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Springs of Living Water

Nicola Hoggard Creegan

Say to the people of the land: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says about those living in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel: They will eat their food in anxiety and drink their water in despair, for their land will be stripped of everything in it because of the violence of all who live there.” Ez 12:19

The rise of monotheism is often associated with patriarchy and violence. Christianity, in particular, has been painted as irrevocably linked to notions of domination and control. Are Christians really to blame, then, for the ecological crisis? The answer is probably 'sometimes' – but more by neglect than intention.

For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Rev 7:17)

Where I live in the Waitakere Ranges we are warned that water shortages are a possibility in the near future. In this eco-city water conservation is promoted, yet it seems to rain all the time here. If we face water shortages, how much more the big cities of Australia, and the tiny water-dependent state of Singapore.

Water is the symbol of life in Scripture. Clean unpolluted water is also needed for our physical material existence. The absence of water, and the difficulty of maintaining supplies for burgeoning populations, is one central facet of the ecological crisis. Wars will be fought, it is said, over the supply of water. If violence leads to the dry land, as Ezekiel suggests, drought will also in its turn produce violence.

Until recently, though, evangelicals took very little heed of these connections, nor of the environment. Greens were suspected of being too close to paganism.

Thus Christianity has had its ecological critics. Lynn White, for example, in his Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” was able to say with some justification at that time: “To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.”1

In New Zealand, Maori have been very aware of the Christian’s impoverished sense of God’s presence in nature. Bronwyn Elsmore says, “A general feeling among the Maori was that the new religion of Christianity failed in its appreciation of the holistic nature of the universe—God was removed from the creation.”2

The now sometimes violent animal rights movement owes much of its insight to the work of Daniel Quin, author of Ishmael, and the Story of B.3 In these disturbing stories Quinn associates the rise of monotheism with patriarchy and violence. Christianity, in particular, he paints as irrevocably linked to notions of domination and control. Are Christians really to blame, then, for the ecological crisis?

The answer is probably ‘sometimes’ – but more by neglect than intention. Much thought has gone into the accusations of people like Lynn White and Daniel Quinn as Christians struggle not only with Genesis, but with the whole Christian tradition. The causes of our indifference are many. These are some of them:

* In order to avoid idolatry we have overemphasised the transcendence of God and God’s separation from nature.

* In order to safeguard the integrity of scientific practice, all talk of God’s immanence has been eclipsed.

* We have misinterpreted Genesis, thinking we have dominion over the earth, when really we were meant to manage and care and replenish the earth.

* Following Greek philosophy we have separated thought from matter and spirit from body.

* We are tempted to see nature as merely a vehicle for God’s indirect action.

* Like all people, Christians have come to lose connection with nature through technology, but have found no religious imperative to counter this.

* We share with others an often barely discerned secular worldview in which everything has only pragmatic value.

In the last few decades, however, Christians have begun to critique these associations. Some have rediscovered God’s immanence as well as God’s transcendence. A whole generation of Christian ecologists has argued that careful exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15 should lead us to care for nature even as we manage and use it, not to dominate it; to replenish the earth, and not to destroy it.4

Andrew Lindzey went as far as to argue that we should be priests between God and nature.5 Rikk Watts has shown us that the universe is God’s temple, and we, the image-bearers of God, are placed here as representatives of God in nature.6

This work of moving from a position which assumed dominance to that of stewardship and care and representation has been a form of repentance for at least the last few hundred years of careless technological progress, and for several millennia of devaluing the material at the expense of spirit, or unthinkingly assuming a superiority over the nature in which we are embedded. We needed to do this work, but it has not been enough. Why?

First, we are in danger of ending up with the most positive statement being an almost patronizing view of nature. Yes it needs our protection, yes we can manage it. Yes we care for nature.

Second, Christian ecology has so far had very little impact. There appears to be deep and pervasive lack of interest in creation.

Different stories

Why do we not care? Why the indifference? One of the reasons centres around stories. We all live inside a story; this story has an explanation of how it all began, how evil came to be, how God relates to the world, and what will happen in the end. The story points out to us what is important, what we should care about, how things are related. In the past these stories were painted out on ceilings or windows or frescoes in churches.

In Christianity today one of our problems is that there are very starkly different stories out there. We don’t agree about origins; we don’t agree about God’s connection to the world; nor about how the story will end. Christians have set our story over against the scientific story, forcing many to choose between science and faith, even between being educated and being a Christian. Looking at nature within a theological perspective often becomes very painful; ecological/theological reflection is not done.

