Creation as Mission: Forum 2019 (Long Read)

This article was written by Peter Harris who is the President and Founder of A Rocha (www.arocha.org) a Christian nature conservation organisation. Peter spoke at the Politics Network Forum 2019. This piece summarises his sessions at Forum and has been adapted from his essay entitled: 

'The Whole World: The World of Creation                                                                                           Towards a Missiology of Caring for Creation'

"Over recent years far more attention has been given to the creation within an understanding of the redeeming purposes of God. It is fair to say that an effective consensus has been reached among evangelical theologians that God’s redemption in Christ extends beyond the person, and beyond the human community, to the creation itself. Given the force of passages such as Romans 8:19–21, the only surprise is that we should have taken so long to escape the unbiblical constraints that enlightenment humanism has imposed on a more authentically rounded gospel. 

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 

Recovery of creation thinking 

Writers such as Colin Gunton, James Houston, Chris Wright, Loren Wilkinson and NT Wright are only a few of those who have contributed to this re-working of perspectives in the last two decades and the pace of study is quickening. 1 

For example, in Christ and Creation 2 Gunton looked at Mark’s presentation of Jesus Christ at the beginning of his gospel and noted the systematic declaration of his lordship through one episode after another. Disease and politics, religion and the personal life, all are drawn into the realm of Christ’s dominion. The series is completed by Mark’s account of the stilling of the storm, where the disciples’ question ‘Who is this that the wind and the waves obey him?3 is answered implicitly by an understanding that Jesus is the Lord of creation. 

It is always urgent that our lives and work conform to the true character of Jesus Christ our Lord. However, there is a particular urgency to this issue because all over the world the groaning of creation is truly acute, and the poorest human communities are those which are most impacted by the rapid degradation of the biosphere. 

Creation Care and Christian Thinking 

A brief review of how ‘environmental issues’ or more properly ‘creation care’ have been placed within the spectrum of Christian views is necessary in order to illuminate a way forward. The wider range of historic attitudes, together with a semi-serious label for each, looks something like this: 

  1. Fundamentalist eschatology: We shouldn’t care for creation at all. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote about D.L Moody, ‘He thinks it is no use to attempt to work for this world. In his opinion it is blasted – a wreck bound to sink – and the only thing that is worth doing is to get as many of the crew off as you can and let her go.’ 
  2. Instrumentalist: Because society cares about the environment, and it is important to be relevant, Christians should care. John Stott himself pointed out that many people reject the gospel because they believe it is irrelevant, rather than that they think it isn’t true. The analysis is entirely fair but should not be used as a justification for a false attempt to make the gospel relevant just so people will believe it. 
  3. Pragmatic: Because we cannot evangelise without creating stable prior social conditions, and establishing those depends upon a stable environment, therefore we need to do a minimum of environmental reparation. 
  4. Compassionate: We should care because of the poor. This is the approach now being advocated by most of the evangelical relief and development organisations as they now come to terms with the impact of climate change as a major driver of poverty, displacement, and acute social stress. 
  5. Enlightened self interest: We need to think about environmental sustainability because our own well-being depends upon it. This is the approach of many Christians in the wealthy world, and it is often accompanied by the conviction that their healthy economies will be the solution to relieving poverty worldwide. 
  6. Liberal: To care for the earth is an integral part of the calling to be human in God’s image, and the emergence of this new humanity will bring hope for creation. The onus is on ethics and human effort, and typically very little of God’s perspective, or the possibility of his presence, is invoked.
  7. The Cultural Mandate: Because God told Adam to care for the garden, and that command has never been revoked, so we have received this duty as an ethical imperative. 
  8. Reformed: Because Christ is the Lord of Creation so all of life is to be transformed by our relationship with him, including our relationship to the environment. 
  9. Orthodox: Because our fundamental calling is to worship with all creation, so we cannot be indifferent to its well-being.

Creation Care and Missiology 

I would argue that entirely adequate justification for considering creation care as a normal element of an authentically biblical mission agenda can be found in either of two well-known missiological frameworks. 

The first is that which stresses the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and the second sees mission as the church’s proclamation of the Lordship of Christ. Either of these current evangelical missiologies quite naturally provides a foundation for the urgently needed integration of the care of creation into our thinking, and more importantly gives us a solid basis for action. I take it as a given that both understandings of ‘proclamation’ see it as necessarily achieved through word and deed. 

Insights from the fields of anthropology and sociology, have brought the global church to a more biblical recognition that if we are saved, we will come to Christ within our cultures and that the multi-cultural church arises as cultures are transformed and redeemed according to Kingdom thinking and values. 

Reading Scripture in the light of Creation Care 

The Bible is like a seed-bed in arid land whose incredible potential flowers only when the rain arrives. So it is perhaps reasonable that the dormant biblical seeds of creation concern only came to fruition when the growing awareness of ecological crisis in wider society took Christians back to a re-reading of scripture. 

Many of our most cherished passages speak clearly of the participation of the earth itself in God’s purposes, but only recently have we seen their prophetic power or relevance. Hosea 4:1–3, written three millenia before the words marine crisis meant much, is one of the most topical and striking. 

1 Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. 

2 There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. 

3 Because of this the land mourns and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying. 

Having done that biblical work, we then need to face the challenge of seeing what these passages mean for the work of global mission. 

Negative forces 

In order to go forward I think we have to acknowledge candidly some of the drivers of our current reluctance to include environmental concern in our understanding of mission. 

Evangelicals continue to express views that differ considerably about how the effects of personal conversion can be expected to bring about a transformation in wider areas of human life. We do believe the experience of the new Christian is sufficiently radical for us to use the term ‘born again.’ But once born, how much are we going to grow up and change? 

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. 

Similarly, 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 the same way as the preaching of good news of salvation to those who are cut off from God. 

Extending Missiologies 

So in one sense, although it would represent a major psychological shift for most western Christians to lose the ‘people only’ habit of mind 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. After all, the creation sustains us daily and our forgetting that reality is enough of a problem already. So, for the most part, it means changing an anthropocentric mindset that, out of merely habit, stops short of considering creation. 

Practical challenges 

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. 

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. 6 So examples of environmental or conservation initiatives that truly bear the marks of a Christian approach are few and far between. 

Environmental work is going to be necessarily upstream. 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 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. 7 

Finally, there is a shortage of Christian people with the appropriate technical skills; 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. 

Conclusion 

[W]e 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, there is probably little we can do to arrest the rapid degradation that is proving so devastating for them all. 

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."

References:

  1. As I go to press Hilary Marlow’s important new book Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009) has just come into my hands.
  2. Colin E Gunton, Christ and Creation (Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1993)
  3. Mark 4: 41
  4. See for example the most, and only, ‘religious’ word in the WCC Ecumenical Water Network newsletter, October 2007 – ‘inspiring’.
  5. O thou who coverest thy high places with the waters, Who settest the sand as a bound to the sea And dost uphold all things: The sun sings your praises, The moon gives you glory, Every creature offers a hymn to thee, His author and creator, for ever.’ From the Lenten Triodon quoted in Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Oxford: A.R. Mowbray, 1979)
  6. See Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus,The Death of Environmentalism, (www.thebreakthrough.org/PDF/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf, 2004).
  7. 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.’

To take this further Peter Harris recommends the following resources: