Sunday, September 12, 2010

All Creation

Every once in awhile the Church does something that must leave people wondering, “What on earth was that all about?” I suppose you might ask, “So what are you smoking that would have you thinking that it is only ‘once in awhile’?” Those of us who plan liturgies, who preach, who are the “professionally religious,” together with those who as someone has aptly put it have church as their hobby, frequently make the mistake of imagining that what we do is crystal clear to all who come. Or we sometimes have been known to think that a little mystery is a good thing—that it never hurt anybody to puzzle a bit about religion.

Probably the most frequent remark I have heard made over the years about sermons, for instance, is something akin to this: “I want a sermon to connect with what is happening in my daily life.” I hear it as a more general ache that somehow religion might try to come into our lives and connect with us rather than work to get us out of our lives and into some ethereal space in which, for heavens’ sake, we can’t do much earthly good.

I would say it is precisely for that reason that we are embarking today on a six-week venture to focus on probably the most quintessentially relevant topic you could imagine: the future of this planet. We are calling it “A Season of Creation.” Rather than have you after one, two, or all six weeks shaking your heads wondering, “What is all that about?”, I’d like to answer that at the outset.

The future of the planet is, of course, rooted in the past. In order to understand what is at stake, we have to look at how we got to where we are. One of the most interesting accounts of human history is the recent Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s research shows how civilizations have grown up in relation to the spread of plants for food; and how they have died because invading conquerors, notably Europeans, brought germs that debilitated whole societies. Weaponry is probably the biggest single development ensuring the ascendancy of some humans and the demise of others. Human history is complex, as is the more general geological history of the planet, and there is much we don’t know. What we do know is that throughout the world, peaceable peoples have been no match against marauders. Perhaps not all invading tribes of all times have been arrayed against the natural world—the Celts come to mind as a particularly nature-centered group—but the truth of the matter is that in the Western world ultimately there came to power a civilization that understood itself as being fundamentally different from, superior to, in control of the natural world. That is the irony of Western culture, both its gift and the seeds of its destruction.

Christianity has done more than its share in aiding and abetting this western proclivity to power and domination over creation. There are several reasons why that has been true. First, there is built into Judaeo-Christianity the notion that God is primarily interested in human beings, not so much with the rest of creation. And human beings have long told themselves the tale that the natural world is their playpen and its goods theirs for the taking. Second, Christianity and its Jewish parent long ago bought into some eastern dualism that essentially saw the world sliced into two: the material world and the spiritual world, the physical seen as clearly inferior to the spiritual. A third reason why Christianity has frequently fed a deep suspicion of the worth of creation is that there has been an element of thought—sometimes a major one—that holds to the notion that this world is passing away, soon to be replaced by a better one. One version of that belief is the notion that what human life is about is principally getting into heaven, that other world, not about fitting into this world.

This is not all there is to Christianity, however. Some of our formative stories, frequently misunderstood as support for the domination dynamic, are anything but that. The creation stories in Genesis, for example, make clear that human beings are set within a larger context of the natural world. Not only that, they are given a permission (eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden), a prohibition (except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and a vocation (till and keep the garden). Clearly there are limits on human beings. While it is true that in the first creation story, God gives dominion over the earth and its creatures to humans, it is clear that humans are accountable to and subordinate to God.

Without an appropriate understanding of creation, Christianity gets into a heap of trouble. We need to understand that, as today’s epistle puts it, everything in creation is good. Not just the purple-headed mountain and the river running by and the tiny little wings of things bright and beautiful. Included are the snail that eats your caladium’s leaves, the wasp that stings, the copperhead lurking behind a log, the wind’s tempestuous shocks, the hurricane’s high tides. The creator made them all and pronounced the whole thing good. There is nothing the matter with matter. It is not inferior to spirit or to energy. This is key to our understanding of the work and nature of Jesus Christ. When we say in the Creed “by him all things were made,” we are talking about the Second Person of the Trinity, namely Jesus. We perceive him to be the Word, the creative expression of Godhead, who existed long before all worlds, the one by whom they came into being. Why is that important? Because when we discuss who he is in the flesh, it is critical to proclaim that the human body of Jesus was as important to his identity as his spirit, his soul, his personality, his divine nature. That is why the bookends of Christian theology are the doctrines of incarnation and resurrection. Both have to do with the physical. Both have to do with the body. Both are interlaced with a doctrine of creation that holds that the one who made all things was the one who thoroughly identified with creation by becoming a part of it and who thoroughly healed it by uniting not only human nature but the whole physical world to the divine life he embodied.

Don’t think that we are talking literally and historically here. We are instead talking on the plane of symbol and metaphor. But that is not a cheap brand of language, less reliable than the language of fact. It is exactly by means of the language of Christology that we are able to paint a picture of how the created world is intimately connected with God and humanity.

You might well be wondering if I’m not straining at gnats and swallowing camels here. Why the fuss? Is it not quite enough to assert that we have an obligation to be stewards of creation? Actually, that is not enough, and I am not sure that “stewards of creation” adequately describes what our calling is. We are, by reliable accounts, standing on the brink of environmental disaster. Some argue that we have already gone over the brink. Species are struggling to stay alive. Oil is running out. We are so committed to fossil fuels that we cannot extricate ourselves from their use without seriously damaging our fragile economy even further. Climate change wreaks havoc in weather patterns. Land use becomes more and more problematical as the need to house and feed the planet’s human population becomes more difficult each year. Potable water is still a serious problem in much of the world, the poorest regions being the most vulnerable to polluted and disease-carrying water.

What’s a body to do in the face of so much planet-wide distress? Over the next six weeks we are going to be looking at that question and trying on some answers. One thing is to take care that we are living in a way that reflects the value that our faith tradition places upon the natural world. Another thing is to work towards amassing sufficient political power that we can together make a difference in the future of the world. A third thing is to practice living out of the context of Sermon on the Mount, which is the source of the gospel for today.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

That is where and how Jesus solidly comes down on the side of living in simple harmony with creation, which is the alternative to living in a spirit of acquisition, control, and domination. It might be that we simply do not believe that we can live differently—and for people whose whole culture is based upon domination (of resources and people) that is a great challenge. But the life of earth depends upon it. And the vocation that God gave humans is still the same: till the garden and keep it.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

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