Creation Ethics East of Eden

The summer of 2003 I worked for Young Life at its property on Upper Saranac Lake in New York. One week, I was enlisted to lead an unplanned hike to the summit of Ampersand Mountain. After five and a half miles, the campers reached a bald rocky peak above the clouds where they could look down on the surrounding lakes and across to the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. There, I sat down in a circle with a cabin of high school boys to eat a granola bar breakfast and to apologize for the beauty of the earth. “How could anyone look at this and not think that there is a God?” I asked. “I know that when I look out and see such beauty, I experience God in a way that I’ve never experienced him before,” I continued. The campers had traded in a day of parasailing excitement on the water for an arduous climb, and I felt obliged to let them know they were experiencing something special.

A few months later, I began seminary at Duke Divinity School, where Willie Jennings introduced me to Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And just like that, I began to suspect that the Ampersand Mountain apologetic was not one for the ages. From Barth, I learned to be suspicious of claims to know anything about God with certainty from any source other than Jesus Christ, and from Bonhoeffer, I learned that we are all living east of Eden.

And yet, even now—twenty years later—when I am in nature, I am tempted to think such thoughts. I am forever trying to balance my deeply held conviction that “the heavens declare the glory of the Lord” (Ps. 19:1 NIV) with my equally held conviction that “the whole creation has been groaning” for redemption (Rom. 8:22). This tension was perhaps best captured in a conversation between the Reformed theologian Richard Mouw and the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Mouw recalls: “On questions of culture, [Yoder] observed, ‘Mouw wants to say, “Fallen, but created,” and I want to say, “Created, but fallen.”’”[1] Over time, I have come to appreciate Yoder’s emphasis on fallen.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Christian realist; that is, I’m not one of those disciples of Reinhold Niebuhr who so emphasizes the effects of sin and the fall that little room is left for the Christian conviction that God has begun to make all things new in Jesus Christ. We live in the middle, between creation and redemption. And, as Bonhoeffer suggested in his lecture series Creation and Fall, it is in the middle where Christ meets us. Christian moral action is action that always occurs in the middle of the story, and Christians would do well to attend to Jesus’s own life and teachings as we navigate our lives.


I am never more aware of our middling moral lives than when I am fly-fishing. Fly-fishers are amateur entomologists, meteorologists, hydrologists, and ichthyologists. They attend to the weather and the water flow, the hatching cycles of bugs, and the habits and habitats of various fish species. If they tie their own flies, then they are also artists. They use natural and synthetic materials to build life-size imitations of bugs and bug larvae on microscopic fishhooks—gnats, midges, and caddis flies, just to name a few.

I am a fair to middling fly-fisher. And here, I use middling in both ways. I am a mediocre angler, and I am angling my way through life between creation and redemption. I depend on better fishers to inform me about hatch cycles and water speed. I read books and blogs to learn about the best fishing times and techniques. But I am probably better than average at tying flies, when I take the time to do it. But even the middling attention I give to the world in which I fish makes me keenly aware of our theologically middling existence.

On a recent Friday, I find myself floating the Elk River south of Tim’s Ford Dam in Tennessee with a parishioner at my church. Any illusion that we are in an Edenic paradise is quickly dashed by the massive hydroelectric dam just above the boat ramp. And to our west is Moore County, home to the Jack Daniel Distillery. The surrounding forests and homes are covered in a fungus that feeds off the alcohol vapors as they rise from the whiskey barrels.

To our east is Monteagle, Tennessee, home to what is left of the Highlander Folk School. Highlander trained local union workers and civil rights leaders to do community-based organizing, helping coal miners get out from under the boots of mining companies and African Americans register to vote. Highlander is home to the great civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” It was founded by a Cumberland Presbyterian named Myles Horton who studied with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary, and its alumni base includes Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Marion Barry, among others. Highlander and Horton were run out of town in 1961 when politicians and businessmen from Nashville convinced locals that Highlander was un-American.[2]

To the west, reminders of the broken relationship between humans and the rest of God’s creation; to the east, reminders of the broken relationship between human and human. Yes, we’re right in the middle of it, I think.


