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.
But in the end, Christians came together to affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, the thoroughly human man, was at the same time “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” We learned to pray for God’s kingdom on earth, as in Heaven. And we learned to work for and anticipate the renewal of all things in Christ – not just all people or all spirits, but all things.
His Word, we learned, was revealed in scripture, but also in his Creation: the heavens proclaim his glory, and his divine nature is clearly perceived in the things that have been made. He commands building houses of worship, but he “does not live in temples made by man.” He exalts mankind as his image-bearers, but gives us the Sabbath so that our donkeys, oxen and land can rest.
But old habits die hard. Christians are still prone to think of the material world as base, and passing, while the disembodied world of “souls” continues into the lasting future. Even the physical resurrection of Christ – the fish-eating, wound-bearing Risen Lord – fails to completely overcome our Gnostic impulses. We’re iffy about science. We suspect that the world of nature will ultimately be “left behind,” according to the end-times theology so popular these days. What’s the point of trusting godless science to save a material world that’s destined for flames anyway?
Into this mindset steps the inconvenient Bible teaching about the creation of mankind. We read in Genesis 2:7, “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” To many of us, a cursory reading of this account confirms what we always thought: Mankind is made partly of “dust,” or the material world, and partly of God’s breath, or a soul. There you have it: dualism at the dawn of creation. And as we learn from every corner of popular culture, the soul survives even as the body returns to the dust from whence it came. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we look upon nature in the same manner: If it doesn’t have an eternal “soul” then it’s simply passing, and it must not be all that important, after all.
But a closer look at the story of Creation doesn’t allow for this at all. Look more closely at the Genesis passage. It’s not, as Berry has pointed out, Man = Dust + Soul. Instead, it’s this:
Soul = Earth’s dust + God’s breath
For much of American pop-religion, the human soul has become some airy thing that dwells temporarily in the physical body. But biblically, the soul is the whole of the created person, from the dust to the creating breath of God. The whole thing is subject to the fall, to redemption, and to the hope of the resurrection. We are not two things, but one, mysteriously integrated by God’s creative power. And that one thing possesses the breath of God. The whole thing is holy.
But God does not reserve the blessing of his breath for mankind alone. The Psalmist recounts God’s creative power displayed in the mountains, valleys and seas, the wild animals, trees and birds – the whole of Creation. But like mankind, all of them receive God’s breath: “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created.” And in the Book of Job, we learn that the reverse is also true: “If He should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together.”
Mankind, we say, is holy, because we humans participate in the breath and Spirit of a Holy God: “In Him, we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul told the Athenians. But isn’t it true that the whole Creation can lay claim to much of the same? God sends his Spirit, and they are created; He withdraws, and they perish. Like us, they are the mysterious melding of the dust of earth and the breath of God.
And so we come back to Berry: “We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not.”
How different might American Christianity be if we looked seriously at what our Bibles say about the sanctity of our Father’s world? Would we remain complicit in the destruction of his Creation? Would we be among the last defenders of those who profit by plundering his world? Or would we be among the first to work for its care and renewal?