It’s the cruelest mystery that evangelical earth-keepers labor to explain.
How can it be that people who have been redeemed by the grace of the Creator have so little quarrel with the forces actively plundering and destroying his Creation? Indeed, how can it be that so much of the American church is firmly allied with those forces, who routinely dismiss the warnings of learned people regarding unprecedented ocean acidification, rapid sea-level rise, runaway species extinction and unjust impacts of manmade climate change?
We ourselves keep asking the question, but we struggle for credible answers as we contemplate the implications for our faith community – both now, and at some future reckoning.
Last week, we walked with the poet Wendell Berry through some surprising teachings of the Bible regarding the nature of the Creation and our place in it as image-bearers of God. We heard, among other things, a narrative about John 3:16, the verse loved by Christians everywhere – that the incarnation and saving work of Christ was made possible only by God’s love for the world, not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is; that the words “God so loved the world” force us to confront the lovability of everything He made, despite its corruption by us; and that our destruction of nature is thus worse than stupidity or poor stewardship – it is “the most horrid blasphemy.”
Now, we also hear Berry echoing our dismay that so few American Christians exhibit meaningful interest in conserving our God’s beloved Creation:
“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows this all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?” (The Art of the Commonplace, pp. 310-311)
Personally, I’ll admit to posing this sort of question myself, mainly as a rant, usually not really looking for an answer. What’s the matter with you people!? How can you embrace and defend the consumerist idolatry that undermines mankind’s first God-given task – to tend and keep the Creation? Or even, how can you look the other way, and offer mere platitudes about “stewardship” while distant populations suffer from failed crops and storm-ravaged communities?
But Berry does not rant, and for now, neither will I. Because there is a heresy at work here that infects most – perhaps all – of us Christians, to varying degrees. And it’s almost certainly at the root of much of the problem. Yes, Christians, more than anyone, have reason to affirm our role as “keepers” in God’s garden, as tenants in His vineyard. Even more, if we looked, we would be amazed at the core gospel narrative – that God loved his world so much that he became physically part of it to reconcile the whole thing to himself. All things. Nothing excluded.
More or less, we Christians do believe this. But it’s clear that we also believe – whatever we profess in our better moments – something deeply corrosive to biblical faith. It’s sometimes called dualism. And dualism shows up all over our hymns, our sermons, and our casual speech.
We sing of Christ coming to “take me home” to a disembodied spirit-world, or of the things of earth growing “strangely dim;” we tell our bereaved friends that their loved ones are “in a better place” as we continue in this material world; we come together from our offices, factories and farms into “the house of the Lord;” our pastors engage in “ministry” while we labor in worldly jobs; and we rise early for our “time with God” before heading off to our secular day’s work. These, and a thousand other hallmarks of our daily living, signal to us how neatly divided our religious minds have become: heaven there v. earth here; God’s house v. our secular workplaces; “kingdom work” v. our daily tasks; and holy souls v. tainted bodies.
We were supposed to have gotten over this dualism ages ago. The earliest Christians had to deal with the Platonic dualistic notion that the realm of ideas was exalted, but the physical creation was base. It gave rise to the Gnostic heresy that denied the actual incarnation: it was unthinkable that a holy God could become tainted by becoming actual earthy, smelly stuff. Christ may have looked human, but it was actually some clever divine trick. Continue reading