Saturday, January 26, 2013

Creation Care is NOT Creation Worship

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Last week I wrote that creation care is worship and explored some reasons that many Christians, particularly here in the United States, fail to recognize the connection. Today I want to consider some other obstacles that may hinder many Christians from caring for creation as an act of worship.

Creation care as worship sounds awfully close to worshiping creation. They are not the same thing. I am not advocating nature as God, nor the worship of the creation as some type of deity. Creation care from a Christian perspective clearly recognizes and distinguishes between the creation and the Creator. I do think that some aspects of native American (and probably other native religions, I'm not particularly familiar with most of them) do recognize something important in the interconnection of human life with the rest of the natural world. Somewhere in our Christian theology we have lost this connection, to our detriment and to the detriment of the natural world. We have forgotten that God created as in harmony with the rest of creation. We were not created to live disconnected from the world around us. We were not created to exploit, abuse and use creation solely for our own benefit, without regard for the holistic balance of life nor without concern for future generations. All of creation comes from God and all of it was declared good by the Creator. When we affirm the created world, when we care for it and nurture it so that it sustains our lives and the lives of future generations, we honor and worship the Creator God, not the creation itself. Let's not let our fear of confusing the two keep us from expressing our worship through care for creation.

Christians may also reject creation care because they reject modern science and the evidence that our human behaviour is causing significant harm to the global environment. I see in certain Christian circles a very strong fear of what we might call scientific conspiracy, an ongoing effort to undermine Christian faith through science. There are many aspects of this, more than I can possibly or want to address in this article. But I do want to challenge the thinking that global climate change represents a scientific hoax designed to undermine Christian faith. Not that long ago I was rather skeptical about global climate change and the threat it poses to human life and well-being. The more I read and observe what is happening though, the more I realize that the data is there to back up the concerns being raised by scientists. I wrote some time ago about watching the movie and the effect it had on my thinking. Currently I am reading the book Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman, which is a powerful argument for our need to change our lifestyle for the sake of ourselves and the future of our planet. I don't see how this challenges the foundations of Christian faith. Rather, it should stir us as Christians to recognize that we have failed to be good stewards of creation, as we were tasked to be in the beginning according to Genesis. Why do so many American Christians refuse to hear the siren call being sounded?

The answer to that lies in another problem we have as American Christians: We love our American lifestyle more than we love God. In fact, we have conflated the two. There. I said it. We would prefer to choose our life of personal comfort, convenience and individual freedom, over social responsibility and accepting God's call to care for creation. Caring for creation comes at a price. We cannot live as we have been living if we want to worship God through creation care. Faced with that reality, many Christians in America prefer to cling to a cultural Christianity that allows them to pursue their desired lifestyle without care for creation or the poor of the earth who will be most significantly affected by the environmental destruction we are causing directly and indirectly. Our lifestyles come at more expense that the dollars we pay, but because that expense is paid by the poor in other countries and will be paid by future generations, we do not let it concern us. Worshiping God through caring for creation will require us to make changes and, yes, sacrifices. It will challenge us to value more highly something other than our personal comfort and pleasure. This does not mean that we must live in poverty. It doesn't mean that we will not be able to have pleasant, enjoyable lives. But it will mean that we choose more carefully and wisely how we purchase and use resources, thinking not only of the bottom line now but of the impact on others around the globe today and in the future. It does mean reexamining our values and priorities in the light of Jesus Christ. Ron Sider, in this article, pointedly states:

The church of Jesus Christ will do what God wants it to do for the environment and the poor if member by member, congregation by congregation, we look up into the face of the risen Lord and submit ourselves totally and unconditionally in worship and obedience. Let's look into his face in surrender as we face very decision- about money, sex, business, marriage, politics, divorce, peacemaking. Can we keep doing some of the things we are now doing if we look constantly and intently into his face and ask him, "My Lord, are you pleased with how I am living, or does it make you weep?" Let's dare daily to look into his face and invite him to make us more and more like himself, transforming us from one degree of glory to another.

