Nick Jowett is a former Chair of CAP (Church Action on Poverty) Sheffield and former Vicar and Methodist minister at St Andrew's Psalter Lane Church, Sheffield.
The Young Christian Climate Network is planning a relay to the COP26 Conference in Glasgow in November 2021. Their website declares that ‘The climate crisis is a reflection, and a cause, of deep injustice in the world. This crisis arises from our abuse of God’s creation, and our broken relationship with our neighbours worldwide who suffer most from its consequences. We are convinced of the biblical mandate to care for creation, and lament its exploitation.’
Many other Christians will be taking action this year to put pressure on our own government and the governments of the world to take radical action to save our environment, for, as Caleb Gordon and Hannah Malcolm have pointed out in Modern Believing (Spring 2021), there has been in recent years a phenomenal increase in UK churches’ engagement with environmental issues.
Unfortunately, however, this has sometimes been accompanied by theological reflection of a shallow and unconvincing nature. Environmental theology is too often based on readings of the Bible which are simplistic or lop-sided, or the Bible is ‘forced’ to say things the writers were simply not concerned about. The notion of a ‘biblical mandate’ to care for creation, although it can certainly be argued for, is far less clear than some would claim. Finally there is a tendency to ignore the other basic sources of Christian theology: Church tradition and contemporary reason/experience, which provide strong motivations for environmental responsibility.
There may also be a desire to suppress aspects of Christian tradition which point against creation care. As well as arguing about environmental issues from solid parts of our tradition, we should also be honest about those that have not pointed in that direction or even in a different direction.
Misuse of the Bible in relation to creation and the environment comes in several forms:
- The most common misuse arises when a writer trawls through the concordance for any mentions of animals, plants, nature etc. and then affirms that God must specially want us to protect them. Many of these references are simply passing mentions of the Middle Eastern setting or creatures involved in a story and imply no deeper environmental meaning. For example, Ruth Valerio, in her 2020 Lent Book ‘Saying Yes to Life’, piles up references to quails dropping from the sky, ravens feeding Elijah, Jonah’s whale, eagles and birds of the air and even the Holy Spirit as a dove, as she attempts to convince the reader that the Bible says something specific and profound about animals. Richard Bauckham, in the mainly excellent ‘The Bible and Ecology’, makes something out of nothing when he claims that Jesus being peacefully with the wild animals in the wilderness, feeding the five thousand or stilling the storm shows some deep ecological position.
- Another way the Bible is misused is when one or two tiny texts are allowed to trump the overwhelming content and import of scripture. For example, taking the words of Colossians 1 in which Christ is seen as the one in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created and through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, Bauckham argues that this says something about the salvation of the earth itself and all creation. Well, yes, it sort of means that, but set against the overwhelming concern of the New Testament that salvation is about individual humans or communities, does it really register a deep ecological concern? I hardly think so. Even in Romans 8, where Paul talks about the creation having been subjected to futility and groaning in labour pains until it can be freed from its bondage to decay, the language is deeply mixed with the hopes of humans for their own redemption into a glorious liberation. The Bible is concerned with human or national salvation, not really with environmental issues.
- Thirdly, it’s not at all straightforward to use the opening chapters of Genesis as pointers for right human behaviour in the environment. Here we have a mythic picture of an ideal, harmonious world, with humankind allowed to ‘subdue’ the earth and have a presumably benign ‘dominion’ over all living things. It’s possible to link these chapters with the prophets’ images of the peaceable kingdom, the lion lying down with the lamb and the child playing near the deadly snake, and all the rest, but it’s clear that neither is a realistic picture of our evolutionary world and neither is ever likely to be.
- A fourth misuse of the Bible in ecological interpretations is to impose a grand cosmological-historical narrative on its disparate texts, with an imagined movement from creation in Genesis through a history of God’s people culminating in the incarnation and ending with Revelation’s ‘new heaven and new earth’. Such ‘canonical’ readings essentially belong within the theology of Christian tradition, but they are far removed both from the literary purposes of the various writers of the scriptural texts and certainly very far from what modern science knows of cosmology. And it seems to me that they say nothing about our current ecological crisis other than the very unhelpful conclusion that some human groups could hope to escape the dreadful end-time cataclysms into a paradise pictured in symbolic language.
