My wife and I had the great privilege recently to enjoy a weekend retreat (in Texas’ hill country) during which we interacted with the topic of creation care in the life of the church. The theme of the weekend was “Creation, Church, and Community,” and the speakers were Eugene Peterson (well-known pastor, theologian, and translator/editor of The Message) and Peter and Miranda Harris, founders of A Rocha, a Christian conservation organization working in 19 countries. We were invited by Tom Rowley, A Rocha’s U.S. Director, who moved to Bend a bit over a year ago.
It was a real treat to be among passionate, like-minded folks, dedicated Christ-followers who rightly understand God’s love for His creation and His expectations of His people to join Him in caring for it.
Caring for creation is, of course, the first commandment of God to His people recorded in Scripture. This commandment was reiterated, and never rescinded. Jesus’ carried the theme through, repeatedly describing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth—which His incarnation initiated—as vineyards and properties left by the master to the care of his stewards.
As one who has worked life-long in the field of conservation biology, I recognize (with the Harrises and others) the need to work together with those who don’t acknowledge the Creator. At the same time, I realize that it is those of us who know and worship Him who have the greatest justification for engaging in protection of this planet and the people and other living things that inhabit it. The secular naturalists with whom I often work offer reasons for caring about conservation, but those reasons are anthropocentric, short-term, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Care for the environment is, of course, a justice issue. And that is in at least two ways. First, the creation itself—the soils, water, atmosphere, and all living creatures—has great worth, and whenever we treat it with less respect than it warrants we commit an act (and betray an attitude) of injustice. Secondly, it is the marginalized and voiceless people of the majority world—those living in poverty—who directly experience the results of environmental degradation. (Whereas we have a mediated relationship with the environment—insulated by our air conditioning, gated communities, and other comforts—the global majority have an unmediated relationship with the environment.) So poor stewardship of the Earth leads directly to harm for the people God created and whose care He has entrusted to His followers.
But if God loves His whole creation, and expects His people to care for it, why has the church—particularly in America—abdicated its role of good stewardship? (Of the many countries in which A Rocha has attempted to establish Christian creation care centers or projects, it is in the U.S. that this biblical message has faced the most obstacles.) Harris shared that each nation’s church has its own barriers to effective conservation, and identified some of those specific to America and its churches. These include our characteristic materialism and consumerism (which is exacerbated by the mixed blessing of abundant natural resources and space), a business-model approach to church life, a growing skepticism toward science, and the politicization of environmental issues. I would add as factors a dubious eschatology and an equally erroneous modern understanding of the doctrines of creation and fall. More deeply, perhaps, there is (as a distinctive of American evangelicalism) a spiritualization of the gospel—a narrow focus on the saving of souls for the next life that disregards Jesus’ holistic message of the redemption of the entire creation through His in-breaking kingdom.
There is great hope though—embodied by folks like those that came together in Texas—that the church is returning to a right understanding of God’s call upon us to care for His creation. I’m excited about the work that A Rocha and others are initiating and by the increasing frequency of discussions within the church of this neglected issue. I am especially heartened by the passion of a younger generation of Christ-followers who seem to innately recognize that to claim to love God while at the same time disrespecting His creation is hypocrisy of the highest order.
Peter Harris will be a pre-conference speaker at the Justice Conference in Philadelphia in February. I also recommend his books, Under the Bright Wings (which recounts the early years of A Rocha in Portugal) and Kingfisher’s Fire, which carries the story of A Rocha to more recent times.