A Theology of Creation: A Personal Exploration and Reflection.
(A fully referenced version of this paper is available upon request).
The Anglican Communion’s 5th Mark of Mission:
‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’
A Theology of Creation:
A Personal Exploration and Reflection.
‘I truly believe, that we in this generation must come to terms with nature and I think we are challenged, as mankind have never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves (Rachel Carson)”.
Using the pastoral cycle as a framework, I will seek to review and better understand my vocation to the priesthood, during a time of significant global environmental concern.
In helping to support this reflection and discern the way forward, this paper, at its heart, will seek to identify a theology of creation based on Holy Scripture and established church tradition. As a tertiary Franciscan this will include a focus on Franciscan theology. In undertaking this approach, the paper will in part seek to respond to the theological inadequacies of Matthew Fox’s seminal book on the theology of creation.
Using the above information, I will then explore how virtue ethics might support a renewed and distinct approach to the care of creation by the Christian church. I will then seek to explore what this theology of creation and the state of the world might mean for my future ministry.
Part 1: Experience
"Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever….the great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right (Pope Francis)”.
It is difficult to remember a time when I didn’t believe in God and in the same way, there isn’t a time I wasn’t passionate about nature. My earliest memories are of delighting in nature, being in nature, loving landscapes and wanting to discover and understand every possible creature, in every possible detail.
As part of this, a central value I have always understood the importance of caring for and protecting nature. This passion for the natural world and its protection was always linked to my faith in God and I seemed to have an innate understanding that creation was a gift from God and that we were therefore called to give thanks, respect and take care of this gift.
From my earliest memories I understood the planet and all creation were endangered by the activities of humanity and ultimately this deep concern led me to be one of the first groups of students in the country to take an A Level in Environmental Science. I went on to study Environmental Science at degree level at Surrey and from this I then took a Master’s degree at London in Nature Conservation. I then went on to work in varying nature conservation charities in rural England, London and Europe, always with a focus on linking environmental protection with community empowerment and social justice. Eventually I became CEO of an environmental regeneration charity in East London and I went on to be Head of Policy and Communities for Brighton and Hove City Council, overseeing strategic policy and commissioning for a number of areas including sustainability, community development and anti poverty. I sought to make the most of this opportunity, including: gaining One Planet Living status for the city and city council, helping to establish a UN Urban Biosphere, as well as numerous equality and social justice based interventions including neighbourhood renewal, the city council’s equality framework, the Living Wage Campaign and the Financial Inclusion Strategy.
Through my discernment process for ordination I sought to better integrate these areas of work with my theology but it is fair to say my understanding remained intuitive rather than critically informed. I felt very strongly that I was called to the priesthood, at this time and for a purpose and that the purpose was to bring to the church these fairly unique set of skills, knowledge, faith, passion and experience. Whilst this wasn’t something the discernment process seemed particularly interested in, Westcott House and Cambridge were and I was encouraged in exploring these areas in my study (for example through Francis and Julian) and worship.
Through this study and reflection, I am able to start the process of developing a more systematic understanding of a possible theology of creation. In light of the ecological crisis we are facing I feel very strongly I need to carefully consider God’s plans for my ministry. Whilst appreciating the risk of self-indulgence, pride and narcissism, I cannot but at least speculate that God has a very real purpose in calling me, at this time of my life, with these skills, during present environmental emergency (John 15:16, Jeremiah 1: 4, Romans 8:28,
Ephesians 2:10). In order to better understand and better discern all of this, I feel I need a firmer foundation in my theological understanding of creation and the next two elements of the paper will seek to support this process.
In significant part, this theological reflection can be seen as a response to the initial excitement and ultimate concern I felt coming to this field of study through Matthew Fox’s seminal book ‘Original Blessing’. Reflecting my membership of the Third Order, the paper will also include an exploration of creation theology as understood through the life and example of St Francis.
Part 2: Analysis
“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”. Patriarch Bartholomew:
The World Council of Churches in 2009 stated that the ecological crisis is ‘bringing us to the brink of mass suffering and destruction’ and this view has been recently supported by the United Nations and many other bodies, including the prestigious Natural
History Museum that has declared a ‘Planetary Emergency’. Human flourishing is being curtailed and even threatened by aggressive development, excessive consumption, the idolisation of goods and the enslavement to possessions. Northcott, in this context observes ‘the ecological crisis calls into question fundamental features of the mobile, globalising juggernaut of modernity, and its destructive effects on the stability of both human communities and natural ecosystems’.
