Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing. Mark includes one detail about Jesus’ wilderness sojourn not found in the other Gospels: Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Our priest made this the focus of his homily on Sunday. He argued it’s not (as widely assumed) a foreboding statement, as if to portray the animals as a threat to Jesus. Instead, it points to the whole-earth implications of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He didn’t come simply to “save souls.”

Jesus “dwells harmoniously with the wild animals,” signaling the restoration of our relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation. “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God,” our priest said. “But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world he made.”

Tree hugger and proud

Environmentalists often meet their fiercest opposition within certain corners of the church, even when environmentalism is rebranded as “creation care.”

This is partly a reflection of an impoverished eschatology — the belief, fueled in part by the wildly popular Left Behind books, that God will dispose of this world in the end and evacuate the faithful to a spiritual realm. The world is going to burn someday, so why bother saving it? It’s funny how we’ve reimagined God to imitate our compulsive habit of throwing stuff away.

But it’s also reflective of an impoverished creation theology. It’s said we were made to “have dominion” over the earth — to “subdue” it. It’s said that in the order of creation, we are the apex — God’s final creative act in a story where the created elements are introduced in order of importance. We humans top the list.

Except that we don’t.

The problem is, we stop reading at the end of Genesis 1. But the first three verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the story from the previous chapter. The very first chapter division in the Bible is a perfect example of why chapter and verse divisions are such a bad idea. The interrupt the story at random intervals.

When we read the first creation story in its entirety (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3), we see the making of humanity is not the apex of creation. God’s act of resting is the high point.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the first creation story envisions the cosmos as one giant temple. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, temples are where deities went to rest. The earth is God’s intended dwelling place.

We are not the apex of creation. We are not the point of it all. The earth is not ours to exploit and do with as we see fit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Because he’s a generous God, he invites us to share it with him, to dwell here with him. He invites us to rule on his behalf. That’s what it means to “have dominion” over the earth. We are tending it on behalf of God. We are caretakers. Tenants. Stewards.

Once we see our proper place in the creation story, there is no good reason why Christians shouldn’t be the most impassioned environmentalists of all.

4 thoughts on “Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

  1. Ben,

    Wonderful post. It strikes me that this is part of the understanding behind our Ash Wednesday liturgy (we come from the earth, and will return to it.) Many thanks.

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  2. Well, I think like so many things, it’s a matter of priorities and proper balance. Environmentalism is an very popular idol in our country, placed higher than God sometimes in words, more often in actions, and so the Church has naturally and properly reacted against it.

    When I moved to Michigan and got my first electric bill, I found a *mandatory* surcharge for renewable energy. And, *optionally*, I could have a surcharge added to help the poor pay their electric bill. That’s screwed up. But it’s a sign of how high of a place environmentalism holds in our culture. Too high of a place.

    That said – God didn’t create the planet just so we could go smash it up. Anything he makes should be treated with care and some humility. Adam and Eve tended the garden and so should we.

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  3. This is a timely discussion and the Church should be engaged in a vocal and powerful way. It pains me to hear politicians try to use the “dominion” argument as justification for continuing full speed ahead stripping Earth of its resources. And as for those who believe the end is near, so we should milk this planet for all it’s worth… That sounds more like a rock band trashing a hotel room because they know they’ll have a new one soon than it does a Christian earnestly praying for God’s will to be done and for His kingdom to exist on Earth as it is in Heaven.

    Unfortunately, environmental activism gets lumped into a drawer labeled “RADICALLY LIBERAL” by those who would seek to suppress it. There are voices currently attempting to throw nutrition in that drawer, too. It’s mind blowing that the Church as a whole is so relatively quiet on such fundamental issues as taking care with God’s creation including our bodies.

    As for these issues being raised to a level that is inappropriate or idolatrous, I think a lot of that concern is probably brought about largely by the fact that our society tends to pay attention to the radical voices and ignore the reasonable, nuanced ones. Basically, the examples of environmentalism that draw a lot of attention are bound to be the ones that “shout” instead of whisper. Likewise, my wife and I spending a day picking up trash along a river with about thirty people from our church – while we would have never been accused of “putting the creation above the Creator” – we certainly didn’t make the news.

    Thanks for being one of those nuanced voices, Ben.

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