Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Ecological responsibility and Christian discipleship II: The Community of Creation

Part two of a three part series blogging a sermon preached at St Paul's and St George's 9 am service on 30th January 2011.

I. Human planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
II. The Community of Creation: Genesis 1.
III. Recycle or repent? Our response.

The Community of Creation: Genesis 1
The opening chapters of Genesis are a rich poetic myth, not a literal quasi-scientific chronology. I’m simply going to assume this today,* since our focus is on the theological meaning of this passage for our discipleship. Let us notice the highly structured symbolic nature of the text and explore what it means for us in a world that is changing so rapidly and profoundly under human influence.

First, the earth and all its life find their origin in God. We are talking not simply of "nature" but of creation, a much stronger and richer term implying the personal handiwork of the Creator. God is the main actor in this narrative. He speaks and things happen. "Let there be light. And it was so." The image of majestic ordering through the divine word stands in contrast to almost all other ancient creation myths, which are usually dominated by violence and conflict. There is no competitor to God, no original hostility or tension. Creation is not fundamentally opposed to or insignificant for God's interests and purposes. It is fundamental to them.

Second, there is both great diversity and internal order to the creation. Notice that on the first three days God separates out various domains and then on the subsequent three days God fills each of these domains with their appropriate residents. Living things are ordered into their various kinds in all their stunning variety. And these elements of creation are related to one another. God doesn't simply plonk things down, but by the fifth and sixth days, he is calling upon the waters and the land to bring forth life appropriate to those locations. Although Genesis does not offer a full-blown theory of ecology and biodiversity, it gently encourages us to notice diversity and interdependence in the created order. The natural sciences are not doing something odd or artificial, but have a noble task in paying attention to the details and structure of this ordered diversity.

Third, God takes pleasure in this order and diversity. Another refrain throughout the text is that God saw that it was good. We are not simply to notice the diversity and interdependence in which we find ourselves, the passage invites us to join in God's appreciation for it. This is particularly important for us urbanites, I suspect. So much of how we structure our lives separates us from the rhythms, the mysteries and the delights of the non-human world. How do you ensure that your life remains connected to the fundamental goodness of life and the richness of our situation? How do we keep wonder, awe and a sense of enchantment alive?

Notice God calls the world good even before there are humans in the narrative. Creation is not dependent upon us for its goodness, but God cherishes it for itself. It is precious prior to and outside of any consideration of human benefit or usage. Something I have been re-learning from my daughter is that a pig is not simply so much as-yet-unbutchered ham, pork and bacon; a pig is a joy and can inspire laughter and squeals of glee simply for its piggyness.

Despite what is coming in Genesis 3 and all that follows, the foundational goodness of God's creation is never erased or entirely suppressed. Sin doesn't obliterate creation; it disorders things that remains themselves good.

We've noted three basic points: That God is the origin of all that is, hence we speak of creation, not merely nature. That creation is both structured and varied, so we speak of a created order. And that the created order is fundamentally and irrepressibly good.

So what then of us humans?

Three more basic points:** we are not the climax of this story; we belong first and foremost with the other creatures as members of the community of creation; and we are called to a special and often misunderstood role.

First, despite what is often claimed, we are not the climax of the creation narrative, that honour belongs to the Sabbath, the seventh day on which God rested from all his work, the day in which things are simply to be themselves before God (Genesis 2.1-3). Much more can be said about this image, but for the moment, let's just notice that we're not the centre of the universe, we're not the final point of the show.

Second, we are members of the community of creation. In the parallel creation account in Genesis 2, this is vividly depicted through the man (ha'adam) being fashioned out of the ground (ha'adamah). Adam is not so much a name as a pun, a play on words to remind us that humanity comes from humus, from the soil. We are made from dirt and we belong to the earth. In Genesis 1, we see that humanity doesn't get a day to ourselves, but we share the stage with the other land creatures. We are blessed by God and told to be fruitful and multiply. But then so are all the other creatures. The blessing of fruitfulness is not something we are to pursue at the expense of other creatures; we flourish or wither together. If our filling the earth pushes out other species, leaves no room for the fish and the birds and the plants and the other animals to also flourish, then we're doing it wrong. God directs the humans to their sources of food in verse 29, but then in verse 30 he reminds the humans that other creatures also need food. We are not fundamentally to be in competition with other species. We stand or fall together as a community.

And third, as a member of the community of creation, humanity is given a special task: to be the image of God, to be a visual representation, a constant reminder of the divine presence and pleasure in creation. This task is not a privilege we are to exploit, as though we were the only species that matters, but it is a weighty responsibly we are to shoulder. We are to treat the created order as God treats it, to care for it, to nurture it, to bless it and guard it, to coax it into greater fruitfulness so that the earth continues to bring forth living creatures of every kind. The uncaring exploitation of "natural resources" to feed the mouth of industrial economies to ensure ever upward and onward growth of national or global GDP is a cruel perversion of this task. May we seek God's forgiveness for ever assuming that the pursuit of economic growth is what is meant by being made in the image of God.

Instead, we see what it means to be made in the image of God by observing Jesus, whom the New Testament says isn't just in the image of God but is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15). This is what human dominion is meant to look like, not lording it over the rest of creation, but being the servant of all (Philippians 2.5-11).
*Ironically, my previous sermon to this congregation was also on Genesis 1 and was titled "Genesis or Evolution?" . This was not a title I chose and my point was to question the implied exclusivity of the "or" in it.

**Do you like how I sneakily took the usual three point sermon and doubled it? Once we get to part three, you'll see that I actually tripled it. Of course.


Anthony Douglas said...

Good stuff Byron. Not sure I agree with you about us not being the pinnacle of creation though...largely because I think we understand the term differently.

I'd suggest that creation refers to the work (2:2) that God had completed (2:1). 2:3 suggests an explicit division - he rests from creating.

What I do like about your idea, though, is that it highlights that creation (my version) is not self-containedly (interesting new word there) an end in itself. It is ordered towards rest/harmony/enjoyment. However the semantics go, this corrects false understandings of our position.

byron smith said...

I agree that perhaps I was being a little sloppy with my language.

To avoid terminological confusion, I've switched from "We're not the climax of creation" to "We're not the climax of the creation narrative".

Anthony Douglas said...

Well, that works for me. Or I can rest easy with it, perhaps - that might be better in context!

Still a great point to make, though. Thanks.

Dave Barrie said...

Hi Byron, thanks for posting this message, it's very helpful to have a list of ways that we are changing creation.

I'd also be interested in reading or listening to your sermon on Evolution and Genesis. I had a look on the church website but couldn't find it. Any chance you could email it to me or post a link?