‘Happy Earth Day 2021!’ Is that an appropriate thing to say? I suppose there is some good news we can point to. Mr Joe Biden is now in the White House as US President, rather than that other bloke, and the first speaker at Biden’s two day summit of global leaders on the Climate Emergency is our very own Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says that this is a very important meeting. Its not about ‘bunny hugging’, or any other trivial fun one might have at a child’s party. Its now time for leaders to lead and generally behave as grown-ups should. If we don’t add globally collective ‘decisive’ action to just talking about the problem, each future ‘Earth Day’ will essentially be a count down to climate oblivion, as average global temperature continues to rise beyond any hope of rescue.
The list of things we should be doing differently should be as memorable as the things the five little pigs do when parents count children’s toes. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home. This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none. And this little piggy went ‘Wee, wee, weeeeeeee!’ all the way home.” And then we tickle them and they squeal like piglets and maybe we stop when they tell us to.
There are many ways of counting how many things we need to stop doing badly, and start doing differently to avert climate catastrophe. We’ve done pretty well in the UK at reducing one of the key drivers of climate change by decarbonising our energy production. In May 2019 our National Grid managed to generate electricity for the entire country without using any coal for a week. In 2020 we managed a clear run of 55 days until the wind speed fell temporarily in August – the huge Drax station was turned on again until the wind picked up once more.1 Significant restructuring of the whole energy production system will be required to cut carbon emissions ever more drastically and very permanently, including a move to local energy production and temporary energy storage.
So that’s number one. Here’s some more that you can count off with me on your fingers.
Number two: We need to change our transport choices, reducing individual use of high carbon journeys in our petrol and diesel burning cars in favour of clean electric and public transport solutions.
Number three: Our homes and most other buildings are not heat efficient. We need a massive retrofitting programme to insulate our dwellings, curb heat wastage and switch to energy efficient versions of everything. This can work with locally facilitated collective programmes of insulation and energy sharing.
Number four: In common with the other organisms on our planet, we must eat. But the way we do agriculture has got to change, as the intensive and over-technical system we have arrived at in the cause of economic efficiency is costing us the earth. Literally. Science has given us many wonderful things, including fertiliser and pesticides and aeroplanes, with which we import green beans and roses from Kenya. Now Kenyans don’t have enough water to grow their own food – I know this, because I’ve been, and yes, I did fly there, and home again. The wooden market stalls in the villages display modest quantities of ground maize flour, green kales, rosy red tomatoes and a few tiny sun-dried fish they call Omena. The only place there is beef is in the city shops.
And number five? That will be the right sorts of jobs. Obviously there have to be jobs and an economy- all very necessary, but what sort of economy, and so what sorts of jobs? As we know through the pandemic, when some people can’t go to work anymore, that is devastating for everyone, sooner or later. So we have to recreate our economies and create new ways of doing business and employing people. That would be a ‘Green Deal’ that includes everyone. We need grown up solutions for this entire network of big grown-up problems and challenges.
We will only be able to invent and implement such radical shifts in behaviour by reaching for radical paradigms– different modes of thinking about how to live in this world of which we are part. We are both very small– one individual can make very little difference to most things in the world, as a rule- and yet we are also very big. 2The collective impact of our singular species- the human race- on Planet Earth over the last century and a half, and especially the last half century, has been massive. Is it possible that something as very old and traditional as the Bible could offer us thinking tools for such a paradigm shift? Might the Bible speak from a worldview that effectively encompasses the scale of humans as individuals and as a group, including the full range of our interactions with one another and our planetary habitat? I think it does. This is a big claim: I am not at all the first to make it. Nor do I consider it straightforward to establish, because we must avoid all manner of anachronisms, deliberate stereotypes and innocent misconceptions if this claim is to be made good. We need to consider what the Bible is for, the voice and registers in which it speaks, and the purposes for which it is composed – thus a grasp of all these factors will enable us to read it in a manner pertinent and relevant to our current agenda.
