In the summer of 2018 I remember listening to a Radio 1 Newsbeat report on my drive home from SBC about climate change. It just so happened that earlier in the day I had been preparing notes for a class on creation. A question and a quote has haunted me ever since.

The quote comes from Jürgen Moltmann who writes ‘we should bow before the earth and beg for forgiveness for the injustice we have inflicted upon it, so that we may once more be accepted into community with it.’[1] His premise being that God’s ultimate goal is to reconcile all things to Himself (think Romans 8 / Colossians 1). If this premise is correct, then we must first be reconciled to the created earth, if we are to be reconciled to God. Do we imagine our reconciliation with God to be affected (maybe even absent) because of our relationship to the planet?

The question that haunted me was this: even if we respect creation, and even if we think it is being renewed, and even if we do what we can to save it, do we still rely upon God to rescue us if the planet goes to ruin despite our best efforts? I have come to term this the “Jesus Safety Net” syndrome – that Christ’s return is a Christian’s ultimate trump card when it comes to climate change. This “hope” takes the edge off the panic of imminent climate chaos, perhaps to the point of our lethargy towards it.

Migliore, drawing on White’s seminal essay, suggests that Christians have too often been part of the problem rather than the solution when it comes to climate conservation.[2] At the extreme, the new heaven / new earth paradigm orientates Christians towards the destruction of the created world in order to make way for the new creation. This intention destruction may be the extreme but apathy towards creation-care is certainly evident in some Christian theology. That the world is made by God for the benefit of humans is pervasive, yet such an anthropocentric perspective causes problems for environmental restraint.

What is the story of creation that has led us to different views of climate conservation? By story I mean the way we make meaning and understand our place within the grand narrative of creation. However, all stories are told from a perspective and no story is neutral.[3] It is important, therefore, to examine the creation story and the perspective we bring when we re-narrate it in our life and to others. So let me tell you the same story from two different perspectives.

In the beginning was God, and out of His great love, He created the world and all that is in it. He created the world and saw that it was good and loved it. He created humans and saw that they were very good and loved them also. He loved humans so much that he walked amongst them and talked with them. Adam saw this and concluded that humans must have a special place in all creation, the pinnacle of God’s creation. When God brought the animals before Adam to name, Adam saw this as being put in charge of them. Adam understood the animals were for his benefit and his use. Generations went by and humans populated the world, spreading out over all the earth with possession of the earth being passed from generation to generation. Each generation took more and more from the land and used more and more of the earth’s resources. When Jesus came to earth as a human, this assured humans of their special place in the created order. Jesus came with a message of a new heaven and a new earth – a reassuring message for a world bearing the strain of providing for humanity. And so now the world’s dwindling resources are taken by those who have the power to do so, and those who don’t increasingly suffer. But we look forward to the day that a new earth is made and once more resources will flourish abundantly (until humans exhaust that earth also).

I wonder if that story resonates. Some of it reflects the present reality and I suspect some of it reflects theological assumptions we sometimes make. But let me tell you the same story from another perspective.

 In the beginning was God, and out of His great love, He created the world and all that is in it. He created the world and saw that it was good and loved it. He created humans and saw that they were very good and loved them also. He loved humans so much that he walked amongst them and talked with them. Adam saw this and remembered His Creator. When God brought the animals before Adam, God made sure Adam knew each one of them by name. God commissioned Adam to take care of the animals and all of the created order. When Adam looked around and saw all of creation and how much there was to look after, he realised the task that faced him. So when God created Eve to help Adam, Adam was pleased to have someone to share equally the responsibility of caring for the world. However, as generations went by, humans increasingly forgot their Creator. Humans started to believe that the earth was theirs to master and control. Each generation took more and more from the land and used more and more of the earth’s resources. When Jesus came to earth, humans were reminded of their Creator, that they are created beings, and of their responsibility to creation. Jesus came with a message that the kingdom was near and prayed that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. And so Christians today are preparing the earth, making it ready for God’s kingdom to come. They look forward to the day when God’s presence will fill the earth.  

