A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Climate Change And Christian Commitment: III
In the previous article I explained why it won’t do to regard the non-human creation as merely a stage for a salvationdrama between God and his human creation. God’s purpose at creation, according to Genesis, involved a harmonious relationship between humans and what we self-centredly call our "environment". Humans may have particular responsibility for the welfare of other created beings, but the idea that humans have superior value is hard to find in scripture. If God values all that he has made then we dare not regard the earth merely as a bank of resources for human convenience, quite apart from the selfishness of squandering them regardless of the impact on the world’s poor and the next generation.
So much we can learn from looking back at the purpose of creation according to scriptural testimony. But this must be supplemented by what we learn from the Bible about the future of creation, about God’s end-plan.
What the Reformation lost
The Reformation fulfilled an essential role in reminding people that every individual matters to God – despite debate between its branches as to whether each person, or only some of them, matters enough to be saved. But like most reform movements it swung the pendulum too far, allowing people to think that the individual is all important (– plenty of people still say "I can be a Christian without the Church"), that God wants holy persons rather than "a holy people" (1 Peter 2:9), many members without worrying whether they are "one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12,20). More important for our purpose, in playing down the importance of human community in God’s salvation purposes, the wider community of people with the rest of creation also by default became overlooked.
Such was not the case in the early and medieval church. So, in addition to the well-known kinship approach of St Francis of Assisi towards nature, we may note for example that Hildegard of Bingen regarded humans as ‘so intertwined with the strengths of the rest of creation that we can never be separated from them’, whilst Thomas Aquinas understood that ‘the whole universe together participates in divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever’.
The rise of modern science is often credited with bringing about the demise of the sense of the sacred in the natural world, but it is questionable whether that would have happened (– many scientists in every age find that their studies open them to spiritual realities) unless theology had laid a foundation that exalted the individual above all things. So I do not plead for a new reading of scripture, only that we get back to reading all of it and not just the selections with an evangelical imprimatur!
The whole business is so well exposed by the way in which the most favoured text of all, John 3:16, is filtered through the individualistic lens so as to narrow its plain sense. What it says is "God so loved the cosmos", but when we translate the word as "world" how narrow does our interpretation of the cosmos become?
Saving the Animals
So let’s look at some of the biblical strands that shape our understanding of the future purpose of the natural creation, beginning with the well-known story of Noah. It is not the first saving act of God – his making of clothes for Adam and Eve, and his marking of Cain (Genesis 3:21; 4:15) are properly seen in such terms, but Noah’s story paves the way for the crucial biblical theme of God’s covenant. And as every three year old knows, it’s all about keeping the animals safe – oh, yes, and Noah and his family too.
Many others died, animals and people, but God wanted continuity between the era of unbridled human sin and the times when he would work for restoration. So afterwards he says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living creature" (Genesis 8:21-22), and the rainbow is declared "the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations". That is Genesis 9:12, and its emphasis on "all living creatures" is then triple underlined in verses 15, 16 and 17.
The story of Noah particularly suits our present situation because it’s about a guy’s response to a forewarned climate disaster. This time around all humankind has the warning, yet already global warming is leading to species extinction at some five hundred times the historical rate. Nevertheless, it is with a full awareness of human sin that God declares his "everlasting covenant with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth" (Genesis 9:16), and so "Hope in God’s Future" is the right title for the Churches’ report on response to climate change. After all, when humans had caused unmitigated disaster, God raised Jesus from the dead.
Many Old Testament prophets use images of renewed nature to portray the future hope of salvation. One of the best known passages, familiar from Christmas carol services because of its very clear messianic reference, is Isaiah 11:6-9. The passage depicts animals at peace with one another and with humanknd: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" etc., and the living things are in harmony with all creation: "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea".
