The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973



A new story of creation
by Sean McDonagh
From The Tablet dated 15 November 1986:

All life on earth is now threatened. To play their part in saving it, Christians need to overcome the dark side of their tradition, to develop the bright side, and to give it contemporary relevance by setting it in the context of modern cosmology. This is the second of two articles by an Irish Columban missionary whose study of ecology draws on 15 years' experience in the Philippines.

There is a dark side to the traditional Christian doctrine of creation. As an American historian, Lynn White, argued in a lecture in 1966, westerners feel "superior to nature, contemptuous of it, and willing to use it for our slightest whim". He blamed "the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence but to serve man".

Yet in our search for an ecologically sensitive theology it would be sheer folly not to recognise the wealth of insight which is present in our own Judaeo-Christian tradition. First and foremost, the Bible affirms that the world was created by a loving and personal God (Gen. 1,1). This is extremely important, as many cultures in the ancient Near East taught that since the earth was subject to decay and death, it must have been created, at least in part, by an evil spirit.

The Bible vigorously denies this. God contemplates the world which he has made and "sees that it is good". Further, God is not removed from this universe, hiding away in some inaccessible place. The psalmist sees the presence of God in all creation:

The heavens declare the Glory of God,
The vault of the heaven proclaims
His handiwork.
Day discourses of it to day,
Night to night hands on the
knowledge (Ps 19,1).

The trouble starts with the Genesis text: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it" (Gen. 1,28). This is the way the Jerusalem Bible translates the Hebrew. Other translations substitute "subdue the earth" or "have dominion over" for "conquer it". Given the very active human shaping of the earth which is echoed in the different translations, some people interpret the text to mean that the natural world has no inherent worth or value apart from its usefulness to human beings. In the early part of this decade James Watt, a former secretary of the interior in the United States, appealed to this Genesis text in order to bolster his argument about the need to open up national parks to commercial use. This interpretation strips nature of all rights and value except in so far as it serves human interests.

It seems highly unlikely, however, that such an understanding can be correct. For God loved his creation and saw that it was good. Rather, the commission to human beings, created by God in his own image, is best understood as a call to act as God's representatives or viceroys on earth. This means being stewards of God's creation and cooperating with the processes of the natural world in order to preserve its fruitfulness. Human beings are called to live in harmony with each other and with nature. Together with the rest of creation they stand before God and are responsible both for building a just society and for caring for creation.

The covenant between God and Noah after the flood broadens the base of the relationship with God and affirms that human beings are part of the great company of all the living. "This is a sign I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you" (Gen. 9,12). This inclusive covenant is at the heart of stewardship. The human and the natural world are interdependent. To recognise, cultivate, sustain and celebrate the dynamic web of life is stewardship. Human beings must realise that to act in God's name in relation to creation is a privilege bestowed on them by God. By responding to it in an authentic way they grow in the image and likeness of God. But like all privileged callings in the Bible, those who are called will be held accountable for their behaviour. The Genesis account of creation provided no licence to the human community to ravage, despoil and deplete the natural resources of the earth or to poison and kill off hundreds of thousands of living species.

The demands of stewardship are clearly seen in the sensitive attitude which the Jewish people displayed towards their land. They saw the land as a gift from God (Ex. 19,5). What was given was not outright ownership of the land but the right of tenancy, because God, who remained the true landowner, decreed that "the land belongs to me and to me you are only strangers and guests" (Lev. 25,23). Respect for God's overlordship, care for the land and concern for the less fortunate members of society go hand in hand in an earlier text on the observance of "a sabbath for God" every seventh year. During this time "you must not sow your fields or prune your vines, or harvest your ungathered corn, or gather your grapes from your untrimmed vines. It is to be a year of rest for the land. The sabbath of the land will itself feed you and your servants, men and women, your hired labourers, your guests and all who live with you" (Lev. 25,4-7).

The earth suffers

Modern mechanical agriculture which squeezes land to the point of exhaustion in order to extract the maximum short-term profit has forgotten the wisdom contained in this text. Heavy machinery and chemical farming show little respect for land. The land is not allowed to lie fallow in order to regain its fertility. It is only taken out of use when economic factors indicate that a bumper crop will lower the price of commodities.

The Israelite farmer is enjoined to show respect for his work animals. "You must not muzzle an ox when it is treading out corn" (Dt. 25,4). This respectful attitude is not confined to domestic animals. In an earlier text in Deuteronomy it is extended to wildlife as well: "If, when out walking, you come across a bird's nest in a tree or on the ground, with chicks or eggs and the mother bird sitting on the chicks, let the mother go; the young you may take for yourself. So you shall prosper and have a long life" (Dt. 22, 6-7). This is the heart of ecological wisdom. Like many other creatures in the earth community, we do not create our own source of energy, but live by consuming others. We are, however, called to do it with both profound gratitude and a caring attitude which strives to preserve the fruitfulness of life forms. We may eat the young, but we must be careful to conserve the breeding stock. We may enjoy the grain harvest, but we must not eat the seed grain even when famine threatens.

