Genesis and the Nature of Myth

Genesis and the Nature of Myth

Laurence Coupe

Green Letters, 11 (Summer 2009), pp 9-22


A Yiddish proverb tells us, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ But to make God laugh still louder, try telling Him what His plans are.

Anne Primavesi

As someone who has written on both mythology and ecology, I am particularly interested in the way stories of origin have been interpreted from a green perspective. While there are other kinds of myth which merit attention – hero myth, for example – it  seems to me that creation myth is the richest field of enquiry. Essential to its importance is that it almost always makes an explicitly religious affirmation about the relationship between the gods who create and the earth that is created. Thus, it is appropriate that my main focus will be on Genesis, the first book of the Bible – the most famous creation narrative of them all, perhaps, as well as the most famous religious text. I will approach it by way of the work of Anne Primavesi. I choose her work, partly because I have been very impressed by it, and partly because her name seems to be very little known within green studies. Perhaps the fact that she is known primarily as a theologian rather than an ecological philosopher may have something to do with this. Whatever the reason, I hope that a brief exposition of her ideas may encourage others to use her as a guide to a fascinating field of enquiry.

In order to appreciate her achievement, I will need to say something about the example set her by her mentor, James Lovelock, in his reading of the ancient Greek myth of Gaia. For it is in finding parallels between Genesis and Gaia that Primavesi has done her most impressive work – work that has been warmly praised by Lovelock himself.

The turn to antiquity

By way of preface, and in case the reader is tempted to think that Lovelock and Primavesi are exceptional in believing that narratives from the distant past can illuminate our present environmental needs, it may be worth considering briefly how another thinker has looked back to antiquity in order to find his bearings on the present. I am thinking of Michel Serres’ reading of On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived in the first century BCE. This six-volume poem provides Serres with his main evidence that contemporary science has more in common with ancient myth than we might at first think possible. For it was Lucretius who put into verse the philosophy of Epicurus, and in so doing made a powerful case for the idea that the origin of the earth, and so of humanity, lay in the motion of minute particles, or atoms. Though Epicurus’ reputation is for hedonism, his main contribution to human thought, according to Lucretius, and so to Serres, is his ‘atomist’ theory of creation. According to this theory, the reason why there is something rather than nothing is that in the dim past there came about within the ‘void’ a subtle variation in the movement of atoms, a variation which Lucretius called the clinamen. The new contact made between atoms because of this swerving movement generated life, resulting eventually in the world we know.

What On the Nature of Things tells Serres is that life proceeded from the joyous dance of atoms, with its capacity for spontaneous variation of motion. Thus we should respect chance and diversity, not try and impose abstract ideas of necessity or hierarchy upon the rich variety of existence, the sheer beauty of things. We should regain Lucretius’ notion of creation through divergence. For, rather than impose order, the poet is telling us to discover the organic order that underlies apparently random events and entities; but this order is so complex that it cannot be understood through the unaided reason. Hence Serres insists that science needs poetry in order to appreciate the ‘orderly disorder’ of the world.  

Poetry in turn needs myth, and Serres has much to say about the opening of On the Nature of Things, in which Lucretius offers his tribute to Venus, the Roman fertility goddess. This may seem odd, given that in the rest of the poem he goes to some pains to repudiate  religious beliefs, but it makes imaginative sense when we see that he is praising Venus by contrast with Mars, the god of war:

The hymn to Venus is a song to voluptuousness, to the original power, victorious – without having fought – over Mars and over the death instinct, a song to the pleasure of life, to guilt-free knowledge. The knowledge of the world is not guilty but peaceful and creative. It is generative and not destructive. (Serres 1982: 98)

What Venus represents is the fruitful ‘disorder’ that is actually an order so subtle that we are usually not aware of it: in that sense, she goes way beyond the doctrines of religion. From her we learn a mythic reverence for plurality and process, rather than a rigid religious hierarchy. Her vision is one of immanence, by which the whole proceeds from the part, the global from the local, forming a ‘fragile synthesis’.

