Before I begin, let me say that this is my current theology of environmental action. Things may change, and yet, this is my best attempt to state where I stand.
Despite what you may believe about the actual origins of the universe (another post for another time…) I would contend that the Genesis story is a story that used stock creation language- that was common at the time- in order to communicate the more central purpose of telling a people about who God is- and how, in light of God- who they are meant to be in the world. As such, this post about the environment uses this story to talk about our role as human beings as it relates to the climate (and, more specifically, to climate change). From there, it will branch out to talking about theology pertaining to the end-game of creation, and from there circle back to the here and now. I touch on the prophetic texts and their application in our discussion on climate change, and then I take sometime to unpack a wider theology of how the Spirit is speaking through many people about climate action. From there, I have a few sections the go into a range of topics- one on economics, us being of the dust, and on pulling the log out of our own eyes. Hope you enjoy!
Being Made in God’s Image as having baked into it a call to care for creation
God made this world and said “and it was good”. “Good” in the Hebrew doesn’t mean perfect- it means God made this world good, and part of the vocation of what it means to be human is to take creation forward under the wise & loving rule of God; creation is full of wild and wondrous creative potential, and we are commissioned to take it somewhere. God told us to look after the world- that’s the actual meaning of the word “dominion”. The word “dominion” is often associated in a negative way, and as such perhaps this English word isn’t a good word in its modern usage to match the actual Hebrew meaning. Nonetheless, we’ll stick to that word, but make it clear what is meant by it. Dominion isn’t about exploiting this world, but looking after this world in flourishing ways. If we wouldn’t exploit a human being that God made, then why exploit the Earth that God made? We are to be unto creation what God is to us.
This vocation of taking creation forward and of looking after the world under God’s wise & loving rule didn’t cease. To understand this, we have to see the end goal. The end goal of creation is embodied in Jesus’ resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is a way of affirming the goodness of creation. In the resurrection, Jesus defeats all that pertained to his crucifixion- he defeated death, evil, injustice, by rising again against the backdrop of death, evil, and injustice putting him on the cross and killing him. Thus, Jesus’ resurrection affirms the prophetic Jewish hope that one day death, evil, and injustice would be defeated, and this hope is fulfilled as is rushed forward in time to one person (Jesus). The prophet’s hopes are confirmed in Jesus, and the future is now made certain in Jesus as his resurrection is seen as an advanced sign of future hope for all of creation and all people. In other words, what we see in Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of what’s to come. As such, the resurrection then points the way further forward to the eventual day where death, evil, and injustice is defeated on a cosmic level. Such belief was a given for the New Testament writers, and John gives us poetic picture of a day where the world is made right. When the New Testament writers (And the prophets of old) speak of this eventual hopeful future, they speak not of escaping this world, but the restoration of it. Jesus’ own prayer is about God’s Kingdom coming Earth as in Heaven, and Johns revelation ends with God dwelling here, not us going somewhere else- this world is our home, not only now but also in the future (For me to make a full case for this is another post for another time). In addition, the word “new” as in “New Heavens and New Earth” is about something being made new (as opposed to “newly made”); this is the language of restoration. Even verses like in Peters letters that speak of destruction, it’s always said in the context of refinement of creation, and not final destruction (whereby something else has to be made in its place). In other words, there is a continuity between what creation is now, and what it will become. The only discontinuity of creation is that it will be transformed- but such a transformation is doing away with the ways of the old, not of creation being completely and utterly destroyed. So, we had humanity in the beginning given this vocation of looking after the world, and we have a picture that ends with the world restored. The beginning and end is about what we do with this world (including all who are in it). As a matter of fact, there is even a mysterious verse in Paul’s letter to Rome that speaks of creation itself waiting in groaning for the children of God to be revealed, as if to say that creations own redemption is mysteriously connected to the people of God being the people of God for the world itself (Or perhaps herself? Groaning is in Paul’s letter was allegorical to childbirth). To summarise, God doesn’t make something and then throw it on a cosmic waste heap (is not our God a God of redemption? Is not Jesus’ own physical body a restoration of Himself (as opposed to completely new)?) God calls this world our home. Not just now, but also in our future. Heaven isn’t the end game, heaven on Earth is. And we are called to be a people who lean into that future. We have no other world, we have no other place to go.
