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Stewarding Creation
Why Christians Should Care About the Environment
Julien C. H. Smith

The title of this essay likely creates the expectation that it will suggest why people, in particular Christians, should care about the environment. It also, no doubt, creates the further expectation that it will suggest that we should express this care by seeing ourselves as stewards of God’s creation. Both of these expectations are correct. Both are, however, problematic. To begin with, when we use the word “environment” we refer to the physical surroundings in which we human beings live. To say that we should care about the environment is thus plain common sense. We don’t need to be told to care about the environment any more than we need to be told to care about the cleanliness of our room (although I suspect that some of us might need to hear that message from time to time). In the present day, we face an unprecedented ecological crisis, and the task of this essay is not to persuade the reader of that fact. Rather, the hope is to help us think differently about this crisis, and perhaps the first step in thinking differently is not to think of it as an environmental crisis but as an ecological one. When we speak of the environment, we are speaking in anthropocentric terms. Much of the rhetoric surrounding this crisis, and the anxiety it generates, has to do with the effects of environmental degradation upon us. When we speak of ecology, we are referring to the relationships between living organisms, and between those organisms and the environment in which they live. Reframing our concern in terms of ecology helps us to remember that we human beings live in a complex web of interdependence with other living beings. As Christians, we should care about the environment not simply because it is our home, but because it is the shared home of all God’s creation.

With that last sentence, a further problem is introduced: Why should Christians care about the environment any more or less than anyone else on the planet? What is gained by framing this discussion in religious terms, and in the religious vocabulary of one particular tradition at that? The complex ecological crisis we face is surely not the fault of Christians alone. Nevertheless, Christians have, at various times and places throughout our history, held a worldview that is both anthropocentric and dualistic. That is, Christians have greatly valued the human and spiritual, while devaluing the nonhuman and material. Such a worldview can, and has, resulted in a legacy of disastrous ecological impact. Christians, therefore, should critically examine the narrative we are living out to see how it has influenced our relationship with the rest of Creation.

Furthermore, the very idea that we should conceive of ourselves as stewarding God’s creation is itself problematic. The notion of stewardship is inescapably anthropocentric, and some have argued that it is precisely this anthropocentrism within the Christian tradition that is the root cause of the present ecological crisis. The story of human beings is a story rooted in the Christian Scriptures. While some might equate this narrative with the Bible itself, properly speaking this is a metanarrative, a plot constructed by readers and superimposed over the Bible to give it meaning. In turn, the story gives meaning—or at least has the potential to do so—to the lives of its readers. It is a story that seeks to answer such profound questions as: Who am I? Where am I? What is wrong with the world? And how can things be set to rights? (The questions come from Bartholomew and Goheen 2004). The power within such a story to shape individuals and societies can hardly be overstated. Perhaps not as obvious, however, is the constructed quality of such a narrative. The fact that it is constructed by readers implies that different readers will construct it differently. There are, in fact, two competing versions of this story: one which sees the story itself as the root problem of the ecological crisis, the other which sees within the story the hope for a solution to the crisis.

 

The Christian Worldview:
Source of the Ecological Crisis?

Lynn White Jr. (1907–87), a medieval historian who taught at Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California, Los Angeles, presented a lecture at the 1966 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (White 1967). In this eloquent address, White asserted that the exploitative relationship of humankind over nature that is endemic to all Western societies finds its genesis in the Judeo-Christian account of creation. White summarized this account with these words:

By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, and birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image. (White 1967, 37)

Such an account implies, in White’s view, that “Man and nature are two things, and man is master” (37). Such mastery is, moreover, not benevolent, but tyrannical, leading White, a self-confessed churchman himself, to the inescapable conclusion that “Christianity... the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen... not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (38).

Although White clearly has in view both of the creation accounts in Genesis, the text that figures centrally in White’s critique is, of course, Genesis 1:26–28:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
  So God created humankind in his image,
  in the image of God he created them;
  male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26–28 NRSV)

White’s claim that this divine command perpetuates an attitude of violence toward the earth does find some measure of philological support. The Hebrew verb radah means “to rule, govern, have dominion” and is used to denote conquering an enemy by force (Isa 41:2). Likewise, the Hebrew verb kavash means “to make subservient, subjugate.” It too frequently has violent overtones and can be used to denote violent rape (as in Esther 7:8). At first glance, it does seem that humans are commanded, or at least given license, to subdue violently the natural environment and use it for our own ends.

