Opinion

Creation and Conversion: redefining discipleship

Many Christians stand in need of an 'ecological conversion', something liturgies need to recognise, writes Murray Seiffert.

By Murray Seiffert

June 9 2016Creation is exactly that: all that God created. We read that God saw that what was created was good. Will it still be good at the end of the 21st century?

The Bible asserts that God made the Earth and everything in it. It was good, and God loved it. It is God’s. Humans are part of creation, but differ from the rest of creation in two important ways. Firstly, only humans were made in God’s image; presumably this means that they carry certain attributes of God which are not carried by the rest of creation. Secondly, only people were instructed to care for the rest of creation.

All of creation is valuable to God, so it should not surprise us that, as the ones made in God’s image, we are called to care for it. The Anglican Communion has these words as a central part of its mission: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”1

Given God’s love of creation, perhaps we should not be surprised that Christ’s reconciling death was not only for the benefit of people, but for the whole of creation. We read, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1: 20). We can see this concept is quite clear in the New Testament but often overlooked. This might be described as the liberation of creation.

For example in Romans (8:21, 22) we read: “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now… ”.

In 2 Corinthians: 5, Paul writes: 16 “…in [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16-19).2

The universe — far and near — was not created for us, but for Christ (v. 16). The Bible sees the world as something more than the stage upon which humans live their lives. On the cross, Christ died to bring about reconciliation between God and creation, not only humanity.

St Francis gave us the extraordinary “Song of Creation”, which many of us know through the hymn “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing”. This song is based on Psalm 148; the central business of the psalm concerns many things which we describe as inanimate. They are to praise God; this includes the sun and moon, the stars, waters above the heavens, sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, mountains, and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds.

The matter of non-human things having great value and praising God is not confined to that Psalm, but can be found in other psalms and parts of the Bible. It is not easy for us to understand what this really means, so it is probably best to simply take it at face value.3

The central message of the Bible is a call for each of us to be reconciled to God. This is to be the central focus of our relationship with God. A natural consequence of this that we need to work at our relationships with other people; this has long been seen as an integral and essential part of being “in Christ”, that is of being a Christian. We read, “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 4:11).

These are major themes of the Bible and have been the centre of the church’s teaching from the start. But there is a further dimension that we need to consider: that of the rest of creation. As noted, all of creation is the work of God; it is valued by God and we have responsibility for it.

Thus we should not be surprised if becoming reconciled to God has consequences for our relationship to creation. Sadly this vital aspect of being God’s pilgrims has often been neglected by the church.

Just as reconciliation to God has consequences for our relationships with other people, so it should lead us to a new relationship with our environment: an “ecological conversion” if you like. This is not an optional extra in the Christian faith, but is quite central to our walk with Christ.

To be specific, our new relationship with God requires us to take a new attitude to other people, as well as a new relationship with our environment.

Preachers have often summarised the Gospel using the image of the cross, with the vertical axis representing our relationship with God, and the horizontal our relationship with other people. This is quite inadequate. If there is to be a horizontal, it must reflect our relationship with the whole of creation, the whole of that which was reconciled to Christ. We are told: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”.4 The word translated “world” is more than people; it derives from the word “kozmos” which Paul uses in Athens: “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24).

The key message is this: our reconciliation with God is to reconcile us with all of creation, of which humanity is a part.

These concepts are not new, but when given due recognition, we find that the theology of creation is at the very centre of the Gospel message. At this point in the history of the universe, it is critical that we understand our need to be reconciled with God’s creation, and for this to be worked out in our daily lives. I fear that contemporary Western Christianity has mostly lost this critical dimension of reconciliation, overcome by the pursuit of wealth and power.

It might be asked why the New Testament appears to be relatively silent on matters of the environment, and if that is the case, why we should be concerned. The same question was asked of those who sought to abolish slavery. With respect to the environment, Israel of Jesus’ day was working under a particularly complicated and exacting set of environmental laws, based on the Torah, the Jewish Law. Psalms, such as Psalm 148 were a central part of the liturgy. Furthermore, the level of care for the environment was probably working effectively in most circumstances.

The situation is very different today. Human activity is transforming the world and its climate, starting to threaten much of creation. Some of the most sensitive indications can be seen in the changing Great Barrier Reef and the polar ice caps. Islands of the Pacific and parts of the Australian coast will soon become uninhabitable. This is our response to the command to care for God’s world.

Almost daily our media report more evidence of global warming and other ways that people are changing the total environment in which we live. To put it in theological terms, the scientists are reporting ways in which we have failed to exercise our duty as faithful stewards of the world in which God has placed us.5

This calls for a number of responses. While the senior councils of many Christian denominations have produced significant environmental statements reflecting a biblical theology, it seems to me that there is little evidence that such thinking has entered the day-to-day life of most parish communities. I don’t think that it has seriously entered the regular liturgy of the church. It is probably the case that most members of Australia’s metropolitan congregations are among the worst polluters in the world.6 Surely this should be regularly reflected in liturgical confessions, and genuine commitments to lead a new life. However I fear that these measures are scarcely to be found in our parishes.7

For most of us, relationships with other people occupy a central part of our thinking and our prayers; it is our response to the command to be reconciled. However, this commitment to reconciliation needs to be transformed to include our daily dealings with God’s creation. We must seek the way of the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth and obedient action.8 Like most things, we should expect that these changes will be more effective when approached by groups, rather than individuals working alone. This is why the parish community is so important.

Many Christians are part of grassroots activities and lifestyle changes working towards environmental change, usually outside the church. Many church members deal with such issues as part of their regular life, although this may be rarely the case for clergy. Yet careful reflection of reconciliation leads us to the very centre of our commitment to our loving, creator God. Inasmuch as the church ignores these issues it demonstrates its irrelevance and opens the way for alternative philosophies; being a faithful church requires a serious commitment to reconciliation.

The process of changing the emphasis of the message preached in local churches is outside the scope of this article. It is enough for now to challenge contemporary Christians to reconceptualise the consequences of their reconciliation with God, as the inevitable consequence is commitment to being reconciled with the whole of God’s creation, not simply humanity.

Murray Seiffert’s initial training was in agricultural science, and for decades he was involved in the training of environmental scientists and environmental educators. His degree in theology included a study of Franciscan Spirituality. Murray’s first article on environmental theology appeared in 1980.

 

[1] Anglican Consultative Council (1984), Bonds of Affection, Badagry, Nigeria, p. 49.

[2] The words of 2 Corinthians focus on reconciliation, mostly meaning reconciliation between people and God. The words “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” refer to getting things right with God, not between people, or between races, although these are a natural consequence.

[3] An alternative of ignoring the idea is inadequate for anyone seeking to learn from the Bible.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:16-19.

[5] I recall one of my Aboriginal colleagues, a health educator, explaining to her students that God sent scientists to warn us of the dangers of smoking cigarettes. This argument can be applied to scientists concerned with climate change.

[6] To be reconciled with creation, “we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act.” Pope Francis (2016) Laudato Si’: on care for our common home. An Encyclical Letter on Ecology and Climate, 218.

[7] Of course one of the problems is that many environmental issues are controversial, and church leaders are reluctant to deal with controversial issues.

[8] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth [John 16:13].