Gaia: a living myth

Once we accept the connection between ancient mythology and contemporary ecology, we may appreciate the significance of a contemporary scientist’s choice of language to describe his intuition about the way nature functions. Here, then, we turn briefly to James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’. The technical name for this is ‘Earth System Science’, but it to Lovelock’s credit that he knew immediately, when the novelist William Golding suggested it to him, that the name ‘Gaia’ was perfect. The idea that Lovelock has been developing for decades now is that the earth is a self-regulating organism – or, more exactly, that the biosphere (the part of the earth where life exists) is a kind of grand ecosystem, involving subtle interactions of the different parts. Accused by some fellow-scientists of being unscientific because of his decision to use a mythic name for the earth, he still sees no need to apologise: ‘I know that to personalize the Earth System as Gaia … irritates the scientifically correct, but I am unrepentant because metaphors are more than ever needed for a widespread comprehension of the true nature of the Earth and an understanding of the lethal dangers that lie ahead’ (Lovelock 2007: 188).

In trying to bring home to fellow-scientists and to the public the disastrous consequences of the way we are polluting the earth, Lovelock has at various times tried to spell out the importance of mythology to human thought:

In times that are ancient by human measure, as far back as the earliest artefacts can be found, it seems that the Earth was worshipped as a goddess and believed to be alive. The myth of the great Mother [sic] is part of most early religions. The Mother is a compassionate, feminine figure; spring of all life, of fecundity, of gentleness. She is also the stern and unforgiving bringer of death. … At some time not more than a few thousand years ago the concept of a remote master God, an overseer of Gaia, took root.

(Lovelock 1989: 208)

Taking our cue from Lovelock, we ought here to remind ourselves of the Greek creation myth in which Gaia plays so important a part. From Hesiod’s Theogony, written in the 8th century BCE, we can distil the following basic narrative.

In the beginning there was Chaos, the formless void. From Chaos there eventually emerged Eros (Love) and Gaia (the Earth-Mother). Gaia produced Uranus (the Sky-Father). Then Gaia coupled with her son Uranus; their children included the twelve Titans, among whom was Oceanus and Chronus. Uranus resented his children and wished them harm, so Gaia hid them within herself until they caused her too much discomfort. Then she arranged for her son Cronus to castrate Uranus, so that he could rule in his father’s place.

It is by hearing this story again that we realise how shrewd Lovelock has been in choosing the name of Gaia: she encompasses both life and death, both maternal affection and violent revenge, both reward and punishment. We flout her authority at our peril, therefore – which is exactly what we have been doing with the biosphere. As the pollution and destruction of the natural environment worsens, so Lovelock has emphasized more and more the dark side of the earth mother: his latest book is called The Revenge of Gaia, in which he warns humanity that it will very likely not survive the eco-catastrophe to come; and it may be in the best interest of the planet that we do not, so that Gaia can regain her balance once more.

‘Uncommon perceptions’

I would like to move from Lovelock to Primavesi by way of a philosopher who has had a significant influence on her, namely Paul Ricoeur. Most relevant here are his reflections on the religious function of myth in one of his later works, Figuring the Sacred. Ricoeur pays particular attention to the question of how the sacred has traditionally been thought to manifest itself. In doing so, he lays great emphasis on the role of nature. Drawing on the vocabulary of the historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, he reminds us of the ‘hierophany’, or revelation of the sacred, that is made possible by thinking of divinity as immanent in nature rather than transcendent of it. The sacred is manifest, then, in ‘the fertility of the soil, vegetative exuberance, the prosperity of the flocks, and the fecundity of the maternal womb’ (Ricoeur 1995: 52). For in the perspective of the dimension of the holy, traditionally understood, ‘there are not a few living beings here and there, but life is a total and diffuse sacrality that may be seen in the cosmic rhythms, in the return of vegetation, and in the alternation of life and death’ (Ricoeur 1995: 52). Drawing his reflection on natural hierophany to a close, he observes:

And few images in this regard have marked religious humankind more than that of Mother Earth. One Homeric hymn celebrates her as follows: ‘Solid earth, beloved of the gods, who nourished everything in the world … you are the one who gives life to mortal beings and who takes it away again.’ It is also Mother Earth who is sung of by Aeschylus’s Corephore: ‘You who have given birth to everything, raise them and receive them again into your womb.’ Even the Rig-Veda echoes this when in speaking of funerals it says: ‘You who are earth, I place on the earth.’

