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 Sojourners.com.