We’re fishing black wooly buggers with red squirmy worm droppers. We get into a nice fishing hole about thirty minutes into the float, and I catch eight trout, releasing all but one. The one I take home with me is eight to ten inches long and will make a nice small meal. I’m looking forward to showing my four-year-old daughter how to cook a fish. On the way home, I stop by the grocery store to supplement my catch with some salmon. I’m worried she won’t like having to pick her way around the bones.

At the fish counter, I am confronted with my own version of the omnivore’s dilemma: line-caught sockeye salmon from Alaska or farmed Atlantic salmon.[3] I’m thrust into the deep end of the ethics of eating animals. On the one hand, the wild Alaskan salmon is probably healthier with more omega-3s from eating a natural diet. But it was probably caught using a fishing line that may have stretched up to sixty miles with baited hooks. These long lines are notorious for hooking sea turtles, seals, dolphins, and even birds like penguins and albatross. Some of this bycatch, like the albatross, are at risk for possible extinction. On the other hand, the farmed Atlantic salmon is cheaper but less nutritious, having been farmed on a diet that includes unnatural fish food like corn and natural fish food that has been irresponsibly harvested from the ocean. Furthermore, fish are farmed in confined spaces that increase the risk of disease. This, in turn, encourages farmers to use antibiotics in a way that increases the environmental impact.

Maybe I should have kept more trout? Then again, these trout aren’t wild. They are born in hatcheries and released into the wild to replenish the fish populations that have been depleted by dams, overfishing, chemical runoff, and other human interventions. They are probably healthier than the farmed salmon and are caught by angling instead of long-lining, meaning that they are caught selectively, with smaller fish released back into the water. Even so, they exist so that people like me can fish them for sport. And they are less fearful than wild trout, having been regularly fed by humans before they were released into the wild. That is why my squirmy worm—sometimes referred to as a junk fly—is so effective.

Even so, angling does distinguish itself from almost every other form of fishing. All anglers are fishers, but not all fishers are anglers. Most fishers—and I say fisher here to avoid using the anachronistic term fishermen—are commercial fishers, engaging in practices like long-lining, trawling, and net fishing (e.g., using purse seine or gill nets). These commercial methods lead to bycatch and may destroy local habitats. All of them pull fish from the water in quantities that far exceed sustainability. The reason the Atlantic salmon at the grocery store had to be farmed is because it has been illegal to fish for Atlantic salmon since 1948, when the population was threatened with extinction due to overfishing and destroyed habitat. That may soon be the case for many other types of fish.

In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes modern commercial fishing as a warfare of extermination. Using technologies originally developed for combat—sonar, radar, satellite imagery, and GPS—fishing boats find and capture whole schools of fish in their nets with an ease that was heretofore unimaginable. Both the line-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon and the farmed Atlantic salmon arrive at my supermarket by means that are ethically dubious. Like warfare itself, eating fish almost always requires us to accept a certain level of collateral damage—damage to the environment, to animals, and even to the future of fishing.[4] 

A pescatarian lifestyle is sometimes presented as an ethical alternative to eating meat, but the environmental impact of commercial fishing calls that image into question. Should we still hold to a pescatarian diet based on arguments regarding the human treatment of animals, we are forced to face the ever-mounting body of evidence that suggests that fish feel and remember pain in a manner that constitutes what we might call suffering. In volume two of his theological ethics On Animals, theologian David Clough reports the following:

Recent research provides strong evidence of a range of sophisticated cognitive capacities in fish, such as good long-term memory, complex traditions within social groups, so-called Machiavellian intelligence, including cooperation and reconciliation, tool use, learning skills, the ability to count, social recognition of individuals of their own and other species, social and emotional learning, and spatial cognition.[5]

