Creation ethics and other weirdness

December 17, 2009

activism / theology

One of the weirdest things about my life over the last four years or so, both for the last part of my time in Lakeland, Florida and the entirety of my time in Atlanta, is that I’ve spent the time being part of multiple churches. I have been a part of various emerging and/or Emergent communities, while simultaneously being a part of much more traditional churches, within a couple of denominations and settings and roles. This has happened for various reasons.

So far, this continues, though, and on Sunday mornings while Kiera works at a church (as part of her graduate degree), I help her set up and clean up, and in between I teach one of the high school Sunday School classes. It’s a very traditional church, in the Buckhead area of Atlanta, which is a place we where we wouldn’t otherwise spend much time. It’s an interesting situation, but it allows me to speak to and learn from folks I otherwise wouldn’t ever encounter.

In any case, the other day we were discussing environmental ethics. I don’t feel incredibly good about the execution of what I wanted to say, but I want to throw out the ideas I tried to present, as it was helpful for me to think along these lines.

It was interesting timing for such a talk, with the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, as well as the manipulated data that is giving more fuel to folks who deny climate change. Because of that incredibly unique timing, and because I wanted to avoid any appearance of partisan politics, I asked the people in the room to take a step back from the science (an idea inspired by Greg Boyd’s recent thoughts), and also the question of to what extent the data has been manipulated, and look at environmental ethics in light of creation itself and the God who created it.

To begin, I am not interested in debates around interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. I don’t believe the point of the creation stories is to tell us how these things happened; I strongly believe it’s meant to to be a poetic, artistic statement about God’s work, especially in contrast to that of other Ancient Near Eastern deities of the time period. One of the folks who helps teach the class mentioned that the tendency to get caught up in trying to defend these accounts against science is potentially one of the reasons we have ignored the ethical implications of the creative works of God, and I think that’s a brilliant insight.

I am passionately interested in the idea that we, as humans created in the image of God, are invited to be co-creators, invited to work with God in creation. It is in light of this that I think we can possibly have an honest conversation in a variety of political and theological settings around what the church should do and think about issues of the environment. All of us have specific biases that keep us from agreement on climate change, whether they are from our understanding of scientific evidence, or from our political frameworks. Whether these biases are genuine or not is irrelevant at this point; they are still biases and focusing on these will not help us treat creation as an artistic work of God.

If we do not get past these biases, those of us who have an understanding of science that tells us that we are destroying the earth will, naturally, want to stop doing it and try to recover from the damage to whatever extent is possible. This is great. But those who have a political framework, or even legitimate science that may at some point arise, that tells them that we are not destroying the earth will see no reason to stop exploiting it. This is unproductive in light of a robust theology of creation, whichever side is actually correct in its position.

Further, I passionately believe that the heart of God calls us to examine the economic systems we exist within. Capitalism is our current system, and that’s fine acceptable better than Marxism, but we cannot allow it to be an unquestioned system. In light of environmental issues, I think all of us can agree that the current state of this system is unsustainable. The extent to which this is true hit me when the economy tanked, and we learned that people were buying fewer HDTVs, refrigerators, and other things that come in large cardboard boxes, which was reducing the amount of cardboard we were recycling, which was in turn causing recycling plants in China to go out of business, which finally resulted in more cardboard in our landfills.

This is only one small example, and all of us can think of similar ones. Some time ago, I read and reviewed Brian McLaren’s book Everything Must Change, and one of the biggest strengths it has is that it presents the extent to which our systems, on a grand scale, are suicidal and need to be deconstructed. There is a quote I used that read like this:

The twenty-first century began in the aftermath of the defeat of Marxism. The story of the coming century will likely be the story of whether a sustainable form of capitalism can be saved from theocapitalism [the religion-like seeking of prosperity], or whether unrestrained theocapitalism will result in such gross inequity between rich and poor that violence and counterviolence will bring civilization to a standstill, or perhaps worse.

My belief is that my generation, the same one as that of these high school students, will be judged by future generations on this story. The environmental issues that these generations will deal with, as well as the inextricably connected issues of poverty, war, violence, and fundamentalism of all religious types that they will deal with, need to be informed by a theology that sees creation as a work of God, rather than one that thinks it’s okay to exploit creation if its political viewpoint doesn’t see world-destroying consequences from it.