In 1967, an article appeared in “Science Magazine” which was to have far reaching influence and be the cause of much heated debate and soul-searching in the Christian world in the decades that followed. Writing under the heading “The historical roots of the ecological crisis”, Lynn White laid responsibility for the crisis firmly and squarely at the door of Protestant Christianity. Perhaps it was so disconcerting to Christians because the accusation had in it some element of truth – especially perhaps in relation to a more Calvinist doctrine.
On what grounds do I say this? First of all, because fall and redemption theology of a certain hue can have tendencies towards a dualism of matter and spirit, and towards a hierarchical, anthropocentric world view, which has scant respect for earthly and fleshly life, and for non-human life. It can easily be used to justify thoughtless exploitation of the natural environment. Such theology can stress the fallen-ness of the present created order, to the extent that it is seen as wholly evil, and its predestined future is understood to be destruction in the fires of God’s wrath. Such theology might quote 2 Peter for example, which speaks of how “the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the Godless.” Cheery stuff.
In short, what’s the point of saving the planet from environmental disaster, if it is destined for destruction anyway? It has also been argued that the creation narrative of Genesis is responsible for the domination and abuse of creation that has been perpetrated by mankind. Let me remind you of the classic English translation of Genesis 1.28, in which God says to the newly created man and woman - “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over every living thing that lives upon the earth.”
This language of “subdue” and dominion, can be taken too easily to mean dominate and exploit. Christianity, so the critique goes, in its concern to save souls ‘out of the world’, has not paid due respect to the animal world or to nature, to bodies, or to the world which they inhabit. There would seem to be a case to be answered here. I would like to offer an answer, and argue why a true Christian theology of creation in fact enables a good response to the ecological crisis, indeed perhaps enables a better response than many other approaches.
It is important to say that I do think that the church has a tendency in many ways to become captive to the spirit of the age, (any and every age), and to its respective world view. In regards to the Church’s (until recent times) seeming lack of awareness or concern, this should certainly be admitted as a genuine failing, but it is a failing shared with the age that it previously inhabited. The world view of modernity, a late child of the enlightenment, (which many argue is now being replaced by the reaction of post-modernity), was a world view that tended to de-sacralise nature and stress a mechanistic universe. It is not right to make the Church alone the scape-goat for this.
But on to a rather different approach to a theology of creation, which I believe is more faithful to the bible, and may help us understand even the concerns of 2 Peter. Let’s speak firstly about concepts of ‘salvation’. This has little to do with ‘saving souls out of the world’, and this latter interpretation has long been a problem to the Church. It has its roots in Greek philosophy, not the Jewish roots of Christian believing. St Paul and the Church Fathers after him, found themselves continually defending the faith against this insidious influence, which exerted itself especially through Christian Gnosticism. On the contrary, Christianity was upheld by these early defenders of the faith as offering salvation to the whole created order – that is offering healing and transformation to both the human and non-human creation. Paul speaks of how we are to look forward to the redemption of our bodies – to a new kind of body, but a body all the same. This is what resurrection hope is all about. We do not look forward to becoming disembodied spirits, freed from the evil prison of bodies and matter – that’s Gnosticism. The New Testament speaks also of new heavens and a new earth. Earth is to be renewed, completed and perfected - not destroyed, and in our resurrection bodies, we are to inhabit it. The passage from 2 Peter, is to be read in the context of the judgement which enables the new creation to unfold.
This is a rather different ‘take’ to the fall and redemption theology as it is sometimes is portrayed. It speaks more of a need for the completion and transformation of creation, rather than the essential corruption of matter. It is a theology we find prominent in the book of Revelation and in the prophets. The vision of Isaiah that we heard read, and which is also taken up in the New Testament, pictures this in terms of the existing creation, but with a new found harmony and absence of violence - “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion together – and a little child shall lead them”. Nothing will hurt or destroy on all God’s Holy mountain.