Worshiping God through creation care does not come easily. It requires us to rethink our values and priorities and in consequence to make some adjustments – for most of us probably fairly radical adjustments over time – to how we live. Because we love our God, we need to love and care for the whole of creation: the other people living on the planet now, the plants, animals, water and air that surround us, and all that will exist in coming years. I myself have only begun to reexamine my lifestyle, and my wife and I have begun making changes in how we live as a result. I shared some of these last year, in this article, this article, and this article.

How do you already express worship through caring for God's creation? What changes might you make to better worship God in this way? What hinders you from caring for creation?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Creation Care is Worship

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When God created humans, God gave them responsibility to care for the rest of the created world. We are caretakers of creation. In caring for creation we worship God by affirming the value of what God created. But since the fall we have done a rather poor job of it. As humanity has developed technologically in the last couple centuries, we have increasingly exploited creation for our own benefit rather than caring for it as an act of worship to our Creator God. Creation care is an act of worship, but too often Christians, particularly American Christians, fail to recognize this.

We see this increasingly clearly in the conversation about the effects of global climate change, our role in causing it and our response to it. I have heard many comments and statements by Christians that reject the reality that the global climate is changing and that we humans bear the major responsibility for this change. What leads so many Christians to refuse to accept the evidence for the changes occurring to our world and the need to change our behavior in response to these changes? In this article I want to examine four elements which I believe negatively influence Christian thinking on this issue.

Christians fail to worship God by caring for the created world because they have adopted a dualistic theology that devalues the physical world and exalts the spiritual world. This dualistic theology owes more to Greek philosophy than it does to the teaching of Scripture. In classical Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, this world is not reality. It is only a mere shadow of reality. Life in this world is in some sense an illusion, or at best something less than the "real" of which it is only an image. Therefore, in this worldview, the physical nature needs to be cast off, left behind, so that we can encounter the real spiritual world of which we currently only see hints and shadows. This philosophy has found a home in the church from early on, although it was quite clearly rejected by the creeds of the early Christian Church. We find it still today, such as in the popular writings of C.S. Lewis (whom I happen to like, but whose theology I take issue with at times). Consider these words he wrote:

Think of yourself as a seed patiently waiting in the earth; waiting to come up a flower in the gardener's good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams, but cock-crow is coming.

At one point in my life I would have strongly embraced these words. But now I see that they cannot a dangerous seed that runs counter to the teaching of Scripture. The Bible does not teach us that creation is less than real. It doesn't teach us that we are only living in a half-awake state, in a land of dreams. Rather it affirms that God created the physical world and called it good. The only thing bad about it was for man to be alone in the world. The Christian emphasis on the resurrection also affirms that divine aspect of our physicalness. Jesus was resurrected not only as a spritual being, but in some manner as a physical one as well, and so shall we be at the future resurrection. When we view the created world as something bad, negative, inferior or less “real,” we deny the value of God's very creation. We rob God of worship. We lose incentive to worship God through caring for that creation. After all, the created world is only evil anyway.

This dualistic theology combines with another flawed bit of theology: an escapist eschatology that looks for the end to come soon so that we can get out of this fallen world. While I would not find the return of Christ soon disappointing, we must first of all acknowledge that the Bible clearly teaches that we do not know when that return will happen. No matter how hard we try to “read the signs of the times” we still do not know and predictions about the imminent appearance of Jesus have consistently been wrong. So we should not cease to care for God's creation simply because we don't believe it's going to around much longer. If we act in this way, we act irresponsibly toward our children and their children and however many future generations may live on this earth before Christ does return. We dishonor God and fail to express care for future generations when we take a short-view of history. We cannot continue to create enormous environmental problems merely on the hopeful assumption that no one will have to worry about cleaning them up anyway.

