Last week I shared an article on facebook urging Christians to care for God’s wonderful creation. This is something that is close to my own heart, but it is also something that I presumed, by now, was blindingly obvious to people of faith. I was, however, to be shocked and saddened at the response of some Christians. There were numerous comments that I thought were long-gone from the Christian tradition:
“I won’t be too concerned about the environment. It’s dying and cursed anyway”
“Surely winning souls is more important than protecting the forests. Get your priorities right.”
“Nothing in the Bible talks about tree hugging environmentalists.”
“I fear for your salvation if you think environmentalism is gospel issue.”
“Work on what is lasting – souls, souls, SOULS!”
Just as Christ wept over Jerusalem, I’m quite certain that he is weeping when he sees how some of his disciples are talking about, and treating, his wonderful creation. This indifference and distain towards God’s wonderful creation is long-standing. In the 1960s, a famous article appeared in Science magazine accusing Christianity of being at the root of our environmental predicament. Lynn White claimed that our faith is guilty of regarding itself as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for slightest whim’.
Certainly much has changed for the better in recent years, with many Churches and denominations issuing guidelines to help their care for God’s creation, detailing information about environmental issues such as recycling, using renewable energy solutions, and reducing pollution. However, my facebook thread shows that there are still Christians whose concern for individual salvation blind them from the importance of stewardship and care for the gift of God’s creation.
The irony is that their dearly-held attitude is not scriptural at all. Certain philosophical and cultural movements in the past have been so pervasive in their influence on our faith that they have defined its very character and led us to truly believe that we are true to the Bible when we ignore the plight of our natural world.
1. Platonism: In its first few centuries, Christianity found itself heavily influenced by Greek Platonic dualism, which differentiated starkly between the soul and body. As a result, Christian tradition followed Gnosticism in becoming ambivalent towards physical matter. This is shown in our paradoxical attitude towards the body, which, on one hand, is seen as the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and, on the other hand, sees bodies as something to be embarrassed about. Thus, the only important thing to some Christians is “souls, souls, SOULS!” This ignores completely that all creation will be renewed and that resurrection is about spiritual bodies, rather than merely souls (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
2. Cartesianism: One of the results of Rene Descartes’ ‘I-think-therefore-I-am’ philosophy in the eighteenth century was that it affirmed the reality of our ‘thoughts’ and ‘emotions’, while doubting the experiences of our bodily senses. The physical world became separated and alienated from us, and we began to further identify with our minds, rather than with our bodies or the natural world. The Cartesian world became, therefore, a world of alienation between body and mind, between person and person, and between human and nature. Christians have been influenced by this in a far deeper way than many would like to admit.
3. Poor theology: The influence of Platonism and Cartesianism on our faith led to many years of poor theology, where biblical texts were handpicked to champion individual human salvation and other sections of the Bible were conveniently ignored. We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order (Romans 8:18-25). In the Old Testament, we are given a picture of wonderful harmony in nature at the end of time, as the lion lives with the lamb, the leopard lies with the goat, and the small child peacefully leads all the creatures (cf. Isaiah 11:6). In the New Testament, the images of the future Kingdom are, likewise, communal and harmonious – the banquet, the wedding feast, the choir of all nations, and the New Jerusalem. This all has significant implications for the way we relate now to each other and to the world around us. To remain faithful to the biblical evidence, we cannot separate the individual, the community, and the entire created order – in the past, the present, or the glorious future. ‘For by him all things were created;’ writes St Paul to the Colossians (1:16-7), ‘things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.
Rather than being dualistic and individualistic, then, our faith should recognise that the world is not an enemy of the spirit. There is no getting away from the fact that matter truly matters to God. The Old Testament gives detailed rules on protecting trees and forests (see Deuteronomy 20:19 and Numbers 35:2ff), while God’s involvement with nature is later shown in Jesus’ special relationship with the created order, and his parables, miracles, and sayings are infused with the natural world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the risen Jesus was initially mistaken for a gardener!
Darren Aronofsky’s recent blockbuster Noah received much criticism, but it did reflect that very truth about God’s care for all of creation, not only humankind. This is not new-age mysticism, as some would like us to believe, but it is at the heart of the covenant with Noah. After all, this promise was, we are told, an “everlasting covenant” made between God and “all living creatures of every kind on the earth”, a fact that is mentioned eight times in as many verses (Genesis 9:9-17)! When we see a wonderful rainbow decorating our sky we should, therefore, be reminded, not only of God’s compassion for us flawed and frail humans, but also of his unceasing love for all of his creation. And if God’s priority is to show love and compassion for “all life on the earth” (Genesis 9:17), then, as Christians, that should surely also be an imperative part of our own calling.
For more on this subject, see my book The Compassion Quest (Chapter 1 “Faith and the Universe”).