Since both Christianity and Judaism share this account of creation, one might suppose that White would level the same withering accusation at Judaism. He does not. Although he never explicitly explains this silence, the reason is there, if one reads between the lines. To do so we must make a brief excursus into the history of the early church. White observes that ancient Western intellectuals, Greeks and Romans for example, possessed a cyclical notion of time. Christians, by contrast, understood time in linear fashion. History begins with the creation of a personal, relational God and is heading toward consummation. Christianity of course inherited this concept from Judaism. Indeed, the first Christians were messianist Jews who believed that Yahweh would usher in the blessed age to come through his anointed vicegerent. Between the first and fourth centuries of the common era, these messianist Jews parted ways with their fellow Jewish co-religionists. After the First Jewish War, which resulted in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, messianism began to lose currency among non-Christian Jews. In the Second Jewish War (ending in 135 CE), the Jews were led in revolt against Rome by Simon Bar Kochba who was hailed by many as a messianic restorer of Judaism. After the revolt was put down, the Jews were banished from Jerusalem and with this tragedy henceforward any teleology associated with messianism would be dead on arrival for most Jews. While Judaism abandoned its apocalyptic eschatology and looked instead to the interpretation of Torah, Christianity turned its eyes toward the anticipated return of the Messiah. Why is this important?

Western culture has been dominated by what White refers to as “an implicit faith in perpetual progress” (37). This claim by itself needs little argument. One does not need to look far to see evidence that we are a people not only marked by expectations of progress but further by the indefatigable hope that we will always be a people of progress. Cell phone subscription is projected to soon reach 5 billion people world-wide (International Telecommunication Union, 2010). That will be more people than actually lived on the planet in 1986, according to the online almanac Infoplease. Although our faith in progress is not newsworthy, perhaps its genesis is. White insists that the Western dream of progress is “rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology” (White 1967, 37). Jews gave up such teleology round about the second century, so they are off the hook in White’s book. Christians, however, continue to look forward to the return of the Messiah, and for this reason, according to White, are still culpable.

Since White does not elaborate on precisely how Christian teleology inevitably leads to ecological disaster, one presumes that he is thinking of what has been referred to in the Christian tradition as the rapture. Put simply, the notion of the rapture is that when the Lord returns, he will gather up the faithful and whisk them off to heaven. Those left behind endure an increasingly miserable experience in a world that is becoming increasingly miserable. This is the premise of the wildly popular series, Left Behind, which now has a collector’s edition series, a children’s series, a military series, a nonfiction series, and an underground zealot series. This apocalyptic juggernaut has sold over 63 million copies and counting (www.leftbehind.com). The authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, did not come up with the idea out of whole cloth, of course. Nevertheless, their fans might be surprised to learn that the biblical evidence for the rapture is rather slender.

While much of the Left Behind series draws on the apocalyptic symbolism of Revelation, the rapture itself is clearly mentioned in the New Testament in only one place, Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonica. There he seeks to encourage recent converts who are distressed that members of the community have died before the return of the Messiah. They are not to worry, Paul ensures them, because those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise at the resurrection of the dead. Paul concludes with these well-known words:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:16–17)

Whether this passage means what it is frequently taken to mean—that Christians will be evacuated from the earth when Christ returns—is not an easy question. The idea of the rapture is often taken to imply that Christians should—or perhaps do—have little concern for the well-being of the planet, since their ultimate fate is divorced from that of the earth. Perhaps the most well-known of those accused of such an unfortunate position is James Watt, Secretary of the Interior from 1981–83 under the Reagan administration.1 Lynn White, at least, believes it is this teleology that inspires and enables the particular marriage of science and technology which has perhaps irreparably degraded the environment. Thus, White concludes, “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” (White 1967, 40). Here ends the first story.

 

The Christian Metanarrative:
Source of Hope for the Present Crisis

As we have already observed, the creation account in Genesis 1 can be read as giving humankind the license—if not the command—to exploit the natural environment for our personal use. Such a reading violates the very logic of Genesis 1:26–28. Although the verbs of command used in this passage frequently connote violence, the immediate context suggests that they should be interpreted otherwise here. The first creation account presents God as having created the earth in six days, culminating in a day of rest. God’s pleasure in what he has created is marked by the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.” A superlative (“it was very good”) conveys God’s satisfaction with the sum total of his creation. On the sixth day, God also creates humankind, which is distinguished from the rest of creation by its having been created in the image and likeness of God. But how should we understand what is meant by the imago Dei?

