Humanity is on a collision course with basic physical reality. For hundreds of years, we’ve operated as if the natural world were merely a source of raw materials for our ambitions and prosperity. But God’s creation is neither infinite nor meant to be casually exploited by human beings. Our way of life is unsustainable, and the modern-day followers of Jesus have a great responsibility to change our lives in order to avert ecological catastrophe.
This may the greatest challenge our species has ever faced.
Any attempt to honor and preserve the creation runs directly counter to the spirit of our age. Our culture is consumed by a spirit of gambling and speculation. We want something for nothing. We demand meteoric growth that spikes out of nowhere and just continues to rise, with no end in sight. Economic growth of only 1-2% per year is considered stagnation, despite the fact that on a geological timescale this kind of growth is actually enormous.
Inspired by the tech boom – where Google and Facebook have gone from nothing to ubiquity in just a few years – we expect that anything important will expand immediately to fill all available space. If an idea doesn’t go viral, its creators must have done something wrong.
Smacked with an Ecological Hockey Stick
You’ve probably seen the hockey stick graph before. It plods along for most of its length, fluctuating slightly – until the very end, when it spikes massively. This crazy pattern, a long period of relative stability followed by a sudden and violent increase – is at the foundation of our whole economy and culture. The hockey stick graph is what we have come to expect of all areas of life.
Far from being a natural given, however, this hockey stick pattern of rocket-like growth is fundamentally unsustainable. Common sense tells us that such an arch cannot continue over long periods. Infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility.
Yet, we cling to the myth of inexhaustible frontiers. We insist that we can have it all, that economic growth and technological progress can continue indefinitely. We refuse to recognize that we build our progress and wealth on the back of God’s creation, and that the creation has limits.
Our language of going viral is appropriate. Viruses spread and grow at breakneck speed, but they do so by pillaging and destroying the other organisms that host them. Like viruses capturing cells only to turn them into virus-producing factories, we cut down old-growth forests to build our houses, and fill the air with pollution to fuel our industry. Humanity has made enormous material gains in recent centuries, but this progress has come at a stark cost.
Liberating the Creation
It’s a cost that the earth cannot bear much longer. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, the creation has been subjected to futility. It is groaning in anticipation, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
We, the human children of God, have a role to play in the liberation of all creation. The freedom and restoration that we experience in Christ is not meant to be limited to women and men, but is to extend to the entire created order – plants and animals, rocks and stars. The reconciliation that is being brought about through Jesus extends not just to Adam and Eve, but to the Garden as well.
Yet, the ideology of the hockey stick graph has so colonized our minds that we tend to imagine that even this reconciliation will follow the script. We expect a sudden consummation of the kingdom – an apocalyptic moment in which everything is set right. And maybe God blows up the whole world in the process. KABOOM!
But what if the new order that Jesus is ushering in is more like a mustard seed – springing up and spreading within the garden, largely unnoticed by the negligent gardener until it is too late to stop the transformation? What if the change we’ve been waiting for comes not through a destructive inferno, but rather through a steady, sustainable process of healing and restoration?
Those of us who want to follow Jesus should be leading the way in forging this path of cosmic reconciliation. Sadly, Western Christians have often accepted and promoted a worldview that denies the holiness of God’s creation, and our responsibility to be keepers of God’s garden.
Despite the recent indifference – or outright antagonism – of many Christians towards the physical creation, the broad witness of the Bible and Christian thought points to the importance of earth-keeping. Our life as part of the physical, created order matters. The Christian tradition revels in the physical creation of God, and insists on the role of human beings as caretakers for this creation. We can draw on this tradition as we seek to be faithful in our God-given calling to care for the earth.
One resource for looking at what this kind of earthy, embodied theology might look like is the book Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology, recently co-authored by Daniel Brunner, Jennifer Butler, and A.J. Swoboda. They were kind enough to send me a review copy of the book, which I found to be a helpful primer in both the challenges and possibilities we face as Christians in the age of climate change and worldwide ecological crisis.
I particularly appreciate the care with which the authors look at the biblical and church history roots of a theology that is firmly rooted in reverence for God’s physical creation – including our own bodies. As a Quaker, whose tradition often tends to downplay the creation, it is good to be reminded of the profound earthiness of the gospel, and of the Hebrew tradition from which Jesus’ ministry sprang.
I am taking this book as a challenge, encouraging me to more fully engage with the ecological implications of my faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If the resurrection of Jesus is a cause for joy and wonder, how much more so will it be when we are able to participate in the bodily resurrection of the entire cosmos, which is presently groaning under the weight of death and oppression?
In the Garden with Mary
Our world – the land, air, water, and all the living creatures with whom we share this planet – is undergoing profound suffering. Along with the cries of human grief in these dark times, the whole creation is crying out for the redemption of our bodies. I want to participate in this redemption. I want to bear witness to my faith in Jesus through the way that I care for the broken body of Earth. I want to walk alongside the women, on their way to the tomb early on Sunday morning, in hopes of glimpsing the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Like Mary, I hope to find him waiting for me in the garden.
I know this path won’t be easy. It’s no coincidence that Mary was weeping when Jesus came to her. The way of resurrection is rooted in repentance, turning away from the false optimism of the hockey stick graph and embracing a life of apparent defeat. The slow growth of sustainable change looks like failure to a world that expects instant pay-off. The kingdom of God seems like weakness in a culture that draws strength from the short-sighted exploitation of the creation – both human and non-human.
I take courage in the fact that Jesus has already demonstrated the power and viability of this slow-cooked gospel. Even if it looks like failure and death in the short term, his way of reconciliation is our only real hope for an earth restored. I want to place my faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, looking for ways to put this hope into practice.
What is your experience of God’s work in the creation? Can you feel the ground crying out? Do you sense the deep springs of life in the trees, the rocks, the plants and animals? Do you see the great Creator staring you in the face in every part of his creation? How will this impact the way that you live in a society that is built atop behavior that degrades and destroys the creation?
I’ll close with this quote from early Quaker leader William Penn, as paraphrased by Paulette Meier:
It would go a great way to caution and direct people in their use of the world, if they understood more about the creation of it. For how should we find the confidence to abuse it when we should see the great Creator stare us in the face in all and every part thereof?