(Ricoeur 1995: 52-3)

Primavesi draws out the implications of Ricoeur’s reflection for us in the course of her own reflection on the importance of Lovelock’s work. Ricoeur is, she says, effectively addressing ‘the systemic bonding between life and environment’ presupposed by Gaia theory:

Where Lovelock offers the concept of ‘self-regulation’ as an emergent property of the entire system, Ricoeur offers the word ‘sacred’. Sacredness attaches to totalities, to ‘wholes’ that we tinker with at our peril. For Ricoeur the emergent property of total and diffuse sacrality in life can only be conveyed in symbols that express and articulate the physical, material bonds that support life. … From this perspective all is sacred, or nothing is.

(Primavesi 2003: 126)

It is this fundamental assumption – that ‘all is sacred, or nothing is’ – which informs her three most recent works: Sacred Gaia (2000), Gaia’s Gift (2003) and Making God Laugh (2004) – the latter being in part a revision of her earlier book, From Apocalypse to Genesis (1991).

Given the above assertion, it is not surprising that Primavesi  declares that, mythology being a ‘network’ of interrelated stories, she is interested in nature as a ‘network’ of interrelated organisms. For her, the word ‘autopoesis’ (self-making) is crucial:

The term refers to the dynamic, self-producing and self-maintaining network of production processes within live organisms. Whatever their components, an indispensable aspect of living beings is that the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network. In this way the entire network can be said to continually ‘make itself’, even though its surroundings may change unpredictably.

(Primavesi 2000: 2)

If transformation is characteristic of nature, it must surely be allowed its place in culture, she suggests: ‘we exist within a dynamic becoming, with a very dim beginning and a very open future’ (Primavesi 2000: 45). An understanding of the endlessly transformative power of myth can help us face this future; however, there are reactionary forces in the spheres of both religion and science. ‘Both religious fundamentalism and scientific conservatism are symptomatic of a reluctance to acknowledge change, whether in our environments, in ourselves, in our doctrines or in our perspectives. Just as Lovelock met incredulity from many of his fellow-scientists, who could not cope with a mythic way of looking at nature, so we find an alarming reaffirmation of literalism within Christianity. As a theologian, she is particularly concerned about the latter: using a phrase of a fellow-theologian, Catherine Keller, she notes the growth of a ‘foundationally apocalyptic’ response to millennial anxieties at the end of the twentieth century. Instead of the apocalypse being understood imaginatively, as a myth which suggests permanent possibility, it has been reduced to a literal explanation of current historical events – with the added appeal of making prophecy come true for those who cling to received doctrines (Primavesi 2000: 45). Against this reductionist fundamentalism she asserts the importance of metaphor and myth, which involve what Ricoeur calls ‘the power of disclosure’ (Ricoeur quoted in Primavesi 2000: 30)

Just as the last book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible – Revelation – needs to be read as an apocalyptic myth, so does the first book – Genesis – have to be read as a creation myth. We distort them by restating them as doctrines, by forcibly converting mythos (narrative) into logos (idea). Read without regard for its imaginative subtlety, Genesis seems to validate a stark opposition between different spheres of existence, but read with an awareness of interrelatedness – that is, with an understanding of mythology that is informed by an understanding of ecology – we can see that the option is not either/or but rather both/and. Primavesi reminds us that the Hebrew creation myth, in being read as absolute truth, has been used to support a divisive and oppressive ideology. Ecofeminist theology is necessarily committed to exposing and questioning the ‘hierarchical paradigm’ which has formed the basis of a false distinction, justifying ‘negative feelings’ about a significant part of creation. From God saying ‘Let there be light’ amidst the darkness, and proceeding to create by an act of division, a rationale for systematic subordination has been deduced:

In western religious and cultural history, matter has been distinguished from mind, nature from culture, woman from man, body from spirit, emotion from reason, earth from heaven in order to devalue one compared with the other, the devalued being described as unclean, polluting, inferior and/or profane. The de-valuation or de-grading has meant that emotion, matter, nature, woman and earth could then be treated as of lesser value, lesser importance. This degradation, in the case of women, nature and the earth, was taken to justify their exploitation.

