Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is our faith green? pt. 1

I don't have to tell you how a rising 'green' conscience is changing--at least at a surface level--how our society thinks about the environment. Water bottles proudly advertise: "Smaller Cap = Less Plastic." Reusable grocery bags hang before your eyes at every turn, daring you to walk out of that store with disposable plastic bags in tow; recycle bins near the exits offer you an out, in case you snubbed the earlier green option. The owners of hybrid gas-electric and alternative fuel vehicles are routinely offered rebates as well as state and federal tax incentives. An Earth-consciousness is slowly seeping into the popular psyche.

This is also an impulse being embraced by many churches. Recycle bins are filled with worship programs at the end of many a Sunday service. Churches provide community gardens to foster closer ties between people and the land they walk on. (Read, for instance, the story of Anathoth Garden at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in North Carolina.) We even have The Green Bible, including essays by Christians from across the spectrum--N. T. Wright to Brian McLaren to John Paul II--and printed on recycled paper with "soy-based ink, and water-based coating."
Yet for all the ardor of a green Bible, many Christians are skeptical of this trend, to say the least. This movement as it has been embraced by some Christians has been reviled by others as 'nature worship', cultural captivity, and, worse yet, a thinly veiled liberal political agenda.

Where should we stand on these matters? Is this a legitimately Christian concern, or has the church adopted some popular, secular interests?

Creation in the Bible
As usual, I want to start with the Bible, because I'm convinced that the Bible tells us who we truly are and gives us a story for understanding the world around us in truth.
Many readers are convinced that scripture's teaching on "the heavens and the earth," the plants, and the animals is pretty straightforward: these things will pass away. The Bible is really concerned with the story of humanity, and the redemption of humanity. The other works of God's hands are fleeting, and they ought to be on the periphery (at best) of our vision and aims.

This is simply not true. Humanity is at the heart of God's saving work as it's witnessed to in scripture--the Word became flesh--but God's plan is for all of his creation, not human beings alone. If we think our Lord is not interested in the non-human creation, that these things are simply going to pass away, we need to look at the Bible again.

Romans 8 is often cited in this discussion, and rightly so. Here Paul offers us a vision of God's redemptive work that is much wider in scope than we might expect. At the heart of the letter to the Romans, he writes:
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (8:19-23)

Just as we await the resurrection, the whole creation likewise awaits a redemption from its bondage to decay. As John Wesley commented here, creation is not going to be destroyed but delivered. The created order is awaiting the revealing of the sons of God, the people of God who will worship the Lord and exercise right stewardship over the world--the restoration of God's intentions for humanity in Genesis 1-2. This is the end that God's saving work is moving towards. Salvation is so much bigger than we have been giving it credit for.

We also see the picture of a restored creation in Isaiah, where we are given a striking image of the animal world at last at peace. "The wold shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat..." (11:1-9; see also 65:17-25). My favorite is the image of the bear and the cow grazing together. The prophet does not envision a great, climactic work of saving individual men and women, but a restoration for all of God's creatures, down to the animals. This is the reality of the new heavens and the new earth. This is the substance of God's words in Revelation: "See, I am making all things new... it is done!" (21:5-6)
The Bible's story of salvation is a story about all of creation, not just humankind. Maybe this truth will help us hear the Jesus' Great Commission in Mark with new ears: "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation" (16:15). This is good news for the whole creation.

This shouldn't surprise us. After all, the biblical authors see plants and animals as gloriously more than simply the raw materials necessary for our well-being. The Psalms remind us again and again of the full, scriptural vision of creation.
Psalm 148 in a bright shining example of this: this poem pans across the whole of creation, showing the praise of God on all lips. The angels and heavenly hosts praise God, the sun and moon, fish, hills, the fruit trees, beasts and livestock, and, finally, humanity. Taken together, all of Gods works--not just human beings, not even just men and angels--all of God's works offer praise to their maker in a a great symphony of creation.
The world is not simply a resource at our disposal: it is the Lord's (Ps 24:1); it offers up praise to him; he rejoices in it (104:31), and he intends to redeem it. Anything less than this falls short of the scriptural portrait of our planet.

Psalm 104 provides a final, crucial element in our whirlwind survey of creation in the scriptures: God provides for his creation.
We see especially in vv. 10-30 God's unbridled attentiveness to the creatures he has made: giving water to wild donkeys and cedars alike, a home to the stork, food for man and beast, refuge to rock badgers, creatures to play in the seas. The psalmist is reveling in the vast menagerie the greets her eyes, and she insists that God gives care to every obscure corner of it. "The earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work" (104:13). Our Maker in hands-on in his continuing care for his world.

In part 2, we'll think about where to go from here--how should Christians live, in light of a biblical picture of the Earth?

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