The underdetermined nature of the text has led to a plethora of interpretive possibilities, although the consensus among biblical scholars is that the passage should be read in light of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology (see: von Rad 1972, 59–60; Sarna 1989, 12; Middleton 2005, 121; Arnold 2009, 44–45) . Seen from this perspective, God’s creative activity in Genesis 1 may be seen as his building of a cosmic temple from which he reigns. This is analogous to the building of temples and other monumental structures, which was commonly understood to be a function of ruling in the ancient Near East (Ahlström 2000, 2.5: 591–92). The imago Dei would thus denote the ruling function of humankind over creation. This interpretation dates back to the early church fathers; for example it is found in Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Creation of Man (in Schaff and Wace 1978–80, 390–91). When God delegates dominion over creation to humankind, it is clear that human rule should imitate divine rule. As God has created for himself a cosmic temple (the earth and the cosmos), so human beings must preserve that temple.

The assertion that the imago Dei entails license to exploit Creation reminds me of a story my father once told me. Shortly after the close of World War II, my grandfather set out to repair the greenhouse in his garden, the windows of which had been shattered during the German bombing raids on Southampton. My father, a young boy at the time, had been helping him. After many long hours of painstaking labor and considerable expense, my grandfather stood back to admire his work. My father turned to him and asked, “What should I do with this bucket?” My grandfather responded with words he would soon regret, “Oh, Paul, why don’t you throw it through the window?” With what I can only imagine was great chagrin, he watched as his young son gleefully complied. The story is charming—or at least became so after the fact—because we recognize the incongruity of a skilled craftsman accidentally giving permission to his son to destroy what he had lovingly made. To believe that God intentionally commanded humankind to abuse what he had lovingly created (remember the refrain, “and God saw that it was good”) is puzzling to say the least. The improbability of such a reading only mounts when we try to reconcile such destructive behavior with the fact that humankind is created in God’s image.

If the creation account in Genesis portrays God as a king who builds a cosmic temple from which he rules, then humankind stands in relation to the created order as the ancient Near Eastern monarch stood in relation to his subjects (Middleton 2005, 81–88). While every age has known its fair share of tyrants, the kingly ideal in the ancient world envisioned benevolent solicitude. Xenophon, for example, in characterizing the Persian king Cyrus as a benefactor, called him a “shepherd” and a “father to his people” (Cyropaedia 8.1.2; 8.2.9). Creation, then, is a divine gift which does not belong to us, but which we hold in trust for its Creator. To reflect God’s image we must steward, or care for this gift in a way that imitates God’s own care for creation.

Seeing the human vocation as one of stewardship rather than exploitation is doubtless more likely to lead to a harmonious relationship with the environment. Nevertheless, as hinted earlier, the concept of stewardship as a model for relating to the environment is still problematic. A steward, although she does not own the item held in trust, is still given full responsibility for its care. To see ourselves as stewards of God’s creation implies that we know best what the creation needs to flourish. This is simply not the case. Even when we are acting from the most altruistic motives, our well-meaning efforts to preserve the environment can result in unintended and damaging consequences for other parts of the ecosystem. Moreover, as stewards we run the risk of hubris, of thinking that preserving means improving. This of course raises the question: improving for whose benefit? The temptation as a steward is to see our role as that of gardener; a manicured garden is a lovely thing, but it is not the same as a wild forest.

If the creation account in Genesis suggests that we properly fulfill our human vocation through stewardship of creation, then the rest of Scripture is at pains to qualify what this vocation entails. We are not to see ourselves in a vertical and hierarchical relationship, between God and the non-human creation. Rather, we are part of the community of creation (Bauckham 2010, 10–11, 64–102). Implicit in White’s telling of the story is the understanding that humankind is fundamentally different than the rest of creation. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that “Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature” (White 1967, 38, emphasis added). One easily sees the potential for such a reading, given that the text explicitly indicates that humankind alone is made in God’s image. Yet note that it is not the creation of humankind but rather the sum total of all creation that earns God’s final praise: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:30). In fact, if one wishes to speak of a pinnacle of God’s creation, it would rather be the seventh day, which God makes holy because on it he rested from creation. The seventh day occupies a much more central place in Israel’s theology, becoming the warrant for the fourth commandment, the observance of the Sabbath, a cornerstone of Israel’s religious self-identity.