To briefly sketch out an exposition of this thesis, I am going to touch on three scriptural sources that I suggest offer insights from which we can triangulate an outline map of the world view of the Bible. Please write back to me to let me know how accurate or persuasive you think this is.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.Genesis 1:26-31 ESV
Even a six verse extract of Genesis chapter one can be misread if we aren’t familiar with the context, so read the whole thing if you need to. Now please, we’re not reading a science textbook. That’s really not a criticism of Genesis! But we must avoid the category error. Science is not the sole and supreme mode of knowledge. Indeed, a hundred years and more ago, Theology was described as the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ which is to say, the second-best way possible to know about what is worth knowing. The best way of all, of course, would be a personal audience with God, but that could be problematic too, as I need things explaining in words I understand. What Genesis 1 does say to us is what God’s relationship is with God’s creation, and who and what we are within it. What it does address is some misconceptions that were around at the time of composition, and its these that get corrected. But the agenda of science didn’t exist then, so it shouldn’t be considered to be in the frame of view. I will mention some scientific concepts in passing, but if you think there’s a clash, don’t be alarmed, because that’s an artefact of one modern reading frame.
God gets rather a lot done on Day 6. Humans are created on the same day as most of the rest of what biologists now call the Animal Kingdom, emphasising that we are very similar, and yet different, as we do have our own special mention. First the animals are blessed, and then so are we. At the conclusion of all God’s making, the green plants are gifted to the animals and the people for food. Similar and connected in the same (ecological) network. A ‘Theology of the Commons’, we might say.
Why ‘similar and different’ all at once? Perhaps because it was common amongst the cultures of the ancient Near East to have a blatant ‘class’ system: kings and important people, who had delusions of deity, on the one hand, and the majority riff raff on the other. And then perhaps slaves as well- third class! Another idea popularised in their myths was that humans were a by product of the origins of everything important, i.e. the gods and their favourites and all the important stuff they got up to, fighting mostly, but once that was over, they needed someone to take care of the menial chores. So that’s where people came in. ‘You’re lucky to be here, as you get to look after us and do as you’re told! And keep your voices down, while you are about it.’ Adding insult to injury, the important royalty type folk actually considered themselves more or less as gods and goddesses, very obviously lording it over everyone else. Being associated with deities as a special favour is a convenient way of keeping everyone else in their place- places very much over there.
Genesis chapter one redraws this oppressive worldview, revealing most wonderfully what the True God really thinks about us and everything else, positioning us at a viewpoint which we can all enjoy because it is an expression of the grace of God. This cosmological vista is a description of principles, opening our vision to significant things which we could never see or measure with our own senses, however technologically enhanced they may have become in our day.
We’re not just lucky to be here, a random product of a cosmos that didn’t mean to make us. Rather, we are the deliberate free creation of the Loving God who is supremely capable of actually making what He sets out to make, fully accurate in every realised intention- its good; and then approved of in full through explicit blessing.
Obviously we are part of creation, contiguous with everything else, and sharing in the common material being of the animate and inanimate. But matter is not grubby dirty dirt. God made it through a dignified creative process, and works it ‘hands on’ into us as a particular sign of intimate creativity. All the organisms are the product of the same respectful process of creation: there are no afterthoughts or left-overs. (If there is any reference to fighting at all, its been quietly dealt with in Gen 1:2) As an antidote to anyone’s overinflated ego, everything is blessed- everything is good, and everything together is very good. We’re all in it together!
In one sense, we share the principle of life with the other living things, though here the scripture overrules our modern category. ‘The breath of life’ is sustained in animals and people by the gift of food supplied by the plants God has made. This really is a gift- God specifically says so. Its not just taken– taken for granted, as we might say. Even this relationship is spelt out. So in Genesis, the life of plants is not of the same order as that of animals or people, and this realisation is perhaps acknowledged by this gifting. We are all close and made of exactly the same stuff as inanimate matter- a principle not fully appreciated by science for a long time- and yet there is difference decreed by God, within a framework of gift and blessing, not random or arbitrary favouritism, or the result of exploitation or oppression, or dictatorial whimsy.
