Peter Harris was a friend of Jon’s at Cambridge many years ago. He is President and Founder of A Rocha, an international environmental organization with a Christian ethos. This article is the third and final of three from a paper prepared for The Lausanne Movement’s Theology Working Party in Beirut, Lebanon in February 2010, under the chairmanship of Dr Christopher J H Wright. It also appeared in the July 2010 Evangelical Review of Theology (Vol 34 No 3), but is posted on The Hump as an introduction to yet another important aspect of the Christian doctrine of Creation.
Whatever our conclusions about the possibilities for society and the earth which converted people can bring about, it is only coherent to answer the question of whether some measure of restoration for the creation itself is a legitimate sign of the coming Kingdom of God in the same terms as we answer questions about human physical healing. Most Christians believe that healing ministry is a normal component of the mission of the God’s people on earth. We believe that, whether we think it comes about through medicine practiced by compassionate believers, or simply in response to faithful prayer.
Most Christians quite naturally understand that it expresses and demonstrates God’s saving and redemptive love in Christ. Biblically and theologically there is every reason for extending our understanding of God’s same healing and redemptive intentions to the wider creation. In our own times, when the coming Kingdom has been announced in Jesus but has not yet fully come, it has nevertheless begun to be manifest in a wide variety of ways in the life of his people.
So it is yet another sign of Christ’s Lordship that creation itself can find a measure of restoration, and that the same hope in Jesus that marks the personal and social lives of his people can become visible in their environmental life – in the landscapes they restore, the habitats and species they conserve, the way they care for creation by mitigating and limiting climate change, and thereby remembering the poor. This comes to the church as an authentic mission calling, and expresses the love of Christ in exactly the same way as the preaching of good news of salvation to those who are cut off from God, or the relief of people’s physical suffering.
So in one sense, although it would represent a major psychological shift for most western Christians to lose the “people only” habit of mind that they have gained when thinking of mission, no major theological transformation is required. It is more a question of extending our current missiologies to encompass their full biblical scope so we remember the wider creation. It sustains us daily and our forgetting of that is sufficient of a problem already. So for the most part it means changing an anthropocentric mindset that stops short of considering creation out of nothing more than mere habit. Soon enough it will trickle down into popular Christian culture – let me give an example of how straightforwardly and naturally it could appear. The singer David Ruis told me that if these ideas had come to him earlier, his song that begins “Let your glory fall in this room. Let it go forth from here to the nations.” would have gone “Let it go forth from here to all creation.” instead.
I suggest that even those who fear we will forego our doctrinal hold on the vital importance of personal salvation have nothing further to lose by such a biblical demarche. If that were to be a problem, then it is already out there as a result of the global outpouring of evangelical compassion which has led to the emergence of so many fine ministries all over the world in recent decades. The evidence suggests that there has been no watering down of evangelism or loving witness to Christ in consequence, but rather a more authentic and powerful expression of what Christian love can mean when action accompanies words. I wish to acknowledge this fear all the same, and stress again that I believe passionately in the possibility of personal salvation.
I also recognise that it is only reasonable to expect the law of unintended consequences to play into the re-forming of the mission agenda as it does into any new situation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that the legacy of Luther was far from what he intended when he launched his reforming manifesto[xix]. Chinese Premier Zhuo Enlai was asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789 and famously said “It is too early to tell…” I suspect that a missiology that embraces creation rather than ignoring it, that stresses the goodness of God’s creative purposes within the context of the fall, rather than believing that the consequences of the fall are so drastic that we should invest nothing here and now, may lead to an unfamiliar set of drawbacks and down-sides. An over-pessimistic detachment from the created world, and a guilty instinct about life’s joys are familiar territory for evangelicals. Those we know well enough – enthusiasm for the arts, for food and drink, for beauty and for life itself, we don’t.
So, hopeful that caring for creation will indeed become second nature for evangelicals, and a normal part of our global mission agenda, what practical challenges do we face? The first is lack of resources. Until now Christian funding has not been applied to work which has no apparent human relevance and so the few Christian initiatives in the field have been heavily dependant for support on donors who merely tolerate rather than enthuse about the belief commitments of the organisations they are supporting[xx]. There has been little recognition of the distinctive contribution they can make, and little reflection by Christian organisations about exactly how distinctive their approach must be. These are early days.
That leads to the second constraint: a lack of case studies. This is simply an area of work into which we have been late arriving, and where often our impact has been limited: the wider church has yet to “mainstream” these concerns although western society is rapidly doing so, and the environmental movement itself has recognised the major mistake they made in attempting to hold a monopoly on issues that were of concern to everyone[xxi]. So examples of environmental or conservation initiatives that truly bear the marks of a Christian approach are few and far between. They do exist, but they take some finding. It is so encouraging that we have Riad Kassis’ case study from A Rocha Lebanon to illustrate the message of this paper, because this is where the missiological and theological learning needs to be done now – we are knee-deep in Declarations and skin-deep in wisdom and application. It is my hope and plea that as we contribute to the Lausanne process we will focus on an agenda for action rather than contenting ourselves with adding to the innumerable expressions of well-meaning but ultimately toothless concern that have emerged over the last quarter century from so many Christian fora.
