Beyond all people ... towards all creation
Until the Church starts preaching the centrality of all creation to salvation, not just all humans, there is little hope that Christians will ever see our current climate catastrophe as anything but a side-issue. Just as throughout history, events that have taken place have necessitated a fresh look at the biblical texts, just so all forms of theology need to ensure that our ancient stories are being re-understood and retold in the light of our current global situation.
My own thinking on this is still in development, with current thoughts not yet consolidated enough to write about. To finish off this blog series, I’ve therefore decided to publish in full a talk that I gave two years ago - despite my awareness of its many shortcomings. For my future thinking on this topic, sign up to receive my blog in your email inbox. *cringe*
A space to meet with God
The Christian perspectives on nature that I’ve most frequently come across in the evangelical world are two-fold. Firstly, it’s about looking at nature in terms of God’s creation for us to steward and secondly, it’s about finding natural places where it’s easier to “meet with God” because of the beauty of the space – like this monastery for example [I gave this talk in a monastery]. As Christians, it often boils down to trying to do our recycling and having a walk in the park from time to time.
In our daily lives many people rarely think about the natural world at all. We are firmly embedded in the man-made [gendered intentionally] world. Often, and especially when organising Christian gatherings, the natural world is seen as irrelevant – if it crosses our minds at all.
If anything, it is a resource for us, as we unquestioningly decorate the stage with flowers transported from Venezuela, serve coffee transported from Brazil and tea transported from Kenya with milk from Scotland and sugar from Belize, wearing clothing from materials grown all around the world, sitting on chairs made somewhere else altogether. When you start to think about it, each room consists of a dizzyingly international amalgamation of materials. Such are the norms of life now.
None of this is wrong per se. In fact, it would be incredible that such a high level of global organisation exists that can facilitate such a situation – if it weren’t for the exploitation of workers in less economically developed countries, pollution of the air through transportation and wars fought over fuel and trade deals. However, it is worth acknowledging that without intending it, without even realising it, living within this norm means assuming that nature exists primarily as a resource for us humans – one we must try not to destroy or it will run out, but a resource nonetheless.
Who are we? A question of identity (love from a millennial)
As human beings that exist as bodies in the world, it is often our physical actions and habits that form our beliefs far more powerfully than our theories. In general we live body up, rather than head down. You only have to walk around a shopping centre to realise that the designers know this full well, as they intentionally form fragrances that tap into our sense of smell, the speed of the music that provides a rhythm that drives our actions and the layout that taps into our innate desire to search and explore. Despite the fact that I don’t believe that shopping centres are good for our communities, I once came out of Westfield having spent over £100 after going in for a pad of paper. I lost myself in the physical experience which determines our actions much more powerfully than our theories.
It’s worth pointing out that the way that I live puts me in the place of an extreme user, and even an exploiter, of nature, and being in the position I am in, it seems pretty much impossible for me to live in any other way. I feel entitled to my lifestyle. People expect it of me. When I try to change, to live in a simpler, more sustainable way, I can be overtaken with a legalistic mind-set, which feels like it is restricting my world rather than providing freedom. Generally, I continue to live in roughly the same way but start to feel very guilty about it – and if I do manage to make habitual changes, I quickly start to judge those around me who have not.
Living within the norms of our lives, it is very difficult to really care about “the environment”. It’s not that I ‘don’t give a toss’, it’s that I struggle to care in a way that determines how I live the majority of my life. To care for, not just to care about. It can seem so conceptual and distant, in contrast to the physicality of the items I want or “need” to buy now. It’s easier to be sceptical about it or hope the scientists have all got it wrong – or to say, “Anyway the world is in God’s hands.”
To address this, I want to follow in the path of Jesus in the beatitudes who taught us to look not only at the actions but at the heart that is behind them. So often we are so consumed by the question of ‘what’ – what should I do? What should I buy? That we forget that behind the ‘what’ is the ‘who’. Who are you that is in relationship with God? Are you a disembodied mind? The way we see ourselves is the defining factor in the way we relate to God, to each other and to the world around us. I believe that in our culture we are literally losing touch with who and what we are as physical beings.
“As the single being on earth that possesses understanding [man] is certainly titular lord of nature, and, supposing that we regard nature as a teleological system, he is born to be its ultimate end.” (Immanuel Kant)
In this view, humans are the pinnacle of nature because we possess understanding.