Some view this situation as the direct result of an inadequate Christian theology of creation and associated ethics, allowing traditional vices such as greed and materialism to be turned into virtues and objects of praise Bouma - Prediger identifies three key theological sources for Christianity’s inadequate ecological ethic:
A weak theology of creation with a focus on Genesis 1:28 traditionally understood as giving humanity dominion over creation and the requirement by God for humanity to subdue the earth giving permission to both dominate and exploit it.
An over-development of Augustine’s teaching on Original Sin, radically separating God from the material world leaving creation inherently fallen and sinful.
An inaccurate understanding of biblically eschatology negating responsibility by humanity for the current world.
Lynn White asserts that the de-sanctifying of creation and specifically the denouncement of the divine nature and purpose of creation has encouraged the scientific method and it is the rise of the resulting unrestrained technology, industrialisation and modern economics which is responsible for the worlds environmental and social crisis. Whilst an oversimplification, the Church, if not as progenitor then, through the influence of society, has been as a source of weak opposition and collusion. The post enlightenment period specifically has placed humanity as central, leaving creation’s value determined by the needs of humanity. The way in which Genesis has been interpreted by both Catholic doctrines and the Reformation have correspondingly seen a diminishment in the theology of creation, placing humanity central to God’s purpose and specifically understanding Christ’s redemptive act entirely anthropocentrically. Theological ideas highlighted in such interpretations include the command to humans who were created in the image of God, to populate the earth and rule over creatures (Genesis 1:27 – 28) and the divine right to fill the earth and to eat animals who consequently will fear humans (Genesis 9: 1-7). Bouma and Prediger believe this socio – political and theological setting has created a moral and ethical framework where ideas such as the Gospel of Prosperity have merit and ‘self-interest is natural, wealth is the greatest good, nature has no value in itself and God is dead or on holiday’.
Matthew Fox lays the blame for the ecological crisis at the door of Christianity because of the Christian theology of dualism: the separation of God from world, spirit from matter, heaven from earth, man from woman, and human from non-human. Each of these dualisms is for Fox hierarchical, exalting God and humanity at the expense of creation. The ecological crisis is therefore a spiritual crisis and in response Fox proposes a new paradigm, a ‘creation-centred spirituality’, which he identifies as the authentic, biblical Christianity understood before the impact of dualistic Greek thinking. From this he proposes that the modern Christian task is to re-create Christianity within the new paradigm, and to re-read the Christian tradition accordingly. For Fox, creation is fundamental and it is the primary revelation about God and Fox repeatedly and very selectively deduces the nature of God from the character of creation. The assertion of ‘original blessing’ as an alternative narrative to ‘original sin’ is compelling to a point but this concept is extended to such an extent that the central creation, fall, redemption narrative of the bible is replaced. The planet is the main object of salvation and Fox’s eschatology is based around the possible demise of life on the planet rather than the judgement of God at the end of history.
Within all Christian traditions, Scripture (including its core metanarrative of creation, fall and redemption) is both the foundation and norm for Christian discipleship and as such priority will be given to this source in forming a possible theology of creation. Genesis described above has been cited as the key text for defining our relationship with creation. This paper argues that the traditional interpretation of the text is incorrect and that the theological and ethical focus on this text only partially reveals God’s purpose for creation and our relationship with it. The Hebrew root of the verb translated as subdue or rule in fact means ‘vice regent’ or ‘steward’ not rule. God is therefore inviting humanity not to dominate but to share with him in the care of creation. Even with this revised understanding, the idea of stewardship within the Old Testament context can still be interpreted anthropocentrically, with a focus on an approach to stewardship that benefits humanity. A deeper and fuller understanding of God’s intentions can be obtained from further Old Testament Texts, specifically the Psalms and God’s covenant in the context of the idea of the telos of all life.
In Genesis 12:41 God shows his love and appreciation for creation before humanity was created and Northcott therefore proposes that the ‘respect for life is then the fundamental ethical principle of the Hebrew Bible’. The fall and humanity’s resultant separation from God does not affect this. Pope Francis reflects that creation is an independent blessing of goodness with its own value and purpose and as such it sits alongside Sacred Scripture as a divine manifestation and source of inspiration from God. The theology of creation is therefore theocentric, not anthropocentric or ecocentric. The purpose of creation and its creatures is not found in humanity, or in ecological stability, but in God alone. Humanity and creation are called to travel together, in a common purpose, back into full relationship with the creator.
Genesis is concerned with the right relationship between God and humanity and the prosperity of the land (creation) is directly linked to the obedience of God’s people to this covenant. Soon after the Fall, the relationship between God, the people and creation is once again stretched and with the flood a new covenant is established (Genesis 9:8-11). God establishes the new covenant (9:10-17) not with humanity but with all living creatures and in this way can be seen as a fundamentally ecological covenant which is both permanent and unconditional. Critically the duties to ensure social justice and fairness of humanity are set alongside duties for creation. The ethical framework for life is that all life is God created and therefore related to God and worthy of respect (Exodus 23:10-12). The Sabbath of the land is the most significant sign of its moral status and is a powerful metaphor for justice and fairness used by Jesus in his ministry (Luke 4:18-19). In line with the Sabbath given to humanity, the land is given Sabbath. Humanity’s use of the land is provisional as it belongs to God and we are tenants granted the rights on the condition we treat creation well and share resources fairly (Lev 25:23). Torah sees love, respect and justice for creation not as something additional but as something fundamental. In this way, Torah creates a model theology of creation where the welfare of humanity is placed in direct and equal relationship with the well-being of creation. In light of this understanding, liberation and political theologians such as Juergen Maltman see the teaching of Torah as a call to join forces with God in liberating creation from its pain and suffering caused by humanities transgressions.
Ken Stone, perhaps in the face of ongoing selective scriptural reading, argues that if biblical interpretation is shaped by, and often a response to its context, then in the context of a planetary emergency, our development of a biblical theology of creation should consider Psalm 104 rather than Genesis 1 – 4. Ideally, he suggests that Genesis 1-4 and Psalm 104 are to be ‘read together rather than separately in order to balance one another in ways that later traditions have forgotten.’ However, in considering the prevailing and enduring hegemony of Genesis and its distinctive and exalted role within creation, he argues for the prioritisation of Psalm 104.
Unlike Genesis, Psalm 104 lacks any human exceptionalism and as described by Adele
Berlin, ‘represents the cosmos as a non-hierarchical ecosystem in which each component, including humans, is interconnected and all are provided for’. There is considerable debate as to the relationship between Psalm 104 and its potential Egyptian roots, its age in comparison to Genesis and its intended literary relationship with Genesis. Above and beyond all of this the Psalm has the potential to reorient our understanding of biblical approaches to creation through perhaps 4 key theological premises: the interrelatedness of creation, a time and place for all creation, that God sustains all creation and that creation is theocentric not anthropocentric.
The Psalm powerfully represents the created world as an ecological tapestry of interrelated and interdependent facets rather than simply the outcome of a series of steps that took place through the creation process. God has created a vast web (ecology) of creatures and elements that coexist and are reliant upon each other and it is in this diversity and these relationships that life on earth is based. (e.g.104: six 5-6 and 19-23). Characterising this diversity and coexistence is the purposeful and distinctive way in which God has given a time and a place (a habitat) for each creature to live and thrive in order to fulfil their intended purpose (e.g. 104:12,18).
Critically the Psalm reminds us that there are times and there are places for animals and there are times and there are places for humans and these arrangements are sacred as they have been established by God. The Psalm makes it clear that it is God that sustains life and God has a direct relationship with animals, humans and nonhuman alike. In describing this relationship, the Psalm uses the word ruah (104 :29 and 30) to describe the Breath or Spirit of God flowing from the divine to animals and returning to God from the animals. Through this action there is a renewing of the ground making it fertile for growth so that animals and other humans can obtain food (104: 14 and 30). Finally, Psalm 104 provides us with a picture of creation that is not anthropocentric but theocentric. Humans play a role in Psalm 104 but we are merely one of God’s creatures among others, with no privileged position and Elizabeth Johnson concludes that the Psalm has ‘no trace of a mandate for human domination. It is a theocentric depiction of the world’ that ‘stands as a counterweight to mastery carried out on the assumption that humans have a right to rule other species’.
The above revised understanding of Old Testament scripture, provides a powerful and compelling theology of creation that directly challenges the traditional theologies based on poor biblical translation and selective scriptural readings. In this light the false teaching of privileged human dominance and the permission for reckless exploitation is exposed. Concepts of Natural Law as understood for example by Aquinas, where humanity is put first based on the capacity to reason are challenged. This theology is supported and developed further through the Christology of the New Testament, explored in the following section. Reflecting my membership of the Third Order, this part of the paper will include an exploration of Christology and its relationship to creation through the theology of St Francis.
The incarnation of Jesus shows us the divine quality and order of the creation. God loves material and conscious reality therefore God loves his creation not just humanity. The original cosmic telos, of goodness and harmony of creation is greater than the sin of humanity and this status of creation is radically reaffirmed by God’s incarnation in
Jesus Christ. This idea reflects traditional church teaching by Saint Irenaeus placing Christ at the heart of humanity and creation and, in contrast with Augustine and Platonic teaching, sees the Christological action of Christ confirming the fundamental goodness and blessing of creation. John’s Gospel directly links Christ’s incarnation with the creation story. Christ is the original creative principle from the beginning of time. The union of God and matter demonstrates the fundamental goodness of creation and God’s presence in creation, an understanding, affirmed by the Celtic and Orthodox churches.
