Forming a Theology of Ecology

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Today is Blog Action Day 2009, an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. The aim of the organizers, including Change.org, is to raise awareness of said issue, and in so doing, to trigger a global discussion. This year’s issue: Climate Change.

So here’s my take on the story of environmental stewardship, according to the Bible:

God created the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

God created human beings. (Genesis 1:26)

God told human beings to look after the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

Human beings screwed up. (A large portion of the rest of the Bible.)

And that’s that.

Or at least, that’s the (over-)simplified précis.

A theology of ecology, a theology of creation care, is part of—and is consistent with—a grander biblical theology, woven through with themes that can be found throughout Scripture:

It’s about stewardship, about being respectful and responsible with the resources and the gifts that God has given us in his creation. It’s about sharing in God’s appreciation for the world which he called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and recognizing, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

It’s about the poor, those who have not are often the hardest hit by the excesses of those who have. The writer of Proverbs said, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker” (14:31), and even if we’re not directly treating them badly, such an injunction should at least make us think twice about how we live.

It’s about relationship and community, about a harmonious and healthy interaction not only with the people around us but with the world around us, realizing that what we do with the latter will always impact the former at some level. Jesus said that loving one’s neighbor was akin to loving God (Matthew 22:36-40), so if we love God as we claim to, we will love those with whom we share in the gift of God’s creation.

It’s about children, those to whom Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged (Mark 10:14). I have two nieces and three nephews, aged between 18 months and 13 years, and the world they will inherit depends on what we do with it. To quote a Native American proverb (yes, I know it’s not in the Bible!), “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Put more bluntly, those that follow us have to deal with our mess. Jesus values children; if I love Jesus, I will also value children, and I will care about what I leave to them.

It’s about justice, about recognizing that when a small proportion of the earth’s population exhaust its resources and the rest have to face the brunt of the consequences, that isn’t right. And when the God you worship, serve and follow, is described as a God of justice,* and when you’re encouraged to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) … well, it should probably make a difference on how we live, shouldn’t it?

Because, on the most encompassing level of all, it’s about God: the one who made the earth and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). Wendell Berry wrote, “our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy” (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, 98). Whatever we do with what God has made or given—human or otherwise—is a reflection on what we think of God, the Maker and Giver.

I think the world might look very different if we lived like we knew that.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … God saw all that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

(Genesis 1:1, 31)

* I’m not going to post all the references to God’s justice, because that would take up too much space (which says something in itself), but here are a few: Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Leviticus 25; Psalm 37:28, 103:6; Amos 5:23-24; Jeremiah 22:16; Isaiah 58:6-10. You can read more on God as a God of justice here.

Perhaps the church ought to be more concerned …

Reinhold Niebuhr:

Perhaps the church ought to be more concerned to bring the goodness of Christ as a judgment upon every fragmentary form of human goodness than to find the particular cause which might be identified with Christ. There are many good causes and just claims which turn to into evil at the precise point where absolute validity is ascribed to them. Is not religion, including the Christian religion, a fruitful source of fanaticism and bigotry precisely because men pretend that their good is the ultimate good in the name of religion; and because Christians so easily claim Christ as an ally without ever having experienced his love as a judgment upon the shoddy character of their so-called ‘values’ and upon the fragmentary of even their best causes?

We must, as Christians, constantly make significant moral and political decisions amidst and upon perplexing issues and hazardous ventures. We must even make them ‘with might’ and not halfheartedly. But the Christian faith gives us no warrant to lift ourselves above the world’s perplexities and to seek or to claim absolute validity for the stand we take. It does, however, encourage us to the charity, which is born of humility and contrition.

— Essays in Applied Christianity, 91-92

The greatest generation

In Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write:

Jesus would rather invoke the great kingless history of Israel. … Just like the kingless confederacy of Israel in the Torah, the kingdom [of God] Jesus spoke of is a real political kingdom that is unique, confusing, and unheard of. His kingdom is not of this world because it refuses power, pledges a different allegiance, and lives love. (110)

When we consider history, I think it’s very tempting to look back and wonder how things used to be so much better. A decade ago, America was experiencing a period of economic prosperity. Two decades ago, the Berlin Wall fell. Four decades ago, a man walked on the moon. Those were the good times. Now? We’re in an economic recession, America has a reputation to repair, and we’re facing global threats of climate change, terrorism, and other major concerns.

Now, I don’t think Claiborne and Haw are trying to idealize history, nor are they implying that Jesus was doing so. And perhaps this perspective can be blamed on my realism/cynicism coming through, but when I think of the ‘great’ kingless history of Israel, I’m reminded of a people who complained constantly, starting right after the Lord delivered them from Egypt, even when he was with them in pillars of fire and cloud; I’m reminded of a people who disobeyed Joshua even as he led them into the Promised Land; I’m reminded of a people who, only a generation after Joshua’s death, “did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). When I think of the ‘great’ kingless history of Israel, I see what I see today: a bunch of people trying their best to follow God, making mistakes and messing up, but always, always being recipients of both God’s justice and his outrageous grace.

I think it would’ve been pretty amazing to live in the days when God dwelled with his people Israel, or when Jesus walked the earth, or when the early church “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:32, 34). But I’m not sure that we were meant to just seek to emulate those times. We live in different days, with different tools at our disposal and different challenges to face.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I always wondered what these would look like in practice, what these would look like when lived out; and I realized that that’s part of the challenge, part of the commission of the gospel. Every generation is called to figure out in its own context what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to bring the good news to the poor and the oppressed, to welcome the marginalized, to overturn the world’s understandings of power and strength and glory.