“We know ourselves to be made from earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature.” (Susan Griffin)
In this view, humans are nature, just the same as everything else - it’s like we have been moved from seeing ourselves at the centre of a circle with all of the plants, animals, water and light around us, to seeing ourselves as part of the circle.
The main difference between the two statements we discussed is that of what we are in relation to the world around us. In one we are called to see ourselves as superior to the rest of nature and in the other, we are just another different, equal variety in the vast array of species that exists.
Decentring: humans as animals in an environment
I want to pause for a minute on this second idea before we go back to the first. In what respect is that view true?
As humans, we cannot be extricated from our environment. You cannot have a human without the physical world they are situated in. Even a human in a virtual reality is still a human body in a room with plastic headset on their face. Likewise, I would argue that a human is first of all a body. A human is not first the ability to understand or sympathise or problem solve or speak – otherwise newly born babies, those with severe mental disabilities and those on life-support machines would not still be part of humanity; our definition must include all.
And a human is not just any body – not a heavenly body, not a planet, and not a microbe, but an animal body – a mammal. One point on this is that as humans, the fact that we are more evolved, or more developed than other forms life means not that we are superior but in fact that we are more vulnerable.
“The plants can do very nicely without us, in fact, better, but we would quickly perish without them. But it is also the case with aspects of our earth that we have until recently taken for granted, such as clean air and water. This very important point needs to be underscored: The higher and more complex the level, the more vulnerable it is and dependent upon the levels that support it.” (Sally McFague, The Body of God)
Realising the reality of this requires a degree of humility. I am asked not to look around at the earth and think simply ‘how beautiful’, or even ‘how useful’ but to understand ‘I am wholly dependent on this. I am nothing without it. No humans can exist without this earth’. Without earth no food can grow. Without the air, we have no breath. Without rain and rivers and sea, we have no water. The earth is the environment that humans are situated in, from which we cannot be extricated – and this is how God has chosen to make us and says that we in our interrelatedness with all the rest of creation are very good – we can distance ourselves from the source of our food – go to the supermarket to buy apples from New Zealand without a second glance; eat pig that we have renamed as pork so it sounds less like the insides of an animal and buy it packaged in plastic and sliced thinly so that it is unrecognisable from what it used to be – another animal – still we are not so powerful and separate as we might prefer to imagine.
Thomas Traherne, a 17th century puritan, poet and mystic warned:
“It was God’s wisdom that made you need the sun; it was God’s goodness that makes you need the sea. Be sensible of what you need or enjoy neither.”
When we understand our fragility as humans, our attitude towards the earth changes – and I am talking about the earth as the planet we live in that meets us in the soil under our feet. It is both the world and that handful of earth. They are in some sense the same. When we understand our need for the earth and that amazingly this is how God has made us then we can come to relate to the earth as God intends for us. We can explore it. We can enjoy it. We can feel grateful for it. We can listen to the needs of the natural world. We can learn from the world around us. We can join in with the natural world, as it is already praising God all around us.
This viewpoint calls for a childlikeness in our observations. Thomas Traherne taught:
“The sun is but a little spark of God’s infinite love; the sea but one drop of [God’s] goodness. But what flames of love outa that spark to kindle in our souls; what seas of affection ought to flow for that drop in our hearts.”
Lucy Wickett in a wonderful sermon that can be found online points out:
“The goose doesn’t know it’s a goose. The bird doesn’t even know it’s called ‘bird’. It doesn’t know it’s called an Egyptian goose. It doesn’t even know there’s an Egypt. It is gloriously and unaffectedly itself ... To lay aside our human centred language can make us playful again.” – Lucy Winckett.
This is not incompatible with using the resources that we have discovered in nature, but it is incompatible with seeing nature primarily as a resource for our own benefit.
Re-centring: humans as stewards
Going back to those two views that we discussed right at the beginning, how do these views relate to the creation narrative? What does God say about our position as humans?
The Bible passage that is generally referred to is the passage in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28 when God tells the human to… Gen 1:26,28 “rule over the fish…” and “fill the earth and subdue it”. We tend to see this instruction as a straightforward command to all humans to rule the natural world but I think it’s worth pointing out that this is not as straight forward as we might like to imagine. First of all, what do the verbs ‘rule’ and ‘subdue’ actually mean? What could be getting lost in translation?
o ‘rule’ (v.26, 28) rada – rule, lead, maintain.
o ‘subdue’ (v28) kabas – subdue, overcome, bring under control, till / work the land.
