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Why creation? A response to Michael Jensen

Friday, 7 September 2018  | Mick Pope




I greatly enjoyed Michael Jensen's recent piece, Why Animals?. It was heartening to see an essay reflecting upon the non-human creation and our responsibility for it from such a prominent evangelical thinker. Michael and I share quite a bit: a common evangelical heritage, a love of Psalm 104 and a dog for a companion. So this response is more of a respectful rejoinder to what Michael had to say, rather than an outright disagreement.

Michael titled his piece Why animals?, but it quickly became ‘why humans?’, I think. Of course the natural reason is because he is one, as am I. But I start with the question Why creation? because the fundamental distinction in Christian theology is between creator and creation, and not between humans and the rest of creation, although the two questions are linked. So how then do we relate creator with creation, and what difference does it make that what is usually called nature is really the work of a creator?

In a number of books, Old Testament scholar John Walton establishes that creation is a temple, crafted out of disorder. The key to understanding this is in what God does at the end of the first creation account. In Genesis 2:2-3, God ceased from his works, and the word in Hebrew is where we get the word Sabbath. When the command for Sabbath-keeping is given in Exodus 20:11, the Hebrew word for rest is linked together with Sabbath. This idea of rest is not the sitting-back-and-letting-creation-unfold view of popular deism, but rather it has a physical, tangible character to it.

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 where God rests, the divine throne room. That rest is tied to creation, implying 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)

Of course we understand that earth can't contain God any more than the Jerusalem temple could, as Solomon acknowledged (1 Kings 8:27). Yet just as God condescended to enter into that temple, so he also condescended to make creation his temple, just as he will do again when Christ returns (Revelation 21:22).

This language of creation as temple begs the question about the sacred nature of creation; and just as temples have their priests and their representations of the deity, so does the creation temple. In any temple, ancient or modern, the divinity is represented by an image, idol or statue. In the creation temple - that is, the world in which we live - that image is us humans. We have a functional role, a role with dignity.

Psalm 8 makes this abundantly clear, using royal language to describe our election to this role. We are to be profoundly humbled at the vastness of creation. We should feel insignificant in a sense when we consider the night sky, and modern living has robbed us of that humility. You might say that the lights of the city function like the tower of Babel, distracting us from the great of God in the cosmos with our own supposed greatness. Yet, meditating on the stars, we are also reminded of what we have been made into, with what we are crowned. We are also reminded of our purpose, to mirror God back to the rest of creation.

Yet none of this is to detract from the unique value that the other-than-human creation possesses. Just as humans are to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), so are birds of the air and the living creatures of the waters, including the sea monsters (Gen 1:22). These sea monsters were formed to sport in the waters; that is their function (Ps 104:26). Simply by existing and multiplying, these creatures fulfil their divinely-given vocation. More than that, their sheer numbers and diversity of forms praises God’s divine wisdom and are a delight to God (Ps 104:24, 31).

Once we identify our place and that of other animals functionally in the creation temple, it allows us to do two things. The first is to become more relaxed about similarities. Michael rightly points out that we are unique, but we need to be careful to establish our uniqueness functionally rather than materially. Neanderthals had a rich life of symbols and art, and likely buried their dead. Birds like jays have a simple theory of mind as revealed in their ability to deceive others. Elephants grieve for their dead, just as Koko the gorilla could grieve for her lost kitten. I wonder if Michael notices how his cocker spaniel Maggie greets him when he's been away? The elements that make us human are present in many other species, so every scientific attempt at establishing human uniqueness will see the goal posts move at regular intervals with each new discovery.

Furthermore, it is fascinating to see intelligent behaviour in primates, birds and cephalopods like squid and octopus. The emergence of intelligence in so many different brain architectures points Christian palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris to postulate that intelligence is a ‘convergent property’, i.e. intelligence and consciousness are things that must appear in a universe like ours. Catholic theologian E T Oakes talks about the ‘mental air’ shaping this appearance just as air itself shapes the aerodynamics of bird, bat and insect bodies and wings. Even atheist Thomas Nagel is forced to consider the mind as fundamental to reality. It's a short step to the creator God who made all things to know and love him, in their bat, doggy or human way. The presence of mind in all creatures point towards the great Mind, the ground of all thought.

The second thing that our understanding of our respective functional roles in the creation temple allows us to do is to consider our divine responsibilities to other creatures. As Michael and I share a love of Psalm 104, it's worth meditating on the fact that it is set in an agrarian world, and yet establishes that ‘wilderness’ has value to God – so much so that mountains are not just there to be climbed because ‘they are there’ but are there to be home for wild goats and hyrax. Trees are not just for timber but for birds to nest in as well. Water is not just for human agriculture, but God waters all of his garden temple. Lions that might occasionally prey on livestock are fed by God. Sea monsters praise God by playing in the water. Just by being in their sheer abundance and variety, all things point towards divine wisdom.

But creation also points towards human folly, as well as future hope, in its groaning in birth pains (Romans 8:19-23). We now live in a new geological age known as the Anthropocene, where humans dominate all aspects of the Earth system, placing them and our own well-being at risk. In Romans 8, Paul tells us that creation groans for its redemption, and that its redemption lies with those of us who have the first fruits of the Spirit. We too groan for the redemption of our bodies, and the Spirit groans for us (the use of the same word is often hidden in English translations). Could it be too that, as we groan for and with other non-human neighbours, the Spirit groans with all of us?

So I finish by agreeing with Michael wholeheartedly that we all need the Saviour. So too do the trees, the bees, the polar bears and the ice caps. God saves us with, not from, creation. My gentle challenge is that sections of the church draw these threads together and understand that our present environmental crisis is not a distraction from the gospel, but both an opportunity for the gospel to be fully articulated and incarnated, and a reminder that the Lamb comes to make ‘all things new’.

Mick Pope is Melbourne based meteorologist and ecotheologian and member of the University of Divinity's Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. He is currently studying an M Phil, looking at a biblical hermeneutic for the Anthropocene. His books include A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World, A Climate of Justice: Loving your Neighbour in a Warming World and All Things New: God's Plan to Renew Our World, which will be released in October at The Justice Conference in Melbourne.


Comments

Neville Carr
September 29, 2018, 6:52AM
1. Each day of creation, we're told God 'saw that it was good'. Is it stretching interpretation to suggest that God finished the day's work, stood back from it to review it, then affirmed and celebrated it? Could this give us a clue as to what Sabbath involves for humans - a daily and weekly ceasing from the humdrum of busy living, looking back on our lives critically to review each activity, then celebrating with God, our family and his people, honouring him for all goodness? If so, how might this change the way worship takes place on Sundays - e.g. time for critical reflection on our lives in the home, workplace and society?

2. The sacred tasks or 'ministry' God gives to humans in Gen 1, 2 weren't withdrawn because of sin: i. building community ('be fruitful, multiply'), ii. economic and cultural activity, environmental nurture ('till and guard Eden'), iii. science and communication ('naming' = exploring and describing the mysteries of creation), iv. rest, reflection and worship ('Sabbath'). Why, therefore, do so many churches and theological institutions put the emphasis in 'ministry' on what goes on inside the church, not on equipping saints for 'service' (ministry) in society?

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