Nevertheless, our stories have profound implications for our connection to nature. Since the Reformation Protestants have placed a heavy emphasis on the salvation story alone. This story hasn’t included the earth.

Even for Catholics before Vatican II the salvation story dominated. If the earth is not a part of the story it becomes redundant; and care for the earth is hardly a corporate priority. Yet Colossians, Romans, the psalms, and almost every book of the Bible suggests we should be caring for God’s creation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, however, is that Darwin has given us what seems to be another narrative of origins.

But the end of the story has been another problem for evangelicals. Premillennialism has a timetable for the end which includes a burning and discarding of this earth. This does not lead us to care and conserve. There is now, however, a careful critique of this story, and an emphasis on God’s changing of the world, not its destruction; on God’s final dwelling place here with humanity.7

All these are reasons why we have difficulty telling a unified and coherent story of God the creator, nature and redemption. When nature is not a part of our story we withdraw from nature as a window to God. We may still love nature; we may still look after it and be careful with it, but the care of nature will not be a high religious priority. Collectively we will not possess a coherent understanding of God’s presence and redemptive work within nature, or of our connection to that work.

I have come to believe that holding the changing story of life in dialogue with theology is absolutely critical to including nature as a coherent part of the overall story of God, and especially of God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that enlivens and redeems us, the same Spirit that brought about the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ.

In the last decade there have been attempts to put this right. Denis Edwards, a Roman Catholic Australian theologian, says this better than many when he argues that our story, the earth’s story, the story of the Spirit, begins with the Big Bang. The Big Bang and the extraordinary story of the expanding universe, at least as we understand it, should be a part of our story.8

The hundreds of billions of galaxies should add to our sense of the glory of God. The forming and dissolution of stars is the story of God’s Spirit creatively at work. If we see the universe, the earth this way, we are linked to creation by the same Spirit we experience in salvation.

Brian McLaren does something very similar in his book, The Story We Find Ourselves In – linking the Big Bang and the emergence of life and consciousness with the biblical story of God, and incarnation.9 In insisting, however, that God’s Spirit is in nature, we are critiquing both the materialist evolutionist and the truncated Christian stories of grace. However we understand the story, it must include centrally this dimension of God’s loving, intimate presence.

Colossians 1:15-17 is a key text in the new ecological consciousness. “For by Christ all things were created”. Colossians suggests a connection between the creator God and the redeemer Christ. In Christ all things hold together. There is no dualism whereby Christ/God/Spirit refers only to things unseen, and the physical world is that which is passing away and ephemeral.

The same Spirit that moves in creation moves also in redemption. The same Christ we revere as redeemer and Lord is also the one in whom all creation moves. Christ is both the man of Galilee, and the cosmic redeemer.

Similarly Romans 8:22-23 throws open the doors of liberation and redemption to include the creation: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” None of this is easily understood. The language is odd and irregular, but points to important connections. The biblical picture is of a God entwined in nature. Close to nature. God’s character, God’s wisdom defines the space of reality.

Thus the urgent theological work of this generation is to try to have a dialogue in which this close/active God is reconciled with our particular understandings and constructions of the life process. And yet there are other dangers: if God is in the process God is also in the tsunami, and in the meteor that struck the earth and destroyed all the dinosaurs. Similarly, if we allow that Scripture and experience speak of God as very close to us, we always run the danger of identifying nature and God.

The work of reconciling our diverse stories, however, gives us a renewed understanding of the interconnection of all life and matter, and all being. Nature as the mirror of God will always be there in its richness and extravagance, never completely exhausted.

Nature will again be seen to illuminate the nature of God. All creation will be important; Nature has its own integrity and ‘thouness’. It isn’t ours to assemble and reassemble at will. Care will always be as important as the control of nature for pragmatic purposes.

In the past our theology erred on the side of the transcendence of God, as though to give science room to be autonomous, and in order to safeguard the ‘sovereignty’ of God. Now there needs to be a shift in our understanding, re-establishing God’s transcendence and immanence, and the place of nature as the mirror of God.

Thus our theological journey may take us from indifference to a point where we must see and sense the wisdom of God in a dynamic and interconnected living process. Nature must be for us a theological imperative.

This will only be the case if we recognise that nature is and always was God’s ongoing work, that we are the long long last appearance in a process in which God’s love has been at work in marvellous ways. Nature’s story is our story.

This only makes sense within a trinitarian paradigm, in which the radical ‘otherness’ of God may be held together with Incarnation and the indwelling Spirit. Merging and holding these narratives together can give us new appreciation of God, and of ourselves and of nature.