(Primavesi 2000: 34)

Inspired by Lovelock’s revival of the myth of Gaia, she is concerned to show that at the profoundest level of imagination, nature is celebrated by way of paradox. Gaia is not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’: she is complex; she is comprehensive. As such, she is both benign and malign, both tender and violent, depending on the circumstances of the story. She represents the interpenetration of life and death, light and dark, order and chaos. Restored to its mythic context, Genesis too allows us to understand that, if the sacred is the whole, then it cannot be confined to one half of an abstract equation. As a myth, it opens up a ‘possible world’ (to use Ricoeur’s phrase), giving us an imaginative opening into a realm of rich diversity. It does not spell out an arid and abstract opposition: light/dark, heaven/earth. Rather, it demonstrates that the sacred whole is comprised of a ‘unity in diversity’ (Primavesi 2000: 169).

Of course, this is not the received reading of Genesis. We might think, for example, of how much has been made of the verse in which humanity is given ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation. Certainly, it has been invoked all too frequently to justify the ‘taming’ of the wilderness. One might have expected Primavesi to make more of this specific verse. There again, it is one that has been addressed by many other ecological thinkers, and her aim is rather more ambitious. She wants to query the more general assumptions that lie behind the received interpretation of the Biblical story of creation. It is urgent to do so, she reminds us, because that interpretation is becoming more not less influential in the present era:

God’s actions and words are read through a hierarchical grid in some of the following ways. He is male. And he creates man first. Both of these fea-tures of the story are taken to mean that man is superior to woman. God punishes them both because they reject his authority to tell them what to do and what not to do – and ultimately his power over their life and death. In such a theocracy, God exercises this power not only over them, but over the plants and animals as well, and therefore can decide to punish them too – not for anything they have done, but for the misbehaviour of the woman and man. Even though the earth has played no part in their actions, and the serpent only an indirect one, the former is cursed because of man and the serpent’s issue placed under the woman’s heel. They are to live under human control, a control delegated by God to man in a theocratic world.

(Primavesi 2004: 88)

According to this model, we would say that, though God intended humanity to be happy, he was far more interested in its being unconditionally obedient. Our ideal relationship to God is one of ‘submission to divine will’. It was failure to obey God that resulted in our present situation: man subject to God; woman subject to man; non-human subject to human. The ‘fall’ from paradise that resulted from disobedience is being re-enacted even now: ‘the inclination to disobey and its consequence, pain, are now part of our nature because our will to obey has been disordered by our ancestors’ refusal to obey God’s order. We continue to disobey and there­fore know for ourselves what it is to suffer God’s judgments.’ The answer to this state of error is further submission: ‘If we accept suffering properly, that is, acknowledge it to be punishment for sin and a result of our flawed character, then God may readmit us to Paradise after our death’ (Primavesi 2004: 88-9).

Against such a dismal reading of Genesis, Primavesi insists that we look again at Biblical myth in the light of ecology – not forgetting the obligation to practise proper scriptural scholarship. An instance of this is the very question of how the word ‘man’ is to be understood. She ponders Genesis 2:7, which is translated as follows in the Revised Standard Version: ‘Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.’

Querying this phrasing, Primavesi proposes that ‘in order to capture the flavour and meaning of the original text, the words adam (man) and adamah (dust) should be translated in ways that (a) are not gender specific and (b) that communicate the integral con­nection of humanity with earth.’ Drawing on the work of Carol L. Meyers, she offers a more accurate translation. While including an earlier name for the Hebrew’s god, it offers also a more promising designation of ‘man’: ‘Then God Yahweh formed an earthling of clods from the earth and breathed into its nostril the breath of life; and the earthling became a living being’ (Primavesi 2004: 82). This translation puts humanity in its place, ecologically speaking. It has the advantage of being more accurate, more interesting and more promising.

