“It Was Very Good”: Christianity, Creation, and Climate Change
On December 28, 2017, as the United States began to fall into a particularly harsh cold snap, President Donald Trump tweeted a sarcastic dig at those concerned with climate change. This comment is unsurprising from a President and administration that have done everything they can to undermine any efforts for stronger environmental policies put into place before them. From exiting the Paris climate agreement to removing protections for National parks to deciding in favor of building new pipelines for drilling, Trump and his associates have demonstrated and utter lack of concern for the impact we are having on the earth.
Although at this point, the statistic is nauseatingly cliché, it’s worth repeating: 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.
Those of us who grew up in the Evangelical subculture will not find these two realities—Trump’s disregard for the environment and Evangelical Christianity’s support of Trump—all that surprising. In fact, you might find it odd that I’ve chosen to couple these two items together. Normally, the “how could Evangelicals support Trump?” indignation centers around Trump’s arrogance, use of profanity, and lack of sexual ethics. But climate change? Of course it isn’t going to bother Evangelical Christians that Trump is anti-environment; they are too. Those of us who now identify as ex-Evangelical grew up learning the same thing from our Sunday morning sermons that we do from Trump’s twitter feed: that climate change is a hoax.
Climate scientist and Evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe has spent a great deal of time and effort working to convince climate change denying Christians that they are more influenced by conservative politics than they are by Christian theology. While I certainly applaud her efforts and I do think there is some truth to that claim, I think there are very real theological motivations that Evangelicals have for their disregard of the planet.
As far as I can tell, this dismissive view of the environment boils down to two key theological convictions of Evangelical Christianity:
The physical world is “fallen” and, therefore, inherently evil. Evangelical Christians have somehow gotten away with appropriating the early Christian heresy of Gnosticism: that there is a dualistic nature between the spiritual and the physical, the former being good and the latter being evil. This understanding has heavily influenced their theology of sexuality, emphasizing bodily shame in all sorts of ways. But it has also led to indifference toward the planet as a corrupt and irredeemable space that we simply must inhabit temporarily until our souls can arrive at their true home in Heaven.
The physical world is destined for destruction. Evangelical Christians are heavily focused on eschatology, reading scriptures that speak of the “end of the age” in which the world will be “burned up” and replaced with a “new heaven and a new earth” very fatalistically as literal prophecies about will actually happen in the future. If God is going to literally and utterly destroy the world anyway, what is the point in protecting it?
There are people within the Christian tradition, of course, who aren’t so dismissive of the planet’s health. In 1983, the National Council Churches founded an ecumenical ministry now called Creation Justice, arguing in favor of environmental stewardship—that Christians have both a moral and spiritual obligation to care for the planet that was entrusted to human beings by God.
Today, there are numerous denominations that offer programs and ministries encouraging their congregants to be more conscientious about the environment—such as my own denomination’s Green Chalice certification. Despite the dismissive Evangelical Christian rhetoric that so often makes the headlines, there is a deep strain within orthodox Christianity that recognizes the inherent goodness of Creation. “God saw everything that (s)he had made,” reads Genesis 1:31, “and indeed, it was very good.”
The World as the Body of God
For me, the grand revelation as to how Christianity and concern for the environment can go hand-in-hand came when I stumbled across the work of theologian Sally McFague. In her books Models of God and The Body of God, McFague discusses the various ways in which God be understood within the Christian tradition and ultimately proposes a new model harmonizing the nature of God with the God of nature. Rather that God being understood as a being completely separate from the world, McFague proposes that the world can be understood as the “body of God.”
Just as we use the metaphor of “body and soul” for ourselves, we can use the same metaphor for God. Our souls inhabit our bodies and contain the intentionality and consciousness that we identify with the core of our being. And yet, our bodies feed our souls with all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that ultimately make us who we are. In the same way, God can be understood as the spirit that is manifest in the body of the earth. In her more recent (and more accessible) book A New Climate for Theology, McFague writes:
“The model of the world as God’s body is appropriate for our time (as well as being in continuity with the Christian incarnational tradition) because it encourages us to focus on the neighborhood. It understands the doctrine of creation to be not primarily about God’s power, but about God’s love: how we can live together, all of us, within and for God’s body. It focuses attention on the near, on the neighbor, on the earth, on meeting God not later in heaven but here and now. We meet God in the world and especially in the flesh of the world: in feeding the hungry, healing the sick—and in reducing greenhouse gases. An incarnational understanding of creation says nothing is too lowly, too physical, too mean a labor if it helps creation to flourish. We find God in caring for the garden, in loving the earth well: this becomes our vocation, our central task. Climate change, then, becomes a major religious, a major Christian, issue. To be a Christian in our time, one must respond to the consequences of global warming.
Those accustomed to the Evangelical perspective on the relationship between God the world might be tempted to scoff at this idea as pantheistically (and heretically) equating God with creation. But as McFague mentions parenthetically, it is not necessarily at odds with the Christian tradition. Fundamental to Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation—the conviction that God “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14) particularly in the person of Jesus. If God and the world were not already inseparably connected, they became so when God entered into physical existence by appropriating human flesh.
“In God we live and move and have our being,” writes the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:28. We live and move and have our being in the world. If we also live and move and have our being in God, then it is not too far a stretch to say that this world in which we are living, moving, and having our being is in fact the body of God.
Everything is Sacred
So, what is the point of all this talk about the nature of God? Does it really matter? Well, at the end of the day, all the ways we have of talking about God are ultimately just metaphors. The important question for us to ask is, I believe, which metaphors lead us toward more productive and life-affirming ways of being. This is why I love the metaphor of the world as God’s body so much...
When we come to see the world as the body of God, the dividing line between the sacred and the profane is abolished. We can no longer dismiss another people group, another species, another landscape, or anything else we encounter in this world as insignificant to God. Suddenly, everything matters. To the extent that we are harming the planet, we are harming God. Abuse of the earth is abuse of the God who abides within it.
The earth is not merely a sandbox that God has given us to play in; it is a sacred temple of God’s Holy Spirit. Understanding God as being manifest in her creation is a powerful way to provoke us toward action. The dangers of climate change, despite what Evangelical skeptics may suggest, are very real. The world in which God has become incarnate is in imminent danger. The question is, what are the people of God going to do about it?