two watchmen were appointed to guard the orchard - one watchman was lame and the other was blind. At one point, the lame man suggested to the blind man that he be placed on the blind man’s shoulders so that they could reach over the wall of the orchard to retrieve some fruit. Eventually, both watchmen were questioned about the disappearance of the fruit, but suggested that their respective handicaps were proof that they could not be implicated. Ultimately the king figured out who was at fault, and placed the lame man atop the blind man’s shoulders so that they could be judged together. I bring this parable up because it relates to two major figures from my educational experience - Anne Conway and Augustine. There’s a pivotal moment from Augustine’s Confessions whereby he describes, as teenager, being tempted to steal from a neighbor’s pear tree in a yard close to his childhood home.[6] One day, with a group of his friends, Augustine hauls off a load of pears - not necessarily to eat - but to revel in the experience of a forbidden act. This tale of Augustine’s fits within Conway’s ladder of moral mutability, whereby every creature has the ability to either move up the ladder towards the essence of God, or down the ladder away from God’s ultimate perfection¾ depending upon their actions.[7] Much like Augustine, we - as modern humans - have taken from the pear-tree-that-is-Earth more than we need, and - in reference to Conway’s monistic unity of body and soul[8] - stacked the lame and blind watchmen to reach over the orchard wall to steal fruit. The soul, as an immaterial, living being cannot serve God fully until it borrows - for a time - a material, earthly body. And a body, crafted from the dust of the Earth[9], cannot become vitalized until it acquires - for temporary use - the life force of the immortal soul. The body and soul, like the lame and the blind man, must work together to transform the world and serve as a unified instrument of God.[10]

Within the Abrahamic traditions, fire is an element used to send materiality back to God. In this respect, it makes sense that Augustine had to wield the metaphorical fire of shame to cleanse his soul of guilt after a sinful act. Antithetical to this idea however, water - like the judgmental waters of the flood[11] - is an element of creation, and is used to transpose the spirit of God onto the essence of materiality. Water is like a portal for the body and soul to retrieve their reward for climbing the ladder of moral mutability through right action - like Moses did when he retrieved water from the rock, or Ezekiel when he observed water flowing from the temple, or when Jesus teaches about “living water.”[12] Every time we commit a right and just action, the soul and body each earn the privilege - as a co-dependent pair - to resurrect their union, and ensure of a continual partaking in a variety of living that moves progressively closer to God. While awareness of the ecological crisis has stimulated a growing concern for the state of the earth, there has yet to be a well-coordinated, comprehensive change in human activity. This is, perhaps, the central motivator for those of us engaged with the field of Religion and Ecology seeking to bridge the intentions behind various disciplines. The world around us is not thriving - it’s dying - which is why it has become more important than ever to become stewards of creative forces that support life. Perhaps Christian eschatology is mistakenly understood to have an unhealthy relationship with nature because it is perceived to be principally concerned with fire as a judgmental force. Yes, God’s covenant with Noah ensured that the world would never be destroyed again by water - but this doesn’t mean that we cannot drown. The drowning is, of course, a metaphor for the variety of living that has caused ruin to our planet, and a highly-industrialized society that has reached the pinnacle of its impact. The trajectory of the Anthropocene can change if we focus our eschatology on water for creation and balance, rather than on fire for passion and transcendence. Water is the bridge between the material and the immaterial, the body and soul, which is a partnership that must be continually resurrected by our fulfillment of right and just action. Water is the source of all life, because water is the language of life - the vocabulary of the soul. I’ll say that again: water is the source of all life, because water is the language of life - the vocabulary of the soul.

During this past year’s Religion and Ecology Summit, Matthew Fox made a point about us shelving the Bible for a while¾ that the Bible could serve us best, for the time being, if we stopped reading it. While this comment was made within the context of a point he was making about rediscovering the sacred, I tend to disagree with the former point. Metaphor endures throughout the Bible as a “controlling mode of thought,”[13] and is evident in fundamental images, such as water. Understanding how to think metaphorically, and comprehending how to use metaphor properly as a hermeneutical lens for seeing the world, is one of the greatest gifts the Bible can teach the human mind about reading nature. Stories and parables are at the root of teaching us how to see the many layers of materiality, which then - in part - aids in the process of connecting to the meaning inherent in the Word. It is possible, therefore, to exercise our capacity to digest a metaphorical state of consciousness, and alter our way of seeing the world, simply by reading and working to understand the Bible. My insight into such a notion was ignited by a twelfth century theologian, named Hugh of St. Victor, who teaches how to “exist in reading” and how to “interpret the world on the model of the reading of Scripture.”[14] Architectural structure was a metaphor that Hugh of St. Victor used to refer to the soul, and he applied the analogy of construction to the act of reading as a restorative practice. “Enter your inmost heart” Hugh says, “and make a dwelling place for God. Make Him an ark of the covenant, make Him an ark of the flood.”[15] If we are to move out of the Anthropocene, and into a new era of ecological sustainability, then we are in need of a metaphorical ark. In the same way that Noah built a literal ark of salvation, the modern human must build for the soul a metaphorical ark to navigate the pursuit of Truth and the discernment of a proper moral structure to embody. It is this work of building the soul as an ark that one of Hugh’s students - Richard of St. Victor - describes as a “participation in the wondrous sights of those who see marvelous things in the depths" and a journey with those who are "doing their work in deep waters."[16] Our way forward, through the industrial age and into a new era of ecological sustainability, is not easy work. We must find a way to maneuver through the shadow side of life - the deep waters of this modern flood - and bring light into the darkness. Richard describes this as a “narration of our night work,”[17] which I believe to be a beautiful way of embracing the incredible moral and ecological difficulties that we are facing.