As this is a consultation paper it is only right that I point out that there is certainly another paradox to be recognised if that is to happen. Mark Noll has reproached evangelicals for their instinctive pragmatism and lack of “sober analysis”[xxii]. It is the genius of evangelicals that their relationship with Christ propels them into urgent action “feeding the hungry, living simply, and banning the bomb” as Noll puts it. Yet it can also be our weakness if, as Steve Beck[xxiii] has pointed out in the context of our philanthropy, we need to be soft-hearted and hard headed, whereas the reverse is often true. Just as primary health care and gerontology remain the Cinderella of medical priorities because they are principally focussed on preventing suffering rather than relieving it, so environmental work is going to be necessarily upstream. It works at the roots of things, the often complex causes of far later, but entirely foreseeable, human and biological crises. It is much easier to get concerned for starving rural populations than for sudden colony collapse in populations of bees – but probably far more strategic to work on the latter. Such work is sophisticated and carefully considered, and its impacts are often only seen long-term. This has little appeal for those who prefer their responses emotionally charged, and will give little satisfaction to the impatient [xxiv].
Finally, there is a shortage of Christian people with the appropriate technical skills – and even those who have them have not normally received much encouragement from their church leadership to consider their work as a ministry, or to reflect biblically on their professional development. Think for a moment of how someone going off to work in Indian villages will be heard by their home church in the west compared to their interest in the work of an entomologist who works in his laboratory up the road on viruses in bees[xxv]. So many of those with biological interests are challenged early in their studies to take medical rather than environmental courses, and it has not helped that the careers that follow from the former are generally far more lucrative than those develop from the latter.
I wish to end by pointing out why the apparently academic nature of some of the arguments above could have very major implications. Perhaps all good theology and missiology are like that? Simply put, we are in front of a global situation that presents as either a huge opportunity or as a seriously scary set of probabilities. If the Christian church world-wide understands that its relationship with God’s creation is an integral part of its worship, work and witness, then there will be immediate hope for some of the most environmentally vulnerable and important areas on earth. If however we continue to be as damaging a presence as the rest of human society, then, as I will explain more fully below, there is probably little we can do to arrest the rapid degradation that is proving so devastating for them all. This sobering analysis is one that is shared by Christians and others alike – as the Texas philospher Max Oelschlager has said about the eco-crisis “The church may be, in fact, our last best chance.”[xxvi]
The earth’s treasure of biodiversity – all of which has been created by God’s wisdom, as Psalm 104 reminds us – is concentrated on around 2% of the planet’s surface. Until recently, although it has been widely acknowledged for some time that human behaviour and choices are the determining factor for their survival, no-one had mapped who lived in these places – the so-called biodiversity hotspots – and what they believe. When A Rocha completed the mapping it was startling to discover that quite frequently it was evangelical populations who were the most significant. Had we mapped according to even wider denominational criteria the picture would have been even more striking. We have yet to undertake a “decision makers” map – but when one considers the beliefs of board members who influence the decisions of the multi-nationals that also have a massive impact in such areas, it is easy to imagine that many would be found in church on Sunday also.
Then it is possible to consider the wide areas of the earth that are not hotspots, but which are subject to Christian decision making. If one just takes North America as an example, a high proportion of farmers in Texas are Baptists, and an equally high percentage of those who work the land in Manitoba are Mennonites. I always ask when we meet if they have ever been challenged to think that God is interested in how they farm their land, and not simply in how they treat their workers – but have not so far met one who has. Unless that changes, we can continue to expect that, for the most part, soil erosion, chemically loaded run-off and the treatment of animals as machines to convert agricultural inputs into money, will continue to be as much of a feature of land farmed by believers in Christ as it of land farmed by those who believe in the primacy of the dollar. Baptist facilities will make an equal contribution to climate change as those owned by the bank down the street. The only difference is that the latter are at least consistent with their values.
Hence the alarm of secular commentators as they observe the indifference of the church to what is happening to our environment – an earth-hostile gospel is going to be literally toxic across large areas of the earth’s surface. Hence also the hope that the gospel can bring when it is faithful to the purposes of God for his creation – it can change us so we are people who fulfil God’s intentions, to serve the creation “and take care of it”[xxvii]. If a fully biblical gospel that encompasses the care of creation takes hold of the hearts and minds of the church, it can be lived and proclaimed with integrity in the world. We are all called to be part of the ministry of Christ’s reconciliation of “all things” to God himself, and we have much to learn as we begin to put that calling into practice. We can be confident, however, that the work we undertake in response to God’s call will please our loving Creator, bless the creation, and give true meaning to the message that Jesus is Lord.
xix Dietrich Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison SCM, London, 1953 p 123 “One wonders why Luther’s action had to be followed by consequences that were the exact opposite of what he intended…”
xxInterestingly the “exception française” makes itself felt here also. While the majority of French philanthropists are Christian believers, they overwhelmingly support charities which are secular in nature. In different ways this is equally problematic.
xxi See “The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus 2004
xxii Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2004
xxiii Steve Beck is former CEO of the Christian philanthropy consultants, Geneva Global.
xxiv See the late Archbishop Dom Helder Câmara’s famous remark “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist.”
xxvAnother consequence of our neglect of the doctrine of creation is that science itself, just like the arts, remains deeply problematic to the evangelical church in many parts of the world, but particularly North America. See the heartbreaking testimony of the astrophysicist, Joan Centrella in Real Scientists, Real Faith Monarch 2009
xxvi Max Oelshlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis Yale University Press, 199
xxvii Genesis 2:15 There has been a lot of discussion of the Hebrew word ‘abad translated by the NIV as “work” here – but suffice it to say it probably goes beyond serving the garden to serving the Creator and worshipping him through that work.