Climate Change and Christian Commitment: II
Where Christians are getting involved, often their motivation matches that of activists who have no religious faith, namely that they care about other people. If asked how their faith inspires that perspective the answer is that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour as ourself.
This is all good as far as it goes, but in truth we have far weightier theological reasons, and I want to explore them in this and a subsequent article. I do so conscious that arguments about justice still carry less weight with evangelicals than arguments about salvation. Declaring God’s truth (theology in other words) takes precedence over addressing human need and injustice unless we clearly understand the latter as an outflow of the former. And up until now many believers don’t see a clear connection.
The starting point for all our theology must be the fact that Christian faith is a historical faith. It is based upon what happened two thousand years ago in Palestine. The incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are its absolute core. But our scriptures also relate how patriarchs and prophets had their place in God’s planning for the main event, during the extended period during which those scriptures were themselves written.
And the history of salvation doesn’t just run backwards from the lifetime of Jesus, but forwards too. The whole of the New Testament foresees, and the Methodist Church has a proud record of urging, a continuing process of growth for believers in grace and holiness. It also follows Jesus’ lead in anticipating a future world history which will include times of great distress and lead at length to the Second Coming, itself an event in history.
Since we have such a historical faith, it follows that the only way we can ever properly interpret a present-day issue like climate change is with reference both to the past and to the future. Here I ask what we learn about God’s view of things from studying the past, and next time we’ll look at God’s future purpose.
We are not stewards of creationL~
The fundamental theological question behind all environmental issues concerns the nature of God’s relationship with the non-human parts of creation. We know he made them, with science and scripture in agreement that humans were formed last. But what is God’s relationship with the world of nature now? And what does this mean in terms of our relationship with nature?
A frequent but unhelpful view in Christian literature, and indeed in official church pronouncements on the environment, is that humans are stewards of the earth and all that lives there. But our understanding of what it means to be a steward (the word only really means “manager”) is deeply coloured by two things. One is Jesus’ parable of the faithful steward (Matthew 25:45-51; Luke 12:42-46) who is left in charge of the other household servants whilst the master takes an indefinite leave of absence. The other is our use of “stewardship” in the context of thinking about our deployment of gifts that God has given us (1 Peter 4:10), including our money.
So to talk about humans as stewards of creation is to invite two mistakes. On the one hand God gets perceived as a kind of absent landlord, depending on us to maintain his property in good order. Whilst on the other hand we are likely to think that God has gifted the earth to us. Neither of these ideas stands up to biblical scrutiny, so the idea of earth stewardship ought to be abandoned.
Interestingly, however, the whole notion seems to have arisen from a desire to soften the text of Genesis 1:26,28, not least in response to criticism that the abuse of the earth and of animals is due to the Jewish/Christian creation story. What those verses say is that humans are to “have dominion” over the animals and to “subdue” the earth. Rather than mis-translate the words in order to remove any threat of exploitation within them, as biblical Christians we would do better to interpret such words by their meaning as scripture unfolds.
In regard to “dominion”, we may take as a key Daniel 7:14, where “The Ancient of Days” gives an everlasting dominion to the “one like a human being”, a passage which almost certainly prompts Jesus’ self-designation as Son of Man. As for “subduing” the earth, that is precisely what Jesus did with the sea during the storm on the lake, bringing peace to the troubled elements. As the image of God, which is how humans are defined in the verse sandwiched by those verses in Genesis 1 about our role in regard to nature, we are to exercise a beneficent dominion, after the pattern of the perfect image of God, Jesus himself (Colossians 1:15).
This caring, as opposed to exploitative, purpose of dominion is made perfectly clear in the second creation story (Genesis 2:5,15) where humans are created to “till and care” for the garden of creation, and the chapter indeed unfolds a picture of a state of harmony between humans and the animals.
The Effects of SinL~
But the very next chapter describes the origin of sin in the form of an environmental abuse. God made very clear the purpose of the trees in the garden, but the couple eat from the one tree whose fruit is forbidden. As a result the intended harmony of humans with the animals and the earth is upset. Animals, represented here by the serpent, and humans will no longer be always at peace (Genesis 3:14-15), and tilling the earth will in future be backbreaking labour and at times unrewarding (vv.17-19).
