Saturday, March 12, 2011

Creation, Redemption, and the Church

Last fall, I was invited to give a talk on environmental ethics to the pastors and workers within the Churches of Christ in southern Alberta.  We met at Bow Valley Christian Church in Calgary.   I was nervous going in, knowing that my message would contradict the long-held assumptions of many of those in attendance.  But I was convinced that, being rooted in scripture, they would have no choice but to change their ways of thinking about the environment.  Fortunately, my mind had exaggerated the resistance.  A good number of them already agreed with me, but had not investigated the theology behind it.  Others told me afterward that they were initially sceptical, but I had convinced them.  A third group, in the vocal majority during the Q & A after, but a minority among the pastors, yelled at me and told me to 'get my head out of the sand.'  Fortunately, I think they completely misunderstood my message.  The following is the complete sermon that I delivered, minus the slideshow (when reading Genesis 1-3, I showed pictures of creation followed by human-caused environmental destruction).  Here is the sermon:

I would like to thank John for giving me this opportunity to talk to you today.  What I’d like to do this afternoon is tell a redemption story that is, I think, unfortunately ignored by the church.  In the process I will challenge, and hopefully expand, the common understanding of the church’s mission.  I will suggest that, as the body of Christ, our mission is that of Christ’s – to redeem and restore that which is broken.  Although we tend to focus on the human element, bringing broken people back into a relationship with a redeeming God, I will suggest that we are also called as a church to restore creation, in anticipation of its future restoration.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost, but he did much more than that, and it is our moral imperative as the body of Christ to follow suit, by caring not only for people, but for this creation which God has placed under our authority.

In order to do this, in the brief time that we have, I am going to follow the story of salvation in Scripture, from the Eden state in Genesis 1 and 2, through the Fall to a post-Fall world, and finally to our anticipation for a redeemed future.

First, let’s read Genesis 1, with pictures!

There is too much here to get into in great detail, but allow me to pull out three thoughts from this passage:

  1. Genesis 1 highlights the goodness of creation.
God gives the created world a divine stamp of approval.  Six times before creation is done he affirms its goodness. God saw what he had made, and it filled him with delight.  It was not a corruption that he longed for us to be freed from.  We will discuss the popular conception of heaven later on in this talk, and will come back to this important point then, but for now let us note that the Bible continually praises God for the creation of this world and all of the organisms, both human and nonhuman, that inhabit it.  God’s delight in his creation should cause us to pause before declaring such modern nonsense as the temporality or inherent evilness of the flesh. We are not Gnostics; we are Christians, who believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and who have hope for a future physical resurrection ourselves.  We do not follow Plato or the Hindus in longing to be freed from this natural world.  We recognize that when Paul talks of the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, he is using metaphor to describe the struggles that we all face.  Creation, flesh, is itself exceedingly, superlatively good.  It is our inability to recognize this that has caused the Church to be sinfully lackadaisical in its approach to creation.  Every time we pollute, degrade, destroy this environment, every time we needlessly or uselessly cause the death of one of its creatures, from the lowly spider to the majestic whale, we are stamping out a small part of the goodness that God delights in.

  1. This passage highlights the connectedness of humans to the animal world.
To be sure, there is a strong argument to be made that humans are above the animal world, spiritually separated from them in being the only creatures made in the image of God and given divine responsibilities.  But I want to ignore those for now, because you all know them.  What gets downplayed, to our theological impoverishment, is the very biological, animal nature of humans.  When we break down Genesis 1 into its components, we find an interesting structure of underlying ecosystems which are formed by God and then populated with beings.  On day one the realm of light is formed; on day four this realm is populated with beings of light: the stars, sun and moon.  On day two, God creates the ecosystems of the water and sky, and on day five they are populated with the fish and birds.  On day three, the land ecosystem is formed, and on day six, it is populated with animals and humans.  The lesson, I think, is clear; that although we are filled with the spirit of God, our biological roots are animal.  We, like cows and dogs and rats, are mammals, and as such we have a part in the greater natural ecosystem that God has formed.  We are not made on a separate day from the animals; we are not created as separate in the same way that the angels are; we are created as physical beings interacting in a physical realm.  We as Christians cannot ignore our biological imperative to participate in this natural world.  To do so, to pretend that we are merely spiritual, violates the ‘exceeding goodness’ that God declared all of creation to be after he created us.  He did not say that we were ‘exceedingly good’; rather, our creation and interaction with the physical world, our participation in the global ecosystem, elevated creation to a new level of perfection.  We ignore this to our detriment.

