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Care of the Earth:  Does Our Theology Help Us?

September 2, 2018

Susan Adams

Ordinary 22     Genesis 1:26, 28-29     NZ Herald editorial     John 1:1-5

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It’s not difficult for us these days to nod our heads at the thought we have to do our bit to ‘take care of creation’.


In the words of my 8 year old great nephew, who knows all about this he assures me ‘cause they studied it at school, “we have to look after the environment and not throw our rubbish about, especially not our plastic stuff, cause it gets into the food chain and could make us sick as well as the fish and birds.”


I’m really glad that schools have environmental studies in the curriculum these days and that youngsters are aware of our human responsibilities to clean up after ourselves. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we expected the earth herself to take care of all our waste: be that vegetable waste from our kitchens, our food packaging, oil-spills - or carbon emissions. Now days we know we are pouring more rubbish into our environment at a faster rate than the earth and its atmosphere can biodegrade or clean. We are growing heaps of plastic and other non-biodegradable matter on land, and creating floating islands of it in the sea - and our climate is changing along with all we pump into the atmosphere. We know we have to do more to care for the earth, and the sea, and the sky. We know that globally we have to do something urgently. 


But, we seem reluctant to change our lifestyle to do that, or to put sufficient pressure on those in government to legislate for care. We seem to be more concerned about what the changes needed to manage environmental degradation will do to our current lifestyle, and to employment - as we heard when the discussion of mining permits on conservation land on the west coast was taking place.


I want to speculate for a while on how we got into this precarious situation regarding the earth’s capacity to support life on into the future in the first place. 


It seems to me, as inheritors of western Christianity, that our originating problems are theological. It is primarily from within our Christian nations of Western Europe that industrialisation made its impact on the world, with both its upsides and its down-sides. It’s hard for Christians to imagine that ‘God the Creator’, who invited us to ‘have dominion over the fish and the birds and over every living thing’ including plants and trees, will allow the world to self destruct because we humans are using the resources of the earth to ever ‘improve our lives’ just as invited. (Genesis 1 verses 26, 28-29)


Medieval Christianity, which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, wasn’t worried about human responsibility - that idea was not on the agenda - they had a mandate set out in the Bible and they knew all life was God’s responsibility. ‘His’ to give or to take, ours to make the best of what we were given. God was the ‘Father’ of all; the Creator of all things (progenitor to use a theological term).


A few centuries later, during the time of the Renaissance, theologians began to wonder about the nature of being human and how we shaped our selves and our world, thus they set the scene for the Reformation movements in the church during the 16th C, and for the enlightenment which followed - with its emphasis on human reason; with its quest to understand the world scientifically. New ways of undertaking biblical study and theological enquiry developed - reasoning and scientific enquiry entered theology.


Humanity emerged from all this as partners with God - to use language we are familiar with to today. 


We morphed from being the pinnacle of God’s creative efforts, the ones for whom all else was made and to whom the charge was “to have dominion over” - to being stewards or caretakers of creation. As the debates over theology took place we moved on further, to becoming that part of creation (humanity) that now must share with God in ensuring creation keeps happening and keeps healthy. We gave ourselves more responsibility: for co-creation with God. 


Some would argue that we should not worry at all about our current precarious state of environmental affairs: about what God has in mind for the earth and its creatures. After all, one who creates something has in mind the purpose for their creation: they know, or imagine, how their creation will function according to that purpose, and they care about what they have made. Some say we should leave the worry and the repair to God. 


To speak of God as the Creator is to a acknowledge this point of view. It also to locates the Creator outside of that which has been created, and that includes outside of our human nature - beyond us, transcendent! In this way, God the Creator can keep an eye on creation and be petitioned to fix things that go wrong. Our language is important yet we don’t think about it very often we simply accept what has become common.


It seems to me, here at St Matthews that we are exploring the idea that God is with us, within us, and between us. We use ‘Creator God’ language, because we have no other, as yet, and we want to signify a reverence for nature and all living things, for diversity, for individuals and for community. 


I believe we need to rethink the concept of “creation” altogether. To shift from an external ‘creator’ with whom we are a junior partner, to an ongoing creative process, here and now, in which we are active participants, with the earth herself. 


Along with other Christians at critical stages of change throughout history, we are in a time of transition in theology and in how we, ’be church’:

•   we are not part of the early church trying to ascribe to Jesus in story and song the importance we have experienced,

•   we are not part of the emerging Roman Church establishing doctrines and formularies to mark ourselves as different from the myriad of faith expressions,

•   we are not part of the Renaissance or Reformation humanist movements, 

•   we are not struggling to assert scientific authority, but we are struggling to hold on to a concept of God in our time of postmodern fragmentation.


We often find ourselves without the language we need to express what we are feeling, and sometimes without the confidence to express our thoughts - in case others think we are weird or not really Christian at all! To that end, we are like people in those earlier times struggling to find their way with God.


After church today, and again next week, there will be time to talk about all this - plus the material from next week’s sermon.


As we face the environmental crisis of our time in history, and watch on television the fires of the northern summer, and the ocean floods washing away land and homes, it becomes important for us to go deep within ourselves and find our desire for life, exposing as we search, the centuries of church teaching about helpless sinful humanity alongside the teachings about the power and benevolence of God. 


Somehow instead of learning all the earth is for our benefit and we are the high-point of God’s creation, we have to experience our oneness with the earth itself: our very nature as earth creatures made of the same substances as water, air, rocks and mountains along with all the other sentient beings. In this way the earth has made us. We and God who moves among it all are of the same substance as the earth herself, this is what we reverence, this is what must honour with our care and our love.


Our environmental crisis did not manifest overnight - nor will its repair manifest overnight. According to the scientists who study the earth, we unfortunately, unlike our forbears, do not have the luxury of hundreds of years to adjust our understanding of our human relationship with the earth! nor to reconceptualise our understanding of God, nor to change our behaviours accordingly! What we do know, is that it is critical to use all the contemporary means of communication at our disposal right now, to persuade our contemporaries and our governments of what we value: those things being 

life and freedom for all, 

a sustainable earth, 

shared wealth, 

peace not violence and 

loving respect for each other.


If we choose these things rather than the accrual of wealth by any means whatsoever, our lives will more adequately demonstrate the God who lives and breathes within and between us; and to borrow the words of theologian Sally McFague we will be respectfully honouring the earth as ‘God’s body’.

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