I wonder which parts of that story resonate? I wonder if you can see the first story is being told from an anthropocentric perspective – that is, from a human-centred point of view. The other is a contrast by being told from the perspective of God (as best as it can be discerned). The first puts humanity at the centre of the story where all of creation revolves around humans; the second puts God, the Creator, at the centre – in fact, at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story – all of creation is held together by God (again think Colossians 1).

If we take the second story then I think there are several consequences that flow from it. The first is to find our place within the creation narrative when we are not the centre of it. If we recognise God as Creator, we also recognise Him as creator of all (not just humans). If we forget this, we easily become disconnected from the rest of the created order. Instead we can easily see the earth as something above us to be worshipped (e.g. a kind of paganism) or something below us to be subjected to our whims (consumerist rationalism).[4] Instead of placing ourselves above or below the created order, we should see ourselves as interconnected with the rest of creation by virtue of being created by the same God.[5] In the same way the world provides and cares for human life, so too human life should care and provide for the rest of the created order.  There is mutuality and a reciprocal relationship of care and provision.

This interconnectedness also gives rise to a renewed responsibility for creation in Christ. As the earth was created by God and God dwelled there, so now, in Christ, we are reminded that the world can be home to God’s dwelling, to be fully established at Christ’s return. Our care for creation stems from recognising creation as God’s dwelling place. When Christ moved into the neighbourhood first time around it was into a draughty stable.[6]  When he returns do we want to welcome Him into a shabby, unkempt world or a well-kept, cared-for earth?[7]

Finally, I think we need a broader view of salvation. Feuerbach comments that ‘nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. “The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.”‘[8]  Recently, Volf and Croasmun have explored an answer to this type of accusation and it is no surprise that, in this area, Volf is a student of Moltmann. In their book, For the Life of the World, they write: ‘the flourishing life of human beings and of the entire creation is their existence as the “home of God” – the kind of existence that depends on creation coming to itself by becoming a dwelling place of God.’[9] They continue that Christianity should not be primarily about ‘the redeeming relation of God to the world’ suggesting it is too narrow to centre on human salvation without considering the wider remit of reconciliation and the dwelling of God on earth.  

The prompt to revisit this topic, unsurprisingly, came from the recent coverage of Greta Thunberg and the Climate Strike that captivated millions of people across the globe. I asked myself what it was that motivated those who joined this movement. Some will have been striking because of their respect for creation; some will have been striking because of their fear – “there is no Planet B” read one of the common placards. I also wondered what the response of churches would be.[10] I hope churches responds with enthusiasm to the movement and support for Greta, and I personally believe it can be a Kairos moment for the Church. I hope churches bring God’s perspective to the table, offering the hope of a reconciled world where God dwells. We should not be apathetic towards climate change because we think there’s something better coming. I’m not sure we can be so certain that there is an alternative, a Jesus safety net.[11] Instead we should work to renew the world ready for the already here but not yet full Kingdom to come. Though we cannot guarantee a planet B, we can be hopeful that creation has yet to reach its full potential.  

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using or through social media if that’s where you see it!

[1] Moltmann, God for a Secular Society, 116.

[2] Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 97.

[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 250.

[4] Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 Vol 38A. See his explanation on Romans 8:19-20.

[5] Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 99.

[6] Cf. John 1, The Message translation.

[7] I may be taking rhetorical liberties here, but I hope the point hits home.

[8] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 287. Also in Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 98.

[9] Volf and Croasmun, For the Life of the World, 64.

[10] I believe the world is asking critical questions of churches right now regarding climate change and so this piece of theological reflection is an attempt to provide some kind of starting point. Underneath this you may hear something akin to Tillich’s “method of correlation” where it ‘tries to correlate the questions implied in the situation with the answers implied in the message.’ Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 1, 8.

[11] With anything eschatological there is always going to be a degree of uncertainty so I hope you read this with the emphasis on “I’m not sure…”.