Secondly, is this a universal command for all humans for all time, or was it just for the human in the Garden of Eden? Was the human ‘rule’ ruined with the Fall and being thrown out of the garden? In which case, should we be trying to re-gain ‘paradise’ on earth by reinstating human rule over the natural world? Was it a command to rule instead of God’s own rule? Was it an invitation to co-rule with God?
Historically, this verse has been read:
As an allegory: dominion over the rebellious beasts within. Patristic era (pre-medieval).
As a command to ‘rule’ by being the interpreters of nature – be taught by the natural world about the spiritual world. Medieval period.
Literally: 16th -17th centuries: arrival of Protestantism – the belief that only words (i.e. not ‘nature) teach us about spirituality. Words should be taken literally i.e. the belief that before the Fall, Adam literally ruled over nature. Adam’s rule needs to be re-gained through Science, industry and expansion of knowledge. This literal reading was then used…
...to argue that humans are at the centre of the universe. The sun must go around the earth because all nature exists only to serve humans.
...to inspire the Protestant work ethic – humans are supposed to control & work the land.
...to mean that marshes and fens and any area that seems ‘out of control’ should be drained/ brought under control. Massive loss of natural habitats.
...to inspire the idea of private property ownership meaning nature that you have brought under your own control.
...to justify/ inspire colonisation of lands that appeared to be less ‘cultivated’, destroying natural habitats and inhabitants.
i.e. we need to be careful what we do with this verse.
We may need to consider that we are trying to force the text to answer questions that it is not addressing. Climate change and transnational corporations simply didn’t exist at the time it was written. What did exist were peoples of different religions all with their own creation narratives. Generally, in other Ancient Near Eastern narratives, the gods are distant from their creation, and humans are made as either a mistake or to provide slave labour for the gods. So maybe the point of this creation story is less about the extent to which humans should rule over the natural world, and more about the belief that God is not distant but present in the natural world – and that God made the world on purpose and said that it is good; that God does not make humans as slaves but dignifies them with God’s own image.
Relating to creation ‘in the image of God’
But even within this, we can see that there is some expectations of how humans are to relate to creation. By making humans ‘in the image of God’, God gives them a unique relationship with the natural world. If humans are made ‘in the image of God’, then one would expect humans to relate to the natural world even as God would. There is a sense of responsibility; a partnering with God to care for the world, and all the while remembering that they are also a part of it.
When faced with the question of what does it look like to ‘rule’ over the natural world in a way that is worthy of God’s image, I find it helpful to think about Jesus. Jesus came to earth to bring God’s rule and reign to the earth.
What does Jesus show us about what God’s rule looks like? How might we apply those things to the way we relate to the earth?
love, Humility; enjoying company; not lording over others, serving, bringing liberation, suffering with, solidarity with the oppressed … what else can you think of?
All of these things are ways in which we are called to love the natural world.
“Nature is the new poor”
“Nature is the new poor” (p165-167) It does not mean that the “old poor” – poor human beings – are replaced, or that every microorganism is included in God’s love in the same way as human beings are. It does, however, suggest that nature is the “also” poor, and that even microorganisms have their place in creation, a place that is not merely their usefulness (or threat) to human beings.” (Sally McFague)
“Nature as the new poor means that we have made nature poor. It is a comment not about the workings of natural selection but of human sin.”(Sally McFague)
Thinking of nature as ‘poor’ makes me realise our call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus - the one who became body like us in order to teach us how to live. If nature can be described as ‘the new poor’ then we are called to live and work not only for the liberation of humans but also for the liberation of the earth – the planet that meets us in the soil beneath our feet.
It also gives me a new understanding of the idea of ‘sin’. Sin is not just about what I may have done wrong today; sin is the destruction of the world that God loves; it is the destruction of what we are most in need of and most dependent on; it is the destruction of the earth we are called to enjoy loving.
Realising that the earth is the place that I, an animal body, necessarily exist in and have been made by God wholly dependent on, allows me the position of one who explores, enjoys, learns from and joins in with nature. Realising that I have been made in the image of God to treat the earth in the image of God and to rule in the ways that Jesus showed us that ‘rule’ looks like - love, humility, enjoying company of, not lording over, serving, bringing liberation to, suffering with, solidarity with nature – this gives me a sense of the immense and wonderful responsibility we are extraordinarily allowed to share with God. Only when we understand these two things – the ‘who’ we are, can we meaningfully approach the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ - how can I practise living in the conversation between these two points?