The Two Books of God

December 1, 2005
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Lawrence Troster

Central to the creation of a new Jewish environmental theology is the necessity of grounding this theology in the recent discussions about the relationship between science and religion, found mostly so far in Christian circles. In his approach to creation theology, Arthur Green has suggested a typology for that relationship in which religious language and scientific language exist in separate but equally valid realms. Ian Barbour, one of the foremost scholars in the field of the science/religion dialogue, has called this approach the Independence model. In this model, science and religion speak of differing truths, use different methods, and have their own sphere of action and influence. They therefore can never be in conflict.

Historically this model was expressed in a metaphor that Christian scientists in the 16th to 18th centuries often used called the “Two Books of God”: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Each “Book” had its own truth, and neither could contradict the other. As Galileo was reported to have said, “Science teaches us how heaven goes while Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven.” This metaphor allowed the scientists to pursue the secrets of the “Book of Nature” without coming into conflict with the truth of Scripture.

This metaphor never existed in Jewish sources because, in Judaism, there was only one book, the Torah, in which all wisdom was contained. However, Maimonides came closest to expressing the idea that the natural world could also be a source of revelation. In his understanding of the commandments to love and fear God (Deuteronomy 6:5, 13), he wrote: “When a person observes God’s works and God’s great and marvelous creatures, and they see from them God’s wisdom that is without estimate or end, immediately they will love God, praise God and long with a great desire to know God’s Great Name…And when a person thinks about these things they draw back and are afraid and realize that they are small, lowly, and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of God who is perfect in knowledge.” ( Mishneh Torah, Sepher Madah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1-2)

For Maimonides, to “observe” the works of God meant what we would call the scientific study of the natural world. For Maimonides, the two “Books of God” were not separate realms of truth, but complementary sources of the knowledge of God.

Ian Barbour has also delineated a model of the science/religion relationship called the Integration model, where science and religion engage in a unified quest for knowledge and each discipline complements and enriches the other. It is a new version of the Two Books metaphor, more in the Maimonidean mode. It is this model that is essential to creating a Jewish environmental theology.

Science grounds us in the interrelationship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. This interrelationship is both subtle and deep. That most people don’t understand this relationship has led to our disconnection from creation and to our despoliation of the environment. A Jewish environmental theology begins with the reading of the Book of Creation. We are thus filled with love and a sense of connection to a greater order of things; we feel a sense of awe and humility as we perceive how small we are in the universe and within the history of evolution. We create what environmental educator Mitchell Thomashow calls an “ecological identity,” the state in which “people perceive themselves in reference to nature, as living breathing beings connected to the rhythms of the earth, the biogeochemical cycles, the grand and complex diversity of ecological systems.”

This new perspective is urgently needed, as we are now engaged in tearing out the pages of the Book of Creation. The philosopher Hans Jonas once wrote that, “The latest revelation…is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”

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Rabbi Lawrence Troster is Jewish Chaplain at Bard College and Associate of Bard's Institute of Advanced Theology. He is also the Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and at GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey.

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