Reconciling New Creation with the climate data
Now, a positive hope for the future that we think will just happen (i.e. new creation) is very difficult to believe in given our current ecological crisis, and I’ll be lying if I said that the crisis hasn’t got me questioning my own positive theology of the future of the world in the mean time as it goes unto New Creation. I used to be confident that the resurrection automatically assured that- despite how bad things had gotten- God’s sovereignty will inevitably lead to everything being okay ecologically in the long-run; that not only will Christ make new creation (something I still hold onto) but that because it’s coming- though creation as it currently is will still need to be looked after (as per our responsibility)- that things would be fine in the interim between now and new creation. The part of that belief where I now struggle with, is part where I say that we won’t have to ultimately worry about creations demise in the meantime because – as the belief goes- God will carry creation forward no matter how we act, that part of this will indeed be God somehow kick us into responsibility however with no possibility that we can royally screw it permanently at all. Now, whilst I thought that it couldn’t possibly be screwed up, I didn’t weaponise such a belief- I allowed the sure & confident hopeful reality that God will carry creation through thick and thin, to empower me to work towards its healing in the here-and-now, knowing that it will all be alright. 1 Cor. 15 still speaks to my soul, whereby Paul paints this beautiful future of God restoring creation, and then ends the section with saying “Now, work for the Lord”- Paul could of said “now relax”, but he connected God’s healing future with us being the healing presence of God empowered by the Spirit. However, people have taken the good theology of new creation and have weaponised it, and as such have used it as a way to be lazy and do nothing about climate change, out of a lazy God-will-work-it-all-out-ism. In some sense I still think things will be okay between now and the restoration of all things, but what’s changed in me is our sense of greater urgency to be the people who are the hands and feet of God in making this future happen; I want to allow the urgency to kick us into gear, and even allow for the theological possibility that maybe we can so screw this up that we can kill ourselves before New Creation occurs. Whilst I still hold onto the hope of new creation, I am starting to reckon with the possibility that it might be possible we can kill ourselves before new creation happens; that Christ might lament in resurrecting a dead planet that shouldn’t of died. I still think we can have an interim future that doesn’t have our demise in it, but I now want to take seriously that it might be either/or, and that we need to take seriously then what we are doing in creation. Me saying what I have just said opens up a theological can of worms on the whole topic of God’s sovereignty in creation- but just to set the record straight, whilst that comes into it, I am not actually making a case on God’s sovereignty in either direction- for the lens I am choosing to use in thinking critically through this is based on the scientific data we have, which brings me to my next point.
In the same way evolution (our past) brought about theological discussions pertaining to Genesis (origins), perhaps the climate crisis- with its scientific possibility revealing that we can actually cause our own extinction- has opened questions about the book of Revelation’s end game. With the current data emerging, perhaps this is the churches new theological-scientific wrestle (One I which we should overcome now, not later). What does theology do with the possibility that we can kill ourselves in a permanent way? One could say that we can indeed end creation through our neglect, but that God will still raise creation (and us with creation) on the last day, but that we should do all that is in our power so that Christ will not need to raise a dead creation (with a dead people). To use a human analogy, I might die before the return of Christ, but will be raised up on the last day, and yet I do all in my power to live a long life and life-giving life. Likewise, we might be able to destroy creation before Christ returns- and yet we do all that is in our power to have creation flourishing. If you won’t light a coal fire in your home, perhaps let’s not doing it over our earthy home. A genuine ‘pro-life’ ethic isn’t about being merely ‘pro-birth’ but about seeking the fullness of life, and if I want to do unto others what I want done unto myself (have a long life) then I must seek that out as part of the vocation of being a Kingdom person in the context of our environment; in other words, creation matters because life matters, no matter how long or short such a life of creation might be. And I still believe we can have creation, and have with creation more and more of the Kingdom realised in it up and all the way till the final restoration of all things. As such, to not look after creation- despite the possibility that it might have a temporal demise if we do nothing- is not seeking the life of all. We should recognise the data, and as such fight against our possible demise, seeing the possibility of demise as an enemy to be fought (after all, Christ speaks of death as being an enemy, so how much more death of all living things?!), with the urgency being that- if we don’t act- we are not being faithful to God and thus will kill creation, and that if we do act we are being faithful and as such being God’s stewards. Truth be told, I am still very hopeful that we will wake up to the calling to look after creation, and that God’s leading of creation being taken care of will be the interwoven sovereignty that was always going to eventually be inevitable because of God’s hand over history- and yet, I don’t want to bank on that. Our responsibility to take care of creation is ours- given by God- and so we must act.
