Monday, June 20, 2011

A Biblically Balanced Theology of Creation & Environmental Concern

We read this morning the breathtaking 8th Psalm. It is the Psalter’s version of the creation story. The poet is sitting under the nighttime stars. In the middle-eastern culture of that long-ago era, with no artificial lights to diminish the view of the darken sky, the view must have been spectacular: more stars than the mind can count, the Milky Way striped across the darkened dome, asteroids making fiery dashes from every direction. And so the poet begins to ponder what countless others have pondered ever before and ever since:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars
you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?

It is a question I have asked while encountering the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation and I suspect it is one you have considered as well. “Given all that is before me, just who am I and how do I fit into the grand scheme of things?”

For the poet of Psalm 8, the answer is rooted in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. There we read about God’s six-day work of creation. The story is not intended to be taken as a literal scientific textbook, but rather is pregnant with meaning; conveying to us God’s intimate involvement with the creative process and God’s pleasure deeply imbued in every aspect of it. And here is the meaning that speaks powerfully to the poet (Genesis 1:28ff):

“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.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’”

The psalmist picks up this sense of ordering or hierarchy and to the question “Who am I” makes this assertion:

You have made us but little lower than the angels;
you adorn us with glory and honor;

You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:

All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

Who are we? We are the ones who have dominion and mastery over all of creation. We are commanded to subdue it and make it yield to our purposes. It is God’s first command to the human family and we have taken it and hit the ground running, haven’t we.

Much good has come from our hierarchical understanding of ourselves above creation. We have been given authority to cure disease, harness the power of the elements, plant fields, and create livestock. Some other religious perspectives place humanity on an equal footing with creation while a few place us even lower than creation and the results are a social disaster where human beings experience unimaginable and preventable suffering. Our Judeo-Christian heritage has given us a theological perspective that holds human misery (1) is not God’s will and (2) we have been empowered by God to do something about it.

This is the positive side of our theology, but there is a shadow to it. We now can level entire mountain ranges in order to extract coal. Human activity has contributed to an alarming rate of species extinction. In our own community the waters of the upper Nansemond River are unfit not only to support aquatic life, but also for human recreation.

As far back as 1967, people began to link environmental destruction to Christian theology. In her book, “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, Lynn White stated that Christianity carries a “huge burden of guilt” for perpetuating a theology of God removed from creation and exalting humans above the rest of creation - leading to the belief and practice that everything exists primarily to serve our needs. It is a serious charge that is not without merit.

I find that even those with a nominal understanding of the bible possess an awareness that God has put us in charge and that creation is here to meet our needs. If all scripture said on the subject was contained in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 then this might be an accurate perception. But a fuller understanding of what the bible says fills out the picture in ways that are challenging to this old notion and helpful in our present time.

Last Sunday we read a portion of Psalm 104. At thirty-seven verses, it is nearly four times longer than Psalm 8 and though it starts in roughly the same place – pondering the nighttime sky – it moves in a very different direction. The first ten verses describe God’s active role in creation, but take it one step further by placing God’s creating work within the forces of nature:

You make the winds your messengers *
and flames of fire your servants.

If wind and fire are tools that God uses, what implications does this hold for the human race who has been given dominion and mastery? It says at least that our subduing is subservient to God’s higher purposes.

The psalm goes on:

[The waters] went up into the hills
and down to the valleys beneath, *
to the places you had appointed for them.

Why does this poet believe that God is so intimately involved in the location of water? The answer begins in verse 11:

All the beasts of the field drink their fill from them, *
and the wild asses quench their thirst.

Beside them the birds of the air make their nests *
and sing among the branches.

Just as with Genesis 1, Psalm 104 should not be taken as a textbook on ecosystems, but what it does give us is a theology of God’s intentionality. God has created the world in such a way that it is set to meet the needs of all God’s creatures. The poet specifically mentions plants, flocks and herds, foods, wine, oil, bread, trees, birds, storks, mountain goats, rock badgers, lions, and animals of prey. The poets has a sense of the delicate balance of things, observing how some animals come out at night to hunt and then slip away to their dens at the first hint of dawn.

Only after the sun has come up and the wild beasts have sought shelter - in the twenty-fourth verse of the psalm - does the poet begin to consider the human race:

Man goes forth to his work *
and to his labor until the evening.

What does it tell you that the poet sets humanity not above but within the rhythm of life? For the author, it means that we are one of God’s many creatures who inhabit the earth together in a manner fashioned by God’s wisdom.

The psalm goes on to describe the seas as a place both filled with “living things too many to number” as well as a place where ships navigate and ply their trade. “All of them” look to God to give them their food, says the psalmist, and the ‘all’ includes us.

You give it [food] to them [including us humans]; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.

You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath and they die and return to their dust.

You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the LORD endure for ever; *
may the LORD rejoice in all his works.

All in all, it is an elegant poem conveying (to use our word) an ecologically sensitive theological perspective. It is an under-taught and underappreciated part of our Christian heritage and we live in an era that begs for its recovery.

I believe Jesus fashioned his theology from the roots of both Psalm 8 and Psalm 104. Do you remember when he taught his disciples not to worry? “Consider the sparrows,” he said. “They are bought and sold for pennies, but God cares enough about them to feed them” – Psalm 104. And then he asks, “Are you not of more value then they?” – Psalm 8. “Well then, trust in God to feed you too” - again, Psalm 104.

We Christians, who some say bear a huge burden of guilt for the ecological crisis – have a theology that can and should put us at the forefront of caring for God’s creation. Psalms 8 and 104 affirm the following:

• God is intimately involved in all aspects of creation.

• God’s majesty is conveyed through the manifold nature of God’s creatures.

• God has created certain rhythms, cycles and patterns to sustain all of God’s creation.

• We human beings can and should use our mastery over creation to meet our needs, but our ability to do this must not come at the expense of creation.

• In this day and age our mastery should be focused on managing all of God’s creation in a way that allows it to flourish.

You and I can live into this through our prayers and through our actions. We can live into it through how we manage our households and our properties, through the products we purchase and through the policies we endorse with our votes. As we look at the nighttime sky and ask the age-old question: “Oh Lord, when I consider all the works of your hands, I wonder what exactly is my place in all of this,” the answer is both ancient (rooted in the wisdom from long ago) and modern (grounded in the environmental reality of our times).