It is, of course, entirely legitimate to quote texts of the Bible which speak of the wonder and goodness of the earth, with words of praise to God as its source and sustainer. The opening chapters of Genesis and many of the psalms reflect a delight and appreciation of God’s gifts in the created order and are justifiably quoted to celebrate an appreciation of the earth, its seas and mountains, plants and animals – nature and humanity seen in a benign light. But then we also need the final chapters of Job as a challenge to any simplistic ‘all-things-bright-and-beautiful’ picture of creation, for here God bursts on to the scene and puts Job’s sufferings and complaints into the awesome perspective of the wildness, grandeur, weirdness and sheer unfathomability of the creation. Humanity, with its little pains and problems, is put into its place and is left simply boggling at what the world actually is. The idea that we could have any control over it is, so to speak, for the birds. The role of mountaintops, wilderness and seas as awesome and terrifying (Moses or Jesus on mountains, in the wilderness or crossing seas; psalms about the sea such as Psalm 107 or Jonah 2) might be added here. The Bible knows that we are not as much in control as we might like to think.
So the Bible is legitimately used both in texts of wonder and praise for creation and in references to its wild, unfathomable and terrifying aspects.
In what ways might the traditions of church theology add to this basic picture? I have already mentioned the Bible’s strongly human-centred preoccupations, and these, until very recently, have been reaffirmed in Christian tradition: salvation has been about human individuals accepting God’s grace in Christ and being promised eternal salvation. But there have been two aspects of Christian theology, built on the foundation of biblical tradition which do throw light on the environmental crisis of today.
One is the picture of humanity, made in the image of God, but fallen and ineradicably sinful. Humanity is still struggling, and often failing, to care for the earth as a good steward in the image of the imagined ideal, the ‘not-yet-fallen’ Adam and Eve. Scripture does not hesitate to picture the dire physical and ecological disasters which result from human sin and God’s wrathful judgement (e.g. Jeremiah 4.23-28), but we may wish to interpret such ‘judgements’ as the inherent consequences of dangerous meddling – humans like sorcerer’s apprentices getting over their heads in things they can’t control: there will inevitably be evil results from evil behaviour. Few people now can be unaware of the desperate scenarios which would unroll if we did nothing about carbon emissions
The other aspect of church tradition is the recent ‘rediscovery’ or reaffirmation of a Christian holistic attitude to all that is. Platonic or gnostic notions, that only the spiritual realm is true and eternal, while the physical world is inferior and to-be-escaped-from, are not true to the Hebrew Scriptures’ this-worldly concerns nor in fact to the New Testament’s affirmation of the physical world expressed in the incarnation of Christ and in the hope of the resurrection body. In this view the incarnation involves God’s embrace not just of humanity but of physical stuff in toto, so that what is ‘raised’ in resurrection is potentially the whole cosmos. A passage in Proverbs 8 connected with the first chapter of John’s Gospel can be used to envision the Wisdom or Word of God rejoicing in the creation of the world, delighting in human beings and coming to dwell with us on earth, so affirming God’s desire to save the whole earth. Even if that theological argument has some legitimacy, we should remember that, if we are looking only at the biblical writers’ concepts of salvation, they are about national and then individual hopes, not about the saving of the earth. Nevertheless this ‘rediscovery’ gives grounds for a care for the body of the earth, from which we come.
And yet we are now also very aware that Christian tradition tended until the last century to promote a humanocentric theology which gave permission to humans to exert a malign domination and exploit the natural world, and that is something of which we still need publicly to show our contrite awareness.
Nevertheless many of the saints had a positive relationship with animals and nature. The early desert Fathers and Mothers lived away from human habitations and, like Anthony of Egypt with his pig or Jerome with his lion, are reputed to have had a close relationship with animals. In their prayers the Celtic saints rejoiced in the natural world. Cuthbert is the patron saint of otters. Everyone knows about St Francis and his deep relationship with birds and animals, and all aspects of the natural world. Philip Neri in the 16th century was a vegetarian on the ground of animal welfare. The creation sections of our hymnbooks contain many favourites.
Rationality and personal experience can often be underplayed when formulating Christian theology and policy, but they are vitally important. There can be little doubt that modern Christians have become aware and conscientized in the issues of global warming, pollution of the natural world and loss of biodiversity, not by their reading of the Bible but by the reports of scientific research, numerous films, actual increasing natural disasters and our own direct experience of, for example, species decline.
Any means by which we as Christians can increase our motivation to change our way of life and to convince our neighbours and our governments of the absolute urgency of a paradigm shift to an environmentally friendly future must be good, but we should be aware that the Bible and Christian tradition in some of their aspects and interpretations do actually weaken that nerve of effort.
We do not know what lies ahead for the earth. As Jesus reminded his disciples in relation to apocalyptic scenarios of the future, ‘About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’ (Mark 13.32-33) The world now needs to be very alert and open to every sort of motivation for action to mitigate and reverse the devastating effects that humankind has visited on the earth. For Christians, there can certainly be biblical motivation, as well as many other sources, and perhaps there is one injunction that essentially covers all ecological responsibility: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ We must see the people in the global south, the animals, the seas, the plants, the air and every part of the earth itself as ‘neighbours’ in need of our strong practical love.