Sustained by the scholarship of her peers, she proposes some ‘uncommon perceptions’ of Genesis with which it might be timely to replace the ‘common perceptions’ she has just addressed. The first, which follows from the scholarly observation just made, concerns that of ‘man’:

Instead of the hierarchical male of the standard interpretation, placed in power over his female dependents and over the earth, man shares with them the common clay and breath of all living beings. There is no reason to believe that his will, his intellect, or his body is by nature at the mercy of disordered sexual desire. He is not seduced by woman from a proper relationship with God. His sexuality is an intrinsic part of that relationship and of his interaction with other living beings. He is not set apart from them in his spirit or in his body. With them he shares a relationship with God, and along with them, shapes the world in which each is created mortal by nature. He gives names to all the other living beings, and woman he names as mother of all the living. He toils to produce food from the earth, and presumably obeys his final and most solemn instruction from God – that he is to serve the earth, not the earth him. When he dies, he returns to that earth from which he came.

(Primavesi 2004: 109-10)

Primavesi does not quote it, but with this last statement she is obviously thinking of Genesis 3: 19: ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ In the ecological perspective, this sentiment becomes an affirmation of identity with the earth rather than an expression of regret about mortality.

If ‘man’ needs re-imagining, so too does ‘woman’.  Neither silly nor wicked, but rather intelligent and inquisitive, she may rather be seen as entering into dialogue with nature, in the figure of the serpent. It is through her that the human race obtains self-awareness. Moreover, the very eating of the fruit and the fact of childbirth which follows from it make sense once we make the earth our focus: ‘Female fertility is celebrated by man as the source of all life in the world, and this life is sustained by eating the products of man’s interac­tion with the earth’s fertility’ (Primavesi 2004: 110).

Which brings us, inevitably, to the need for an ‘uncommon perception’ of the serpent itself: ‘This representative of the animal world is a symbol of the wisdom offered to humankind in interaction with that world. … The serpent exposes the complex problems involved in following fixed rules of conduct or imposed norms of behaviour.’ Not only that, but the serpent also ‘dramatizes the complexity of our relationships with the natural world. The woman personifies the potential consequences of those relationships. Do we utilize the insights offered by Nature as a path-way to a relationship with each other and with God?’ (Primavesi 2004: 110)

With this rhetorical question we proceed, via a few passing comments on our notions of God, to one of the most challenging of Primavesi’s proposed ‘uncommon perceptions’, that of sin. There is no idea of ‘original sin’ in the Biblical myth itself, she reminds us: it was introduced by St Augustine, who saw death as an unnatural event, to which we are all now tragically condemned. Death, he believed, was made necessary by way of punishment for Adam and Eve’s surrender to the temptation of the serpent; it was the legacy of the ‘fall’ from Eden. As Primavesi has already hinted, we need to recover a pre-Augustinian sense of death as the natural complement of birth. We need to savour the beauty of the fact that death is the means by which we return, appropriately and inevitably, to the earth from which we came. In repudiating original sin, she develops the more ecologically promising notion of ‘structural sin’. Here she moves forward to the postscript to the myth of the Fall, told in the fourth chapter of Genesis, which concerns Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. Both brothers offer God a sacrifice: Abel the herdsman has his accepted; Cain the farmer has his rejected. One may assume that this myth reflects the nomadic Hebrews’ suspicion of agricultural settlement, but Primavesi wants to go further:

It is therefore clear that I have not invented a new sin when with theologians of the poor of this earth I talk about sinful structures or structural sin. Nor am I attributing a specific sin, the fault of Cain alone, to abstract, impersonal agricultural systems. The central problem today, as it was then, is the creation and maintenance of structures and centres of power, whether urban or rural, that effectively block all forms of loving our fellow earth-creatures whether in public, in our church practices, or in our homes. By and large, these structures prevent the recognition and growth of diversity, and foster an us-versus-them attitude that remains the very essence of sin. Just such an attitude made Cain, a herdsman, literally incapable of recognizing the gifts of the farmer. (1) In the context of our worship of God, the same drive to exclusiveness has fostered hatred, division, and war. In the context of our relationship with the more-than-human world, it has led us to deny the intrinsic worth of the rest of creation.

