Thursday, 15 October 2009

Theology and ecology

I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little longer for Freud Part III: I was all set to write it up but then I gave blood, and now I'm too woozy and nauseous to think about anything, least of all incest and cannibalism. But! It turns out that today is Blog Action Day, which means that bloggers the world over are writing about climate change. Handily, I've already co-written something, whilst working for the Jubilee Centre ages ago, so I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to share it with y'all. It was published in an Orange Paper by WorldVision in 2007, and goes along with a book I helped research and edit (I'm in the footnotes and acknowledgements!) Enjoy the article, and I'll be back next week, just as soon as I've replaced enough blood to take on Freud.

Why Christians should care for the environment
Marika Rose and Jason Fletcher

Genesis tells us that when God created the world he didn't make it instantly, with the snap of a finger or a single word; but he crafted it bit by bit, declaring it ‘good' at every stage of its development. This good creation was abundant and diverse, with plants, trees, birds, fish, and animals ‘of every kind'.

God cares for his creation
But this initial careful work of God was not the end of his intimate involvement. Throughout the Bible, he is depicted as sustaining his creation at every moment. He knows about every sparrow that falls to the ground; [1] everything holds together in him. [2] Psalm 65 says of God, ‘You care for the land and water it, you enrich it abundantly… You drench its furrows , and level its ridges; you soften it with showers, and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.' The picture is of God lavishing his goodness on his creation; and the response from the earth is one of praise: ‘The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with corn; they shout for joy and sing.'

The Bible paints creation not as a passive, lifeless collection of rocks and earth, but as an entity that is full of life, praise and God's glory, revealing his character and inspiring us to worship him. As Psalm 19 says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they display knowledge.
'God's attitude to creation indicates that it is precious and wonderful independent of any utility it possesses for us. To love God and to be like him is to care for the things that he cares for. This alone ought to be enough to motivate us to take responsibility for the world around us.

Our interconnection with the earth
In Genesis 2, there is no one to till the ground, so God forms man (adam) from the ground (adamah) and asks him to till and to keep it. This Hebrew wordplay (adam/adamah) expresses our solidarity with the earth; we are connected to it and utterly dependent upon it for life. For this reason Psalm 139:13–15 can parallel the ‘depths of the earth' with ‘a mother's womb'. Humans are both physical and spiritual and the two ought not to be separated. To care for creation, then, is to care for a system that we are part of: in caring for the earth, we care for ourselves.

The original harmony between humans and the earth was ruptured by the fall. But even here, the interconnection between ‘adam' and ‘adamah' is reiterated. The earth becomes difficult to farm, cursed because of human disobedience. We suffer when creation suffers, and it is our sin that causes creation's suffering. [3] Most dramatically, God announces that humanity will revert to the earth upon death, a tragic reversal of the original act of creation: ‘For dust you are, and to dust you will return.' [4]

This interconnection can be seen throughout history – over and again societies have undermined their own welfare by abusing the land that they depend on for life – and can be seen today, but with a difference. Habits of consumption and energy production in the West threaten to destroy not so much our own homes and livelihoods (at least not in the short term), but those of the world's poorest people.

Servant Kingship
However, when God breathes life into Adam this sets him apart from the earth. The contrast between God making plants and animals ‘according to their kinds' with the creation of humans ‘in our image, in our likeness' implies a unique, intimate relationship between God and this part of his creation. Genesis 1:28 says that God blessed humankind and said: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule… over every living thing'. Genesis 2 says that God created humans ‘to work it [the earth] and take care of it'. But what does this mean in practice?
The language of ‘rule' over the earth is sometimes (mis)taken as licence to treat the earth however we want, but a careful reading of the Bible rules this out. First, this language of ‘dominion' is balanced by the language of Genesis 2:15, where humans are put on the earth to work it (‘to till, serve') and care for (‘to guard, protect') it.

Second, while the language of ‘dominion' does imply some degree of power or authority, it begs the question of how that power and authority should be exercised. Our rule, as his image bearers, is to be modelled after God's rule. Not only does he delight in his creation, but he takes care of the meek and does justice for the orphan and the oppressed. He is the shepherd King who promises, ‘I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.' [5] Moreover, we ought also to remember Paul's exhortation: ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but make himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant'. [6] To rule over the earth in a way that reflects God's character, then, demands of us service and humility, not exploitation and selfishness.

God's promises for the future
Our attitude to the earth is affected not only by the way we view God's original intentions in creation, but also by our view of God's promises for the future and for the ultimate redemption of our sin-ridden world.

