2. Christianity and the Survival of Creation

This week, just for one more week, I am reflecting one last time on Wendell Berry’s book of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. [1] Among some secular opponents of Christianity, it has become commonplace to blame the environmental crisis partially on Christian faith. There is a kind of half-truth embedded in the charge, which Berry acknowledges. The Judeo-Christian world view, with its emphasis on the independent, contingent reality of nature, has long been credited with the emergence of modern science and its child, modern technology. However, it would be more accurate to lay the blame not on Christianity, but on the mechanistic world-view that prevailed from the time of Isaac Newton until the early 20th Century.

One reason I am studying political theology just now comes from a conviction that we are at the dawn of a new era, ushered in by the revolution in modern physics at the beginning of the 20th Century with the insights of relativity and quantum theory. An older, mechanistic world-view has been supplanted by the relational and organic process insights of modern science. Unfortunately, every day one sees the impact of decisions by an academic, business, and political elite still held captive by an outdated worldview. [2]

There is a second response that Berry makes to the charge of secularists, which might be levied against many contemporary Christians: We have often formed our views without reading and studying the Bible in detail to understand what it really says. When one does study the Bible in detail, one finds an enormous wealth of passages that deal with the wonder of creation, the beauty of creation, the responsibility of the human race for creation, and the need to treat all of creation, human, animal, and inanimate with the love of a faithful steward of the blessings of our planet. [3] Berry’s basic argument is that (i) God created the world good (Genesis 1); (ii) the reason we human beings are unreliable stewards of God’s good creation is that we are sinners, alienated from the God, creation, and others; and (iii) it is part of God’ redemptive purpose in history to restore human beings and our relationship with God, other humans and all creation (Berry, 96-97).

Berry understands that God is not a distant landlord, a kind of mechanistic watchmaker who made the world and is now just watching things unfold. He is immanent in his creation, holding it together and sustaining the earth as he works for the restoration of all things (95). As Paul mentioned to the Athenians in the first Century, “…in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The God of the Old and New Testament is not a distant designer, but an intimate lover of his creation, who continues to hold all things together (Colossians 1:17). As stewards of his creation, we should have the same intimate, self-giving love for the earth that God has.

Berry sees a problem in the way many Christians view themselves and the world as a key to understanding a lack of interest in environmental concerns: a tendency to see the human person as made up of two radically things (i) matter and (ii) spirit. Christians often read the creation story to teach that God formed the man out of the dust (matter) and then breathed spirit (Spirit) into the man (Genesis 2:7; Berry at 106ff). This is a profoundly wrong idea. We were created as a unity not as a duality. “The dust, formed as a man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul” (Berry 106).  We are both dust and spirit, matter and mind, soul and “stuff”. The dualistic vision of human personhood ignores that God created and is in the dust and in the spirit and both are precious to God (107).

There is an obvious and important deduction to made from all this: God created and is is in the dust, the mechanism, the order of our universe, and it too is holy. Therefore, humans must be good stewards of this “dust” as well as of the “spirit”. Humans are not just thinking matter. We are persons created in the image of God participating in the creation of which we are a part, and given a special task to care for it. This means that what we do, how we manage the resources God has given us, how we treat the environment while using it to sustain our lives and civilizations, are divine tasks. Thus, Berry concludes:

“If … we believe that we are living souls, God’s dust and God’s spirit, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other creature—then all our acts have a supreme significance” (Berry, at 110).

In our work, we are all craftsmen and women, artists of God ‘s creation, placed upon the earth to manage and make things of goodness and beauty from the physical world we inhabit, whether we are a painter or an automaker,  a computer designer or software analyst, a farmer or businessperson, education or public employee. Our economies are a part of the management of the household of God, and if we see economics and business in any other light, we are deceived. [4]

I am sure that I have not done justice to Berry’s thinking. In particular, I have not noted the connection between his ideas about creation and the need for human beings to steward small, local portions of the creation. For those who wish to know more and better, read “Christianity and the Environmental Crisis” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. This book and all of its essays are well worth the time to read, especially if one is interested in agriculture, civilization and environmental concerns.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Wendall Berry, Sex , Economy, Freedom and Community (New York, NY & San Francisco, CA: Pantheon Books, 1992). Sex Freedom and Community is hereinafter referred to as “Berry” and citations will be in text by page number to this book. The essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” is found on pages 93-116.

[2] Many years ago, I traveled in Russia and witnessed first-hand the terrible environmental damage done in the name of dialectical materialism. Berry thinks that Eastern Religion and. Buddhism might be more congenial to environmentalism, but again, one sees no evidence of this when looking at the pollution in India, China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere in the east. For Berry’s comment on this, see Berry at 93-9).

[3] Berry goes over many of the relevant texts and I am suggesting others. In addition to Genesis 1, one must study Job 38-41, the creation Psalms (especially 1, 8 and 19), the Proverbs that reflect the order and wonder of creation (Proverbs 8-9), the many creation passages in the prophets that reflect on creation (see for example Isaiah 40, 42) the parables of Jesus on stewardship, and the passages of the remainder of the New Testament that are relevant to stewardship of the gifts of God. When one does this, one is struck by the need for Christians and others to be good stewards of the creation God has given to us.

[4] Berry constructs one of his best arguments from his correct understanding of the derivation of the word economics, which comes from a Greek word meaning “household”.  Economics is a part of our management of the household God has given to the human race. When it is reduced to profit and loss, unconnected to human stewardship and to the good of the human race, economics becomes less that it was intended to be (See Berry, at 99-100).

One thought on “2. Christianity and the Survival of Creation”

  1. Hi Chris,
    I really appreciate your insight to post this as a Christian minister. I agree that we are entering a new epoch of time. (If I’m interpreting this right). The age of kings, borders and wars is essentially over. Our faith wouldn’t exist without reformers, from Abraham, Moses, to Jesus, and as Protestants, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. The fact that we, mixed with quantum physics, may be becoming more enlightened, is not a discredit to our faith thus far. It’s more of an affirmation that our words have been pointing us (and science) to more enlightenment. I’m much more interested in the human Jesus than a God kicked upstairs wanting to be worshipped. Jesus said we would do greater things than he. That’s hard to imagine if he’s just the bosses son. Maybe his return will somehow manifest in us.
    A religion that can’t be questioned is a religion to question. A religion willing to be questioned in order to gain enlightenment is a sign of strength.
    Cindy Gabriel

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