  1. The blessing
God gives the fish and birds a blessing, giving them the same divine assurance that he gives to Noah, Abraham, Ishmael and others: that they would be fruitful and multiply.  Allow me to make a moral generalization here: any human action that inhibits the reproductive potential of a species is active work against the blessing of God.  I think primarily of the recent collapse of the cod stocks, the first documented extinction in recorded history of a dolphin species back in 2008, the 90% decline in major shark species since the 1950s, and many others.  It is no question that we have been actively working against God’s blessing on the natural world; the real question is, do we as the Church have any responsibility to carry that blessing out?

Fortunately, we don’t have to go too far into the Bible before we find our answer.  In Genesis 1:26, the blessing God bestows to the animal world is directly tied to us, when he declares, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’  And a little further down, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.  And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.’

This passage is filled with commands for life in a pre-fallen world.  They are often called creation ordinances, and they provide a snapshot of God’s desire for the human life before sin.  We understandably focus on post-fall commands like the 10 Commandments.  We teach our children that they can’t lie, or disobey their parents, or covet.  But we ignore, to our detriment, the deeper calling of the human life: to exercise God’s image, not by being moral beings, although that is a part of it, but by being physical creatures caring for a physical world.

But the question is, what does God mean by ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’?  I have quoted the KJV, which translates the Hebrew word ‘radah’ as dominion.  This reflects a minor theme in the history of Christianity: that the created world is here for our own use and abuse.  The dominion perspective has dominated Christian theology for centuries, reflected in, among other things, the statement by Thomas Aquinas that it is “no wrong for man to make use of animals, either by killing them or in any other way whatever,” or the prevention by Pope Puis the ninth of the formation of an animal protection office in Rome, because Christians have no moral responsibility to the natural world.

The secular world is becoming increasingly sensitive to this historical treatment of the environment by the Church.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent evolutionary biologist, condemns Christians for taking a stand against abortion and yet allowing the vivisection of chimpanzees.  Peter Singer, a controversial environmental activist, called Christians “speciesists”.  Lynn White Jr.’s famous 1967 essay published in the prestigious scientific journal Science blamed the Christian doctrine of dominion for the majority of environmental evils that we see around us.  He called Christianity ‘the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.’ 

And yet I have yet to meet a Christian who is not moved by stories of animal abuse or cruelty.  I could show you videos about makeup testing on rabbits, in which the rabbits are harnessed to a table and scream while chemicals dissolve their eye tissues.  And I bet not one among you would remain unmoved, even if your attitude going in was, ‘Its just an animal’.  We have laws against animal abuse, because there is something within us that knows that it is wrong.  When we support the dominion view, we fight against our own consciences.

The dominion interpretation of radah is incorrect.  I think I have given three good reasons for this already: first, God’s delight in his created world; second, the fact that our interaction with the world elevates it to a new level of perfection; and third, God’s blessing on the marine and aerial world.  But for many, this is not sufficient.  Fortunately, Adam provides a glimpse into what this radah looks like. 

Genesis 2:8-9: ‘And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food’

And Genesis 2:15 ‘And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’

This is the tantalizing glimpse we are given of Adam’s radah.  It is a tag-teaming effort between God and Adam: God causes the plants to grow, and Adam ‘dresses’ and ‘keeps’ them.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word avad, translated as ‘dress’ in KJV, has connotations of both tilling the land and of willingly making oneself a servant.  It is difficult to reconcile this servanthood with the traditional view of ‘dominion’, in which the earth is in service to our whims.  The second word, to ‘keep’ the earth, is the Hebrew shamar, which means to watch or to guard.  It is used two other times in this Genesis account: first, the angels are assigned to shamar the tree of life, and second, Cain says, ‘Am I my brother’s shamar?’  These are powerful words.  Adam was serving and protecting the natural world.  That was his rule.  It takes exegetical gymnastics to find dominion anywhere in this passage.

The conclusion we are supposed to draw here is not that Adam was a destroyer or pillager of the land; rather, he was a servant and guard, lovingly protecting and causing to flourish the life that God was sustaining.  This was a perfect relationship of work between Creator and created.  And it causes us to further feel the pain of separation that sin brings, when in Genesis 3 God tells Adam that the ground would be cursed, bringing forth thistles and thorns.  Rather than God working with Adam, Adam would work against the ground without God’s support.

But more can be said about Adam’s relationship to the natural world prior to the introduction of sin.  In chapter 2:18-20, we read: ‘And the LORD God said, [It is] not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.  And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought [them] unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that [was] the name thereof.  And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.’

First, in this story we see that there is a real divide between the human and non-human animal world.  This is the antidote to the environmental paganism that the Church seems to be so afraid of.  Although we are biologically animals, we as creatures in God’s image are more than that; we are exalted animals.  We are the wedding of flesh and spirit.  This prevents us from finding real fulfillment in animal companionship.  But there is another sense, a powerful one, that is the antidote to the Church’s anti-environmentalist attitude, which is that, despite this divide there is a closeness and intimacy between the human and non-human animal.  This intimacy is manifested in the fact that, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘man gave names to all the animals’.