Prophetic urgency & Prophetic imagination
With this taken into account, let me say something about prophetic urgency and prophetic imagination. In the prophets, the pattern is “If you continue to do this, this bad thing will happen because of your actions- woe to you! Let me paint a picture of your future demise if there isn’t a change in a new direction!”, followed by “And this is the future you can have- let me paint you an imagined future that’s hopeful and will happen- but only if you change your ways!” followed by “And yet, God will have the final word, and God’s final word is hope, and yet, change! Now! Save yourself! Because woe to to you if you don’t”. When these prophetic texts are taken seriously (and in context), they are about being a people of seeking to set things right in a societal level, and the societal level being how we treat those who are often forgotten in society. The prophetic texts are often tied to dehumanising power, exploitation of the poor, twisted economics, which in turn is tied to how the people have been formed by a particular worship (typically the worship of money, sex, and power, disguised as statues, or sacred object, or in our time, ideals & ideologies, or even politicians, all often perpetuated by a *particular* version of economics & power). Given the texts used in their context, a strong case can be made that our treatment of the planet is tied directly to how we see ourselves in relation to how we do power, how we do economics, and as such how we treat the poor, and that this is part of a worship of particular ideologies (such as money, or the myth of eternal economic growth). It is said that our current climate disaster will affect the poor first (think of the low-lying island nations). As such, I think we can draw upon these texts as part of our inspiration going forward. Perhaps we need prophets that speak both a prophetic urgency and also a prophetic vision of a world that can be changed for the better if we only change for the better. Within my own context, I am thinking of someone (and others) like Greta Thunberg who is (rightly in my opinion) painting a prophetic urgency, and then documentaries like 2040 which are (rightly in my opinion) painting a prophetic hope-if-we-change-our-ways. I am not surprised that it is the children who- being aware of their possible future- are the ones schooling us grownups in our complacently. The veracity of pushbacks (by Christians too I might add…) is astounding, despite the fact that our scriptures implore us to not despise the young (1 Tim. 4:12), and remember that our children will prophecy (Acts 2:17).