Furthermore, this eschatology assumes that the new heaven and new earth that Christ will initiate on his return will somehow be completed disconnected from the present earth. I used to think this way. Certainly we read in Revelation 21:1 that the first heaven and first earth have passed away. But the passage doesn't really tell us what that means specifically. It tells us that the created order is being made anew, but that doesn't require complete discontinuity with the old. What if heaven is not some place “out there” but is in fact intimately connected with the renewal of the creation to the form God originally intended it to have? N.T. Wright addresses this far more thoroughly and eloquently than I can in his excellent book Surprised by Hope. I believe that he raises very thought-provoking insights into the Bible's teachings on this subject and I see now that this clearly impacts our view of this world and our responsibility to worship God by caring for it as long as we live on this planet.

We need to rethink our theology so that we do not continue to abuse the created world. We need to recognize and affirm that caring for creation is in fact part of our worship of God. God made the physical world and called it good. God gave us bodies not as a cage or prison from which we must strive to escape, but as a fundamental part of our identity. God then placed us in a real, physical world with a mandate to care for it, for our benefit yes, but not exclusively so and not in such a manner as to exploit and destroy it.

Creation care is worship. We rob God of worship when we abuse, exploit and destroy creation, both in the present and for future generations.

In a later post I will explore this topic further and consider other reasons that Christians fail to embrace creation care as an aspect of worship. In the meantime, tell me how you have seen Christian theology used to denigrate our responsibility toward creation.

I also recommend the various articles on this topic posted at  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Violence is not the Solution to Violence

While browsing Facebook the other day a picture caught my attention. (Unfortunately I cannot find a way to link to or embed it here.) It shows Jesus (in classic white-man Jesus appearance) holding a young child and talking to a bunch of men with the caption:
You have heard it said, "Love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you." But I say, if you feel threatened, don't hesitate to blow someone away. The Second Amendment gives you the right. Besides, the Founding Fathers were Christians, so it's all good.
In its hyperbole, this captures well a key concern I have with the rhetoric I hear coming from a certain segment of Americans. I find it particularly disturbing that many of those who espouse such views also present themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. They fail to recognize an inherent contradiction in their thinking. They argue that they should have the right and the means to use violence to protect themselves from violence and forget that the very Jesus they proclaim himself stated unequivocally how we are to respond to those who threaten us.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.

Jesus' words should strike us as very radical. Perhaps they strike us as too radical, so we have to ignore them or dilute them in some manner because we cannot bring ourselves to actually apply them concretely. No, we are more comfortable with the idea of forcefully defending ourselves than with the idea of loving our enemies. We consider our Second Amendment rights more important than living out the words of Jesus. That should give us reason to stop and think.

In response to the violent rampages such as the one in Newtown, or in Aurora, or in any other number of cities in recent months and years, some, including the largest gun lobby in the country, cry out that the solution is to arm more people, to make guns more accessible so that criminals will be detered. I think this is a very false solution.

Violence is not the solution to violence.

More weapons does not equal more safety. Liz at These Square Pegs has a great article that points this out quite clearly, pointing out among other things that the risk of homicide is three times higher in homes with firearms. If more guns made us more safe, we should be among the safest nations on earth, yet somehow we feel less safe. I will not feel more safe if more people are carrying weapons, ready to use them whenever they perceive a threat. I can imagine a scenario in which someone starts shooting in a Newtown- or Aurora-like scenario, and several other “well-intentioned” citizens pull out their weapons to shoot back. Only in the melee it is not clear who is shooting at whom and suddenly more people are dying because it has become an open gun-battle. Guns do not make us safer. Violence does not reduce violence.

We need to take the discussion in our culture beyond whether one has an uninfringed right to gun ownership and what restrictions are reasonable on guns. We need to talk about the culture we have created and continue to perpetuate that glorifies violence as the solution to problems. In the month since the Newtown massacre I have been to the movie theater a couple of times and in light of all these violent shootings I am struck by the number of films we produce and watch which effectively glorify violence. How many crime shows do we need on TV? Why are violent video games some of the most popular? I confess that I too enjoy some of these movies and TV shows (although I generally limit my video gaming to sports games and such violent escapades as Mario Kart), but I recognize that I need to examine my own consumption of these products. I don't think the solution is all or nothing, but I think we must rethink how we portray violence and stop teaching ourselves and our children implicitly (and now, with statements like those made by the NRA, explicitly) that violence solves problems.

