Thursday, January 19, 2012

Twenty-two reasons to love the earth

Why Christians take the extra-human creation seriously:

1. God declares all things good; he made them and blessed them. Even before the arrival of humanity, God declared his handiwork "good" and blessed it (Genesis 1).

2. God sustains and cares for all life, not just human life. Psalm 104 and Job 38-41 celebrate the created order in its bounty, complexity and divine providence outside of reference to human affairs. In Matthew 10.29 and Luke 12.6 Jesus teaches that not even a single sparrow escapes the caring notice of God. Why should we disparage or dismiss that which God cares for?

3. God's plan (intimated and initiated in the resurrection of Christ) is the renewal of all things through their liberation from bondage to decay. Why would redemption be of anything less than the scope of creation? We hope not for redemption from the world, but the redemption of the world.

4. "The earth is the LORD's and everything in it!" (Psalm 24.1). How we treat the creation is a reflection on what we think of the Creator. My parents built and own the house where I grew up; if I decided to ransack it to make a quick profit, that would reveal something deeply broken about my relationship with them.

5. Human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. We depend on natural ecosystems for every breath we take, every mouthful of food, every sip of clean water. The "environment" is not simply the background to our everyday activities, the earth is our home. Even if we thought our obligations ended with humans, we would have pressing reasons to care for life beyond humanity. This is basic prudence. (Proverbs 8.12)

6. Our livelihoods are a fraction of our current lifestyle. That is, we can easily thrive on far less than we presently consume, indicating that our culture generally accepts idolatry in the form of consumerism, where our purchases define our identity. We can easily repent of our idolatrous over-consumption without any threat to our livelihoods (though there may be some industries that need to shrink significantly or die altogether). Natural ecosystems are not a necessary victim of our flourishing; there is no ultimate competition between our well-being and that of the rest of the planet's living systems.

7. Human beings are not souls trapped in bodies, but embodied lives. Our future is resurrection like Christ's and any spirituality that ends up hating the body (and the natural world upon which it relies) is an expression of what Nietzsche correctly diagnoses as ressentiment. True spirituality is earthy. (Matthew 6.10)

8. We are members of the community of creation, not demi-gods without obligations towards our fellow creatures. Anthropocentric domination is a misreading of godly human authority as caring service. (Genesis 1-2)

9. We need the extra-human creation in order to fulfil our role (and they need us) in joining together in praise of the Creator (e.g. Pss 96; 148).

10. God has filled the world with beauty and only the hardhearted and blind ignore it.

11. God's saving purposes are not limited to humans. If God has not limited his gospel to one particular race, age, gender, culture or class, why would he limit it to one species? Jesus' death was for all creation (Colossians 1.15-20). In the archetypal salvation narrative of Genesis 6-9, Noah and his family are saved along with representatives of the rest of the community of creation.

12. Wisdom requires paying attention to the world beyond the human. Jesus enjoins us to consider the sparrows and lilies (Matthew 6.26, 28). Wise king Solomon spoke of trees (1 Kings 4.29-34) and Proverbs 12.10 points out that "The godly care for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel". Remember that the world's first animal welfare organisation, the RSPCA, was founded by William Wilberforce, the same man who helped lead the campaign to abolish modern slavery.

13. The journey of becoming a neighbour involves the ongoing expansion of our horizon of love. When we are gripped by God's love, we are freed from the echo-chamber of our own concerns into caring for our neighbour. But just who is our neighbour? The answer to that question can never be delimited in advance but must be discovered as we come across those in need. Are other creatures also (in some sense) our neighbours? In the end, I believe so. For instance, Deuteronomy 24-25 places concern for the needs of oxen amongst concern for poor labourers, the widowed, orphans and aliens. Compassion is not circumscribed by the human.

14. Our neglect is having dire consequences, but the freedom to repent is the first and most foundational freedom.
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!
15. The earth is our mother. Remember, anthropomorphism is distinct from deification and this particular one is ancient and scriptural (Genesis 1.24; Romans 8.22).

16. God has promised to "destroy the destroyers of the earth" (Revelation 11.18). Divine justice is not limited to our mistreatment of him and one another. God's transformative evaluation (otherwise known as his judgement) embraces all the deeds done in the body (2 Corinthians 5.10), not just those that directly relate to human interactions.

17. Failure to attend to the needs of the more than human creation causes real and serious harms to our human neighbours. Ecological injustice is a major cause of human suffering. (Romans 13.10)

18. Throughout the holy scriptures are examples of idolatry (the worship of creatures rather than the Creator) leading to negative ecological consequences. (e.g. Leviticus 18)

19. Mistreating other animals is a failure of compassion. Wisdom embraces more than human needs. (Proverbs 12.10)

20. Greed, hubris and fear are major motives behind the systems, cultures, actions and inactions that are degrading the Earth. (Luke 12.15)

21. There are demonic powers that destroy life, oppress people and seek to deceive us all that are operative in the desecration of God's good world. (Ephesians 6.12)

22. And finally, because God calls humanity into the care of this place. Stewardship is a much-abused concept, but within a broader theological vision of creation and humanity, it has its place. (Genesis 1-2; Ps 8)

Which of these do you find most compelling? Least plausible? What have I missed?


ben said...