A more nuanced theological pushback might be that it’s often those who don’t identify as Christians who are doing this prophetic work. I grant that if they had the prophetic arc of history in mind, that their imagined futures will be grounded in a story of history that’s grounded in Jesus’ work in the world- and that this in turn will generate a new found hope, and as such a new found power & energy in these movements. However, sometimes I think God just wants to get things done, and that the Spirit will pour out on all flesh and partner with those who are doing the work of restoration in the world despite where they are at theologically. This isn’t to say “anything goes” in sort of lazy pragmatism that doesn’t care about the worldview of those speaking into these spaces (after all, some of their worldview can be problematic), rather, this is to say that God might be even bigger than the worldview they have- that God’s work is being done even if they don’t know that this is what God would desire for His good world. God’s Spirit at work in the work of the those who don’t identify as ones doing the work of a God, isn’t an endorsement of their whole life- all I am saying is, is that God is doing what God wants, and partnering with those people who have stumbled upon something that is true and worthwhile (e.g. working for climate justice), despite what they may or may not believe. And yes, I would love that such people embrace not only what they have stumbled upon, but the One who lies behind what they stumbled upon (i.e. The God-revealed-in-Jesus)- after all, to know the Kingdom in its fullest and revealed ways, is to know the King of the Kingdom, and thus bring a more explicitly particularised power (cross-shaped power). And yet I am thankful that there are at least people taking seriously things that are to be taken seriously and are responding to the echoes of a King they haven’t yet fully grasped, but nonetheless taking seriously these echoes. If anything, this is an opportunity for the church to be the church- not in a ‘us vs. them’ way, but in a way that brings a more fuller & complete prophetic imagination that’s grounded in the work and present ministry of Jesus, and to bring that to the world, which in turn will add more energy, more hope, more wisdom, and more solutions in these otherwise already very powerful spaces. Such a genuine faith permeating in these movements I think will be akin to that of Martin Luther King Jr’s ways of doing the Kingdom of God in public- both with Christians, and also with those who are sensitive to restorative justice without explicitly having relationship with the King of restorative justice. In the meantime, God is partnering with whoever has a sensitivity to the things of God- whether they know that it is something that a God cares about or not, and whether it’s only a part of what’s precious to God. It’s us who have the problem in not seeking out God’s will as it pertains to our climate emergency. Rather than being discreetly jaded by the fact that others are ‘beating us to it’ (which is often what I think is psychologically really going on when we can’t fathom that maybe people without faith are doing things better than those with faith…), we should get over ourselves, repent, and get on with the work that is an ancient as time itself- that is that we look after creation.
We are people of the dust- we are part of creation
We are, after all, people of the dust. We are made of dust (literally and figuratively). In the Genesis story, that is what is told of us. This to me is also profound. Often, we think of the world as if we are somehow part of it yet also separate from it. Whilst we are commissioned with looking after the world, such commission doesn’t make us the exception of the world itself. If we are made of the dust, then we are made of the material of the world. In other words, we are part of creation itself. We are not separate from creation. And the more we reflect on this, the more we will realise that how we treat creation is how we are treating ourselves. Self-care is creation care, and creation care is self-care, for we are of the dust of the Earth. To some, this might sound like pantheism or creation worship- but it’s not. It’s good theology, and just because other worldviews might have taken this train of thought and then do something else with it theologically, doesn’t mean we have to negate what is right there within our own rich tradition. When we destroy creation, we are destroying ourselves. A people’s who understand this ancient-as-time-itself wisdom are our First Nations people. I often think to myself that our First Nations people should be the ones we go too in order to gain wisdom of the way we look after creation. I know some people might be theologically triggered by that, as they might point out that some indigenous worldviews can be pantheistic. Whilst that may or may not be true depending on the First Nations people group, I know through my own experience that their wisdom is what we need. I know of Christian First Nation leaders who speak of their people as people whom God has used (and still use) as the people who have consistently wisely looked after the land. Considering that their connection to the land has not lead to the lands exploitation but to its wise ordering, I wonder what it would mean to let those who have seen themselves as God’s people for the land to lead the conversations on how we navigate this climate crisis.