In stark contrast to this sane approach to the earth and other creatures, modern profit-orientated agriculture is abandoning traditional varieties of seed in favour of more lucrative hybrid ones. Many of the traditional varieties are now becoming extinct, since the transnational corporations involved in seed production prefer to market seeds which need high chemical input. The companies which produce the seeds are often associated with the companies which produce the chemicals, so that the link between seeds, fertiliser and pesticides sends profits soaring. But the earth suffers.

This side of farming produces large quantities of food in the short term, but the side-effects could endanger the long-term future of agriculture. For it means systematically chipping away at the genetic base on which much of our foodcrops are dependent. With the destruction of diversity, the hybrid seeds are extremely vulnerable to disease and infestation. A single disease can wipe out a whole crop and thus result in massive starvation. Modern geneticists are deeply worried by this loss of indispensable genetic raw material. They echo the wisdom of the Bible and tell us that what we are doing is like covering the roof of a house with rocks taken from the foundation. If we continue, the day of reckoning and collapse cannot be far away.

A Christian theology of creation will stress that much is to be learned from the attitude of respect which Jesus displayed towards the natural world. The New Testament does not support our throw-away, consumer society. More important still, as Paul tells us in Colossians 3,11 and many other similar texts, Jesus Christ is the centre of the cosmos. He is "all and in all". All the rich unfolding and creativity of this emergent universe, from the fireball until now, are centred on him. Wantonly to destroy any aspect of creation and to sterilise the earth is to deface the image of Christ which is radiated to us through our world.

There is much practical wisdom also in some of the great Christian movements down through the centuries. The Benedictine monks in Europe approached the natural world with respect and introduced farming methods and farming technologies which enhanced the natural fertility of the land. Francis of Assisi went even further. His life of fellowship with all creatures bursts forth in The Canticle of Brother Sun. We need to recapture Francis's sensitivity to the world around us and also to be enriched by the insights from the great religions of Asia - Hinduism and Buddhism - and the intimate relationship between believers and the natural world which primal religion has fashioned in almost every corner of the globe.

This point is not lost on secular ecological organisations. In September, the World Wildlife Fund celebrated its 25th anniversary by inviting leaders from the five great world religions to Assisi. There representatives from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity pledged to mobilise the spiritual energies of their respective communities in the struggle to preserve this beautiful and fruitful planet. Only in this way will religious people fashion an adequate theology of creation to guide the peoples of the earth in the difficult journey from our present destructive frenzy to a point where we will begin to celebrate the beauty of the earth and live more lightly on her.

Such an ecologically sensitive theology of creation will not be confined to the sacred texts of the Christian tradition. It will include cosmology. A theology of creation should be able to elucidate and draw out the religious dimension of the new story of the fireball, the emergence of the galaxies, the solar system, planet earth and all the life which it bears.

Many members of the theological community will need to become as familiar with the idiom and processes of the natural sciences as most theologians are today with the methods of historical research and philosophical discourse. Then they will be able to highlight the numinous dimension of the new story and present it in such a way that it becomes a sacred text for this generation, firing the imagination so that renewed human communities will be guided by its principles.

Holistic theology

Many of the leaders in the Catholic Church are only now becoming aware of the magnitude of the crisis. Though Rachel Carson's book The Silent Spring was published in 1962, the bishops at Vatican II had nothing to say about the despoliation of the earth except in the context of nuclear war. In more recent times the problems of industrial pollution and ecological devastation have been raised by Pope Paul VI in his apostolic letter to Cardinal Roy, and by Pope John Paul in a speech he gave in August 1985 at the Centre for the Environment which the United Nations runs in Nairobi. In both cases, the focus was exclusively on the needs of the human component of the living community on earth. As the brief description in my previous article of the cycle of death which follows in the wake of the destruction of the rain forest shows, this is not an adequate perspective through which to grasp the scale of the present destruction.

We need a new story of the emergence of the earth and of the role of the human race within the community of the living, so that the human vocation to care for our earth - the garden planet of the universe - can be given a contemporary meaning. Many of the strands of this story have already been woven by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his book The Phenomenon of Man. A theology of creation based on this story could help to arouse us to the need to push back the web of death which is rapidly encircling the globe.

See also: Our wounded planet

NB. Whilst the Fellowship of Life ethos extends further than the theology contained in the above text we present it for recent historical and other meaningful reasons.   

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