Part of the problem with White’s re-telling of the story is that he does not seem much interested in reading the Bible beyond Gen 1:28. Other parts of the Scriptures present a nuanced portrayal of humankind’s place within creation. Consider, for example, the book of Job. The life of Job is like the quintessential country-music record: a thoroughly righteous man loses his sheep, his cattle, his camels, his servants, his children, and his health; his wife and friends turn against him. If Job had a dog, I suspect it would have left him as well. The story aims to deconstruct a type of theology that reflexively believes the righteous person is owed a good life from God. The final scene is a cosmic showdown between Job and his Creator. Yahweh demands that Job give him a satisfactory account of the origins of the cosmos:

Where were you when I laid
 the foundation of the earth? 
 Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
 surely you know!
 Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
 or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
 and all the heavenly beings shouted
 for joy? (Job 38:4–7)

For thirty-one more verses, God continues to quiz Job relentlessly on questions pertaining to meteorology, astronomy, solar radiation, oceanography, geography, and the rotation of the earth. As Richard Bauckham points out, the effect of this torrent of questions is to fill Job with “cosmic humility.” Job perceives that there is a marvelous order to the cosmos, which moreover functions quite independently of him. We readers learn that the cosmos is not as anthropocentric as we had imagined (Bauckham 2010, 44–45. My discussion of Job is indebted to Bauckham’s insightful reading of this text).

God is not finished yet. While Job listens in muted awe, Yahweh moves from the order of the cosmos to the order of Job’s fellow creatures. He demands,

Who has let the wild ass go free?
 Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to which I have given the steppe for its home,
 the salt land for its dwelling place?
It scorns the tumult of the city;
 it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
It ranges the mountains as its pasture,
 and it searches after every green thing.
(Job 39:5–8)

 

Like the other animals mentioned here—the lion, raven, ibex, deer, buffalo, sand grouse, hawk and vulture—the wild ass exists independently of humans. God provides for these creatures. The war horse is the only animal that humans have anything to do with, and from its fierce description, Yahweh makes clear to Job that humans do not control this creature any more than they do the wild ass. The point seems to be that Job is merely a creature among others. It is also clear from the descriptions of these animals that God delights in his creation. Thus God informs Job that the fledgling ravens cry to God (38:41), the wings of the sand grouse rejoice (39:12), and the war horse laughs at fear (39:22). This mild anthropomorphism is intended to evoke the pride of a craftsman in what he has made (Bauckham 2010, 50–54).

Although God is not yet finished with Job, we must move on. While we have barely scratched the surface of the Old Testament’s vision of humankind in its relation to the non-human creation, this consideration of Genesis and Job has been sufficient to show that the human vocation should be not one of exploitation but rather humble stewardship, a task carried out in the knowledge that we do not stand above creation but rather in community with it. As we now turn to the New Testament for the second half of the story, we see a movement from creation to new creation.

 

Christian Hope as the Restoration of Creation

To answer the question of whether Christian eschatology—our hope for the ultimate consummation of history—fosters an attitude of neglect toward the natural environment, we must grapple with the Apostle Paul. One might also insist that we deal with the Revelation to John. Although we do not have space to do both, it is worth mentioning in passing that when we read Revelation, we must take care to seek to understand it within the context of first-century Jewish apocalyptic eschatology. When we do so, we will discover that a good number of contemporary texts use similarly vivid, symbolic imagery to speak of the eschaton. The symbolism is quite graphic and often envisions violent destruction. Such imagery was used to evoke both a cognitive and behavioral response in its audience; it was not intended to forecast specific events in a detailed, literal way. Reading Revelation in this manner will caution us from prematurely concluding that the biblical metanarrative ends in a manner incongruous with its beginning with the violent destruction of earth. The ending is indeed in harmony with the beginning, as is signaled in the ultimate vision of the New Jerusalem by the evocation of the tree of life from the Garden of Eden. The leaves of this tree of life, which occupies a central place in the city, are “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

But even if my reading of Revelation is correct, we still have the problem of Paul’s eschatological vision. If the authors of the Left Behind series have understood Paul correctly, the ultimate fate of the earth should not be the primary concern of Christians, since in the end we will be evacuated from the earth to enjoy fellowship with God in heaven. As noted earlier, the textual evidence for the so-called rapture is slender, and it is far from certain that it has been interpreted in the way Paul intended. The Thessalonian believers were concerned that those who had died would miss out on the parousia—the presence of Christ, referring properly to the return of Christ’s presence—and hence on the blessed age to come. Paul assures them that, on the contrary, those who have died will be at the head of the line to meet the Lord. Then he describes what that day will be like: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17). The details of the passage require some comment.