But God is not done. The ancients were kind of right- there is a special bunch, but not at all in the way they were tempted to think. God comes straight out with it: You humans are all like me- like ‘us‘. Its hard to pin down what God is like, obviously. English versions keep saying ‘He’ about God, which is inadequate. The Hebrew has this ‘Like us’ construction, awkwardly translated into English, giving this sense that the ONE God of Israel is complicated, or ineffable, as theologians say (Dictionary: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.) But whatever God is like, God says we are too. Yet we are not gods. Whatever this paradox is saying that is useful, we quickly see sense in the explanation God gives: ‘You go and do what I would do. The land, animals and fish, birds and plants, and earth and everything I have made- YOU go and be in charge of it.’
Now we crash into one of those big stereotypes- what exactly does ruling and subduing and all that dominion stuff mean? Well, its not as bad as has been made out by many. It does not mean that we can trawl the ocean bottom for fish until the stocks are depleted and the reefs destroyed. It doesn’t mean turning the fields to monoculture maintained by pesticides which drives birds from their habitats. It doesn’t mean digging up the coal and drilling for oil to drive a billion internal combustion engines until a billion years of sequestered carbon has been returned to the atmosphere in just a century, or to manufacture untold quantities of plastic which once discarded after one use collects in oceanic gyres, before crumbling into microscopic pieces and being absorbed by whatever life remains in the poisoned oceans on this lonely blue planet. Isn’t it obvious? Shouldn’t it be obvious? How could we not think that all that went before in the Genesis passage which was a corrective to the oppressive myths of Israel’s neighbours three or more thousand years ago shouldn’t also stand as a corrective to the selfishness and exploitation that has exploded as a cultural cancer in the collective human mind over recent decades? Whatever the inspiration for the accumulated and presently increasing oppression of the planet and all life on earth may have been, it did not come from a faithful reading of the first chapter of Genesis, whatever biased critics may claim. Recall the care, dignity and respect with which God’s actions of creation are described. Recall that God charges the humans, collectively: ‘Do what I would do.’ Are these the sorts of actions that God would have acted if God had carried on working after the creation week, instead of leaving it all to us? Of course not.
About half way through the library of books we call ‘Bible’- that’s what it means- we get to another stand out creative episode. Isaiah was one of many prophets who spoke God’s words in God’s stead- sometimes quoting the Almighty, sometimes adapting or recreating YHWH’s meaning, and sometimes speaking with delegated authority. This is part of the shared work of dominion in God’s image, doing what God would do, and on His sanctioned behalf. God’s good creation project has been assailed from within by rebellion, but God has not given up on it, or given up on His esteemed and selected partners. In words that we humans can just about understand, God is still revealing that He is creating solutions to the problems we have made- most pointedly, the problem of us.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah 55: 10-13
Just as in Genesis 1, God is speaking, and God’s word is irresistibly effective. I want to draw your attention to one detail in this reprise and development of the opening Genesis scenes. The effects of sin on creation in Genesis chapter 3 verses 17 and 18, mysteriously described in terms of the land bearing thorns and thistles, are now to be reversed. At God’s sovereign Word, ‘instead’ of thorn and brier there will grow the cypress and myrtle. Nothing at all remarkable about that, we might think. Sounds like the entirely regular language of landscape gardening. But I think there is more going on in the language of Isaiah than is generally recognised. In verse 12, we read, ‘The mountains… shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ This is not poetry in the mode of G Manley Hopkins or T S Eliot, who were unashamedly inspired by the expression of Hebrew scripture, without a doubt. But this is not the same thing at all as what we now call poetry, where simile and metaphor are deployed with a knowing wink to our modern appreciation for what the make up of the world is ‘really’ like. If we enquire of the modern poet as to the cause and precise sounds made by ‘clapping trees,’ we are cautioned with an appeal to poetic licence. 3 I think this is a mistake. The ancients would have recognised our current descriptions of poetic language- with variations. I am sure that is true. But I think God is revealing something deeper that is veiled behind such poetry. In a seamless robe, this text melds what we know to be the regular cycle of water, as rain and snow and so on, the seasonal flux of seedtime and harvest, and also with the extra–ordinary interjections to all that we think of as ‘normality’ that are brought about by the Rhema Word of Yahweh God. The consequences of the judgements of God in Genesis 3 would continue were it not for the prophetic word brought by Isaiah: the wild-thistles-to-majestic-cypress imagery is more than mere gardening. While in verse 12 it becomes clear that both human language and the full spectrum of our natural experience do not stretch far enough to adequately convey the depths of the divine underpinnings of what we habitually categorise as Nature. Singing hills? Clapping trees? This imagery is hinting heavily at mode of responsiveness of the creation to its Creator beyond its conventional qualities. When the relationship between God’s humans and the God who imaged them is mended, the rest of the non-human creation will have something to sing about, says Isaiah.