In short, eating fish is no different than eating other animals. We find ourselves right in the middle again, grappling with the environmental and humane conflicts that result from the fall.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer described life after the fall as life in the “middle.” In Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer tells the story of creation, the fall, and redemption with the shorthand: imago dei, sicut deus, and Agnus Dei. Humans were created in the image of God (imago dei) and existed from a creaturely center that flourished within the limits that God gave them. The serpent’s promise—that humans could become like God, sicut deus—once pursued presents humanity with a certain limitlessness. Humans found their center not in God but in themselves and their own knowledge of good and evil. Here, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between life lived in the center (i.e., life in God) and life lived in the middle (i.e., life in self). After the fall, humans are in the middle. Fallen humans live their lives navigating between good and evil as they see it; we live in the middle.

It is into this murky middle that God sends his Son Jesus Christ, the lamb of God (Agnus Dei), who takes away the sin of the world. Bonhoeffer writes, “Imago dei, sicut deus, agnus dei—the human being who is God incarnate, who was sacrificed for humankind sicut deus, in true divinity slaying its false divinity and restoring the imago dei.”[6] Christ restores humankind to the center. Christ repairs the broken relationships that exist between God and humanity, between human and human, and between humanity and the created order. In fact, Christ doesn’t just bring us back to the center; he becomes the center.

In another set of lectures, Bonhoeffer tells us what it means to say that Christ is the center of the relationship between God and nature. Christ, the new creation, clarifies the sinfulness of creation unmoored from its creator. Creation, looking to Christ as its center, finds not only its reconciliation but its redemption in the gospel proclamation. This is most obviously the case in the sacraments, where old elements become new. Bonhoeffer argues, “In the sacrament, Christ is the mediator between nature and God and stands for all creation before God.”[7]

To look to Christ to understand creation means to see it at once as both broken and redeemed. It is to confess the truth about the effects of sin in the world and our continued sin while refusing to allow sin the last word. It is neither to accent the original goodness of creation (with Mouw) nor to concede to the logic of a broken world (Niebuhr). Jesus Christ meets us in the middle, and when we make him the center of our lives, he helps us to come to terms with our sinfulness even as he gives us a “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).


It is late at night, and I’m driving back to my apartment in Pasadena after dropping off some of our youth in downtown Los Angeles after a youth event in Hollywood. On these evening drives, I like to listen to NPR. Tonight, I’m listening to the Smiley and West show. A woman calls in and insists that self-professed Christians like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West should be vegetarians. In the garden of Eden, humans did not eat meat, she argues. So far so good. And Jesus didn’t eat meat, she adds. “I don’t know about that,” West demurs. It’s true, she exclaims. Smiley and West let it go. They commend the woman on her veganism and one of them laughingly confesses that he will have a hard time giving up red meat. “Cornel, what about the fish?” I keep shouting to no one in particular.

Jesus was a meat eater. He likely ate lamb at the Passover seder with his disciples. He certainly ate fish. In fact, Jesus and his disciples didn’t just eat fish; they lived and worked in and around commercial fishing. New Testament scholar Sean Freyne tells us that Jesus’s home province of Galilee was one of the fish processing capitals of the Roman Empire. Cities like Bethsaida and Magdala were known for preserving fish with salt for export throughout the empire.[8]

Don’t get me wrong. The fishing industry of first-century Palestine is both quantitatively and qualitatively different than modern commercial fishing and fish-farming. Nevertheless, in Christ, God meets us in the messy middle of life and livelihood. He participates in human culture; what’s more, he promises to redeem it.

Eating fish—indeed, eating animals—might be a sign of the brokenness that occurs with the fall. But it seems that redemption is more than simply returning to an Edenic vegetarianism. In Luke’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and asks for food. They serve him fish (Luke 24:36–45). In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ greets his disciples on the beaches of Galilee after a night of fishing to cook up a fish breakfast (John 21:1–14). We may find satisfactory exegetical solutions—the resurrected Christ was proving he was real in Luke, or Christ was condescending to the disciples own pre-resurrected hunger in John—but the fact remains that for the canonical texts, it does not seem to be a problem that the resurrected Lord ate animals.