To begin with, most first-century Christians did not believe that the Lord physically resided somewhere in the stratosphere, or perhaps a bit higher in the troposphere. The “heavens” were both the word for sky and also for the transcendent domain of God. Witness how Matthew frequently substitutes “kingdom of heaven” for “kingdom of God”: both expressions denote the extent of God’s effective reign. Neither speak of a cloudy realm populated by harpists. Jesus of course ascended upward into a cloud according to Luke (Acts 1:9), but here again, one must consider his options. If one is going to depart for the transcendent domain of God, going “down” would send precisely the wrong message to the disciples. Similarly, had Jesus swiftly vanished to the north, south, east, or west, the disciples most likely would have sent search parties into the desert for him. Clearly, “up” was the only way to go.

Paul therefore believes that when the Lord returns, we will meet him in the clouds, not that we will remain with him in the clouds. We will ascend to the clouds for a meeting with the Lord (in Greek, eis apantēsin tou kuriou). This word apantēsis was often used to describe the way in which a Hellenistic king or dignitary was greeted when coming to visit a city. The elders would travel some distance away from the city to await the king’s arrival. They then would escort him back to the city in a regal manner. The point of such a meeting was always to return with the king. Thus Polybius in The Histories describes the entrance of Apelles into the city of Corinth (5.26.8–9). One remembers that Paul believes these words will encourage the believers in Thessalonica, and the accent of this encouragement seems to lie on the fact that we will be with the Lord forever, not that we will remain in the clouds forever.

But if Paul’s eschatology does not involve the evacuation of the faithful from planet earth, where does that leave us? A Christian teleology that concludes with the rapture understands the basic human plight to be alienation from God as a result of sin. The solution therefore is for God to effect reconciliation with humankind through Christ’s death. Since this is essentially an individual transaction, it is a fitting—or at least workable—solution to evacuate all those now reconciled to God to heaven. The fate of their temporary home is of no consequence. There are indications, however, that Paul does not view human alienation from God as the sole characteristic of what has gone wrong in the world. For Paul, human sin affects not just ourselves, but has marred all creation. It follows that he does not regard the solution to be simply reconciliation between God and humankind. Thus, at a climactic point in his letter to the church in Rome, he writes:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:18–23)

The problem here is not just human in scope. Rather, all creation is in bondage to decay, having been subjected to futility presumably as the result of human sin. This unfinished narrative looks forward in hope for the redemption of all creation. This future consummation is focused on the revealing of God’s adopted new family (which Paul understands to be his fellow Christians), but extends to all creation (see further Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate 2010, 63–85).

This same theme, the reconciliation of all creation, figures heavily in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Here Paul (or perhaps a later disciple) writes concerning Christ:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15–20)

As the last sentence indicates, Paul is telling the story of all things and doing it in such a way as to put Christ at the center of it. We may be tempted to assume that “all things” is simply shorthand for “all humankind,” but notice how such an interpretive move is at odds with the movement of the entire hymn. Through Christ all things were created, are sustained, and will be reconciled. No doubt humans figure importantly in this scheme, but Paul’s point seems to be to show his readers that they are involved in a rescue operation that is far greater than themselves (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate 2010, 87–115).

Indeed, the redemption God has in mind is cosmic in scope. Paul (or again, perhaps a later disciple), writing to the churches in Asia Minor, characterizes the redemption of believers as part of a mystery, once hidden but now revealed in Christ:

With all wisdom and insight he has made
known to us the mystery of his will,
according to his good pleasure that he
set forth in Christ, as a plan for the
fullness of time, to gather up all things in
him, things in heaven and things on
earth. (Eph 1:8–10)

The verb here translated as “to gather up” (anakephalaiōsasthai) was used by ancient Greeks to refer to the summing up of an argument. In the argument of Ephesians it is a far-reaching metaphor that connotes the restoration of a fractured cosmos through the reign of God’s anointed king, the Christ. This restoration certainly has implications for human communities—the reconciliation of Jews and gentiles within the church most prominently—but again its scope is wider than simply human concerns.