“For the love of money…” and the care of creation
It would be too much to say that all our lack of care for creation comes as a result of our love of money, but it’s a heck of a lot of it, as the love of money certainly is the root of all kinds of evil. Our current crisis spiked around the time of the industrial revolution, that had baked into it a paradigm that connected the wellbeing of the world with economic growth, rather than the wellbeing of a people with the people’s wellbeing themselves. To be nuanced, I want to say that it’s not economics itself but the type of economics that have been problematic. I am for people becoming economically empowered, and good economics can (and does) bring people out of poverty. Profits that seek to profit the people is loving. Having money isn’t wrong, and as a matter of fact, I want people to have capital that seeks their wellbeing (i.e. a roof over their head, food on the table, and the ability to do what will align with how God wants them to be in the world, without having to worry about losing their homes and food on the table as they do that). Yet, our current economic narrative tells us that it is dangerous to get on board the healing the climate because our national and corporate profits will be at risk, which (according to this narrative) in turn puts us at risk. If the only reason why we can’t do something is because of our economics, then perhaps our current way we run the world economically is wrong. Such an economics may have served a purpose for a particular time, yet surely there is a way of doing economics that isn’t dependent upon a make-or-break model for not only ourselves but the very world we live in. Once again, the wisdom of Jesus is to be drawn upon. Jesus offers a model of economics based in Jubilee (which is also another post for another time); it’s a model that through community removes the basic and legitimate fears of life (having a roof over our head and food on our table) which in turn empowers us to not live in fear, but in creativity. I understand that what I am saying is a lot to ask, but (as cheesy as it might sounds…) we serve a big God.
Log out of my own eye…
All this being said, I am aware that my faith asks of me to pull the log out of my own eye first- that any response to climate justice ought not to create a new ‘us vs them’ narrative that only seeks to vilify others without first recognising where I am contributing to climate change myself. As one theologian has said, “the fault lines of evil run through all our hearts”. I know that the way I eat, the way I spend, the way I consume, the way I transport, that some of these things are in my control, and that I have to point the finger to myself and seek to live differently first. I must have a narrative that seeks to take seriously how I am part of the problem (Not in some sort of self-hating way, I might add…). Daily confession, and daily ways to seek to live differently, must start with me. This is a hard pill to swallow. Yet, to be balanced, this isn’t to say that there aren’t structures, and principalities & powers of evil in our world that are themselves the vicious cycles that we are stuck in. I want to grant that some things are not in our control, and that will take us collectively seeking a new way- societal and structurally- to go about change. The truth of the matter is, I don’t have the money to get solar panels, and so it’s appropriate in such moments to name & shame the system that makes such change financially difficult for otherwise sincere people who do want to make the change, but can’t financially do it. At this point in time, being environmental mindful in the fullest extent can at times (though not in all things…) be very pricy, and that this cost is a result of the structures in society. This isn’t an either/or, but a both/and. We need to pull the log out of own eyes, and also name the systems (and seek the change the systems…) that can often cut down the ‘trees’ and produce the ‘logs’ in the first place.
All in all, we have a vocation to be the people of God for creation, which if we are made for creation is really about us being the people of God for ourselves- us who are creation herself. We will need to listen to those prophetic voices as we seek to be the voices as well. We need to listen to those who have always had the wisdom of caring the world and seeing ourselves as connected to the world, that being our First Nations people. We will need to listen to the ways of Jesus & the Spirit, who is calling us further up and further in. We will need to question our current economics that’s based on love of money that perpetuates our felt need to continue our climate changing practices. We will need to question current model of living- both in how I contribute to the mess, and also how structures put us in the mess. And finally, despite my theology of our current climate times being in flux based on the current science, I still hope that our future ends in resurrection of a world that had with its history a God who guided all of us beyond the impasse of our current climate emergency. I base this hope in this scandalous dark-skinned Jewish man who rose again from the dead as a signpost pointing all of creation towards its eventual renewal- no matter what. When Jesus rose again from the dead, the Gospel of John called that faithful day the “new day of the week”. Dare I suggest (as many biblical scholars do…) that what is being ushered in Jesus’ resurrection is the first day of the new day of the week: new creation. We are called to be a people who take our vocation as image bearers seriously, to become a people re-made in the messiah, empowered by the Spirit unto new creation- where the leaves of the tree of life will be for the healing of the nations. And to be a people who allow such a future to work in our hearts in the here and now, as we follow the Spirit (regardless where the Spirit is, or who the Spirit is using), and as such go and be God’s good stewards as we take this current crisis seriously. As the renowned New Testament scholar N.T Wright once said, “Jesus is coming, so plant a tree!”.