As indicated above, this understanding of the original and ongoing goodness or in the words of Matthew Fox the ‘original Blessing’ of creation, has not been a dominate narrative over the past 1000 year of the church. In selective readings of the bible, informed by distortions of Plato and Augustine, the narrative of the contemptus mundi has in various forms infiltrated and directly developed a dominant Christian narrative of creation, seeing it as fallen, inherently sinful and corrupted. Julian of Norwich along with Francis of Assisi and others including Hildegard of Bingen and Miester Erkhard have sought, to recover the message of goodness and blessing set out in Holy Scripture.
For Julian, whilst sin is present, it is not dominant or uncontrollably powerful instead, as a product of humanity, it is unable to corrupt, damage or somehow reduce the essential blessing and goodness of humanity and all creation. Sin is seen as being blinded, in falling and of something of darkness. In Julian’s theology we are not destroyed, chastised and cleansed but instead invited to grow and awaken to the reality and blessing of the divine who is imminent and present in everything. Francis’s echoes this theology, which can be seen as rooted in his spiritual encounter with a Leper. This encounter creates a spiritual epiphany for Francis and from this his cardinal insight becomes manifest; that of understanding the essential goodness and equality of creation. Through this revelation, Francis came to understand that the original blessing of creation was not affected by circumstance and, in line with the theology of Psalm 148, there is an eternal fraternity with God that is extended to all creation. With this revelation Francis came to inhabit a deeply spiritual societal posture - understanding the Gospel as a calling for us to create God’s Kingdom - a society based on love and universal fraternity with all creation. Expressed in the canticle of Creatures, Francis understands the brothers and sisters of creation to be engaged in a relationship of agency, self-sacrifice and praise with God that humanity has forgotten and fallen away from. The Canticle therefore invites us to see the intrinsic humility of creation and follow its example of praise to the Creator, as described in comparable scriptural texts such as the Canticle of Daniel 3(57- 88) and Psalms (e.g. Psalm 66: 1-2) and Isaiah (49:13).
In this understanding, we are not only dependent on creation but through the abuse of the world we are guilty of insulting the very source of life. The creatures of the world are our brothers and sisters, not objects and we are asked to imitate our brothers and sisters from creation; for whilst we have fallen short of God’s expectations these brothers and sisters continue to heed the creator and offer sacrifice and praise. Francis is seen as a kind of new Adam; because Francis has so closely fulfilled the call of Christian discipleship he has, in a small way, healed and made whole the relationship between himself and with creation. Bonaventure explains that the love and trust shown to Francis by animals is evidence of a radical manifestation of The Kingdom, a taste of the new Eden. Through St Francis’s example therefore we can see the power of Christian discipleship in helping to establish the new creation - between humanity, God and all creation.
Francis echoes St Paul in his understanding that through Christ there is one economy.
Christ’s sacrifice and redeeming work is not just for human beings but is for all creation (Col 1:1-15 and Rom 8. 18 – 25). This understanding is echoed in Psalm 36 (5-7) and Psalm 14 (15) which make it clear that God is concerned with the salvation and deliverance of animals as well as humans. The original blessing and goodness of creation is vindicated and it is healed and renewed and begins its formation into the new creation (1 Corin: 15:22). Through Christ’s sacrifice the new age has commenced, it is not completed. The ethical task of humanity is to become like Christ where Christ is understood to be the perfect image spoken about in Genesis 1. 27. It is through Christ’s sacrifice and the action of the Holy Spirit that reconciliation of relationships between humanity, God and creation has begun and is able to continue.
The issue of eschatology and whether the world is worth bothering with is most frequently discussed with reference to 2 Peter: 3. Modern biblical translations frequently translate 3.10 as indicating the world will either vanish burn up or be laid barren. Bouma
– Prediger, in line with the NRSV, translate this text as describing a process of redemption and restoration where creation is not destroyed but healed and found once again. The form of the new age, the new creation is described in Revelation 21 – 22. The vision of the new heaven and earth is a renewed heaven and earth. God’s commitment is seen through creation, fall, covenant and redemption is maintained and built upon. Revelation 21:3 makes it clear that God will live in relationship to us and all creation. God will make his home with humanity because creation is home to God, God is the Lord of creation (22:2; 21:10).
