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Preaching to the Birds? The Mission of the Church to the Creation

Monday, 3 June 2013  | Mick Pope

Eco-missiology sees mission in terms of reconciliation at all levels. It recognises that the God who creates is also the God who redeems all that he has made. This holistic mission includes both eco-justice for the poor as well as care for creation for its own sake. This paper is a summary of my Tinsley Institute lecture which may be downloaded from the Bible Society website (here).

According to Ross Langmead, eco-missiology sees mission in terms of reconciliation at all levels. The gospel is broader than ‘me and Jesus’ because God is involved with the whole of creation, not just human beings. Eco-missiology is concerned for creation because God saves us with and not from creation. Eco-missiology is also a matter of eco-justice, since it is the global poor who face the worst effects of environmental degradation; and includes eco-spirituality, which represents a a new way of seeing creation, because it views caring for creation in its own right as a form of mission.   

Many Christians are wary of involvement in environmental issues due to a fear of syncretism and suspicion of the ‘green agenda’. However, the church cannot afford to ignore mission that encompasses more than the human sphere. We live in an age known as the anthropocene, where humans represent a geological force. We have become so powerful through technology that we can remove entire mountains, desolate large stretches of ocean, pollute our atmosphere, change weather patterns, and precipitate mass extinction. Meanwhile, we have entered into a post-Christendom phase of history in the West, one which Tom Wright describes as a pagan world much resembling the first century. The rising ecological consciousness has been accompanied by a growing interest in Eastern religions and alternate spiritualities. Since the publication of Lyn White’s 1966 paper, Christianity stands accused of being anthropocentric and the cause of environmental abuse in the West. Therefore, the missional church needs to address these concerns in its theology and praxis by rediscovering the holistic nature of the biblical narrative. In this way, we avoid falling prey to what C. S. Lewis called ‘Christianity and’, the wedding of our own pet causes to the faith. Likewise, in developing a thick biblical narrative, we seek to avoid tokenism or our eco-mission being viewed as absurd as St Francis’ preaching to the birds.  

In The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton recognises that Genesis 1 gives us an understanding of the world that focuses on function and relationships. One of the things this model does is it ties human culture to our understanding of creation, as opposed to the reductionist perspective of science. Creation is not to be simply identified with nature but includes it. This is evident, for example, in the role that lights in the sky play in marking out days, seasons and years (Gen 1:14). The heavens are the place where natural forces determine life and culture. Human beings are central to the plot, not a distraction from it.  

The ordering of functions in creation ends with God resting on the seventh day (Gen 2:2; Exod 20:11). In the Ancient Near East, temples were built so that deities could rest and exercise their divine rule. This is the subject of Psalm 132, where God’s resting place is identified with the Ark and Zion, where he sits enthroned. Likewise, in Isaiah 66:1–2, heaven is God’s throne and the earth his footstool. Walton concludes that Genesis 1 recounts the establishing of the function of a cosmic temple from which God can rule. Furthermore, Rikk Watts notes there are close parallels with the account of the formation of human beings from the dust and the breathing in of the divine breath in Genesis 2 and how ancient and modern idols are made. The key to eco-mission is to recognise that creation is the temple-cosmos in which everything has a function. Our function as the image of God includes carrying out a mission of creation care.  

In the temple-cosmos, the non-human creation has its role in praising God. Trees in particular are given a voice (Isa 14:8, 44:23), but God is glad in all of his works (Ps 104:31) be it birds in the trees or Leviathan sporting in the sea. So long as creatures are free to do what it is they are meant to do, they fulfil their role. Psalm 104 is careful to affirm that humanity is part of, not separate from, the rest of what God has done. This Psalm therefore both affirms the value of human existence and economic activity, and the value of the rest of creation to God, and provides us with a theology of wilderness and God’s care for those creatures that lie entirely outside the economic order. 

The age of the church is the age of the Spirit, the age between the coming of Christ and his return. Perhaps the clearest passage with implications for eco-mission is Romans 8:19–23. In Romans, Paul explains how God is true to his covenant promises in the face of Jewish unbelief. God achieves this through the Messiah Jesus, who is God come in the flesh. Those who are in the Messiah are ‘sons of God’ (Rom 8:14) just as Israel was (Exod 4:23), led by the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8:9-11) as Israel was by the fiery pillar, having been rescued from slavery to sin just as Israel had been rescued from slavery in Egypt. Just as Israel was led into the Promised Land, so Romans 8 does not end with eternity in heaven, but the future of the whole earth. 

The personification of creation together with its co-groaning with humanity, and its eventual liberation, all bestow upon it dignity without reducing to pantheism. This groaning based upon Paul’s observations. Rome was responsible for significant deforestation as the result of timber harvesting for construction and metal smelting. This led to an increase in malarial infections, as well as flooding, river mouth silting, and soil erosion in the vicinity of Rome, leading to a decline in agricultural production. Such are the results of empire, in stark contrast to Horace’s claim that ‘Caesar has brought back fertile crops to the fields’. This should remind us of the negative consequences of the modern agricultural revolution, including oxygen poor waterways due to overuse of fertilisers, salinity, and desertification.  

The futures of the creation and of the children of God are intertwined. The creation longs for the future revealing of the sons of God (Rom 8:19) and groans in birth pains while we groan for our sonship (v 23), because when we are revealed as the children of God, the creation will find its own liberation (v 21). Just as humanity was given over to sin (Rom 1:18–32) and now in Christ through the Spirit hope for resurrection (8:23–24), so the creation was subject to futility in hope (v 20). We have the first fruits of the Spirit as those who will be raised by the one who raised Christ. The creation co-groans with the sons of God, for as the first fruits we prefigure a greater harvest which includes all things.  

Because only the God who subjected creation to frustration can liberate it from that frustration, what does this say for our task? Firstly, we should groan with creation, empathetically feeling its suffering and the suffering that others experience as a result of our misrule. This includes a sense of mourning and of contrition. Secondly, we are called to live in hope; hope that God will return and put everything to rights, including the state of the creation. This hope energises action instead of leading to apathy. Likewise, while we are to feel appropriate guilt, we are not to be paralysed by it nor motivated solely by it. Hope is our watchword, as we live in the light of the redemption that creation will share with us. And this hope informs our sense of justice as we see human and natural ecology out of shape, and work to alleviate the suffering of others who suffer because of environmental degradation. As one day God’s shalom will extend to all things, we should seek peacemaking with each other and with the creation now.


Chris Dalton
June 5, 2013, 1:00PM
Thank you for a very interesting article. I am currently a PhD candidate (CSU) researching the question "How an Australian theology of land can inform the public debate surrounding CSG". I delight in Mick Pope's recognition of the intrinsic value of the non-human creation, set within the framework of a cosmic 'economy of salvation'.
A few questions arising:
We might see the earth as God's gift to humanity, but is also humanity God's gift to the earth?
Is the earth our neighbour (whom we should love as we love ourselves)?
Is the earth sinful?
Are humanity's interests to be privileged ahead of earth's interests?
Should the church have a reconciling role (between earth and humanity) and peacemaking role (between rapidly polarising human groups) in the CSG debate?
Would be interested in any thoughts on the above.

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