If this is too colourful for you, remember the words of Jesus in red in the New Testament.
Balaam would not disagree. Nor would his donkey.
Am I guilty of unwarranted exaggeration? Well, let’s see what St Paul has to say.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:22 ESV
These remarks in the Letter to the Romans have withstood the increasing assault of modern rationalism, now for over two millennia. Whatever Paul is up to in this passage, this text is neither poetry, nor prophecy. More like cold-blooded theological journalism. Its up to us as individuals to decide how to respond to the challenges that Paul and the other apostles put to us in their letters in the name of the God and Father of the one they call the Lord Jesus Christ. But I think it is inevitable that we have to conclude that Paul was very serious in his use of terminology when he wrote this paragraph. He insists that we understand the priority of God, and the way that Jesus Christ has been elevated to the highest position of esteem and glory in and over God’s created cosmos. At the start of the book, Paul makes clear that all created things are utterly subservient to the true Creator God, revealed according to the Jewish scriptures, and in the person of Jesus, who Paul met on the road to Damascus in most spectacular fashion. In Acts 17:22ff we hear Paul gently but firmly correcting the Athenian Gentiles, reasoning that neither created things nor objects made by men could rival the Divine Person of YHWH God, incarnate as the Messiah Jesus.
So while the scriptures taken as a whole are really only clear and insistent on a limited number of key claims, mostly about the revelation of God in human history, undertaken at God’s own sovereign initiative, inviting us to respond to His mercy and grace in Jesus Christ to come back to full relationship with God, there are enough clues and hints that there is more to the characteristics of the created environment of which we are also part than is understood in the worldview of our modern world, shaped in large part by science and technology. These ‘hints and clues’ are not just peripheral details that we can allow to fade into the background of our understanding: they are vital ingredients in a worldview fundamentally contrasting with the one we are now familiar with.
Please let me emphasise: I am not speaking here about what lessons we can learn from creation itself about God- about spiritual matters, questions of transcendence, about how and why the world is the way, issues beyond the strict boundaries of the sciences. Our study here is about the internal worldview of the Bible, and what that has to say about creation. To illustrate that difference, let’s see what Alister McGrath has to say in his introductory text on Christian theology:
Christian orthodoxy holds that we cannot claim much about the importance of nature, or the ‘created order’ for telling us about who God is– we can only really know God through God’s self-revelation in Jesus and in Scripture. There is no significant role for so-called ‘Natural Theology.’ But McGrath is happy to say that we can hear Creation speaking to us, functioning as a clear signpost, with a distinct message that makes sense in human terms about God. Yet there are further ‘intimations’ as I have outlined, not functioning as a direct witness, but nevertheless holding that the Creation itself has surprising agency in the biblical worldview.
What then might Christians have to say about our relationship with this Earth which is our only physical home in God’s cosmos? How do we calibrate our response to the climate emergency in the light of biblical revelation?
On one hand, I think we ought to be cautious. The escalating ecological catastrophe is now progressing at a great remove from the events and testimony of the Bible, including the New Testament, in which Paul, James, Peter and also Jesus speak in the text with the expectation of the impending resolution of human history. For the lives of those around at the time, that was accurate enough. But the ‘groaning’ of creation was to do with the burden of human sin, which need not be thought of as having increased or decreased in significance in God’s sight in the centuries that have elapsed since then.