Some feminist theology argues that the Christological call to return to the pre-fall state described in Genesis 1: 27 is a core to an egalitarian and relational accountability between God, humanity and creation and it is only from this place that we are finally able to develop a theology of creation required to save the planet. If Christ’s sacrifice redeems and reverses original sin, as Christians, we are called to rediscover and inhabit the original blessing of creation, described in the theology of Julian, Francis, Hildegard and others. In contrast with traditional Augustin teaching on original sin, this approach understands Christian discipleship as being concerned with the ordering of life in harmony with nature ensuring peace and justice. We are called as Christians to align our lives with the Telos of God’s cosmos which has been made possible again through Christ’s redeeming work and the eschatological future. This Telos is the restoration of paradise, of the natural relationality between humans and God with the story of Adam and Eve represents as the ideal of the divine human relationship.
Part 3: Theological Reflection
“St Francis reminds us that our common home is like a sister…this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse
of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts,
wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the
water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid
waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.’ Pope Francis
If the church is to adequality respond and lead the way forward on taking care of and respecting the earth it needs a sound theological framework upon which it can develop the doctrine, ethics and worship required to change people’s hearts, minds and the ways in which they seek to live their lives. Modern re-examination of scripture has and continues to support the development of a rich and robust creation theology increasingly able to support this task. In this context, I believe Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing’ risks completely misrepresenting the teaching of scripture and the tradition of the church. Yes, church teaching needs to be challenged and scripture needs to be revisited but Fox’s reaction is so exaggerated that his thinking and conclusions have little to do with Judaic – Christian theology and as such would weaken the church in its ability to deliver the 5th mark of Mission.
In Fox’s theology, Creation replaces Jesus as the focus of revelation, salvation, the nature of God and humanity. Fox’s selective readings of Scripture deletes all references to God as Father, to human sin, and to anything which might suggest a dualism of God as both fully present in creation and also, as creator, separate and distinct. Indeed, Fox argues that we must reject a God that is in any way separate, as absolute imminence is the basis for the value of creation. Paradoxically I believe this curiously Augustinian view undermines a positive theology of creation; if creation and individual creatures have value because they express and embody God then creation has no intrinsic value of its own. For Fox, God’s revelation is primarily through creation and not scripture but in a broken world this focus is full of risks. Creation is full of beauty but also suffering and destruction, and is not as it should be. Therefore, we need some other source of revelation to tell us what reflects the cosmos as it should be, and what elements will pass away in the fullness of God’s purposes. Without such a revelation, there is nothing, other than wishful thinking, to interpret the broken world for us.
In using biblical revelation and in staying faithful to the narrative of creation, fall and redemption, I have sought to outline a theology of creation that is based on scripture and is recognisably Christian. In doing this I have sought to make the case that the levels of violence, damage and injustice committed against the natural world are in direct opposition with not only Torah, but Christ’s example and teachings of harmony, justice, peace and care for those in need, including the land (Luke 4:18-19). Genesis, covenantal law, the psalms, the Gospels and epistles all show that we are part of creation, we are in solidarity with the cosmos and are called to trust in the provision of God. The theological framework outlined above describes a divine ontology where individuals, societies and the created world are teleologically ordered to realise fulfilment in distinct but related and equal ways.
The purpose and fundamental good of all creation is the orientation of life towards God as the giver of life and to live in loving and respectful relationship with one another (Exod
20: 1-17, Lev 19:9-18 and Matt 22:38). In this teleological framework humanity’s theological, moral and ethical direction is called to be focused on the re-establishment of a harmonious relationship with both God and creation, where social and ecological justice are linked and realised together. The teaching of the Trinity, as understood by the early church fathers, establishes the idea of relationship and community as central to a coherent ecological theology. In line with God’s own relational existence we are called to live in relationship; with God, other humans and with creation. Our uniqueness does not give us dominance and a right to exploit rather it is a call to service and accountability. Genesis 1: 27-28 requires us to care for creation as God would, and as Christians we need understand this through the revelation of Christ’s incarnation and Kingship, characterised by blessing, love, respect, delight and above all, sacrifice.
Daniel Horan and others argues that the blatant disregard of creation needs to be addressed through a merciless re-examination of doctrinal teaching and a corresponding radical evaluation of ethics and moral behaviour. In seeking new or recovered meanings from Holy Scripture and the life of the saints it is clear that human domination and exploitation of creation is non biblical and instead the prevailing native of scriptural teaching places humanity within, and not over community life. The conviction of human supremacy and entitlement, however clearly endures with ‘an ingrained and tenacious grip’. In seeking to deal with this through the development of ecological ethics, both theologians (and indeed, secular policy writers) have traditionally chosen one of two models: 1) deontological, with a focus on rules, laws and obligations or 2) consequentialism with a focus on consequences.