We should re-envision our society. We can reduce levels of violence and the inclination to resort to it as a solution by changing the way we view and treat others. We can choose to not live in fear. We can choose to work towards a more just and equal society. Violence and the perceived need for guns will be reduced as we change the way we think and act toward one another. It is possible, but will not be easy. It will take a lot more effort, time and education than simply arming more people or posting armed guards in our schools. It will require a willingness to rethink our values. It will take sacrifice. But I believe the outcome will be worth it. (It will not require completely renouncing gun ownership. Many European countries with very strict gun laws, such as Germany, still have high levels of gun ownership, but not the levels of violence in the culture that we do.)

I fear that as a society we are not willing to have this conversation. I doubt that we are willing to sacrifice some very sacred cows in order to change our ways and reduce the culture of violence we have created. Most unfortunately, I question whether many within the church are willing to take the words of Jesus seriously. From the rhetoric I hear and see, too many Christians hold more strongly to their Second Amendment rights than to the teaching of Jesus. As God's Church we should be leading the change in society away from violence, but instead we often seem to be the ones holding most strongly to our culture of violence. This saddens me. But I will hold on to hope and will support those who advocate for change in this area, such as the former congressional representative from my district, Gabrielle Giffords, who herself was seriously injured in a mass shooting in Tucson two years ago.

I believe the time has come for change. Will we embrace it, or will we cling more strongly still to our culture of violence?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Grieving Victims of Violence

I am grieving this week for a young woman I never met. I have been grieving for her since I first heard the story of her brutal rape at the hands of several men on December 16 and subsequent death from her injuries at the end of the year. I grieve because no person should endure the abuse that she received. I grieve because her life was just as precious to God as any other human and her loss diminishes all of us, to recall the words of John Donne. When I think of her I see all the women I have the privilege of knowing and shudder at the thought that any of them should face what she did.

I grieve as well because her death does not stand as an isolated act. Although her abuse was particularly awful in its brutality, rape has been and remains a common occurrence in India. Perhaps this heinous crime will spur changes in Indian society, but some of the comments I have read make me doubt this. These comments sound all too familiar, placing the blame on women for their appearance or behaviour, effectively making the victim responsible for her own abuse. It seems that men in India, at least many of them, have a very difficult time accepting women as their equals. Feeling threatened by women in the public space, they shame them, demean them, abuse them, rape them and seek to exert control over them to maintain their superior position in the culture. I recognize that not all men in India are this way, but from the many stories that have come out of India in light of this crime, these characteristics seem to provide an accurate profile of the culture as a whole.

I grieve not only because of the culture of violence toward women that we find in India. I grieve also because this same culture of violence exists in my own country. We in America may feel some sense of cultural superiority to India, but we shouldn't, because women face similar threats of violence, rape, abuse and even death at the hands of men here in the United States as well. We are not innocent. We are not better than they are. In fact we are just as guilty as India of excusing violent behavior by men. As I wrote recently, we falsely continue to affirm this as part of masculinity. We men (and women, who unfortunately sometimes perpetuate the same lies and myths about rape victims as men) need to stand against violence, particularly against women. We need to affirm that being a “real” man doesn't require asserting power and control over women. Quite the opposite. We need to demonstrate by word and deed that men are fully men when they embrace gentleness, humility and kindness and surrender power and control. Instead of feeling threatened by the equality of women, we need to embrace and affirm it, for in affirming their full dignity and equality we benefit all of society, including ourselves.

We also need to leave behind false myths and ideas that place the blame for rape and abuse on women because of their appearance or behaviour. Men who rape bear the responsibility for their behaviour, not their victims. Unfortunately the modesty myth so frequently perpetuated in Christian circles does nothing to reduce or eliminate this false blaming. Men and women in the church need to take the lead in defending the victims of violence and abuse instead of turning the blame back on them. We, the people of God, should be the trendsetters against violence in any form. I grieve that we often lag far behind or, worse still, perpetuate false gender stereotypes along with modesty and purity myths. By doing so we are complicit in the culture of rape and violence that exists in this country and around the world.