(Primavesi 2004: 111-12)

The shift from ‘original’ to ‘structural sin’ brings an ancient narrative startlingly up to date. Such insights make reading Primavesi a constant reward. Radical, too is her preference for David Abrams’ phrase ‘more-than-human’ to the conventional ‘non-human’. Her choice of words conveys the radical nature of her Christianity, which seeks nothing less than a redefinition of God, of humanity and of the world to which they both relate.

The wisdom of the Earth

A possible objection to Primavesi’s thinking is that the Biblical text, being a product of late antiquity, is more likely than not to espouse a patriarchal, hierarchical ideology that is hostile to nature. It is bound, so the argument would go, to demean the natural world just as it demeans the female sex; we simply have to accept that that is how they thought in those times. But we have already considered the Greek myth of Gaia; and we have also considered a major work by the Roman poet, Lucretius. Despite the fact that they arose within an urban civilisation which originated in the rise of a warrior class earlier in antiquity, they retained the respect for Mother Earth that most anthropologists and palaeontologists believe to have preceded the aggressive cult of male individualism. Moreover, if we turn our gaze from the ancient West to the ancient East, Primavesi suggests, we find that the Biblical text is complemented by one that appears at first sight to be remote from it. She is referring to the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese work concerning ‘the Way and its power’. The ‘Way’ is the force that informs all of nature, and to which human beings are recommended to adapt themselves and to subordinate their own selfish interests.

Primavesi invokes the Tao by way of emphasising that it is a mistake to think that one has understood the sacred by making statements about it. It is better to approach it through the mythic imagination, conscious that it will always remain elusive. She quotes the opening of the Tao Te Ching ‘The Tao that can be spoken of / Is not the everlasting Tao’ – in order to remind us of the mysterious nature of ‘nature’. For whether we call it ‘Tao’ or ‘Gaia’, its creativity and generosity can never be fully realized, but has to be approached through the language of paradox (see Primavesi 2000: 29-32; Primavesi 2003: 62-5). Similarly, Christians need to accept the limitations of their understanding of God. Whatever language we use to describe his status and his relationship to us – whether it be ‘father’ or ‘king’ – we must acknowledge that this is a figurative approximation. If we start treating the metaphor as literal fact, then proceed to make pronouncements about ‘God’s plan’, we are guilty of arrogance.  The best lesson to learn is one of ‘ecological humility’ (see Primavesi 2000: 29-32; Primavesi 2003: 62-5;  Primavesi 2004: 119-28).

Thereby we might begin to realise that the God of Genesis is like the Tao, not only in being unknowable, but also in being inclusive. Where orthodox interpretation posits an arid dualism – light v dark, male v female, culture v nature, spirit v body, life v death, heaven v earth – this God endorses the co-existence of each pair (see Primavesi 2000: 31). Citing the work of the historian of religion, Sarah Allan, Primavesi reminds us that the religion of Taoism assumes an inter-animation of apparent opposites – that is, of contraries that turn out to be twin aspects of the same being:

In her discussion of ‘root metaphors’ in Taoism (a classification that with its organic overtones says much about how they emerge and evolve), Sarah Allan says that the complementary forces that imbue and define all life came be known as yin, darkness, and yang, light. Both terms were originally associated with landscape. Yin refers to the shaded areas of a river valley and the term is conventionally used to describe dark valleys and rain. Yang, on the other hand, refers to bright mountain peaks. She makes the point that this complementary pair came to subsume other earlier ones, including water and fire, female and male, below and above. And that yin and yang, as principles that refer to the physical world (darkness and light, valleys and mountains, water and fire) are also applied to human life and society.