Both the evident state of the environment and my professional experience tells me this kind of approach is limited in its ability to change behaviour. My understanding of scripture leads me to believe that God is not looking for compliance but for a deeper and more profound change in our nature (Ezek 36: 25 – 27). For this reason, I think virtue ethics has potential for greater transformation and embodiment of the Good News as it is closer to Christ’s call for rebirth and renewal (Jn 3.3,5; 2 Cor 3:3; 2 Cor 5:17). God is inviting us not to live by rigid laws but is instead calling us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to radically transform our lives in light of the Good News (2 Cor: 5:17). To become true disciples our character must be fundamentally transformed as ‘character is central to the care of the earth’.
Saint Francis, through a life concerned entirely with justice, humility, love and respect for the poor and for all creation, is a powerful paradigm for this approach. In this spirit Patriarch Bartholomew calls for a renewal of virtues that could transform our society and therefore our world. Consumption needs to be replaced with sacrifice, greed needs to be replaced with generosity and we need to move ‘away from what I want, to what God’s world needs. It is a liberation from fear, greed and compulsion’. Using the revised theology of creation described above, I believe new Christian ecological ethics can be developed that are able to systematically transform individual and collective character: aligning the theological purpose (telos) of creation with Christian transformation and required covenantal behaviours. The use of Christian normative virtues of love and justice should I believe form the bases of a coherent ecological ethic, requiring a revised theocentric understanding of established anthropocentric Natural Law developed by Aquinas.
Love and justice, are the foundational moral principles found in the Old Testament, including covenantal requirements, the Gospel and in classical Natural Law teachings with regard to virtue. Love is foundational to a coherent ecological ethic because in loving God, ourselves, humanity and creation we become radically transformed. Love is able to establish new emotional foundations which can fill and transform the emptiness experienced by many and that disordered and excessive consumption seeks to fill. Through love we are able to radically transform our attitude towards the creation: if we love the giver, if we love the gift, how can we not act in dutiful ways to respect and care for them?
Justice is foundational to a coherent ecological ethic as justice requires equity, fair distribution and access to resources for both human and no human flourishing. This includes adequate food, housing, fuel and clothing to meet needs, ensure human dignity and establish societies which are safe and fair. Justice fundamentally also recognises the independent rights and legitimacy of the creation and the human responsibility is to ensure these rights through God’s covenantal requirements. Human flourishing must not be at the expense of creation’s flourishing; indeed, both are required ultimately to ensure justice. The command to love your neighbour in this model becomes the paradigmatic action. If we understand all creation as our neighbour choices and decisions must be radically reconsidered.
It is from these Christian norms that more specific virtues can be drawn that, with practice and application, are able to transform our consciousness, our relationships and ultimately our care for the world. In the annex a set of virtues are proposed, drawing on work by Bouma-Prediger, and aim to form a coherent ecological virtue ethic based on the theological understanding of creation, its teleological purpose and the overarching norms of love and justice. (Further details are provided in Annex 1).
Part 4: Response
'Who Made the world? Who made the swan and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?....I don’t know exactly what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life'? (Mary Oliver)
I found the writing of this paper hugely beneficial for a number of reasons, perhaps principally as it has given me the opportunity and agency to take the time to do something that I have wanted to do for a long time: to research and better understand what a possible theology of creation might look like. Having felt initially excited and then profoundly concerned by Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing, I felt very strongly that rather than making up a theology of creation, I wanted to use modern exegesis and reference to published and established authors to uncover and better illuminate the extraordinary theology of creation that was already present in Holy Scripture and church tradition.
Through this work I feel I have added significantly to an ever-increasing understanding of my own theological framework and I feel in general it is becoming more robust and systematic. I have made genuine links between my passions, my faith and the work I have been privileged to have undertaken throughout my career. As part of this I feel I have made meaningful links between creation theology and a set of possible ecological ethics that are able to protect the integrity of creation, ensure social justice and support transformational Christian discipleship. Luke 4: 14-21 has become a core text for me with the focus on social justice and with reference to ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ indicating Gods call for justice and healing not just for people but for the land/creation also. This call for justice and the reestablishment of God’s original order, seen in scriptural texts identified above, seems to be a central message of the Good News.
The understanding of this Gospel message, as demonstrated by St Francis, forms a foundational example of discipleship and is therefore a powerful metaphor for my ministry and work. I therefore feel further anchored in my Franciscan identity and feel better able to articulate my understanding of discipleship, ministry and Christian theology. Pope Francis articulates this understanding when he says ‘The earth is a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged’.