One popular view of Christianity is that this means escape from the world into a purely spiritual heaven, but this is far from the biblical picture of ‘the end'. As in the creation narratives we saw that care for creation is also care for ourselves as inescapably physical creatures, so in the promise of redemption we see that some form of ongoing bodily existence is integral to what we will be.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses at length the importance of physical resurrection, and we see a picture of the similarity and difference that will mark our resurrection bodies.

Similarly, the promises of the Bible point to a ‘new heaven and new earth' [7] – a renewal and transformation of this creation. Romans 8 says that creation waits ‘with eager expectation' for the time when it will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God'. At that time the desert and the wilderness will blossom and praise God; [8] rivers and streams will flow in the desert; [9]all creation will rejoice. [10]
In Jesus' ministry we see God's promised future breaking into the present as Jesus heals and feeds people as well as forgiving their sins. The good news that Jesus proclaims is for all creation, and his promise is of the redemption of all things.

Right relationships
Jesus summarises God's will like this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' and ‘love your neighbour as yourself'. [11] In other words, the sum of the will of God for us is that we would have perfect relationships with God and with others. A concern for getting our relationships right is the essence of Christianity.

As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, having right relationships with our ‘neighbours' means we must take care of their bodies as well as their souls, and in order to do this we must take care of the earth. Environmental destruction has consequences for people around the world and down the generations; the call to love our neighbour extends to our children and grandchildren, and beyond.

This focus on the concerns of others is also captured in the biblical concept of justice (Hebrew: mishpat). Far from being some abstract concept of fairness, mishpat is all about the way we conduct each and every relationship. It highlights our duties and responsibilities towards others, and is particularly invoked in the Bible in the context of oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Are we meeting our obligations to the poor? Or do we need to re-examine our habits of consumption?

Failure to care for creation is a failure to conduct our relationships in the way God wants us to; it is a failure of justice and of love.

Implications for climate change
Many of the things we do as a society which damage the earth have their roots in broken relationships or a failure to prioritise relationships over things.

We travel further to work than ever before, and increasingly do so alone in our own cars. This affects not only the climate, but also our relationships with those around us. American sociologist Robert Putnam estimates that for every ten minutes of additional commuting time, there is a corresponding ten per cent decrease in our social interactions. A concern for relationships challenges the hypermobility of our society.

Carbon emissions from home energy use have risen most significantly because of the increase in single-occupancy homes. For a wide variety of reasons, for which we all as a society are responsible, people increasingly live alone. What does this tell us about the quality of our relationships as a society? What could be done to strengthen relationships in families and communities?

The most significant proportion of our household carbon emissions in the West comes from consumption, which in many areas (e.g. communication, recreation, clothing and footwear) has tripled over the past few decades. Jesus says that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil', and we see this too in our society. Our lives become more about owning ‘stuff', as we buy into the belief that more things will make us happier, that we can forge our identity by the things we buy; and our desire to acquire not only distracts us from the most important thing – investing in our relationships – it also all too often overrides our desire for justice for the poor, or any consideration of the effect of our lifestyles on the environment.

All of these relational and environmental problems are challenged by the holistic message of the gospel. For example, the biblical images of the Sabbath and Jubilee proclaim the equal value of all people, the importance of limitations upon the accumulation of wealth and spirals of debt, the importance of rootedness in place, the importance of family and community relationships, as well as the importance of rest for all people and for the earth. The gospel paints a vision of a society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable.

If we are to take the gospel seriously, we must recognise its demands over every area of life and over every relationship. It requires of us an integrated understanding of mission that neither neglects evangelism and the need for repentance and faith in Christ, nor the need for radical action to address the problem of climate change, nor the need for social reform to address the underlying structural factors that make it more difficult for us to live the life God intends for us.
But the message of the gospel is, above all, good news. Contemporary accounts of climate change often offer serious cause for concern and little hope. Christian hope for the future is not an excuse for apathy, but ought instead to provide us with the motivation to engage positively with our communities, in the expectation that God will be faithful to his promise to one day ‘reconcile to himself all things' [12] and that, in the meantime, he delights to use his people as the agents of his redemptive activity.

[1] Matt. 10:29
[2] Col. 1:16–17
[3] Rom. 8:19–20
[4] Gen. 3:19
[5] Ezek. 34:16
[6] Phil. 2:5–7
[7] Rev. 21:1
[8] Isa. 35:1–7
[9] Isa. 41:17–20
[10] Isa. 55:12
[11] Matthew 22:37-39
[12] Col. 1:120


Gabriel Smy said...

A superb summary. Thanks Marika and Jason.

Unknown said...

Nice! Great article. Have you seen ? Also I find it really interesting that our economy basically runs on growth, and growth runs on turning resources into wealth. And we live on a finite planet, so sooner or later we will have a big problem. I suspect in the next 30 years. Most economists (and politicians) don't appreciate this. But I've recently found some really interesting stuff in relation to this: see and