In Scripture, the naming of something is a significant event.  Revolving around naming are three themes:

1. Naming is the mark of creation.  In Genesis 1, God names things into being.  Let there be light, let there be an expanse, let dry ground appear, let birds fly…God didn’t just create, he named.  I think it is highly significant that God, after creating, gave Adam the responsibility of naming the animals.  It reveals his desire for Adam to be a participant in the creation process, to exercise his divine image, to be in a sense like God.

2. Naming is the mark of ownership
Only those with authority over the object to be named can name it. 

3. Naming is the mark of intimacy
A couple in love gives each other cutesy little pet names that make the rest of the world want to barf, but to them those names mean everything.  Their relationship is bound up within those names.  We are told in Revelation that God is waiting with our true names, a name that will be known only between us and God, that reveals our true nature.  God renamed Abram, Jesus renamed Peter, because they knew those people intimately.  Adam’s naming of the animals was a sign of intimacy, that he knew and understood these animals, and was willing to bring forth their true nature.

In a pre-fallen world, then, we see Adam exercising his dominion, not as a dictator or tyrant, but more like the Messianic leader in Psalm 72.  This leader is envisioned as having ‘dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.’  This dominion is one of peace and service, in which the people rely on him and he meets their needs with justice and compassion: ‘For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and [him] that hath no helper.’

Adam’s dominion is in fact not dominion at all, but is rather the rule of stewardship.  To those made in the image of God were given the responsibility over creation, a creation loved by God, a good creation, a creation blessed by God but which required humans to bring about its blessing.  We talk about the purpose-driven life, but in a perfect world, our purpose was to care for creation, by working in perfection alongside a perfect God who wished to make us a little bit like him.

Genesis 3 is a story of the destruction of relationships.  Adam blames both Eve and God for their mistake; there is a divide placed between humans and between humans and God.  But there is a third relationship destroyed as well; an animal is killed to provide clothing to the shame-filled humans.  Our relationship to the natural world gets corrupted.  We now live east of Eden; Eden is a dream, a figment, a wisp of hope in a troubled world.  Our ability to be stewards has become compromised by sin.

This is expressed most clearly in Genesis 9, after the Flood account. 

In Genesis 1 the creation ordinances were as follows:
  1. Be fruitful and multiply
  2. Fill the earth
  3. Subdue the earth
  4. Rule over the fish
  5. Rule over the birds
  6. Rule over the land animals
  7. Eat all seed-bearing plants

In Genesis 9 those rules are echoed, with some crushing changes:
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them,
  1. Be fruitful and increase in number and
  2. fill the earth.
  3. No mention of subduing the earth    
  4. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth
  5. and all the birds of the air,
  6. upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.
  7. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 
  8. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.
  9. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal.
Clearly, sin has changed things.  Militaristic terms are used.  There is no longer that intimacy between us and animals; animals are taught to fear us, both to protect us, since many of them could kill us, and to protect them.  We do in fact see what happens when an organism does not fear us; the dodo and passenger pigeon come quickly to mind.  We are given the animals to eat.  Vegetarianism is no longer the moral norm. 

What are we to do with these changes?  Do they destroy the idea of stewardship?  Do they make dominion a necessity in a world full of human suffering and misery?  Or should these changes cause us to weep, because they are the consequences of a sinful reality? 

First, we see right away that we are not given carte blanche to do what we want to animals in a fallen world.  Even in Genesis 9, moral restrictions are placed on what we can do – we are not allowed to eat meat with the lifeblood still in it.  Life, even animal life, is still considered sacred.  Other moral restrictions towards our treatment of animals pop up throughout the old testament (Exodus 23:19, Deut 22:6-7, Hab 2:17, Lev 11), and God includes animals in certain human blessings (Lev 25:1-7; Isaiah 11:6-9; Exodus 20:10) but of paramount importance is the idea, found in Job 38, that God cares for the animals despite, or even because of, their uselessness to us.  In this passage, he brags about the donkey that refuses to be domesticated; he delights in the wildness of the lion and the eagle.  God did not create animals for us; he created animals because he loves them.  Despite sin, God’s love and pride for his creation is just as strong as before.

