Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top 10 Reasons Every Christian Should Care for the Environment - # 10: The World is Good

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Saturday, March 31, at 8:30 pm is Earth hour, in which people around the planet will be unplugging the electric items in their house and turning their lights off to raise awareness for environmental care.

As an Albertan resident and a member of a fairly conservative branch of Christianity, I have encountered time and again over the last few weeks just how little many Christians think or care about the environment, and how little they think of people who do.  Environmentalism is almost a curse word for many conservative Christians, as if earnestly seeking to restore the beauty of the planet is at best a waste of time and at worst an act of paganism. One particular Christian college recently conducted a survey about their effectiveness.  One respondent was concerned that the college was becoming theologically liberal.  In particular, this respondent was bothered by lectures on environmental care that were being taught in a social justice class.  This boggles my mind.  And so the next ten blog posts are not written for non-Christians or those who already care about the planet.  From now until the end of March whenever I finish I am going to provide the top 10 scriptural reasons that every Christian should care for the environment.

Today we begin with number ten: The World is Good

Christians today have a tendency to read verses such as 'You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit' (Romans 8:9), or 'Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned,  in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live' (Galatians 1:4, NLT) as proof that, indeed, the physical, material, flesh-and-blood world of ours is inherently corrupt, and we Christians are going to be rescued from it prior to its destruction, and saved for eternal life in some perfect spiritual state.

There are many, many theological and biblical problems with the above beliefs.  First and foremost among them, however, is this belief that the world is evil.  We find instead a constant Biblical affirmation that the physical world is in fact a good and beautiful thing, created and loved by God.

In Genesis 1, God speaks the world into existence.  Conservative Christians read this chapter and find in it the amazing power of God to create the world out of nothing.  What they tend to miss is one of the most important lessons of the text: that the world is good.  Six times God creates something and, looking at his handiwork, sees that it is good.  This word 'good' can mean several things, but the main gist is not that the world was 'alright', or 'just okay', or God saw what he had made, shrugged his shoulders, and said 'I could have done better.'  No, God looks at his created world and gives it his divine stamp of approval, declaring that it fills him with delight in its order and its beauty and its goodness.  On day six, after creating humans, God looks at the entire package and declares that it is not just good, it is exceedingly, superlatively good.

It is not evil; it is not corrupt.  It is good.

Now jump ahead to the New Testament, a post-fall world, and see the pains that the New Testament writers take to continue to affirm the goodness of this world.  First, we see the incarnation of God in the flesh, with a particular focus on the fleshly (physical, not spiritual) nature of Jesus.  God did not take on the form of a man; he became a man.  In the Old Testament, God takes the form of a burning bush, and the ground surrounding the bush becomes holy.  G.K. Chesterton argues that the incarnation of Christ displays both the goodness of the physical world (since God could not take on a corrupt flesh), and the sanctification of the physical world.  By incarnating as a human, by walking the ground and eating its food, God has caused the material world to become not just good but holy.

Or look at the insistence that Jesus' resurrection was not spiritual, but was physical.  If flesh is evil, something to be destroyed, if our souls are longing to be freed from the corruption of their fleshly vessels in order to prance on spiritual clouds for all eternity, then why this focus on the empty tomb?  Jesus could have presented himself as pure spirit and taught that freedom from the flesh is our ultimate goal.  Instead, the authors insist that he had real wounds in his side, that he had real hunger and could eat real fish, that he is both body and soul resurrected.  We are to understand that the biblical message is not one of freedom from the physical world, but rather restoration and redemption of the physical world (but more on that in a future post).  Paul discusses this at great length in 1 Corinthians.

Or again, look at the book of Colossians, which is Paul's response to Gnosticism.  The gnostics declared that the flesh was evil and the spirit was good, in a literal sense, and that the goal of salvation was the freedom of the soul from the corrupt body.  Paul considers this to be a noxious heresy.  Gnostics said that there was a chain of gods, from a perfect god to an evil god, and the evil god was responsible for creation.  Paul says, instead, that Christ was responsible for creation, and that the created world holds together in Christ.  This is not something you say if the world is inherently corrupt and is doomed for destruction.  When Paul does talk about flesh being evil and spirit being good, he is not speaking literally.  He is using metaphor to communicate deeper truths about the war of temptation battling inside of him.  Yes, there is sin in this world, but that does not take away from the goodness of creation.  We can recognize that the world is imperfect, without having to call the world evil.  We are not gnostics; we are Christians.

No, the first reason why Christians need to care for the planet is because creation is good.  There are no interpretative gymnastics being used to come up with this statement.  Even a plain, literal reading of Genesis will give you such a lesson.  It is a lesson, however, that has been sadly forgotten.  Augustine, who was a lover of Platonic philosophy, has been too influential in the church, such that it is hard to know anymore where Christianity ends and Plato begins.  But if we forget what we think we know about Christianity and look to the Bible, we find the beginning of an environmental ethic in the goodness of this physical realm.

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