I feel strongly that it is with the development and practice of virtue, individually and at the community level, that humanity will be able to develop the ethics, culture and the spiritual rigour genuinely able to transform behaviour and wider society. The impact of individualism, consumerism and utilitarian thinking has I believe, infected faith communities and this needs to be addressed if a virtue approach to ecological ethics is to have any impact in the world. The church needs to develop liturgy, worship and practice that encourages the development of virtue with the aim of revealing the Christian understanding of the incarnate divinity and the intended telos and ordering of the world. Beyond remembering and thankfulness, worship surely needs to help people realise the Christian virtues of love and justice; challenging oppression, caring for the vulnerable and protecting the divine integrity of the environment.
In terms of further personal reflections, a number of things have stood out for me. I find it very easy to compartmentalise my life: the foundational revelations of my life, my faith, my family, my passions and my interests. In doing this I can at times struggle to retain and therefore maintain a fully integrated understanding of my ministry. In coming to ordination, I have been immersed in a culture where genuine concern for the environment and nature conservation is almost wholly absent. For example, despite the Fifth Mark of Mission being concerned with the preservation of the world, this ‘priority’ formed little or no part of the assessment and evaluation process, it has been totally absent from the post qualification training program and there has been no active interest or teaching within the two parishes (four churches ) I served in my curacy.
In this context it was almost been a surprise to remember my childhood, my educational success, my career in nature conservation and the contributions I have made for Brighton and Hove through my role as Head of Policy and Communities. In this fuller understanding, God’s call to me, expressed in the Gospel of John (15:16), is surely not just a call concerned with my faith and some restricted idea of vocation to the priesthood – but also about who I have been created to be in my totality and how all of this is then been called to serve God.
In writing this reflection, I have been listening on and off to Radio 4 and now that the Brexit debate and to some extent the pandemic has lost some of its fire, the focus of the programme is increasingly on environmental protection. Whilst giving me a sense of solidarity the news is profoundly disturbing and provocative. The number of animals killed in the Australia fires is now estimated at 1 billion, the Thwaites ‘Domesday’ Glacier is melting at accelerating rates, approximately 1 Million species are on the verge of extinction (thousands of species becoming extinct every year) and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have moved the hands of the ‘Domesday Clock’ to two and half minutes to midnight or doomsday. In this context, if I was asked by God what I was doing with the gifts, talents and experience I had been given I would struggle to answer. If the earth is, as Pope Francis reflects, ‘The most maltreated of the poor’ and I have not done all I can to alleviate its suffering, surely I will be held to account?
I will hold these reflections close in my prayer life as I move through the next critical stages of my calling. My task now, in a small Franciscan way, is to work with others in helping to, ‘rebuild the church’, to help the church proclaim the Gospel afresh into this generation and in this context of impending global crisis. Now in my first incumbency at St Wlufrans' Ovingdean I am better able to start to address these issues, for example through regular teaching, the establishment of an environment group and our work toward becoming an Eco Church. But that isn't all. In choosing to be part- time I have been able to return to secular work, where I am able to support the work of reducing inequality and protecting the environment at a greater scale. I see this busy and hectic life of mine as one vocation and I look to Christ, through the example of St Francis, in undertaking this hard work of love.
My prayer is to stay open to the Holy Spirit throughout this time and have the strength and courage to make, in the service of God, the most of my ‘one wild and precious life’.
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Appendix: Possible Ecological Virtues
Respect and Receptivity: The reading of Genesis establishes a context where creation is seen as a blessing and as a source of goodness. Creations has an independent moral standing and therefore humanity has to consider this and as vice regents we have duties to the creature’s plants and animals of this world. The theological motif based on this understanding is the integrity of creation and the moral principle coming from this is of the intrinsic value of creation. From this the virtues of respect and receptivity are developed. Respect stands for the understanding, appreciation and well-being of creation based on its origins, purpose and in humanity’s duties towards it. Respect stands in contrast with modern norms of conceit (ignorance and disdain for other creatures and their status) and inflated reverence (the worship of creation and not the creator). Receptivity acknowledges humanities interdependence and dependence with or creation. It is a full realisation of the question who is our neighbour and is a radical full expression of Christian hospitality.
