Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Powell, L. A. 2008. An ecologist struggles with the problem of evil: why Aldo Leopold and baby meadowlarks argue against an all-powerful God. Theology 16:96-108


This article is a U.S. government work, and is not subject to copyright in the United States.


“A theology squares with validated materials. It cannot do otherwise.”1 —R. A. Cheville

I am a wildlife population ecologist; I study factors that cause populations of animals to increase or decrease in number. Ecologists focus their studies on living and nonliving components of ecosystems. In this paper, I describe how my career as a scientist and ecologist has influenced my current theology. And I will describe how my theology has been shaped by my experiences with baby meadowlarks and the writings of Aldo Leopold. Roy Cheville wrote in a 1971 letter to a “good friend”: “Today people of inquiring mind are wondering about the kind of God they can and do believe in, in the light of the universe and of the history of things as they see things. These people ask, ‘What kind of God can I believe in?’” This question has perplexed me since I began my journey to become an ecologist. First and foremost, I agree with Cheville’s assertion that a person’s theology must not conflict with facts known to that person. The facts that I am most familiar with are the natural laws and processes of our biological universe. Thus, my theology must square with my most current understanding of those scientific facts. Second, I come to this discussion with a belief that a theology should guide and inspire one’s daily decisions. Robert McAfee Brown proposed that “. . . any future theology I do must put the welfare of children above the niceties of metaphysics. Any theology that provides for the creative growth of children will make it satisfactorily on all other scores.”4 As a college student, I was first introduced to this idea by Robert Mesle;5 the rubric provided me with a valuable starting point to evaluate my growing theology and make it relevant to my world. Even before I had a son of my own, I could see the value of a “child rubric” for theology. We might find a useful example of this rubric in the decision our nation makes in preparedness for natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina recently caused the suffering and deaths of many people, including children. How do we respond? Should we investigate how our governmental agencies’ plans could be improved, with a goal to reduce death and suffering in a future disaster? Our response reveals something about our theology— perhaps we view the disaster as God’s will. Children suffered for a purpose. Why should we spend tax money to improve future planning and response? Or, perhaps we are concerned about our children’s welfare, and we would respond in ways that will reduce suffering in the future. I believe Brown would argue, with me, that theologies that do not provide for the welfare of children have the potential to be problematic on several counts. Brown makes an assumption—perhaps unconscious or at least unwritten—in using this rubric: human children are the epitome of our concern. Is it possible that this rubric can lead to theologies that are not relevant to challenges facing our world? My central question is: “Are human children more worthy as a theological yardstick than young lions, young salamanders, young baboons, young trout, young eagles, or a section of land?” Here, I extend Brown’s rubric, and I will argue that any theology I would consider doing must also provide for the welfare of baby meadowlarks. Mesle has written about approaches to human suffering that are “most likely to make the world better for children and other living creatures.”6 My contribution to this discussion is to reflect on the implications of the additional phrase: “and other living creatures.” I consider the implications very relevant and critical to examine.