Evangelism and the Environment - some Theology

Evangelism, the mission of God and Environmental Care - Some theology behind the role of Evangelism Enabler, Environmental Focus and vision for this in the Diocese of Lichfield

(adapted from a talk given to the Community of St Chad, St Chad’s day 2021)

Romans 8:14-25

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.


Looking to a New Creation

Romans 8 is a good place to start a reflection on the place of humanity within creation. It is the culmination of Paul’s argument through Romans of the outworking of salvation in Christ. This begins with the human situation in Adam, east of Eden and in a series of broken relationships, between humans and God, men and women and between humanity and creation. Into this comes Jesus the new Adam through whom ultimately there is a new creation. The new creation is a phrase Paul uses often and it is almost his version of the Gospel writers Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven. It also looks forward to the climax of the Book of Revelation in which the New Jerusalem, comes out of Heaven and with it the healing of the world. There is again a new creation.

Paul and Revelation are all drawing heavily on Jewish Apocalyptic largely from the intertestamental period. This literature is built on the parallel between the garden of Eden and the Jerusalem Temple, and the Temple and God’s dwelling in Heaven. In this telling of the salvation story Adam and Eve where the first hight priests of the first temple which was Eden, but when expelled lost their priestly garments of glory. This literature interprets the ritual of the earthly temple as a sign of a coming restoration of humanity and creation. This is particularly so on the day of atonement when the high priest can on this day only enter the Holy of Holies where God’s Spirit dwelt and re-emerge dressed in new garments which represented the lost garments of Adam and Eve. These were also made to be like the veil of the temple within which God ‘tabernacled’ to use the phrase Paul uses elsewhere to talk of Jesus ‘tabernacling’ with us, that is dwelling with us in human clothing. The High priest is, to again use another of Paul’s phrases, clothed over with Christ. So, within Jewish Apocalyptic it is very common to read of great prophets who take a journey to God’s dwelling in Heaven, effectively entering what the apocalyptic writers call the true Temple not made with hands. There, the ascended prophet is re-clothed, like the high priest and sent back to earth as God’s representative. In Revelation as the new Jerusalem appears from heaven, we are told that she is the bride of Christ, the church, dressed for her wedding to Christ the bridegroom. So, the description of the city is also a description of her clothing. When looked at in this way, the bride is wearing the clothing of the high priest on the day of atonement. The new Eve is ready to be joined to the new Adam. 

This apocalyptic language appears in many other places in the New Testament. These passages link creation and new creation with theme of a restored priesthood of Adam and Eve. But is this simply a symbolic way of speaking of this connection or is there something more that speaks of humanities intended role in creation and has relevance for an age of climate crisis and environmental destruction? I believe there is.

All of creation our brothers and sisters in Christ

Within the church there are of course different understandings of priesthood, including those that would not use that word at all. But many contain some concept of representation. In the text of Genesis Adam and Eve are also representatives. Both of God in who’s image they are made but also of the soil out of which they are made. Indeed, the name Adam is derived from the word for soil. Paul in Romans 8 describes how in Christ we have become children of God and share in Christ’s inheritance. He then goes on to say that the whole of creation is waiting for these new children of God to be revealed so it too can share in that inheritance. That is, creation too shares with us as God’s children. This is very much what the famous hymn of St Francis speaks of when he calls the sun his brother and the moon his sister. How might we live differently if we understood ourselves not to be other than creation but of the earth? Not as just having human brothers and sisters in our family or even within the whole human family but in the family of creation? Understanding that the rocks and seas, birds and fishes, animals, vegetables, and minerals were our brothers and sisters as St Francis realised?

St Paul in 2 Cor 5 talks of the whole creation being reconciled to God in Christ in whom we have received a ministry of reconciliation. In Christ we receive a calling to the restoration of the broken relationships east of Eden. This not only restores our relationship with each other, God, and creation, but restores our calling as the creatures uniquely made in God’s image. But what might that mean for our relationship with our non-human family? What it means to be in the image of God is a subject on which many opinions have been expressed, and these have often sought to emphasise how different and superior humans are from other creatures. But what if this divine image does not give us superiority but responsibility? Does not give us creation for our benefit but gives us to creation in its service?

Humanity in God’s image, sharing God’s responsibility for creation

The creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 contain some strange statements about the role of humanity with regards to creation. These seem to go in a very different direction to the one I am taking and set humanity against and over creation in a very aggressive way. Indeed, in a famous essay by Lynn White Christianity is blamed for humanity’s abuse of creation precisely because of what Genesis says about us in God’s image. At first sight on studying the text in Hebrew Lynn White has a strong argument. The text of verses 26 through 28 speak of humanity made male and female in God’s image so that they may multiply and fill the earth and subdue creation and have dominion over it in the NRSV translation.  The word translated dominion is of having the status of a ruler. In this instance God as ‘king’ hands humanity made in God’s image God’s authority. If we assume that God as lord of creation acts for the benefit and welfare of creation, and indeed that our model of kingship is that of the servant king, Jesus, then dominion is a misleading translation, this is not of itself about domination but responsibility. Humans uniquely choose how they live, and this gives them power but with it great responsibility. Indeed, to say that God made humanity in the divine image and gave us responsibility for creation conveys the meaning well. But this is not true for the word translated subdue, this word in Hebrew is a word used for war and violent conquest. So, what is this word doing in this passage?

