The Christian and the creation



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

The Christian and the creation

July 3, 2008    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011   
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0877}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

I now realize that my childhood was very unusual.

I was reared in the woods of the Loess bluffs that lie just to the east of the Mississippi Delta. Our home was in a small clearing on a high ridge in a deciduous forest through which ran bayous of limestone and waterfalls. Our ears were filled with the sounds of bird song and the drone of cicadas in summer. I do not ever remember my parents preventing me from roaming the woods or playing in the creeks. I grew up with a deep immersion in the natural world, and I have never perceived myself as anything less than an integral part of it. How different was my childhood from that of millions of children who grow up in a suburb and a human environment of buildings and asphalt and the constant sound of traffic.
 
In my own experience, God’s presence is communicated through God’s creation. I cannot tell if I experienced the sense of God’s presence through the creation because I learned who God is in church or if I recognized the God I already knew through what I learned about God in church. I do know that both the creation and church are necessary for knowing God fully. As John Calvin observed, the creation reveals the hands of God in creation, but the Scriptures reveal the heart of God in Jesus Christ.
 
For a long time, I had difficulty integrating my experience of God’s presence in church with God’s presence in creation. It seemed to me that there was very little emphasis in church on God’s presence in the creation. The God of the Bible was portrayed as being concerned only in accomplishing the divine purpose in history, rather than in nature, and in redeeming persons, rather than caring for the non-human creation.

My study of Protestant theology did not help. The theologians were more interested in contrasting the biblical God with the pagan deities who were personifications of natural forces. Pantheism, the concept of God’s identification with the “world soul” of nature, was portrayed by the theologians as a dangerous heresy. The Presbyterian minister George Buttrick summed up the Protestant ethos when he observed that we should beware of “garden club theology” since Jesus was betrayed in a garden.
 
On my own journey in faith, I have had to discover the integration of our experience of God in church with our experience of God in creation. There are two main lessons I have had to learn.
 
I have learned that it is a mistake to assume the Bible portrays God as only being concerned about human history and human hearts. It is true that this is the primary focus of the Bible. There is justification in Karl Barth’s observation that “the creation is the extrinsic basis of covenant” and “the covenant is the intrinsic basis of creation.” Yet, it would be simplistic to view the creation as merely the stage for the drama of human salvation. The Bible also discloses that God is the Creator, that “heaven and earth are full of his glory” and that the final purpose of God is “a new heaven and a new earth.” The place of the land in God’s promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the provisions for plants and animals in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19; Exodus 23:12), the images of almond trees, grapes and locusts in the prophets, and the multitude of references to nature in Jesus’ teaching imply the divine involvement with the creation.
 
I have also learned that classical Christian theology in the eras of the church fathers and mothers and also in medieval theology emphasized how every creature participates in God, or how God is present in, with and through all things. God’s presence is not exhausted in the creation since, as the Creator who is personal, God transcends the creation. Yet, God’s transcendences to the creation do not deny God’s immanence in the creation. So, there is some truth in pantheism, but its error is to deny God’s transcendence. In my judgment, much of Protestant theology became misguided when it followed Martin Luther’s affirmation of a “theology of the cross” as a substitute for a “theology of glory.” This substitution was intended to put the focus on God’s revelation in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but it was extreme in its depreciation of the revelation of God’s glory in the order and beauty of the cosmos.
 
Even the Christological focus in the Bible does not obscure or deny God’s concern for all of creation since the world was made through and for Christ and will be consummated in the end because of Christ.
 
The recovery of the message of God’s care for the creation is urgently needed today. We face a deep concern for the health of the natural world because of human exploitation and climate change. There needs to be a theological perspective that takes seriously our stewardship of the creation. The good news is that the teaching we need is already in Scripture and classical Christian theology. People do not have to endorse pantheism or neo-pagan efforts to re-divinize nature to find a religious view that takes care for the creation seriously. These alternatives to a Christian theology entail misguidance in their blindness to God’s personal nature, their disparagement of the value of human beings as creatures uniquely made in the image of God, their ignorance of Christ and their romantic spirituality. As always, the Christian world-view is able to address new issues in the unfolding of history and to address them with a sense of balance, seriousness and truth.
 
We also need to recover the message of God’s care for the creation in our spiritual lives. I am convinced that the dissatisfaction felt in modern existence is directly related to our alienation from the natural world.

I remember reading a statement in a textbook in the first sociology course I took in college. The author noted how there has been a decline in religious consciousness in the modern world as people have migrated to urban environments and lost contact with the weather, the seasons and the cycles of life and death in the natural world. In my own pastoral work and personal experience, I have come to justify that insight.

Today, we should teach a theology that encourages people to go outside and reconnect to God’s creation. We should also invest more in the camp and retreat ministries offered through the connection and the local church.

Nature does not heal us, but God does heal us through God’s creation. Then the “wilderness” through which the Israelites wandered and where Jesus often retreated will be a place not only of testing, but also of healing as we receive manna and acquire the wisdom that comes from looking at the birds in the air and considering the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-33).

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.




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