We just passed the sixth Sunday after Epiphany and I find that the well-known injunction from Deuteronomy—“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”—falls easily into the slipstream of the review I am organizing for my religion and nature course. My students and I have read snippets of the early part of the US environmentalist tradition from Emerson, Thoreau and Muir, up through Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. The moral take-away of their texts, it seems to me, could be written in the exact same Deuteronomic words.
For many years the odd injunctions and appeals of scripture, particularly the Tanakh, have made a kind of sense to me in terms of vectors and channels. To live well, to live righteously, entails orienting oneself toward THE LORD by orienting oneself toward Torah; it entails not giving way to the channels of one’s own desires or orienting oneself toward dispositions and goals set by merely human concerns. This vectoral path to righteousness is not ever a call to ignore or disdain human concerns, however. Human concerns simply need to be rightly placed, rightly subordinated to concerns that supersede any one person, one family, or one community. In some passages of Tanakh, the needs of Israel in particular are even subordinated to the nations of the world—a strong reminder that the quality of being chosen by THE LORD is not always congruent with feeling like the favorite child. In all cases, scripture nudges our dense selves to see that we better attend to human concerns when we place them within our more fundamental orientation to God. To love God fully and to love humanity fully are not at all the same thing, but you can’t have one without the other.
To choose life, then, is to choose this fundamental orientation toward God and Torah. To me it’s an incredible moment of scripture—akin (to this Christian writer) to that incredible moment after Gabriel speaks to Mary and then waits for her response. As Luce Irigaray has noted, it’s as if all the cosmos, all of human and non-human being and history stop breathing and tune in rapt attention to hear Mary’s response: will she agree to bear the Christ child? Here in Deuteronomy, Moses channels God’s words with the same unbelievable investment in human agency and the human capacity for covenant. To tell us to choose life means that the choice is a viable choice. This is no sham deal. We hold our fate, the fate of our children, the fate of the word, in our hands.
That is, God (through Moses) tells us to choose life not only for ourselves but also for our descendants, and not only for the promises Moses makes before that congregation but also “so that you may live.” I don’t know the Hebrew, but I love the slight écart or hesitation opened up by that ‘may’. Not: “so that you will live.” Not: “so that you can live.” We are here in the domain of Kant’s third critique, the domain of the aesthetics of judgment and the pedagogies of the sublime. Humans cannot control the future, but we may opt to align ourselves in directions, by dispositions, with commitments that structure our desires, our practices, and our ever-widening networks of relations with the world in ways that give us (and our descendants) better odds.
The environmentalists knew this, too, exceedingly well. To claim that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau) or that “going to the mountains is like going home” (Muir) or that “the cowman has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea” (Leopold) or that “the control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance” (Carson) is—like the scriptural injunction—to recognize the incredible power of human agency and the ethical imperative to align ourselves toward scales and dimensions of reality (toward God, or Gaia, or God in nature) that supersede the rambunctious wiles of our narrow desires.
These thoughts are fruitfully filtered through Thomas Cole’s famous painting, the Oxbow.