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An earthed view of creation

by
04 December 2020

Peter Sills continues our series based on the Advent antiphons

The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Medieval depiction of Adam naming the animals from the monastery of St Nicholas Anapafsas, in the Meteora, Greece

Medieval depiction of Adam naming the animals from the monastery of St Nicholas Anapafsas, in the Meteora, Greece

O WISDOM, from the mouth of the Most High you reign over all things to the ends of the earth and dispose them by the power of your love; come and teach us the way of truth.

 

CREATION has its own truth, its own integrity, and if, as we believe, it is the expression of the will of God, then taking to heart the truth and integrity of the created order, absorbing its rhythms and relationships and learning to live by them, is part and parcel of “dwelling in the truth”, to use John the Elder’s phrase. The most fundamental aspect of our hope for truth today is for the truth and integrity of the creation to be safeguarded, and for effective action to reverse the damage done to it through global warming, environmental pollution, and the decline of species.

The way in which our ideas about creation and the natural environment have changed over recent decades illustrates well the way that truth is apprehended through making a journey. Empirical research has been an important part of that journey, both occasioning its start and directing its course, but at the heart has been an inner change in perception of the relationship of humanity to the rest of creation. It has been nothing less than a profound spiritual awakening, a consecrating by the truth, although it is not usually described in that way. As it is so basic to the hope for truth, it is helpful to consider it further.

 

THAT creation has its own truth and integrity is now widely understood. The truth about the planet is the most fundamental of the new truths into which we have been led by the Spirit, and hope is focused on the need to value and safeguard it. This concern has become progressively less human-centred and more creation-centred: an ethical change to which the Church has contributed.

In the early 1980s, the World Council of Churches called for a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society (JPSS); after only a few years this was replaced by a new call for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) (Signs of the Spirit: Official report, Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1991; Eerdmans, 1991).

The new call represents a redirection of hope. The earlier formulation, JPSS, placed the emphasis on human society, which, it had been generally assumed, the rest of creation existed to serve. The later formulation, JPIC, reverses this assumption; it acknowledges the God-given value and unity intrinsic to the whole of creation, of which humanity is simply a part, and which humanity exists to serve and preserve.

 

WHAT we see in this shift of understanding is a move away from the predominance of the first creation story, where men and women are given dominion over the earth, to fill it and subdue it, to the second (and earlier) story where God made a garden in Eden and placed Adam in it “to till it and look after it” (Genesis 2.15). The problem is that the later story has been placed first in the biblical narrative, thus giving it prominence and obscuring the original vision of the earlier story.

In this earlier story, the magisterial conception of the later story is entirely absent; creation originates not in a divine command, but in an act of divine love. God is close to what he makes; Adam is formed from the dust of the earth, and God breathes into his nostrils the breath of life — the very breath, or Spirit, of God himself. God cares for Adam: he plants the garden and makes trees to grow up from the ground, “every kind of tree, pleasing to the eye and good for food”.

 

THE two stories not only have a very different tone, they also have a very different ethic. In the earlier story, Adam comes from the very earth that is to sustain him and for which he must care. Here is mutuality, a sense of connectedness between humankind and the rest of creation, the workings of which Charles Darwin and others have made plain. The key concept is not dominion, but humility (from the Latin humus, meaning “earth”). This story resonates with our ecological concerns; if only it had taken root in our collective psyche in the way that the later story has done. If only we had been truly earthed! But we have preferred dominion to humility: the world is ours — we can do what we like with it.

Truth is seen in the earlier story as God sets a framework for the life of humankind. Two trees in the garden are out of bounds: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thus Adam’s life has ethical boundaries, and, as the story unfolds, it is when he tries to overstep these boundaries (by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge) that he falls from grace.

An important part of the hope for truth is that we shall recognise that we are not the centre of our lives; we are not our own moral authority. To be fully human, we need to be earthed, in touch with what is real, and that means accepting a source of authority outside of the self. Not for nothing did St Benedict describe humility as the chief virtue. Not for nothing is it said that living in awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.

 

WE TEND to look at the two creation stories separately, but, in truth, they should be held together. The later story is no less true than the earlier one. We do have dominion over creation; and within us is the divine image, the capacity to relate to God and to live in communion with him. It is because of this — because we are so fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist said — that God commissions us as his co-creators.

The earlier story shows us how that divine commission is to be discharged: with reverence, love, and care, with concern for the common good, and within the divine moral framework. This is the goal of truth towards which we reach out in hope.

 

This is an edited extract from Light in the Darkness: Exploring the path of Christian hope by Peter Sills, published by Sacristy Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).

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