(Primavesi 2003: 107)

On this basis Primavesi is able to affirm the rich complexity of the deity invoked within the verses of Genesis:

Allan’s point that darkness and light symbolize the complementary forces and principles that imbue and define all life is important here. As is the fact that they have an undisputed reference to the physical world even when used as abstract concepts. Her defining them as ‘root metaphors’ is itself a metaphor for the organic growth of language forms based on analogy with the physical world. It is hardly surprising then that the common human experience of that world is also expressed in the Hebrew account of the origins of life on earth as water/darkness and sun-fire/light.

(Primavesi 2003: 107)

This is a God who is present in the darkness as much as in the light, and in the depths of the sea as much as in the heights of the heavens.

Having moved easily between Chinese and Hebrew thinking, Primavesi moves easily between ancient myth and contemporary scientific theory:

It is not surprising either that when I asked James Lovelock to clarify some point about Gaia’s evolution he wrote on the customary back of an envelope as follows:

In the beginning
the Earth evolved chemically and physically.
Sometime after its birth
the first living organisms appeared, probably at a single place.
life spread over most of the planet.
It was mostly ocean.
During this period life and Earth evolved separately.
As life grew abundant
it began to change the environment
until its evolution and the Earth’s evolution
merged into a single process:
the dynamic system

(Personal communication, April 1999)

The important thing about his account is that, as in the Genesis text, the potential for the creation of life lies in ‘the waters’ of earth. Scientists generally agree that it was from this ‘deep time’ ocean, then covering most of the earth, that living entities did in fact emerge. Their emergence was made possible because the life-giving properties characterizing the water of those oceans had themselves evolved through change and interaction powered by some form of death.

(Primavesi 2003: 108)

If Primavesi’s God embraces darkness as well as light, he embraces death as well as life. They are inseparable. Instead of seeing ourselves as strangers and pilgrims on this earth, seeking salvation beyond it, we need to remind ourselves of our ‘Adamic’ status as ‘earthlings’.

Primavesi goes further, however. At the end of Making God Laugh, she claims that the ‘wisdom of the Earth’ which is ‘personified in Gaia’ is anticipated explicitly by the Bible. She here supplements her reading of the Book of Genesis with an allusion to the Book of Proverbs:

James Lovelock’s Gaia theory describes the Earth behaving as a single living system, with the evolution of its crust and atmosphere merging with the evolution of living organisms into a single dynamic geo-physiological process. This process provides and sustains conditions that allow life forms to emerge. Over time, these conditions are subject to variations that favour some forms of life over others: and if those variations persist, the latter forms dwindle, or even become extinct. This fact about the life of every organism and species, including our own, was noted by a well-known sage: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up’ (Proverbs 3:1-8). Thus Gaia’s wisdom or ‘know-how’ can be seen as knowing how to regulate conditions favourable for life to emerge and to be built up, broken down and rebuilt in diverse forms over different time scales. It ‘knows how’ to keep itself in homeostasis, that state of dynamic equilibrium from which different life forms emerged and grew abundant, thereby changing the environment as their evolution and the Earth’s evolution merged into a single dynamic process.

(Primavesi 2004: 147)

The inference to be drawn seems inescapable: ‘This continually evolving process … has produced the planet’s many beautiful and awe-inspiring living artifacts. We are just one such life form, tightly coupled with our environments and dependent on Gaia for the resources that sustain our lives’ (Primavesi 2004: 147-8).

Living ‘as if’

It might be that I am insufficiently critical of Primavesi’s project – an ecological reading of the Bible and a revision of what we understand by religious faith – but I have to confess to being impressed by it. For me, she demonstrates the need for our postmodern, globalised world to recover the lost potential of premodern, nature-based myth. The fact that in the process she disturbs received notions of Biblical truth is, admittedly, part of the attraction. But more important is the audacious pairing of Genesis and Gaia: ancient and contemporary thinking meet, and their meeting brings new hope to us all. Religion substantiates science; science substantiates ‘green’ thinking. In this sense, Primavesi is surely right to speak of ‘Gaia’s gift’.