We all have the capacity to either save the world or destroy it. And we all have an equal capacity to either perceive the truth (and act on it) or allow our lives to become clouded by murky waters. In the generations that preceded the Flood, humanity regressed into such a foolish state that God’s mercy had reached its limit. But one being, Noah, saved the future generations of the world. His life is a story of hope and survival. Thanks to his devotion to goodness, humanity survived, which should give us all reason to believe that no one person - or action - is too insignificant to make a difference. We all have the power to change the world. Let us all build an ark for deep water. Together.


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Works Cited

[1] Scherman and Nosson. The Chumash, p.31-53

[2] “For like the waters of Noah shall this be to me: As I have sworn never again to pass the waters of Noah over the earth, so have I sworn not to be wrathful with you or rebuke you. For the mountains may be moved and the hills may falter, but My kindness shall not be removed from you and My covenant of peace shall not falter, says the One Who shows you mercy, HASHEM.” Isaiah 54:9

[3] Salvador and Norton, “The Flood Myth in the Age of Global Climate Change,” p.49

[4] Parable available at: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/352254/jewish/The-Two-Watchmen.htm

[5] Rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah (Oral Torah), which constitutes the latter half of the Talmud

[6] Augustine, Confessions, Book II

[7] Conway, Principles, p.34

[8] See Merchant’s article titled “The Vitalism of Anne Conway”

[9] Genesis 2:7

[10] In Judaism, the idea that the body needs the soul, the soul needs the body, and that the two must work together is central to understanding how an individual fulfills commandments (mitzvot)

[11] Genesis 6-9

[12] Exodus 17, Ezekiel 47, John 7

[13] Frye, The Great Code, p.53

[14] Falque, “The Hidden Source of Hermeneutics,” p.122

[15] Rorem, “Bonaventure’s Ideal and Hugh of St. Victor’s Comprehensive Biblical Theology,” p.395.

[16] Chase, "Into the secret places of divine incomprehensibility,” p.v

[17] Chase, "Into the secret places of divine incomprehensibility,” p.v


References

Augustine, Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden. Random House Publishing Group, 2017.

Barfield, Owen. Poetic diction: A study in meaning. No. 626. Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Barfield, Owen. Saving the appearances: A study in idolatry. Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Bible, English Standard Version. "Wheaton." IL: Crossway (2002).

Chase, Steven L. "Into the secret places of divine incomprehensibility: The symbol of the cherubim in" De arca mystica" of Richard of St. Victor." (1995): 1002-1002.

Christie, Douglas E. The blue Sapphire of the mind: Notes for a contemplative ecology. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Clorfene, Chaim, and Yakov Rogalsky. The path of the righteous gentile: An introduction to the seven laws of the children of Noah. Feldheim Publishers, 1987.

Conway, Anne. Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Falque, Emmanuel. "The Hidden Source of Hermeneutics: The Art of Reading in Hugh of St. Victor." Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 25, no. 1 (2017): 121-131.

Frye, Northrop. The great code: The Bible and literature. Vol. 19. University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text: a Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Merchant, Carolyn. "The vitalism of Anne Conway: Its impact on Leibniz's concept of the monad." Journal of the History of Philosophy 17, no. 3 (1979): 255-269.

Robertson, Duncan. Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading. Vol. 238. Liturgical Press, 2011.

Rorem, Paul. "Bonaventure's Ideal and Hugh of St. Victor's Comprehensive Biblical Theology." Franciscan Studies 70, no. 1 (2012): 385-397.

Rorem, Paul. Hugh of St. Victor (Great Medieval Thinkers). Oxford University Press, 2009. (Kindle Edition)

Scherman, Nosson. The Chumash: The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Princeton University Press, 1993.

Schoon, Simon. "Noachides and Converts to Judaism." Cultures of Conversions 18 (2006): 111.

Swimme, Brian, and Thomas Berry. The universe story. Arkana, 1992.

Taylor, Jerome, ed. The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A medieval guide to the arts. Columbia University Press, 1991.


The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

The Deep Water Initiative is inspired by the ecological importance of water as an all-pervasive element that sustains life on this planet.  The metaphysical importance of water as both a cleanser and regenerator has been upheld by many cultures throughout the world, and is celebrated within the creation myths of different religious and spiritual traditions.  The Deep Water Initiative has been particularly influenced by the significance of water as demonstrated within the Five Books of Moses.

 

*The Deep Water Initiative is classified as a private operating foundation that qualifies for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

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