The Kingdom is like this
Some might be tempted to dismiss such Old Testament evidence on the supposition that primitive people could not see beyond the physical world, whilst we know better! So perhaps we need reminding that we don’t, by turning to Jesus, and his view of where the world is heading. He describes this goal and reality by speaking of the Kingdom of God, often through parables, many of which actually begin with the words, "The kingdom of God heaven is like this…"
Perhaps the best-known parables are those in Luke, which we tend to name (missing the point in both cases!) the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. But tot up the parables and you will see that most often Jesus does not draw upon how people behave in order to portray the kingdom – people mostly don’t do a very good job of it! Instead he goes to nature: the kingdom is like the seed sown on ground of all kinds, like the mustard seed, like yeast, like the secret growth of a plant, like the fish of the sea or the mixture of wheat and weeds in a field (all these are in Matthew 13).
It would be odd indeed if the master of communication should describe what the kingdom is like in terms of things, the like of which have no place within the kingdom because they are non-human!
All Creation groaning
Turning to Paul’s letters next, two examples can furnish his view that salvation encompasses not just humanity but all created things. The simpler teaching is the statements in Ephesians and Colossians about God’s grand purpose. Paul claims that God has made known to us through Christ his "plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we also have obtained an inheritance…" (Ephesians 1:10-11). It reads as if God has always intended that all things should be united in Christ, and humans too can share this privilege by special grace; this is more true that we know.
The parallel passage in Colossians speaks of all things visible and invisible being created in Christ, and holding together in him, and that "through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross" (Colossians 1:20). It is hard to imagine how the work of Christ in the cross could more clearly be stated to result in the salvation of all created things, including both the material (earthly) and the spiritual (heavenly).
A more closely argued case for the same conclusion is found in Romans 8:18-25. Here Paul concludes his compressed outline of Christian theology, which has run from chapter 1 with a look at Things to Come, when all our present sufferings will pale into insignificance in the light of the glory promised (v.18). Aware that many of our sufferings are not directly due to human fault he goes on to explain that God has subjected the whole creation to "futility" (v.20) and "bondage to decay" (v.21).
But this passage is about hope (vv.24-25), and Paul declares that the creation will be set free when "the children of God are revealed" (v.19) and our bodies are redeemed (v.23). In the meantime "not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption" (v.23). In other words both we believers and all of creation are suffering together as we hopefully anticipate the fulfilment of God’s plan.
And Paul deploys the best human example of hope-filled painful suffering as a metaphor for this. He writes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now" (v.22).
Once again I feel bound to ask whether Paul could deploy this metaphor to describe how the present age struggles to achieve the age to come if the offspring had no continuity (no genetic relationship, as we would say) with what gave birth to it. Paul has no further information about the world to come, but by insisting on the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:35-50) he makes quite clear that our bodily nature goes with us, whatever the resurrected body is like. Here in Romans 8 it is evident that he believes the same is true of all the other bodies that the present creation comprises.
The Nature of the New Creation
Revelation offers the fullest vision of the world to come. Notice how it conveys heavenly worship (Revelation 4) by describing the representative creatures nearest the throne as one like a lion (a wild animal), one like an ox (a domesticated animal), one like a human and one like a flying eagle. And all the other worshippers follow the lead of these four living creatures in their adoration. However can anyone read this and not believe that there are animals in heaven?
When John describes "a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1-22:5) it is a picture of a very material city. The Greek word "new" (kainos) means "new in nature"; there is a different word (neos) which means "new in time". Wherever it is used – of "new Jerusalem", "new wine" etc – it describes a much better form of something familiar. So perhaps it should be no surprise that the heavenly city has a river flowing through the main street, with trees on its banks producing fruit and healing balm year round (Revelation 22:1-3). There is simply no room in scripture for a heaven devoid of the creatures (living and inorganic) which define the earth.
The world around us matters from beginning to end, from creation to fulfilment. If it is so important to God for his praise and his purpose, then it is not just for the sake of billions of humans who will be adversely affected by climate change, but for the sake of God himself, that we dare not destroy it as a place of life.