Are we to take any normative ethical stance based on these Jesus stories? That would be too simple. To say that Jesus meets us in the middle by eating animals is not to say that we can have a simplistic ethic of imitating Jesus. Barth rightly argued, I think, that all life belongs to God and that taking animal lives is an act that requires divine authorization. Humans are not sovereign over animal life to the point of killing at will. When we kill an animal, we offer it to God and ask to receive it back from God as a gift. Without this proper humility, animal killing is a type of murder. Barth writes, “The killing of animals in obedience is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in the face of the One who is the creator and Lord of man and beast.”[9]

Fishing brings me right to the middle of this tension. I am claiming an animal life for myself. This means that I am responsible before God for my use and misuse of animal life. This is a tension that is often too easily relieved at the supermarket. Unless I allow myself to confront the omnivore’s dilemma every time I shop, I find that it’s easier to shop in a sort of self-imposed ignorance of the food chain. We are inclined to such self-deceptions, are we not?


Another self-deception that tempts me is the argument that fishing and hunting are purer forms of meat eating than the eating of factory-farmed animals. It is true that the angler can more selectively fish and do so within reasonable limits to maintain a sustainable fishery. Nevertheless, the combination of the rise of angling as a sport and the transformation of the United States’s wilderness into private property means that angling will never be an effective substitute for factory-farmed or commercial fish.

Wendell Berry’s protagonist Jayber Crow reflects on the transformation of fishing from labor to leisure when, at the end of his career as a barber, he moves from town out to a riverside cabin. He and friend Burley Coulter poke fun at the folks who fish for leisure even as Crow confesses that he looks forward to having more time to fish.[10] “Time to fish” describes the transformation of fishing as a subsistence practice to fishing as a hobby.

For Crow, and for many Americans before the second half of the twentieth century, living waterside was a poor man’s plight. It was cheap land that exposed residents to the threat of flooding. The food that came from the water was also cheap. These days, waterfront property is a luxury, and seafood is delicacy. Likewise, fishing is no longer one of the many ways that poor people supplement their rations; it is now a sport for those who have money and access. Land use is one of the most important issues that will shape the future of angling in the United States over the next few decades. As land becomes increasingly corporate, access to the waters that pass through private property are increasingly at risk. Angling will become almost exclusively the sport of the privileged.

Should we overcome the limitation that land use poses, we may find that the next hurdle to fishing for our own food comes with the cost of fishing gear. Fly-fishing is one of the more expensive types of angling one can pursue. Angling has always been a type of fishing that is more leisure than labor. By some estimates, the sports fishing equipment industry does about $16 billion a year in global sales, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

I am equally prone to the self-deception that fly-fishing makes me less of a consumer. I may consume less food caught or farmed by the commercial fishing industry, but I am no less a consumer. In fact, like all hobbies, fly-fishing generates a whole culture of acquisitiveness.

The first time I caught a fish on a fly rod, I was a recent seminary graduate, spending a year interning at a Presbyterian church in Fulton, Missouri. A parishioner named Fred and I drive a couple hours south to Bennett Springs State Park, where he patiently teaches me to roll cast and to mend my line on a stream that has about twenty anglers lined up. We are fishing San Juan worms on a number 10 hook, dropping them about two to three feet below a strike indicator. A San Juan worm is a small piece of red chenille tied to a hook—simple but effective. The line tangles over and over as I try to roll it back upstream. But these waters are stocked with farmed fish, and the fish are striking just about anything. And so, I catch my first rainbow trout. And then my second. And then my third, and so on. I bring home two or three and eat them over the next week.

