I’ve heard N.T. Wright say (I think quoting someone else anyway) that probably 30% of his theology is wrong, he just doesn’t know which 30%! That number may vary depending on training and other factors, but certainly for all of us, some amount of our theology is wrong and we just don’t know which part.
The same holds true for me and I think that I’ve made progress in one area this summer. A contradiction used to exist in my thinking on the issue of stewardship of the environment.
On the one hand I believed that we should respect the earth. I knew that God had created this earth and even though it was corrupted by us, it was still something to not spit upon. After all, it was God’s and his commands in Scripture are to be good stewards, not corrupt it.
On the other hand I didn’t want to overreact to environmental causes that often idolize nature and put their cause above that of humans. But I also didn’t have it right. In the back of my mind I felt okay with being neutral with respect to the environment and nature. I didn’t have to go out of my way to pick up a piece of trash or minimize my use of paper towels and all the rest. I didn’t see any need to cut back on my water bottle consumption by obtaining a reusable drink container. These are some of my ‘environmental sins,’ as I’ll call them.
But these things ran contradictory to each other and I think that deep down I knew it but didn’t want to admit it.
My eyes started to become open to this contradiction when I first started reading N.T. Wright a couple of months ago. He helped give me a greater appreciation of ‘creation theology’ and I started to think more deeply about God’s initial creation and his good purposes for it. The Fall occurs, yes. But by only thinking of the Bible’s story in terms of saved and lost (with respect to people) I was forgetting the larger storyline in which the saved/lost categories only make sense.
But my understanding and revelation fully hit home while sitting in an Old Testament theology class a couple weeks ago. We were talking through ‘creation theology’ from Genesis 1 and 2 primarily. God’s good purposes for the creation were hashed out and I really started to think about how we are to be image bearers of God. In the Ancient Near East, an image was a functional one. So, for example, in the Scriptures you will find Ba’al represented by a calf. That’s not because he looks like one or has some similar attributes but because the function of the calf represents what the Ba’al worshipers thought of Ba’al. He was an important provider in fertility and nutrition. They were wrong, but that’s besides the point.
So, us being made in the image of God means that we reflect his glory by acting as he does: filling the earth and having dominion over it as stewards. This separates us from all other creatures. It is not genes (we share an incredibly high percentage with apes! not to mention other species) and it is not language (ours may be considered advanced but it is not unique). Our function as human beings, made male and female, is to be image bearers of God. This ideal function didn’t change at the Fall. It got corrupted and so we seek to be restored. We are restored to fellowship with God and to be image bearers of him through Jesus’ death on the cross. I think this storyline needs to be kept in mind or else our evangelism and efforts in the world turn into the way I was approaching them: there are lost people that need saving from hell out there and that’s that. But that’s not that. It is part of a bigger creation/re-creation narrative.
Dare I now step on some toes (lightly though for today) and say that North American evangelicalism has bred this sort of thinking? That’s where I learned it. I learned that humans are sinful, we need a saviour for our sins, Jesus paid for our sins, we go to heaven. Not every ‘gospel presentation’ is so simple or so naive, but this captures something of it.
I think there are at least two big failures to highlight here: (1) failure to connect salvation to the larger storyline of the Bible, and (2) a wrong view of eschatology.
1) I hit on this one above and I don’t need to say too much more right now. But only thinking in the categories of saved/lost doesn’t appear to me to be as helpful as I once thought it to be. It meant that my motivations were slightly off and in the case of my environmental sins, as I’ve called them, it meant I had no way to properly understand how they went against God’s plan for us in the world. That made them easy to commit.
2) Eschatology, eschatology, eschatology. What has had the most influence on North American eschatology (the study of last things) in recent years? I would like to say the Bible but I think the “Left Behind” movie/book series has captured Americans’s imaginations more than the Bible. The “Left Behind” eschatology is essentially one of Christians being removed from the earth (often called the rapture) while tribulation occurs and chaos ensues, God destroys the earth and then we live forever with Jesus in heaven. It’s not the time to completely deal with the issue of the rapture (I don’t think it happens – I think many have misunderstood Paul in 1 Thessalonians) but this idea of removal and destruction, at least in my case, led me to think, “I doesn’t matter too much what I do with respect to the earth since God is going to destroy it soon anyway.” We may not all be that crass about it but I see it out there.
Rather, the earth in Scripture is groaning to be put back aright and God will one day remake the earth when he brings heaven and earth together. Creation theology helps us see that God is on a trajectory with his work. We messed it up but God is going to restore his beautiful work. The earth is heading toward that restoration. Therefore our work to act as image bearers of God now in the earth is honouring to God as we seek to fulfil, thanks to the death of our Lord Jesus, what we were first created for: bringing glory to God by bearing his image.
The last thing to say here is that I don’t want to limit the creation theology to how we deal with nature. The point of creation theology is to see that there is a hierarchy with people above nature but one of dominion and stewardship, not domination and destruction. It also means that social justice should be of grave concern to us as well. And all of this because the gospel restores broken humanity into relationship with God and the world.
Yes to evangelism for the sake of restoring the broken relationship with God. That’s huge. But yes also to social justice and environmental care.
So, I’m starting small. I’m looking for opportunities to use less paper towel, to run my car less constantly, to use reusable drinking containers rather than buying bottled water.
So, what do you think? Are we Western Christians doing a very good job with respect to the environment? Does it matter?