Creation bears enduring testimony to God’s goodness
Care for Creation Commentary on the Season of Creation—Year B 2012
By Rob Saler
The First Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year B: Planet Earth Sunday
As we begin the Season of Creation cycle, one of the most important historical facts of which preachers can remind their congregations is that, in contrast to many cosmologies before and since the advent of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Christian scriptural canon uniformly celebrates the goodness of creation.
The writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible came about in an ancient Near Eastern (ANE) intellectual climate in which common protology –that is, creation mythology—often cast the creation of the Earth as indifferent, as accidental, or even as an act of malice on the part of various deities. A sort of pessimism pervades the given-ness of creation within many ANE writings (such as the Enuma Elish), which has led many scholars to conclude that the seeming serenity that imbues the narrative of Genesis 1--a narrative in which God simply speaks, and without conflict the various parts of the earth come into being—is to a certain extent polemical: the author/redactor of Genesis is making the point that creation reflects the deep intentionality of its Creator, and that the intentional divine fashioning of the environment within which we find ourselves grants an inherent value to that environment. Within the ANE setting, this celebration of creation represented a substantial break from many of the dominant cosmologies at hand.
The Psalm, too, reflects such a mindset. In Psalm 33, God’s power is manifest in the absolute ease of God’s work of creation, as poetically described in vs. 6-9. Moreover, like Genesis, the Psalm links God’s role as “fashioner” of the earth (or, as the Nicene Creed would have it, God as “poet” of heaven and earth) with the inherent goodness of such divine activity: God’s goodness “delivers” those in need. It is worth noticing that, while accounts of divine attributes influenced by process metaphysics are much in vogue among contemporary ecological theologians, here the text seems to point towards a synthesis of divine attributes more characteristic of “classical” Christian metaphysics: God’s omni-benevolence is a function of God’s omnipotence, and vice versa. The perfectly powerful Poet of the Earth is the perfectly effective Lover of that same earth; therein lies the hope of the Psalmist (vs. 22).
Finally, this same interplay of goodness and polemic that is found in the Old Testament readings also animates the Romans text. While Paul here is making a larger point about what the later Christian tradition would call “natural theology,” that is, the ability of humans to discern something about God’s nature prior to or apart from receiving special revelation, his argument depends upon his deeply embedded Jewish belief that the goodness of creation is self-evident, and that the evidence of this goodness requires that one “honor” the intentions of the Creator who fashioned such goodness. The failure to look upon creation and discern divine intention, divine goodness, and also the mandate to honor the Creator (note: NOT to worship the creation itself) is for Paul sufficiently serious so as to be prime evidence of the fundamental sinfulness of the human condition.
It is sobering to contemplate whether much contemporary Christianity, to the extent that it makes peace with environmental degradation even as it claims the gift of special revelation of God’s “goodness” in Christ, would pass muster with this initial ground-clearing on Paul’s part. I suspect that that many of us, upon hearing in the prologue to John’s Gospel that the light of the world came into the world but “the world did not know him” and did not “accept” him, take comfort in a kind of ironic hindsight: while the world of Jesus’ time rejected him, surely those of us who have inherited two thousand years of the church’s proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” would not make such a mistake! So we tell ourselves. But if we Christians, no less than the non-believers whom Paul excoriates in this opening chapter of Romans, do not look upon creation and see first and foremost the divine intention that such creation bear enduring testimony to God’s goodness, then are we not even more worthy of blame than those who rejected God’s testimony in the first place? The more we claim to worship the Creator God and the Incarnate Word, yet treat the material environment as something less than God’s good creation through which God intends to be honored, the more hollow our testimony becomes.
For it is hard to deny that the sort of pessimism—or at least ambivalence—concerning the goodness of creation from which the biblical texts sought to free theology has long haunted the Christian tradition. As Paul Santmire masterfully demonstrates in his text The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, while such early Christian thinkers as Irenaeus and Lactantius used the goodness featured in Christian protological understanding to inform their eschatologies (accounts of the culmination of creation, or “last things”), the creeping influence of such intellectual currents as Neoplatonism (with its view that created matter is less spiritually significant than non-material “forms”), as well as increasingly pessimistic views of the “world” as such, soon led Christian theology into a pattern of viewing creation as less good than the non-material, spiritualized “heavens.” Such favoring of a nonmaterial heaven over the created Earth informed an eschatology of escapism, in which the culmination of the lives of individual believers as well as the Earth itself results in the end of creation and the advent of a totally spiritual “heaven.”
As scholars such as Barbara Rossing, N.T. Wright, and Norman Habel have insisted, this escapist “tradition”—which arguably remains the single most dominant eschatological mindset present among Christians of all denominations, no matter how liberal or conservative—completely traduces the biblical witness, beginning with Genesis and culminating in the book of Revelation (where the author bears witness to God’s renewal of the face of the earth). Fidelity to the scripture—a hallmark of much theology and preaching—requires that we be no less celebratory of creation (and no less vigilant against that which would degrade creation) than are the Bible’s own texts.
Indeed, for those of us who seek to have our contemporary preaching be in apostolic continuity with the witness of the early Christians, it is also important that we recognize how central the affirmation of creation’s goodness was to those patristic authors who combatted the influence of Gnosticism within the church. While Gnosticism appears to have been a highly variegated phenomenon in the early centuries of the church, one unifying feature of the various Gnostic cosmologies was a sense that matter was a “prison” of sorts, a prison which enlightened spirits should seek to escape in order to return to a nonmaterial state. The parallels between Gnosticism and the popular belief among Christians that the point of earthly life is to make it to a nonmaterial “heaven” (at which point the earth can be dispensed with) should make one thing clear: the fight to honor creation as part of our Christian faith in our time is, among other things, part of the church’s ongoing fight against Gnosticism in our culture and in our church. The church fathers thought that fight was worth winning for the sake of God’s church; similarly, we feel that the fight is worth winning for the sake of God’s world.
Indeed, given the aforementioned interweaving of celebration and polemic characteristic of all of this week’s texts, “fight” is not too strong of a word. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out the importance of “preaching as if we have enemies.” While many of us might wish to think of the default setting of Christian rhetoric being peacefulness, Hauerwas’ point is that bad theology has real consequences—for the church and, by extension, the world. We see that in the ways in which escapist Christian theologies have aided and abetted Christian apathy towards environmental abuse. While preachers will need to use discretion as to how much polemic might be appropriate for this opening Sunday of Season of Creation, in some contexts it might be appropriate to borrow the synthesis of joy in the goodness of what God has made and anger at those theologies and practices that would “dishonor” creation that these texts model so well. The opportunity to combat contemporary Gnosticism through celebration of God’s fashioning for us a world (Genesis) or of God’s sending God’s own Logos to redeem that world (John) is one that many congregations might truly enjoy!