Space does not allow me to argue my claim properly, to show that the restoration of creation, and indeed the cosmos, is a fitting description of Pauline eschatology. Here little more can be done than point to the passages where this thrust of Paul’s thinking surfaces most clearly. To the extent that this reading of Paul is satisfying, it shows him to be one of the earliest constructors of a Christian metanarrative of Scripture. If I may take the liberty of speaking for Paul, he might succinctly tell this story in this fashion:

In the beginning, God lovingly created the heavens and the earth, filling them with all manner of plants and animals. To humankind God gave the unique task of stewarding this wondrous creation. Although in this vocation of sharing in God’s rule and creation, humankind is distinct from plants and other animals, God nevertheless created us as part of the community of creation. Sadly, we sought autonomy from God’s providential care, and the entirety of the created order has suffered as a consequence. Because God so loved all the world, all that he had made, he established a covenant relationship with Israel to set things to rights. Since Israel was not faithful to the covenant, God sent his own son, the Messiah, to fulfill the covenant, to be faithful where Israel had failed. God has thus set in motion a plan to restore creation. Through faith in the Messiah we too are welcomed into this new creation.

Here ends the second story.

 

Implications for the Christian Life

By way of conclusion, I offer several thoughts on how such a metanarrative might affect how we live. First, and perhaps it goes without saying, we must do our utmost to care for the earth. There are numerous ways, big and small, one might do this, and most of us ought to be making a greater effort than we currently are making. Rather than spell out these ways or to induce feelings of guilt for our shortcomings, here is offered just one suggestion, admittedly an all-encompassing one, along with the two reasons that this suggestion is an appropriate response to a re-ordered Christian metanarrative. Within a capitalist economy, what is about to be suggested is tantamount to arch-heresy. Nevertheless, the suggestion is simply this: we must consume less.

My first reason for this suggestion is that a lifestyle of curbed consumption is necessary—although perhaps not sufficient—to create a more just and peaceful world. The present levels of consumption in the Western world are simply not sustainable—neither for humankind nor for the rest of the non-human Creation. Because this consumerist and consumptive lifestyle is unsustainable, it is bound at some point to fail. If it fails abruptly, we will not be around to lament its passing. But if it fails slowly, we can hope that something better will evolve to take its place (see further Berry 2002). There is a powerful myth in Western capitalist society that equates the implosion of the economy with the end of the world. As we see economies failing around the world, we perhaps are filled with dread, supposing the end is nigh. At such moments, we are apt to hear the siren call to consume more. If we can simply find a way to get the engine turning again, the ship will cruise to safety and the story will end happily. Precisely at such moments we need to remind ourselves that we are a people shaped by a different story. We live in the story of God’s creation as we eagerly await the revealing of the new creation.

This leads to the second and final reason: a lifestyle of curbed consumption will help us live in anticipation of this new creation. When we were children we earnestly asked our parents whether there would be pets or stuffed animals in heaven. As adults, do we secretly hope that we can take our iPads with us? The consumerist lifestyle has the potential to bend our souls toward a vision of ultimate fulfillment through ever-increasing consumption. Yet, as the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism declare, the chief end of humankind is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC.html). We do well, ­therefore, to ponder what enjoying God might be like and whether our daily lives are habituating us to that end.

 

 

Julien C. H. Smith is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Theology in Christ College, Valparaiso University. This essay is based on a lecture delivered to the Christ College Symposium at Valparaiso University on 6 October 2011.

 

Endnote

 

1. Watt has been widely quoted as having responded to a question asked during his Senate confirmation hearing regarding the need to preserve the environment for future generations with these words: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. . .” The implication appears to be that preserving the environment for the future ought to be a fairly low priority. In the interest of fairness, we should also note the words—far less frequently quoted to be sure—that completed his sentence: “whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations” (Watt 2005). I do not intend to defend Secretary Watt’s record on the environment; I’m not sure I would like to defend my own record, for that matter. I merely wish to point out that it is often assumed that biblically-inspired Christian teleology necessarily implies an attitude toward the environment of, at best, neglect, and at worst, exploitation.

 

Works Cited

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Berry, R. J., ed. The Care of Creation: Focusing Concern and Action. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2000.

Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Common-Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Norman Wirzba, ed. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002.

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Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Rev. ed. John H. Marks, ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972.

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Watt, James. “The Religious Left’s Lies.” Washington Post, 21 May 2005.

White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science, Vol. 155 (1967); reprint, Berry 2000, 31–42.

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