'Now the Lord God set the Man down in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it - and thereby serve it – to have care of it and conserve it.'
In part 1 we looked at issues surrounding the task God that originally gave humanity for cultivating and conserving the earth and the difficulties about this created by man’s estrangement from God.
This brings me to Christian involvement (or the lack of it) in the environmental movement, which is committed to working for protection and conservation in the face of the rapacious exploitation of the world’s resources. I know one Christian who was very involved in the Green party and I have heard about the experience of one or two other Christians who have really committed themselves to environmental issues, and they have all commented that they haven’t felt particularly supported in their efforts – whether this be the environmental movement being amenable to Christians, or the churches being supportive of Christians involved in it. As it is, the shortage of Christian influence in this field has meant that other kinds of thinking have been at work in g groups like the Green Party, which means that, notwithstanding registering protest votes in their favour, I find myself at odds with some of their thinking. It would probably be fair to say that amongst the environmental campaigning groups, and more generally in the world at large, the church does not have a reputation for giving a lead in this matter, or even being particularly interested. This is a great pity, given that in our Scriptures, Christians have access to the kind of wisdom about this that cannot be found anywhere else – which begs the question as to why we have not been better at giving a stronger lead to the world.
When I have considered why this is so, there are two reasons which have sprung to mind that I think are worth looking at.
The first has to do with the misuse of a genuine truth. The truth I am thinking of is our belief that this world and this age is coming to an end and that, after that, there will a new creation, in comparison to which this world and this age will seem like a temporary lead-up. It is possible to take a genuine truth and go places with it that it wasn’t meant to take you to - in this case the idea that, in the light of the eternity that awaits us, this world and our treatment of it doesn’t really matter that much. An extreme version of this attitude comes with a quote attributed to a US politician which implied that the over-consumption of this world’s resources didn’t really matter because “when the last tree is felled, then Christ will return”. This may only be an apocryphal quotation, but given attitudes to environmental issues amongst right-wing US evangelicals, you can see how the words got put into the mouth of a prominent evangelical politician; it probably isn’t that much of a caricature of the hidden attitudes of many, even if some might be loath to shamelessly admit it. We should check ourselves if we find ourselves falling into thinking this way because what lies behind it is a misreading of the Bible that thinks of this world as something which will ultimately end up as a piece of rubbish only fit to destroyed, to be replaced by something else altogether. But that is not how the bible characterises it.
Psalm 98 says, 'Let the sea resound and everything in it….. Let the rivers clap their hands and the mountains rejoice together before the Lord for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity….'
That’s the natural world being exhorted to rejoice at the prospect of what is coming. Paul talks in Romans 8 of creation’s eager watchfulness patiently waiting for the children of God to be revealed and of creation groaning together and in labour together while it awaits this glorious moment. Why should creation do all this if it has no part in the glory that is to come but is simply going to be destroyed and dispensed with like a piece of rubbish?
And yet Peter does talk of the heavens passing away with a roar and the elements being dissolved by fire. So isn’t the world going to be destroyed?
I would suggest we should think of this like a beautiful bronze sculpture that has been battered broken and abused. Let us imagine it being melted down and then recast as a new sculpture, not just as it was before but rather transformed into something more glorious than the previous one. It has been observed that in Revelation God says of the new creation, “Behold I make all things new” not “Behold I make all new things”. Those who will most rejoice at seeing the newly transformed sculpture will be those who have been most pained at seeing the way the original sculpture was treated because they care about it the most. As Isaiah looks forward to the New Jerusalem, Isaiah 66:10 says, 'Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her, rejoice greatly with her, all you who have mourned over her.'
Some might respond that the Jerusalem Isaiah speaks of here is a spiritual concept that simply means God’s people – the church. But Jerusalem isn’t just a collection of people, it’s a place. In the Revelation of John, the New Jerusalem is described as a holy city with God’s people living in it and entering in and out of it.
There is another reason I think Christians are not renowned for their environmental concern and I see it when I look at my own instincts. I realise that I am a child of a scientific materialist culture because my natural instinct is to think of God’s creation as an it. I don’t think I’m the only one. Our very way of using the English language encourages us in this direction. For us, a thing is simply an it and so all the translations I have seen of the Romans 8 passage I have quoted above talk of the creation as it: “Creation itself will be freed from its bondage to corruption”. But in Paul’s original Greek, he talks of creation herself being freed from her bondage to decay. This is quite in keeping with the way throughout the Bible, the natural world (including the mineral world) is talked to, and spoken of, like a person. To spare people’s blushes, I have spoken of the heavenly city of Jerusalem as it; but in John’s original Greek, Jerusalem is a she. Yes there is a distinction to be made between things and people - things can’t make choices, but the distinction is not nearly so sharp as we in our materialist mindset think of it; creation is not purely impersonal. It is spoken of as feeling things as a person does. Didn’t Jesus show us this when he said that if the children who rejoiced at him entering Jerusalem were silenced, the stones would cry out?
Creation is spoken of as sharing in our sin and pain, and very much feeling it as well, being made subject to frustration because of our rebellion - Paul says that this is something she didn’t want! Shouldn’t we feel a bit of sympathy for her? Should not we, as those given the task of being custodians of the earth, feel the pain of creation as she waits and longs for the same future as we are looking forward to? When we really feel another’s pain, don’t we want to do all we can to help them? This is all the more so if we have been given care of them.