Is our climate catastrophe a dominant theological issue?

From The Guardian, September 20, 2019

“Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.”

— Deuteronomy 10:14

his past Friday, an estimated four million people — many of them teenagers — partook in the largest global climate strike to date. Every generation has their battle, but we seem to have several: police brutality, women’s rights, immigration, and, of course, the ever-increasing climate catastrophe.

In an interview with the Washington Post before the strike last week, climate activist and scholar Bill McKibben begged clergy to be involved in the demonstration. McKibben’s writing is focused heavily on environmental issues, but his faith is a thread throughout his work (full disclosure: Bill was kind enough to endorse my book, Less of More). He urged pastors to consider the power of their office in connection to the climate crisis: “Ministers [are] out front in their collars, making it clear what a moral issue this is. … This is the dominant scientific and economic issue of our century. It’s also the dominant theological issue.”

A “dominant theological issue.”

I must admit, reading McKibben’s comment, I became quite sad. While morally he may be right, I’m not convinced creation care is “the dominant theological issue” to most theologians.

I’m a proud member of what I affectionately call “theology Twitter,” and the closest we have come to seriously considering ecology is when we (rightfully) made fun of Union Seminary students who spent a chapel confessing to plants. To theologians right now, the dominant issues tend to be the existence of hell, sexuality/gender, the Trinity, and violence in the Old Testament. To be sure, these are important issues. But as I read McKibben’s comment I couldn’t help but think, in actuality, creation care is not even close to being a “dominant” issue among theologians. I know it is such to McKibben, and I would not want to disagree with him, but is this issue taking over our theological communities the way it perhaps should?

One of the main reasons creation care is not a dominant theological issue is because it is an assumed theological issue. Most of what I will write in this essay will seem obvious — and that’s the problem. Theological agreement can quickly lead to theological apathy.

But secondly, when previously agreed upon generalities get the most air time, we rarely stop to think about any specific implications. Take the doctrine of God as our Creator: it’s vague, general, and therefore has no specific implications. But when I take this doctrine further into the details, it makes me ask: what has God created? Why did he create it and why does him creating it matter? Implications begin to arise when I start descending into the specifics. Creation care has remained a minor theological issue because we’ve kept things unspecific.

Getting specific

So, let’s go there. I’d like to take three key passages on creation and dive into just some of the details to show you how quickly ecology becomes theology:

Passage #1:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” — Genesis 1:1

God as our creator is a foundational attribute of his character and nature. God makes. Our planet has innate value based off of its Maker. To affirm that God is creator is to say he has made something. He has not only made us human beings, but an environment in which we can thrive. God creating “the heavens and the earth” was once described to me by Tim Mackie as, “creating what’s up there and what’s down there.” He did this as he looked up and then looked at his feet. Mackie was helping us understand the vast — and vague — nature of Genesis 1:1. God has created everything I see and experience. Because he has done this, and done this in such a structured, safe way, I can live on this planet. He has allowed me a space. We call it an “environment” because it seems to be perfectly tailored to our needs: air, food, water, and other humans all come right along with it. The Creator created creation perfectly suited for his creatures. It’s his design, but our blessing.

Passage #2:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” — Genesis 2:15

God takes mankind and places us in an environment with oxygen, grass, animals, oceans, and stars. This glorious environment is evidence of his creativity and grace. He didn’t need to do this, you know. Because God has put me as his creation within his creation, I am to “work it” and also to “keep it.” God did not give us a planet and take away responsibility. No, he gave the planet as a responsibility. He gave us rulership, “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). In other words, he has put us in charge. If this world was given to us to “keep,” then this climate catastrophe is very clearly in our hands to make right. While we are to do this in partnership with God (see below), we are certainly to get on with it. We’ve been placed in leadership by God and action is paramount in leadership. We could cry out to God about our planet and say, “Make this right!” but I’m afraid he might just look down from heaven and say the same thing to us.

Passage #3:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!” — Isaiah 6:3

Allow me to mention Dr. Mackie one more time to tell you his description of “glory.” He likened it to a teenager’s room. Picture it covered in posters of his/her favorite musical artist, athlete, celebrities, etc. Their skateboard or makeup counter or guitar sits near their bed and the whole place is decked out in their favorite colors. What are we seeing? We are seeing the extension of that teenager’s personality and character. We’re seeing their glory, the weight of who they are. God’s glory is often connected to his creation, the earth and heavens (Psalm 8:1, 19:1, 29:3, 57:5 72:19). What we see when we see this planet is the extension of God’s personality. God is not creation, but creation extends to us the knowledge of God’s character. We come to know him through his creation: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Christopher J.H. Wright puts it this way: “That which manifests the glory of God, that which displays his ‘weight’ or substance or reality, is the teeming abundance of creation. The earth is full of God’s glory because what fills the earth constitutes his glory” (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, pg. 115).

The first human responsibility

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,

and the son of man that you care for him?

- Psalm 8:3–4

Have you ever been perplexed by something you’ve seen in nature? A stunning view, an indescribable sunset? It’s strange, but sometimes when we look at creation we experience confusion as much as wonder: how can this be? When we experience creation we experience humility.

As we look at creation, we look back at ourselves confused: why would God give us such a glorious gift? Beyond giving mankind himself in Jesus, he gave us creation so we might “feel our way” towards him (Acts 17:27, c.f. Romans 1:20–21). We are living in an abundance of his glory and grace. When we look to the moon, the oceans, and the stars in the sky, we look to see God’s great generosity to all people. Why would he do this for us?

This is the proper response. God gave us an environment not only for an opportunity to know about him, but to know him in close proximity. Creation is not god (that’s pantheism), but creation is the space where we meet God and begin to partner with him. It all starts on this planet.

Caring for this planet is the primary — even primal — way we serve God. Before God gave us a Bible to study, he gave us a planet to keep. Before any temple or church building to maintain, there was an earth. Before a worship song was written or a sermon was ever preached; before videos, books, tweets, scrolls, monks, icons, or poems, there was creation. Generations before God gave the Ten Commandments, he gave humanity the one: take responsibility for the environment in which we’ve been placed.

This is the first way we are to partner with God, our Creator. If we skip this function of divine partnership, I’m afraid we will miss an essential part of being a human being. If we lose our planet and creation, it seems as though we would lose a large part of our relationship with God as well. This is because one of the primary ways we relate with God is through co-working with him. To destroy God’s creation is to vandalize his name, belittle his purposes, and wreck our partnership with him. Make no mistake: this is a dominant theological issue.

I’ll let Wright close this one out:

“Creation care is a fundamental dimension of our humanity, not an optional dimension of our Christianity. In this, as in so much else, to be Christian is to be called to be more human, not to behave as if the first great responsibility that God laid on the human race somehow does not apply to us.”

- Christopher J.H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, pg. 127

Pastor, writer, and sometimes professor, currently serving Awakening Church in the Silicon Valley. Author of DISTANT GOD and LESS OF MORE: chrisnye.co/books

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