How is it that climate change has now reached the scale of a planet threatening emergency? Simply for this reason: human beings went forth and multiplied, now exponentially so over the last couple of centuries, and especially in my lifetime. There are now more people on the planet than the total of the number of people who have ever lived in human history prior to my birth. This population growth results from our technological facility that allowed us to exploit the resources we use to collectively feed, cloth, house and generally keep ourselves comfortable. For too many, these comforts are not measured in sufficiency- not in what we could reasonably claim to need, but in our wants, which prove insatiable, resulting in the vast overindulgence of the few at the expense of the many, and now very much at the expense of the planet itself.
Are these sins greater than the offenses committed in earlier eras? This is a nonsense question: the matter of our broken relationship with God, our broken relationships with each other, and with the world God put in our collective care is one of kind, not of degree. ‘We were dead (spiritually speaking)’, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. You can’t be any more dead than dead. So I do not consider the ‘groaning’ that Paul refers to in Romans 8 to be any worse now than it was when he wrote these words.
And yet- on the other hand…
It must surely be that the stench of our collective actions in this generation is very great in God’s nostrils, and we ought to be highly exercised about that. God went down to Sodom, says Genesis 18:21, to check out the ‘outcry’ about what was going on was accurate. God must surely be nearby to us in this most dire and grave of situations.
And is it at this time that we find that the magnitude of the trouble we have caused to God’s Earth is now beyond our scope and responsibility to address, even less to mend? Will the scale of the apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves and this good world that God made and gifted into our care now make a mockery of the hopes once placed in us, hopes now dashed and exposed in their naiveté? I do not think so. What we now face, individually and collectively, is a challenge of cosmic proportions. It will take a response on a scale that many would admit requires divine intervention. It is the claim of the scriptures from Genesis, Isaiah, Romans and throughout the Bible that the people of God in formation, the very Body of Christ, are in fact the imagers of God at God’s will and behest; we are indeed viceregents of the Divine and God’s representatives on earth, and since the giving of the Holy Spirit to the redeemed People of God, God is now Present with us even as we find ourselves here at this moment- when we can pray,
Your kingdom come! Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Never has the earth needed this prayer, and its hasty answer. If we are prepared to agree together to be content simply with daily bread, then we can expect this prayer to be answered in the grace of God. Its answer will be found in the transformation of the ways in which we live collectively on this planet we have been gifted, as outlined in the five points I described at the start. I daresay that prayer will be vital to achieving these transformations.
(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson
Maggie Shipstead says something similar in her interview with Helen Brown on her forthcoming novel about travel, ‘Great Circle’:
As we end our call, I push Shipstead for a line that will make sense of her brilliant book. But she doesn’t want to play. “It’s a book about questions more than answers,” she says. “People want to know what I’m trying to say. But it’s a story I made up while thinking about freedom and scale. A human life is incredibly tiny and incredibly huge depending on what you set it against. I don’t think about readers when I’m writing, because that is paralysing.” She pauses. “But maybe I’d like them to think about what they’d have to sacrifice to be free.” Accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/maggie-shipstead-interview-great-circle-b1840137.html on 3 May 2021 The ‘paralysis’ Shipstead speaks of may well apply to authors of fiction- but for theologians, the daunting responsibility of speaking to others must be faced head on.
3 Luke 19:40 This website is one example that sticks with the conventional reading. ‘Simply metaphorical and poetic language, my dear.’ https://www.gotquestions.org/rocks-cry-out.html
This site https://todaydevotional.com/devotions/the-stones-will-cry-out is a little stronger, pointing out that Psalm 19 is an example of ‘creation speaking in its own way.’ But I think this is still fudging the matter, concealing the proper theological conclusions.
4 The sound of wind rustling through bamboo stems, a Chinese version of the natural clapping of trees. Listen at https://freesound.org/people/Benboncan/sounds/69760/
5 Alister McGrath, Theology for Amateurs, 1999. Chapter 9. Making connections: the doctrine of creation. p65
6 https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/international-programs/historical-est-worldpop.html AND https://snappygoat.com/free-public-domain-images-population_curve_svg/SThiwt4B8yoHirOWvC-i4bwb8r2kUmc22L6P1yEsSC8.html#,0,0.dd325e6a4638433cd2623dcd78e6a5fd7cf46a44
7 Earth from space image: work-sea-nature-ocean-light-sun-549306-pxhere.com