What about the charges of hierarchical anthropocentrism? That is to say mankind as ruling and subduing non-human creation? Isn’t the model of pantheism espoused by some forms of alternative contemporary spirituality one that is more ecologically friendly? That is, a belief that the creation is in itself sacred, is itself divine, perhaps understood as ‘Gaia’ or in other traditional pagan terms? I understand the temptation to think this way, and the sense of the sacred that many have in the presence of nature is significant. But what reasons for hope are there in the face of ecological disaster if we are capable of destroying God? A belief in God’s transcendence as well as immanence does not spell bad news for creation, but is its hope. The God who spoke creation into being, who fills it with his spirit and breath, and imbues it with a sense of the sacred, this God is also able to call it ever forth into re-creation and new creation. Man can do his worst, but God can still redeem.
Research undertaken by Northcott and published in “Studies in Christian Ethics”, revealed interesting insights into why many of those dropping out of various “Green” organisations in this country were doing so. When those who had left were asked why, the most common answer was that they had lost heart, because all the literature they received was so depressing! Christian theology on the contrary, speaks powerfully of how creation has a future.
OK, so what about the creation narrative of Genesis that is supposedly responsible for the domination and abuse of creation by mankind? It is here that I would like to turn to the rich theological insights of our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, whose language goes beyond our in some ways limited language of stewardship, and speaks in terms of the human vocation of priesthood within creation.
Vigen Guroian in his book “Ethics after Christendom”, explores the priestly vocation given to Adam as the representative first human being, who embraced both male and female. Whilst Adam shares in common with all creatures his dependence on the same basic building blocks of life, and is described in the same terms as the animals by the Hebrew words “nefesh hayya” – “living beings”, he is also the only one “made in God’s image” and therefore set apart. This is not a setting apart to dominate, but a setting apart to share with God in the task of care for creation, and indeed in the task to some extent of co-creation. This is a vocation of responsibility, a vocation to mediate God’s presence to creation and thereby bless creation, not dominate or destroy. It is a vocation to gather up and offer the praise of creation to God. By this understanding, it is humanity’s rejection of this priestly vocation and choice to turn consumer instead, that is at the heart of human sinfulness.
Christ as the second Adam, the unpolluted image of God, the true high priest, accomplishes and fulfils that in which humanity failed, and restores and empowers men and women afresh in their original vocation.
Our reading from Romans speaks of how the whole created order, cursed and suffering as a result of Adam’s sin, is groaning and waiting for “the children of God to be revealed”. The picture Paul paints, sees creation a bit like an audience eagerly watching a play – waiting with great anticipation as the human actors play out their parts on the world’s stage …. waiting the final curtain call, when the actors will be transformed and revealed as their true characters.
And finally, this fulfilment of God’s purposes for creation, finds expression in the concept of the final and eternal Sabbath. In the Old Testament, the Jewish concept of the Sabbath rest included both animals, (Ex 20.8-11), as well as the land. Every seventh year, the land was to enjoy a Sabbath when it was not worked, and in the fiftieth year, an extra special year of Jubilee was to be declared – a year of release and liberation for land, property and people. The idea of a messianic Sabbath was taken up by the prophets in relation to this background - it was the longed-for day of liberation that the Messiah would usher in. Hence, every weekly Jewish celebration of the Sabbath is seen as an anticipation of the final Sabbath to come, in which creation itself will enter into the rest of God and find its true fulfilment. It is no accident that as Christians we now gather on Sunday as the first day of the week. As the day of Jesus’ resurrection, it points to the resurrection hope for all creation.
All this should mean, as it is increasingly doing, that Christians are amongst those at the forefront of ecological agendas. As both stewards and indeed priests of creation, we have a God given mandate to care for and bless creation.
There is a Greek word “kosmos” – no prizes for guessing the English translation! It is usually translated “world” in our bibles. Perhaps however we need to hear with fresh insight and understanding, familiar passages such as in the Gospel of John, (3.6),
“for God so loved the entire cosmos, that he gave his one and only son”.