Thomas Cahill got a history book onto the bestseller list with the help of his playfully hyperbolic title How the Irish Saved Civilization. Following Cahill’s lead, I’ve given this brief blog post a playfully hyperbolic title, but Cahill’s playful title does indicate the serious case he tries to make, and so does mine.
Hyperbole aside, I want to note that a seemingly minor mistranslation, made 400 years ago, has contributed to a major metaphysical misunderstanding that skews ecological judgment today.
The metaphysical misunderstanding receives especially elegant formulation in the often-repeated poetic declaration that “God’s in His heaven — / All’s right with the world!” (The declaration can’t be taken at face value in the Robert Browning poem that is its source, where its being spoken by Pippa, an impoverished laborer at a 19th-century silk mill, saturates it with irony. But in its pop-culture life, where it exists as a decontextualized, free-floating utterance, it gets taken at face value, and it’s the pop-culture version I mean here.)
It skews ecological judgment because, if I think that “God’s in His heaven — / All’s right with the world,” I won’t be much concerned with ecological issues. If I think it’s true, then I’ll also think that whatever scientists are saying about the climate is a bunch of hoo-ha. If it’s true, there cannot be any ecological problems. If it looks like something’s wrong with the world, that’s appearance, not reality. If it looks to me like something’s wrong with the world, it can only be a misperception on my part. The logic of the declaration is not I know God’s in His heaven because I’ve looked around and confirmed that all’s right with the world; its logic is because God’s in His heaven therefore all is by definition right with the world. It’s an a priori argument: no possible evidence could count against it. It doesn’t matter if glaciers are melting and a few species have lost out: I don’t have to worry. Everything’s OK.
So where might I get the idea that God’s in his heaven? In a “Christian nation” such as the U.S., a great many people would appeal to the Bible. In particular, Jesus himself, in English, in the Sermon on the Mount, places God in heaven, making things right in the world. “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Matthew 6:26, King James Version). But here’s the problem. The King James translators assign God to one place and birds to another: God is “heavenly” and the fowls are “of the air.” But in the Greek original of Matthew’s gospel, “the fowls of the air” is τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, and “your heavenly Father” is ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος. God is not in one place and birds in another: God and the birds both are in οὐρᾰνός. Later English translations have blindly and uniformly followed King James in using two different words to translate ouranos, “air” when it is used in connection with birds and “heaven” when it is used in connection with God. Although that distinction conveys the range of meaning of ouranos, it also creates a profoundly misleading impression. English translations all put birds in one place, the air, and God in another place, heaven. But in the Greek original, Jesus uses the same word, ouranos, to designate the medium with which the birds and God are associated. They are the birds of the ouranos, and He is your ouranos-ly Father. The primary meaning of the Greek word is the region in which birds fly; only secondarily, by extension, does it refer to a realm, figuratively above us, in which deities may reside. In English, though, “heaven” refers primarily to the figuratively “up” realm of deities, and only derivatively to the region in which birds fly.
If evidence were needed that ecocriticism and ecopoetry matter, this would give a case in point. It makes sense to have a Bureau of Land Management, with a manager located in an office building in D.C. “managing” land in Wyoming or Nevada, if God is managing the world from His location in heaven. That narrative about God gives an analogy for that political arrangement.
To contest that analogy, I’ve been working on a new edition and translation of the gospel that amends that narrative. Instead of separating God and the birds, as prior English translations do, placing God in “heaven” and birds in “the air,” the Gospel I’ve compiled and translated chooses the English word with the same primary meaning as the Greek word, and places birds and God both in the “sky.” In it, God is not above the environment birds live in, but within that environment. In all prior English translations of the Biblical Gospels, God is stationed outside the earth’s atmosphere; my Gospel restores the original sense of the Greek, which locates God within the biosphere. My Gospel might or might not find a publisher (this is only one of many ways in which it rejects traditional treatment of gospel material), but with or without it in print, we humans will do well to find ways to question narratives that portray God in one environment and physical life forms (birds, coral reefs, bacteria, humans…) in a separate environment. King James has led us down a blind alley; time to turn around.
H. L. Hix’s recent books include a poetry collection, Rain Inscription; an edition, with Julie Kane, of selected poems of contemporary Lithuanian poet Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė, called Terribly In Love; an essay collection, Demonstrategy; and an art/poetry anthology, Ley Lines.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.