I hope that this young woman's death will bring change to Indian society. I hope it does not stop with India though, but can be a catalyst to further the reduction and eventual elimination of violence against women in every country. We must speak out. We must stand against violence toward women. We must adopt a new view of manhood that affirms the full equality and dignity of women. We cannot remain complicit in the abuse, mistreatment, rape and other forms of violence against women.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward, Embracing the Now

As I sit here looking out the window at the beautiful New Year's morning, sipping my cup of hot tea, I naturally find myself reflecting on the year that has just ended and the one that has just begun. Of course, as my son pointed out last night as the clock struck midnight, marking the beginning of a new year on January 1 is a completely arbitrary decision and in that sense today is no different from any other new day. Except that it isn't, because we humans have chosen to mark the passage of time throughout much of our history. We feel the need to observe the transitions not only in seasons but in units of time such as days, months and years. Different cultures choose different times to observe the passage of time – ancient Persian cultures welcomed the new year with the arrival of spring (which seems imminently sensible), while Jewish culture greets the new year in the autumn (both of these examples being referenced according to the cycle of seasons in the northern hemisphere).

Celebrating the departure of one year and the arrival of another seems to me quite useful, regardless of when one does it. By observing the transition of years we allow ourselves to pause, reflect on what has passed and look forward to what is coming. Just as each day offers us a new beginning in our lives, so each new year offers us an opportunity to begin anew on a larger scale, or to celebrate what has been and renew our commitment to it for another year.

As 2013 begins, I want to remember the past.

I don't want the beginning of a new year to mean that everything from the past is forgotten. That would be unhealthy. George Santayana is quoted as saying “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Certainly we should not forget the tragic events of history, both distant and more recent, lest we carelessly allow such events to repeat themselves. We must not forget the victims in Newtown, nor the young woman in India who was brutally raped and murdered on a public bus. We must remember so that we can take steps to change ourselves and our world so that such tragic events become rarer and even, someday, become a thing of the past altogether. We remember the difficulties, hardships and even tragedies in our own lives because from them we can learn, grow and change ourselves and our world.

We remember the past not only because of its tragedies and sorrows, but also for its joys and pleasures. I do not want to forget the delights of my children when they were two, three, six, nine or any other age. I want to celebrate the times with family and friends from this past year and those before. I want to remember with joy the people who have blessed and enriched my life, whether they are present to me now or not. Remembering them and the times we've shared keeps them close and honors them and the role they have played in my life.

Even as I remember the past, I don't want to live in it.

This past year had many memories, both positive and not-so-positive. The years before it are also filled with experiences both good and bad. Sometimes I'm tempted to wish that I could return to a particular point in my life and live there again. But I can't go back. Seeking to live in the past robs me of the joy and richness of the present, which is the only time I can experience fully. As much as I fondly remember my children in their early years, I err if I value those years over the teen years they are currently in. No matter how fondly I recall my years in university, I can't return to them. I have passed that point in life. I can recall them with pleasure, but I can't live there.

Realistically, I often recall the past through highly-filtered lenses. Those early years of parenting were great in many ways, but they had plenty of challenges. Those student years were enjoyable, but they weren't the pinnacle of my life. When we look to the past as a golden age, we devalue the life God gives us to live in the present and we discount the potential and possibility of the future. Whatever the past held for each of us as individuals and for us as a society, we can't go back there. The way forward does not lie in trying to recreate the past.

As I begin this new year I want to remember the past, with both sorrow and joy as appropriate. I want to learn from it and I want to honor its memories and experiences. At the same time I want to embrace the present and look to the future. I want to celebrate the life I have now, accepting its opportunities and challenges, joys and sorrows as they come without looking back with nostalgic longing to a time that has passed. This year I don't want to live in the past or in the future. I want to live in the now.