Excellent post, Byron, and a very compelling list of motivations - Ben (Not One Sparrow)

John said...

Good work Byron.

I like point 4 alot, and I like the use of the principle of Proverbs 12:10 in your point 12.

Dislike 11 and 13 - long bows to draw in my opinion.

Don't know if you remember me from JRAHS - I was a friend of Adrian's and can remember the house in Thornleigh that I assume you are referring to. Adrian put me onto your blog when we caught up last year. I enjoy it very much.

John Warren

byron smith said...

Hi John,

I do remember you. You and Adrian and other ISCF leaders were very significant in my spiritual formation during Year 7 as you represented non-adults who were (in my then perspective) nonetheless mature and who took Christianity seriously. That fact, far more than any specific thing that was said and done, stood out for me and made me far more willing to be open about my acceptance of Christ (which had been under a question for a few years prior to that).

Yes, you are thinking of the right house!

I accept that number 11 (Christ redeemed all things) is somewhat speculative, though there are a few suggestive verses (such as Colossians 1.20) that point to a cosmic, not merely anthropological, meaning to the cross and resurrection. The repetition of "all things" in verse 20 picks up on the "all creation" and "all things" that are attributed to his creative power and in which he has pre-eminence.

As for number 13 (animals as neighbours), I have a friend here in Edinburgh who has recently completed a PhD with that as his topic. Although I haven't yet read the full manuscript, I find I'm open to some of his arguments without being willing to go to the stake for this particular point (and being very willing to admit that our moral relationships with animals are not any kind of direct parallel with humans ("You are worth more than many sparrows")). My point is really "Are animals included in our moral community? Do they fall within the scope of our moral obligations and opportunities? Does the freedom of Christian love extend beyond the human?" To all these, I would give a strong "yes".

Having said that, I certainly don't find that all 15 of these reasons carry equal weight for me. I have arranged them more or less in the order of decreasing significance in my thinking.

byron smith said...

Speaking of friends doing PhDs, I've just thought of number 16, which I'll now add.

byron smith said...

#16 arises from a PhD done by another JRAHS alumni you might remember from a few years after you (and before me): Mark Stephens, who recently completed an ancient history doctorate at Macquarie focussing on that verse.

byron smith said...

HuffPo: What is St Paul's beef with oxen in 1 Corinthians 9.9-10? An interesting reading of a passage that may prove troubling for any attempt to read animals as neighbours (or even included in the sphere of our moral concern). I think that the issue may be with one tradition of translation that sees the pantws of verse 10 as exclusive rather than extensive.

John said...

Thanks Byron. You flatter me by describing me as mature when I was in high school! Mark Stephens I indeed remember because he went to my church (St Paul's Anglican, Castle Hill) in the mid 90's. Haven't seen Mark in many years though.


John Warren

byron smith said...

Regarding animals, the 2009 report from the UK Methodist Church called "Hope in God's future: discipleship in the context of climate change" had this to say in §2.5:

"Attending to biblical depictions of human obedience to God’s will also directs our attention to non-human creation. The creatures of each day of the first Genesis creation narrative are declared good (Gen. 1) and the whole of creation in all its diversity is declared ‘very good’ at the end of the sixth day (Gen. 1.31). After the great flood, God makes a covenant not only with Noah and his family but with every living creature that came out of the ark (Gen. 9.9–10). The law of Israel protects not only human beings, but the animals they keep, who must not be made to work on the Sabbath (Exod. 20.10) or muzzled while they are treading grain (Deut. 25.4). The Sabbath year is to rest the land and benefit both livestock and wild animals alongside the Israelites and their hired workers (Lev. 25.5–7). When Job questions God’s treatment of him he is reminded of the majesty of God’s careful provision for every creature, and of God’s creation even of creatures like Behemoth and Leviathan who are threatening to humanity (Job 38–41). This attention to creation beyond the human is echoed in the New Testament: where Jesus reminds his disciples of God’s concern for birds and lilies (Mt. 6.25–34); the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians emphasize the union of all things in Christ (Col. 1.15–20; Eph. 1.9–10) and the letter to the Romans pictures the whole of creation awaiting its share in the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8.18–23). This biblical vision of solidarity among God’s creatures accords with modern scientific discoveries relating to both the genetic affinity between human and other animals and the radical interdependence of all life on earth."

byron smith said...

Towards a Christian approach to the environment. A long blog post laying out a summarised account of ecological responsibility from an evangelical perspective. I haven't yet had a chance to look at it closely, but on a quick skim it looked good.