I would suggest, therefore, that in a fallen world stewardship is affirmed all the more.  This happens, albeit indirectly, by Jesus himself.  In Mark 10:2-12, Jesus gets questioned on the legality of divorce.  Jesus asks, ‘What did Moses command you?’  to which they replied that Moses did, in fact, allow divorce.  Jesus responds by looking further back than the rules for living in a sin-filled world; he appeals to the Eden ideal, in which marriage renders man and woman as one flesh.  ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’

These are convicting words, showing that we should always have Eden in our minds.  We should never be striving for what is permissible, but for what is beneficial.  Clearly, this higher Eden ethic that Jesus points to should carry over into every aspect of our lives, including our interactions with this natural world.  We should be striving to live out life as God intended.  We should be seeking to restore those relationships that are broken.  The Church does this already, by seeking to restore people to God and to one another.  But we have a tendency to miss out on restoring the third broken relationship, that between us and nature.

Indeed, our concept of salvation and redemption tend to entirely ignore the curse that the created world was subjected to.  We tend to assume that that curse will be dealt with through the destruction of the physical world, and that this relationship will no longer have importance in the new heavenly reign.  But this is not at all what scripture depicts.  Our modern portrayals of heaven as a spiritual place, signified by the ephemeral nature of clouds and the abiotic reality of gold and glass and crowns, is not the complete picture.  Instead, we are shown a heaven that is strikingly physical, with water and trees and life.  Revelation paints this picture beautifully when it says, ‘No longer will there be any curse,’ and it depicts the end of this curse by revealing the renewed presence of the tree of life.  Of course, this is just imagery, and cannot be taken too far.  But as I already mentioned, our hope is for the resurrection of our ‘spiritual bodies’ that, like Christ’s, are still grounded in the physical.  Resurrected Christ was not a ghost or a disembodied spirit; he was in the flesh, albeit flesh glorified.  It is not a stretch to say that, if God intends for us to be flesh glorified, he intends for that flesh to reside in a physical world glorified.  There will be a new heaven, and a new earth.  Indeed, it is in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that all of the relationships broken by the fall find healing.  In the incarnation, G.K. Chesterton reminds us, God sanctified the flesh by becoming a part of it; in the crucifixion, he paid for the sin that bound it; through the resurrection, he elevated it to its future state of glory.

But if the world is going to be destroyed by fire, as Peter suggests in 2 Peter 3, why should we bother caring about further degradation?  If God is going to make a new earth, a redeemed earth, in which all of our problems are magically fixed, why should we be concerned about the present quagmire we live in?

This is like asking, well, if I’m saved, why bother being good?  Or its like asking, since we’re going to get new bodies, why not do what we want to these ones?

Stephen Bouma-Predeger writes in response to this thinking, ‘Is it permissible for me to plunder your house just because some time in the future it will be torn down?’  Of course not.  As we have seen, God delights in his creation now.  We’re called to respect that, by caring for what he cares for. 

And that’s only if the world is going to be destroyed.  Some scholars have suggested that the true interpretation of 2 Peter 3 is that the world is going to be refined.  Much as you burn gold to remove its impurities, but the gold remains intact, the language of 2 Peter suggests that the world is going to be burned in order to be redeemed.  Certainly this should not be shocking.  God created matter for a reason, and continually affirms its goodness.  It goes against everything we know about God to suggest that he would completely destroy Life because sin has touched it.  God is a redeeming God.  He redeems us, and I would suggest the biblical picture is that he redeems the world as well.

I would like to conclude with a challenge, then, to the Church.  If we are called to serve and protect the natural world, if we are called to live the Eden ethic, if Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made possible the freedom of this world from its bondage to decay, and if the Church’s mission is to be the body of Christ, then the Church needs to start living environmentally.

We need to be teaching other Christians in our children and adult programs, not just rules for moral living in a broken world, but the responsibilities for living in Eden.  We need to tell others about God’s command that we should serve and protect this natural world.  We should be leading the charge in the environmental movement, bringing it back to its Christian foundation and claiming this amazing world as something loved and cherished by God.  This includes making our churches more sustainable and energy efficient, but it goes beyond that, to bringing healing and redemption to broken ecosystems.  I would like to suggest that by doing so, the Church fulfills its entire mandate: it repairs the relationship between us and nature, it brings healing to people, in that poverty and environmental degradation are tightly linked, and it brings people to know their Creator, as the secular world begins to wonder at the healing power of the God-filled Church.

But it is going to take strong Christian leadership to do this.  And it is going to require humility, as these leaders interact with a people group long ignored by the Church: biologists.  Most biologists, and I’m speaking from experience, are angry at the Church.  They have been abused for far too long, told that they are going to hell for following what their observations and experiments and God-given reason are telling them to be true.  But whose fault is it that they are not a part of the Church?  It is the church’s, for failing to meet them in dialogue.  Swallow your pride.  We’re not just talking about the future of God’s created world.  The fate of the lost rests in your hands.  But a strong environmental ethic could very well be the door that brings them back to God.

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