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Re-enchanting creation – reflections on Monbiot’s ‘Forget “the environment”’

Monday, 28 August 2017  | Mick Pope

George Monbiot recently wrote a piece in the Guardian challenging us to change our language when it comes to talking about topics like the environment, climate change and extinctions. Our current vocabulary, he says, fails to do justice to the wonder, and fails to convey the awe, we could and should feel. It also tends to understate the problems we face. Worst of all, it draws ecology into the economy within a neo-liberal framework that only values something if we can place economic value on it - a dollar sign.

The problem, according to Monbiot, is not that we see nature (or, more properly for Christians, the creation) as providing us with great bounties, air to breathe, water to drink, soil for our food, a vast variety of beauty for us to enjoy etc. Rather, the problem arises when we make a direct equivalence between these things and money, i.e. when we reduce the complexity of nature to mere ‘ecosystem services’ that we can buy, trade, sell or offset. In other words, this utilitarian approach reduces nature or creation to something that exists merely for our use, with no intrinsic value of its own. To some, this is inherently speciesism. For the Christian, Scripture points to creation which, in turn, not only points to the wise God who created it, but also to the fact that it has its own purpose and interests apart from ours  (e.g. Psalm 104:26, Genesis 1:21-22).

Most revealing - and this is where a considered theology comes in - is when Monbiot writes about a trip to see beavers repopulating a river in Devon. One friend exclaimed: ‘It’s like a pilgrimage, isn’t it?” Monbiot believes that this hints ‘at the origins of religion’.

It would be easy for us to have a knee-jerk reaction, seeing all of this as ‘paganism’ and ‘syncretism’ and so on, but let’s look at the bible. As Old Testament scholar John Walton has identified, the creation account of Genesis 1 describes the ordering of creation as a temple. We first see this in the idea of divine rest. There are four steps we need to take to justify this assertion. The first is to look at Genesis 2:2-3 where, at the end of the first creation account, God ceased his works (the word in Hebrew from which we get Sabbath). Whenever in English translations we read the word rest, it is this word Sabbath. Secondly, however, when the Hebrew word for rest is linked together with Sabbath in Exodus 20:11, this is not rest in the sense of ceasing to be involved in the workings of creation, a disembodied withdrawal from creation in the Deistic sense – it has a physical, tangible character to it. The third piece of the puzzle is found in the pilgrim Psalm 132. Verses 7 and 8 form a poetic parallelism, where God’s dwelling place is God’s resting place, and God’s footstool is the Ark of the Covenant. A footstool is part of a throne, the implication of which is that God rules from the where God rests, the divine throne room. That rest is tied to creation implies that creation itself is a temple, created for God to dwell in:

Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? (Isaiah 66:1)

The final piece of the puzzle is of course the installing of an image of God – that is, humans - in the creation temple in Genesis 1:26-28. Australian theologian Rikk Watts recognises similarities in other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. But the point is not, as Peter Enns, John Walton and Gregory Mobley have pointed out, that the writers of the Old Testament had copies of other stories in front of them and were simply changing a few details. Rather, the goal of Genesis 1-3 is to show that God alone is creator, that creation is a divine temple in which humans (specifically in the initial instance Israel) are to serve and that everything that the surrounding nations worshipped as divine is in fact a creation of God.

Notwithstanding the many passages about the pagan shrines under every tree, about Baals and Asherahs, there is no reason why we can’t worship God through creation. Indeed, this is what the Psalms often do. Psalm 104 is a favourite of mine, reminding us that God’s works are manifold and that the whole earth is full of his creatures (verse 24), that God provides for all creatures (verse 27) and that creation attests to God’s greatness, honour and majesty (verse 1). The idea of pilgrimage to special places in creation has a place in our language, too – Abraham’s Bethel, Moses’ Sinai, Jesus’ wilderness etc. Let’s abandon the iconoclasm that produced a dull Protestant spirituality and embrace a God who makes wonderful things to draw us closer to him, extravagant beauty in its intricacy and sometimes its rawness and savagery.

This means then that human-induced climate change, species extinction, pollution of air and water, filling our oceans with more plastic than biomass - all of these things are blasphemies against the Creator. This is not overly emotional language. And I’m not talking about bad stewardship, inappropriate use etc. I’m talking about wholesale destruction, wanton abuse, thoughtless disregard, all in the service of ‘the economy’ as an entity detached from the world in which it sits. As an aside, we might also see the disconnection of economy from ecology, or the overreliance on technical fixes, as a form of Gnosticism, so the language of heresy is also appropriate. Gnosticism places emphasis on knowledge to save us from physical existence. Technology, when used to fix problems alone - without a corresponding change of attitude, but merely as a way of shielding us entirely from the creation and our own abuses of it - could be described as Gnosticism. This is not to say that technology has no place in fulfilling the image of God, but that it has been given too prominent a place in some circles.

How then would we, as Christians, enter the world of policy, of advocacy and of conservation? With the recognition that we are not merely Homo Economicus, but also Homo Spiritualis. Christians will bring a particular narrative that we believe to be uniquely true, but we would do well to take Paul’s approach in Acts 17 and look for doorways into conversation, rather than bullying our way in and seeking to dominate as the church too often has done.

The other language we might employ is that of creation as neighbour, or as Chris Dalton has suggested in a recent book (see my review to be published in Zadok Perspectives), beloved companion. The church should rightly worry about flattening the relationship between humans and non-humans, i.e. arguing that humans have no special standing or role compared to non-humans. We have a privileged position as image-bearers of God, but both humans and non-humans are Nephesh hayyah, or living beings. But all animals have souls in the Hebrew sense (not in our borrowed Greek understanding of ghosts in the machine). The Earth brings forth living beings and we are formed from the dust of the Earth, Adam from the Adamah or Humans from the Hummus.

We are already seeing this identification in law, with the Whanganui River in New Zealand (pictured above) being recognised as having legal personhood. Corporations are already recognised in some ways as individuals in this sense, though this is often used to trump the rights of human beings. If economic entities are being given this status, how much more does a river, or a landscape, or a species have the right to legal recognition of its creaturehood? This is the creation that groans in birth pains (Romans 8), the earth that can mourn (Jeremiah 4:28), the trees of the field that clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12). This is the Earth that brings forth living creatures (Genesis 1:24). Michael Welker concludes that creation is an active partner in its own unfolding, acting in parallel with God. The world is not a stage with us as mere players on it; we are all active participants in the great theodrama of the journey from creation to new creation, the renewal of the creation-temple.

So Christians have a rich vocabulary to draw on with which to meet Monbiot’s challenge. We can have an active seat in public discourse. What is more, we should be getting our hands dirty. A Rocha is an international organisation of Christians in conservation, putting the idea that Christ is Lord over all creation into practical action. Now in Australia, projects are slowly developing in various parts of the country. On Saturday, 14th October, A Rocha Australia will be hosting a conference at 9:30am-3:30pm at St Mark’s Spotswood (616 Melbourne Road, Spotswood, Victoria), to discuss creation care. All are invited to hear from climate scientists, ecological researchers, missionaries and inner city hipsters. Register here.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is an adjunct lecturer at Eastern College in creation care and theology of science. He is also Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University. Mick is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014). His new book, A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World (Melbourne, Morning Star, 2017), will be launched in October.

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