The secret to this strange language lies in what is going on behind the text of Genesis in how it relates to the creation stories of the surrounding nations. In both Canaanite Babylonian and Mesopotamian creation stories the Gods battle a seven headed sea monster who they defeat and then make the world out of its body. Humanity is then made to serve the God’s so they can live in luxury. In contrast, the Genesis text has one God not many who subdues the chaos and creates humanity in the divine image to be rulers with God. The role of the seven headed sea monster is only alluded to in the text but is explicit in other passages as the chaos monster Leviathan. A good example is Psalm 74 which depicts God’s battle with leviathan at creation quite openly. Whilst some texts like psalm 104 have leviathan as God’s creature made to sport in the sea, most passages see Leviathan as in combat with God and some like Isaiah 27 and the end of Job depict that battle as ongoing, setting up the seven headed sea monster as a foe to be defeated when suffering is finally overcome. This is what happens when this monster surfaces again as the beast from the sea in Revelation and is then finally defeated.

Once Genesis is read against this background what God does in creation is subdue the chaos monster and fill the earth with life. Humans are then made in God’s image, given God’s responsibility to care for creation and told to do what God has been doing in order to fulfil that responsibility. That is subdue the forces of destruction and suffering and fill the earth with life. In the terms of Genesis 2 our calling is to extend Eden so that it fills the earth. Yet instead, as the story unfolds, humans damage their relationship with God and creation and lose Eden finding themselves outside with the thorns and briers. This takes us full circle back to Romans 8 and the strange language of verse 20 that tells us the creation was subjected to futility, that is in the Greek a falling short of what it should be, not through its own will but the one who subjected it in hope. That is the fulfilment of creation’s calling in God begun in the story of Genesis becomes dependant on the fulfilment of humanities calling in the divine image as a royal priesthood within creation.

Evangelism and the Environment in the footsteps of St Chad

This may seem an unfamiliar approach to us, but it would not to those in the Orthodox Church whose liturgy is full of references to this kind of thinking. I suspect it would also be familiar to Celtic missionaries like St Chad to whom sacred landscapes and their wildlife featured strongly in their mission. I am reminded of a conversation with a welsh speaking priest who explained how the word Llan that appears with the names of saints in many welsh place names differs from the word Eglwys that means church. Llan by contrast speaks of a sacred landscape and this priest believed conveyed an understanding of Celtic mission as not only converting the people but the very land itself.

So, what are the implications of this for our part in God’s mission in both evangelism and creation care? Firstly, it makes the scope of our good news much bigger than the reconciliation of humans to God, it encompasses the whole creation. This is what we must call people to in a call to follow Christ. Secondly it reminds us of our unique responsibility within creation as the only creature that can choose how to live, and it tells us we will only live responsibly with creation if we are transformed by Christ and restore the calling given to us as those made in God’s image. This is very much the approach to a holistic view of mission conveyed by the Anglican 5 marks of mission in which the first mark, the proclamation of the kingdom, or indeed we might say the new creation, calls people to become disciples who will care for those in need, combat injustice and preserve the integrity of creation. It tells us that letting creation get on with it is not a responsible environmental strategy when we cannot live without impacting creation and are called to actively care for it.

I believe the combination of evangelism and environmentalism is essential for both. And this is why my role as Evangelism Enabler Environmental focus makes sense to me. As part of this role, I am asked to help create a new Christian community that has both evangelism and environmentalism at its heart. I see this as a new monastic community with these dual charisms of evangelism and environmentalism and possibly called the community Chad, Winefride and Wulfrun, not only also marking female saints along with Chad, but the three areas of the diocese. But of course, there already is a Community of St Chad. And so not surprisingly I have been in conversation with the leaders of the Community of St Chad about how this new community might relate well to the existing one. Perhaps as a group within the wider community of St Chad representing a particular charism within that community? 

A vision for Evangelism and Environmental Focus in Lichfield Diocese

My vision currently for this new community is that it will be based in hubs around the diocese that will have a worshiping community in the style of a Forest Church with worship in nature and reconnecting with the seasons of the year. That at the core of these hubs will be those who are part of this new monastic expression but that they will both interact with those in the local Christian community who feel called to either evangelism or creation care, but also build relationships with those outside the Christian community who are involved in either environmentalism or nature spirituality. This is in the hope that such people may themselves become part of the spiritual life of the hub and themselves disciples of Christ.

Initially looking at this I did a mapping exercise looking at where there were environmental groups and possible centres of nature spirituality. I am now looking at where there are also people keen to explore setting up Forest Church. This is a vision I am also sharing with groups like the diocesan Community of Evangelists and those involved in environmental action as well as the Community of St Chad, inviting people to become involved in some way in these emerging hubs and possibly become part of the new community I envisage. If this is a vision you are interested in exploring further, please do get in touch.

Steve Hollinghurst, March 2021. steve.hollinghurst@lichfield.anglican.org

Page last updated: Wednesday 26th May 2021 12:20 PM
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