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Eco-theology is not new: it’s foundational to faith

13 September 2013

Green issues are central to Christianity, says David Atkinson

IT WAS a programme for Radio Bristol to support its Big Green Week. I was answering questions about the Christian contribution to ecological issues. Then, suddenly, the interviewer said something like: "Is the environment a new venture for the Church? Mostly what the Church is interested in is gay marriage and women bishops."

It was not the media "obsession" which got to me that time, but the thought that concern for the environment could be considered new.

In the second century, St Irenaeus of Lyons saw the world as a creative unity of all things held together by God's providence. St Augustine of Hippo's wide-ranging thought included a strong strand of what we would now call eco-theology. St Thomas Aquinas has much to say about "nature". Calvin described creation as "the theatre of God's glory". John Ray, in the 17th century, wrote The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. In the 19th century, Lux Mundi included a chapter that celebrated evolution as re-emphasising the immanence of God in creation.

William Temple's Nature, Man and God (1934); Charles Raven's Gifford Lectures in 1951; the Evangelical Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man in the 1960s; the work of the C of E Board for Social Responsibility; the more recent work of Alister McGrath on nature; the establishment of Christian groups such as A Rocha, Christian Ecology Link, Operation Noah, Shrinking the Footprint, and so on and on. It is hardly a new venture.


THE Church is at the forefront in promoting care for the environment; for "the earth is the Lord's." Or at least, it should be. But on the ground, the writings of theologians and scientists - even reports from the General Synod - do not always seem to make much difference at PCC meetings, in Sunday worship, and Christian discipleship.

If my experience in Norfolk is anything to go by, church schools are better at creation care than many parish churches. So what has got in the way of Christians' fully realising that faith in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, is foundational for - and just as important as - faith in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit? It is foundational, in fact, for the gospel.

I think it is something deeper than simply that George Osborne's agenda has affected or infected everything, and that church people, like everyone else, find the economy and the pressure for limitless economic growth being pushed to the head of the priorities list.

It is partly that the Christian faith is still blamed by some people as the cause of our ecological crisis. A famous paper by a professor of medieval history, Lynn Townsend White, in 1967, argued that Christianity was the most anthropocentric of all the faiths. The misuse of texts about human "dominion", too often understood as domination rather than "royal service", has certainly not helped.

There is indeed much for the Church to repent of. But it is partly also that the split between spirit and matter, soul and body, sacred and secular is so deep-seated in many people's faith that they give priority to the spiritual in a way that suggests that the material and the bodily do not matter.

"This environmental enthusiasm is all very well," I have been told, "but shouldn't we be preaching the gospel?"

Then there is the difficult theology that believes that the world is going to end soon, as 2 Peter is often quoted as saying, so there is little point in bothering. What 2 Peter 3.10f. actually says is that there is every point in bothering, because the fire of God's judgement is going to disclose all that is to be kept for the new heavens and the new earth through resurrection in the coming day of God. "So", the text goes on, "what sort of people should we be?"


PERHAPS there is a further dimension to this, to which Professor Richard Dawkins and his atheist friends have contributed: a view of science that is essentially materialistic, instrumental, and mechanistic, and that understands the scope of science to include everything.

To be sure, at the time of the inauguration of the Royal Society, Christian faith and the developing sciences walked together and contributed to each other. But there were other developments that, over time, have tended to push religion more out of public discourse and towards becoming a private hobby. Such changes increasingly discount those parts of life that science could not measure or put in a bottle: love, friendship, loyalty, fellowship, creativity, communion.

Thankfully, there have been thinkers, such as the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose view of the world is of many levels of reality, each with its own science and interpretative mode. The higher levels - such as personal values - are dependent on, but not reducible to, the lower levels, such as physics and chemistry.

As Thomas Torrance suggested, we can think of the incarnation of the Word made flesh as the intersecting vertical co-ordinate, hold-ing this multi-levelled reality together.

I think that that is something of what St Paul means when he says that "in Christ all things hold together" (Colossians 1.15). That same paragraph speaks of Christ as the one "through whom all things were made", and the one in whom God reconciles all things to himself, "making peace through the blood of his cross".

I believe that we need more of this theme in our liturgy, our preaching, and our mission. In many places, the eucharist reminds us of creation ("Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation: through your goodness we have this bread . . ."; "Holy, holy, holy, Lord; heaven and earth are full of your glory"). The website operationnoah.org/creationtime has a eucharistic prayer for Creation Time, which, although not authorised for liturgical use in the C of E, may be suggestive in promoting fresh ideas about the worship and service of God, our creator and redeemer.

As Paul shows, the cross of Christ has a cosmic dimension ("all things . . ."). Creation and redemption belong together, just as Father, Son, and Spirit belong together in the work of the reconciliation of all things, until that day when God is all and in all, and - as the Psalmist puts it - God's glory will dwell in our land.

Dr David Atkinson is a former Bishop of Thetford, and is on the board of Operation Noah.

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