Self Restraint and Frugality: The creation has limits and is a misrepresentation of Scripture to suggest unlimited resources are available for unlimited numbers of humans. Critically the call to reproduce and thrive is a call that God also gives to the creatures of Earth (Gen 1:22) the call is not a command but a blessing and this blessing is not an ethical imperative or a mandate to exploit the Earth. Resources are finite and we must therefore be concerned with the theological motif of finitude and place limits on our behaviours and appetites. The ethical principle drawn from this can be seen as sufficiency and the virtue characteristics of self-restraint and frugality are developed from this principle. We asked to live in moderation and place other needs including creation’s needs before our own. Self-restraint is a classical virtue is concerned with contentment with enough on the discipline of desire. This virtue acts in opposition to modern norms characterised by unrestrained desire with the earth’s resources are consumed beyond what is needed and what is equitable or sustainable. Frugality is concerned with the efficiency and economic use of the gifts we have been given in all of the others may thrive and flourish. It is a broad and generous expression of hospitality and stands in direct opposition to the modern norm of avarice, where avarice is the craving, desire, consumption and acquisition of materialism which is blind or in denial to the limits of creation and the impact of the desires upon the less fortunate.
Humility and Honesty: Though we are created in God’s image we are not divine and through our own failures we experience separation from God. The theological motif of faultedness is understood from this which develops the ethical principle of responsibility where humanity must acknowledge its limits in understanding, take every care to check behaviour and finally, must take full accountability for its actions. The ethical principle of responsibility supports the virtues of humility and honesty. Humility aims to cultivate self-understanding, an appreciation that humanity does not understand the complexity of the world and therefore is called to be more careful, cautious and considered in all that it does. The virtue of humility acts against the modern prevalence of hubris; the failure to understand and respect limits frequently to the detriment of others. Honesty is the virtue in the ecological sense that is concerned with transparency, integrity and sincerity whether a success, failure, damage or uncertainty the virtue of honesty requires humility to declare this openly.
Wisdom and Hope: The Old Testament has a powerful theological motif concerned with fruitfulness. The world and the entire cosmos is interdependent and every creature as a blessing of goodness from God is encouraged to flourish. From this teaching the ethical principle of sustainability can be identified where we are called not to damage or impair creation, because it’s God’s gift, but also because all creation including humanity is dependent upon its well-being. In this sense we are given a ‘ prima facie duty to judiciously use those creatures under our care’. The virtue of wisdom is rooted in the love and praise of God. Creation is God’s gift and has a teleological purpose and we are called as
Christians to work with God’s purpose and renew all creation. Wisdom stands against the modern vices of foolishness where the fragility of the world and the limited resources available are ignored in favour of greed, consumerism and selfinterest. The virtue of hope is the belief in a future that is good and involves the eschatological renewal of all creation. Hope stands in opposition to despair which cease humanity to abandon a belief in redemption and as part of this to distrust and abandon God and his plans for creation. It also stands against the vice of presumption that can lead people into false hope in the form of technology or the economy, or indeed to abandon creation to abuse in light of the traditional eschatological narrative of the new Testament.
Patience and Serenity: Rest is an important teaching and example in the Bible that brings about social, environmental and spiritual renewal and rejuvenation. The importance of the Sabbath and rest is reiterated throughout the Bible (e.g. Ex 20:8-11 and Lev: 25) and is a powerful metaphor for justice and fairness used by Jesus for his ministry (Lk 4:18-19). The ethical principle of rejuvenation comes from the theological motif of Sabbath. This principle calls on humanity to give rest to all humanity and creation and in doing so resist all types of exploitation driven by society. The moral virtues of patience and serenity aim to ensure rest and care for humanity, agricultural land and livestock but also to all of creation. The virtue of patience calls on humanity to work with the cycles of nature, taking a long-term view and not gratify ourselves in the now. The virtue stands against the vice of impetuous where the future is dismissed, irrespective of consequences and irrespective of the legitimate and real needs of others. Serenity is the virtue of calm that comes with the knowledge of God’s act of love and healing presence in the world it stabilises thinking and supports right action where this is needed.
Benevolence and Courage: Humanity within the Old Testament is understood as God’s vice regent, to care for the Earth as God would want creating the theological motif of Earth Keeping and the ethical principle of beneficence. Humanity is asked to care for creation and show equal concern for those creatures most in need. We are therefore not just required to minimise harm we are called to act and ensure the flourishing of nature. The moral virtue developed from the ethical principle is benevolence where we are called to help and care for all people, all creatures and all creation. Benevolence acts directly against malevolence with its intention to cause harm and break Shalom through envy, greed and wilful ignorance. Examples include undertaking activities and purchasing goods, supporting financial institutions that perpetuate inequality, torture animals, destroy habitats and pollute the environment. Courage is concerned with moral strength in response to adversity, opposition and danger. It is one of the four Cardinal great virtues and is often understood by the Christian tradition as fortitude. It calls all humanity to stand up and resist ignorance, greed, fear, apathy and take action against ecological destruction. The vice of courage is cowardice instead of standing against the prevailing culture of oppression and abuse humanity colludes with it.