However, there is no evidence of God retracting the human vocation of maintaining a sustainable relationship with the earth and its creatures, any more than the strife that enters the relationship of men and women (v.16) nullifies the marriage command (Genesis 1:28), or the newfound fear of God (Genesis 3:10) leads God to cast us off.
In point of fact, earth’s landscape as we know it is substantially the result of responsible human interaction with the wild state of nature. Certainly we need to preserve some wild places, and equally certainly some manifestations of forestry and agriculture, hunting and fishing have displayed rather more of human sin than human godlikeness. But sustainable agricultural practices create scenes in which humans find great beauty, and it is perhaps not too much to suppose that God does also.
Since this human creativity continues throughout history it naturally makes us wonder whether God has finished his creative work. One of the great drawbacks of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 as history, rather than as a story enshrining a great truth, is that we locate it in the past. We may discuss how long the creation “days” lasted, but now they are all over. Which begs the question: Is it still day seven with God having a well deserved rest, or are we now into day eight or some subsequent day in which God is turning his hand to something else?
Evangelicals have been inclined to see creation as a completed work, after which God set about the work of redemption, whose aim is to get things back to how they were before humans threw a spanner in the works. We shall see next time that this idea takes a very selective approach to Scripture. A better view, which was the norm in the Church before the Reformation, and has again been promoted by most theologians from Karl Barth onwards, is that creation and redemption are aspects of the same work of God, who is constantly working to perfect what he has made.
Within the story of Genesis 1 I suggest we need to see the present time as somewhere well on in day six. God is still working to make humans perfect, and he will enjoy a Sabbath rest only in company with us when the job’s done (Hebrews 4:9).
All Creation praises HimL~
I have addressed our relationship with nature much more than God’s relationship with it. To redress the balance I need to make two points that we learn clearly from our looking back at the evidence of Scripture when we move beyond the beginning of Genesis.
The first point is the clarity with which we see all creation praising God without a human intermediary. “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming”. (Psalm 96:11-13). To a host of psalms in this vein (compare for example Psalm 148) must be added large chunks of the later chapters of Isaiah and the last chapters of Job. For in such places we read of an ongoing close relationship between God and all that he has made. In no way has he either gifted it to humans to do as we wish, or signed over responsibility to us as tenants or stewards.
It should be humbling to hear over and over of how the natural creation praises its creator whilst we humans so often fail to do so. It is our sin which has led us to devalue the world around us, to view it purely as a resource for our convenience rather than the precious handiwork of God. Our most fundamental sin, as Genesis 3 makes plain, is ranking ourselves too highly – seeking to make ourselves gods. As a result we place ourselves in a superior place relative to other created beings.
Often we have grounded this superiority by thinking of ourselves alone as spiritual beings, and by adopting the ancient Greek philosophy that spirit is good and matter is bad. This non-biblical view has a number of serious consequences, including wrongly thinking of the human soul as immortal despite the clear New Testament teaching that our eternal future lies in bodily resurrection. But right now my concern is the way we all but write off the rest of creation with the implied slogan “Matter doesn’t matter”!
Fortunately we have the most compelling historical and biblical evidence we could wish for that God disagrees with us. He took a human body. In doing so he even chose an animal trough as his first cradle, ensuring the presence of the animals in our nativity scenes – if only we could see that they are not interested onlookers but beneficiaries in the drama of salvation!
I shall have more to say about Jesus’ own valuing of nature in the remaining article, but I end this one with this reminder that God took human flesh, lived a bodily life and ended up as a physical corpse. In many non-monotheistic faiths material things are valued because the divine spirit is to be found within them. We should not necessarily disagree, although we would want “Spirit” to have the capital “S” and would prefer to say that all things are found within the Spirit. But this reason for respecting the non-human is something we deduce from our doctrine of the Trinity, the bible’s teaching about creation, and from a few particular texts. We have a much better reason for believing that all things are holy – namely that having made them God joined himself to them by becoming human.
Nature therefore has a place in history, and is not just a stage for it.