Shortly thereafter, I begin to spend money I don’t have on fly-fishing gear I don’t need so that I can become a fly-fisherman. The first rod I buy is an Orvis rod, a “frequent flier” that breaks into seven pieces. It promises to pack in a carry-on bag for those quick jet-setting fishing trips I will never take. It does come in handy later when I decide to try to fish on a backpacking trip. But it is replaced within a year by a four-piece Winston rod that a local shop puts on clearance. Fly rods, it turns out, are like guitars—they accumulate quickly and are used rarely.

I return to Bennett Springs a few more times, learning how to fish dry flies and nymphs. Each time, I bring home as many fish as I want. When it gets too cold to fish, I sign up for a class to learn how to tie my own flies. Again, I spend money I don’t have on fly tying gear I don’t need. In short order, I’m tying pheasant tail and hares ear nymphs. I’m using peacock hurl; rabbit and deer fur; pieces of hair from a cow’s tail; turkey, chicken, and pheasant feathers; and a hundred other natural and synthetic materials to simulate bugs in their various stages of hatching.

 I am closer to the natural world, and I am about as far away as you can get from it. I am touching the skins and feathers of animals whose death will make it possible for me to catch fish. I am paying great attention to the life cycle of bugs in relation to the various regions of the country and seasons of the year. And yet, I am using money I don’t have to fish for food I don’t need in the name of leisure.


When I go fly-fishing, I find myself face-to-face with all these tensions. I find myself in the middle of my own sinfulness and the brokenness that continues to exist between God’s people and God’s creation.

I am Michael Pollan’s omnivore faced with a dilemma. I know the brokenness that exists in the way we produce and consume food. I know the carelessness that often comes with the way we manipulate the natural world to produce unsustainable yields for the sake of profit.

I am also David Brooks’s bobo in paradise; I am the avatar of the “bourgeois bohemian”—the confluence of acquisitiveness and environmental concern.[11] Orvis and Patagonia are my brand; I exude the culture of weekdays in the office and “tight lines” on the weekend. I love to know how to do something that most Americans don’t do, but I don’t love it so much that I devote myself to becoming better at it. I pay for the privilege of pretending to be an angler whenever I feel like it. I am a consumer who has bought the illusion that I can be both ecologically responsible and affluent. And I’m a good one too, because I keep buying it again and again and again regardless of my need or my financial ability.

In short, I am a sinner. I am implicated in a web of broken relationships between myself and God’s creation. I’m also broken from the inside out. My desires are split between God and mammon. Fly-fishing brings me to the point of confession.

Standing knee-deep in a trout stream in eastern Tennessee, I am forced to confess that I am still stuck in the middle. I like the whiskey that turns the trees gray, and I probably would not have wanted Highlander Folk School in my backyard. I like the electricity that is generated by the dam and, more importantly, I like to fish its tailwaters. I confess all of these things and many more gladly because I have come to know the God who meets us in the middle and moves us to the center—Bonhoeffer’s Jesus, who promises to make our lives new as they are reconstructed around his own life. When I fly-fish, I remember both that God has created the world around me and that my use of it is always provisional. The fish I eat, the meat I buy, the produce I grow, barter, or purchase are all gifts that come from God. Fly-fishing makes me no less guilty, but it has the capacity to make me more grateful. It elicits a response of gratitude, a sort of Eucharist—that is, a sort of thanksgiving. And when that happens, I think I begin to understand what Bonhoeffer meant when he said that the sacraments show us that God takes the old broken things of this world and makes them new.

[1] Mouw, “Cultural Discipleship in a Time of God’s Patience,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28, no. 1 (2010): 86.

[2] See Frank Adams with Myles Horton, Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1975).

[3] I am alluding here to the popular publication Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006).

[4] Foer, Eating Animals (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co. 2009), 33–35.

[5] Clough, On Animals, Volume 2: Theological Ethics (London, UK: T and T Clark, 2019), 95.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 113.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978), 65.

[8] Freyne, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story (London, UK: T and T Clark, 2004), 50–53.

[9] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3.4, The Doctrine of Creation, study ed., ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London, UK: T and T Clark, 2009), 30.

[10] Berry, Jayber Crow (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2001).

[11] Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000).