We come to appreciate that gift by using our imagination to get outside our usual anthropocentric worldview. Primavesi proposes a ‘revolution within ourselves’, which might have powerful consequences. Let us, she proposes, start thinking of ourselves in relation to ‘the whole earth community’. She invokes Vaclav Havel’s ‘prototypical “velvet” revolution (in which one lives in a far from ideal situation “as if” in an ideal one)’. This ‘suggests that such a change in self-perception can bring about real change’. The point is to query the present status quo, whether in the name of the future or of the past:

It is not true that the need for change in regard to our membership of the earth community is not as evident to us as it was for him when he and some other members of the Czechoslovakian State decided to live as if they were what they later became in fact – Czech Republicans. I am proposing a reverse revolutionary order: looking back through our species’ history and seeing ourselves as part of a much longer and older ancestry. Then instead of perceiving ourselves as somehow separate from the other members of the earth community, we remember ourselves as part of that larger one and live accordingly. We live as if we are what we have always been – members of the earth community.

(Primavesi 2003: 70)

Recovering that ancestry is impossible without reconsidering the texts and myths through which it has been mediated. It is surely appropriate that Primavesi, as Christian theologian, pays particular attention to the Bible. But even if this were not the case, it would be appropriate to draw on that text, since perhaps no other in the ancient world demands that its readers take the risk of a radical change of consciousness, the prelude to a radical change in behaviour. Given that the original summons has been submerged by centuries of ‘official’ commentary – based on a rejection of earth, a subordination of the female and a fear of death – it is surely time to go beyond the letter and recover its spirit. This means abandoning all claims to know God, and all claims to know His plans.

At the end of Sacred Gaia, Primavesi turns to the Gospels. But before doing so, and with typical ease in moving between sacred and secular discourse, she reflects on the significance of the moment in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ when the protagonist is released from the burden of guilt for slaying the albatross. Looking down at the water-snakes, he ‘blest them unaware’. Turning in this context to a pronouncement by Jesus in Matthew 25, where he speaks of the ‘last judgment’, of the moment when the blessed are divided from the damned, she reflects:

The blessed are named as those who have fed the naked, clothed the starving, given drink to the thirsty and so on. They are amazed and ask: ‘But when, Lord, did we do this?’ Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, they did it unaware.

(Primavesi 2000: 179)

She suggests that such pronouncements ‘transform our perspective on the sacred by using language to subvert the notion that any chosen description, distinction or translation, whether theological or scientific, can fully express the reality of “all there is” (Primavesi 2000: 179). In Christian terms, ‘this realization of limit’ entails ‘the awareness that a God who eludes verbal categories has broken other bounds as well’. We are invited to challenge ‘the usual confines within which we place and then describe God’. The language of paradox ‘dismantles’ received categories sufficiently ‘to give God room: room to be God of the whole earth system: enchanting and terrible, giver of life and death’ (Primavesi 2000: 179).

I would hope that all of us who are engaged in a green practice – whether we believe in God or Gaia, or whether we prefer not to use such language – can see the benefits of living ‘as if’ and getting to a stage where we ‘bless unaware’. We are all committed, I am sure, to  demonstrating how everything in nature interrelates, and how impoverished any culture is which lacks the capacity for empathy with the fellow-members of our earth community: not only other humans but also birds, tigers, forests, mountains. One does not have to be religious to appreciate the idea that nature should be revered; but it helps to know that religious myths of origin which date back to antiquity offer ways of imagining what that might involve.



(1) The confusion is in Primavesi’s text: she obviously intended to write ‘Cain, the farmer’ and ‘Abel, the herdsman’. (Back)

Further reading:

Laurence Coupe, Myth , 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)


Lovelock, James (1989) The Ages of Gaia: The Biography of Our Living Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——(2007), The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity, London: Penguin.

Primavesi, Anne (1991) From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Feminism and Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

——(2000) Sacred Gaia: Holistic Theology and Earth System Science, London: Routledge.

——(2003) Gaia’s Gift: Earth, Ourselves and God After Copernicus, London: Routledge.

—–(2004) Making God Laugh: Human Arrogance and Ecological Humility, Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.

Ricoeur, Paul (1995) Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Laurence Coupe