Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Environment (Page 2 of 4)

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – God Created the World Good, Not Perfect

For many Christians, the opening passages of the Bible that relate the creation story have been interpreted as clearly saying that God made the world perfect and, when sin entered the world following the Fall, that perfection was marred. Such a reading of this text makes sense on first appearance, both theologically and philosophically. If God is God, why would this Creator of the Universe make a world that is anything less than perfect? However this is where Fretheim demolishes this argument with clear biblical insight.

In interpreting the Genesis accounts of creation, Fretheim presents a God who is relational and who therefore decides to create in community rather than alone. Therefore God allows humans to be co-creators after the seventh day of creation. To illustrate his argument, Fretheim explains that, for instance, the command to “subdue” given to the first humans in Genesis, assumes that the earth was not fully developed, that Genesis does not present the creation as a finished product. For a creative God, the act of creation is ongoing, and “God continues to create and uses creatures in a vocation that involves the becoming of creation.” Such is God’s love for and confidence in the creation that “what human and nonhuman creatures do in creation counts with respect to the emergence of ever-new creations; they make a difference regarding the shape that the future of the creation takes.”

Fretheim backs this view up with a quote from none other than the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has said that “God does not create merely by calling something into existence, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he `creates’ by letting-be, by making room, and by withdrawing himself.”[1] In other words, God does not micro-manage the universe.

One of the theological points I struggled with in the book was Fretheim’s use of the term ‘divine council’ as being involved in the initial creation act. Genesis 1:26has God saying “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. I have always interpreted the ‘our’ in this to refer to the Trinity – the ‘eternal community’ as Larry Crabb puts it.[2] As God is relational, it makes sense that the creation would occur as a result of relationship. Fretheim however appears to see the ‘us’ and ‘our’ differently. He states that “a remarkable majority of scholars understand…the divine council [in terms of] the heavenly assembly that engages the deity and does God’s bidding.” I put this issue to Fretheim, additionally pointing out that when he talks about the creative activity of God, he says that “all that it means to be divine must be at work in the creating of that image. This reality may be reflected in the use of the phrases ‘our image’ and ‘our likeness.’” However, because we are made in the image of God, and not in the image or likeness of that which is not God, this seems to contradict Fretheim’s previous statements about the divine council being involved in the creation, unless the divine council – those beings that are created by God – are also divine, which would be unscriptural. It would seem to me that the ‘us’ in ‘Let us make’ is the same as ‘our’ in ‘our image’. Fretheim responded to this question by saying that the “us, our” can include the divine council without compromising monotheism or “image of God” language. He adds that it is not uncommon that angelic beings make an appearance in human form[3] and they too are in the image of God.

One of the main points that Fretheim brings out early in this book is the fact that humans, as made in the image of a Creator God, must also be understood as creators themselves. This goes back to the relationality of God. To emphasise this point, Fretheim states, “God is a power-sharing God, indeed a creation-sharing God, and God will be faithful to that way of relating to those created in the divine image.” The responsibility God has placed with humans is remarkable. From the Genesis text, Fretheim explains that we can see that “how the human beings in their God-given freedom decide will determine whether there will be a next human generation. In some basic sense, God places the very future of the human race in human hands.”

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 88.

[2] Lawrence J. Crabb, Connecting (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1997).

[3] Genesis 18.

Book Review – Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters

Quite simply, this is one of the most profound books I have ever read. In a world where we are seeing a plethora of natural disasters, many of which are the type forecast by climate scientists to be what we can expect more of in the future, Fretheim’s excellent volume is timely indeed.

Just this year we have seen major earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, unprecedented flooding in the eastern states of Australia, and cyclones which have threatened to wipe some towns off the map.

In this book, Fretheim reveals aspects of God’s creation that the biblical texts reveal as quite obvious when you read them, but which we often fail to consider because of the particular cultural lens through which we read the text.

Over the next week or two I will look at the main arguments in each chapter, including the introduction and conclusion, and will make comments on the points made by the author. This post starts with the introduction.

The introduction to the book makes the following points:

  • Natural disasters are an integral part of God’s design in creation.
  • Natural disasters are not necessarily the result of human sin, though specific natural events may be made more severe by human sin.
  • How might reflection on the biblical text assist our theological consideration of natural disasters?
  • Interest in the link between God and natural disasters has increased over the last generation due to the power of the media and increased environmental awareness.
  • How we do interpret judgment in relation to natural disasters?
  • God is involved in the healing of the natural world.
  • The book does not pretend to offer answers to the question of why natural disasters occur in a world made by God, but many attempts at explanations have not given proper honour to God.

Nature and the soul

I went camping on the weekend with some other blokes who are part of a men’s group I am in. Part of our time included a couple of hours alone on Sunday morning, out in nature, just taking it in, not thinking too much, not analysing it, but just being part of it.

I begin by walking along a track along a river. As the track winds closer to the river and then further from it, I find myself wanting to be drawn to the fast and gently flowing water, so clean and clear. So I find a little clearing and sit down by the river, somewhat mesmerised by what I can only call the gentle rush of the streams of life-giving water flowing past me.

As I sit down, a cockatoo flies overhead, its screech piercing the silence. Sitting there amongst the wildness out in nature, with the ferns and trees standing in the stillness all around me, I feel like I am intruding on their territory. But then I realise I am not intruding, for I too am part of nature. I am out here too, just observing. I belong here too.

I am reminded of what Bill Plotkin says about nature, that it is without self-consciousness. As he puts it, it is just there, without any apparent wish to be otherwise, without even a glimmer of identity crisis. As I sit there I realise that the birds flying overhead, the ferns growing all around me, the bush, the scrub, would all be here anyway if humans had never existed. It doesn’t need us. It makes me respect it more. It doesn’t fight back; it is vulnerable, helpless, open to abuse, and impossible to control. I realise that this is a great definition of love: vulnerable, open to abuse, yet still giving unconditionally.

As I sit there, a small fern is right next to me, touching me. One of the light branches is actually resting on my arm, like it is reaching out to me, without fear and despite its helplessness, almost like it is reassuring me. This was the same fern that I was fleetingly tempted to rip out of the ground as I was about to sit there by the river so I could get a better view. Such is my selfishness when I am disconnected. I was glad I didn’t act out my fleeting murderous intent.

To some this may sound like some New Age claptrap. To the contrary, God’s love is revealed in nature. I am reminded that Jesus told his hearers to consider the lilies, that they don’t worry about how they look (Luke 12:27). It is good to see nature as Jesus sees it.

After a while of sitting by the river, I get up, leave it and walk further along the trail. As I walk through this wild land that the Black Saturday bush fires had swept through just two years before, I imagine the fires racing through here, taking all before them, leaving nothing in their wake. Total destruction. But then I wonder: purely in terms of nature, is it destruction or is it part of the renewal cycle of life?

As I walk on I see hoofprints in the dirt. They remind me of another wonderful side of nature: the contrasting gentleness and yet wildness of a horse. Then I look around me, seeing green fields in the distance, peaceful and beautiful. Out here, away from the distractions of everyday life, I am aware of my responses. I realise how fragile nature is and I see that looking after it is something to be done for nature’s sake alone and not just for its effect on humans. Nature has value in its own right. After all, God said it was good. Nature reflects the glory of God.

I walk further, up a steep hill, my heart pounding each time I stop. After a minute I walk off the track into the bush and notice the quieter sounds around me, not just the bird noises overhead, but the gentler sounds of what may be little creatures in the scrub. I walk back down the hill and notice a green shoot, fragile and tiny, growing on its own out of the dirt. I am struck not simply by what this might symbolize, but what it is, nature pushing through where it is not expected.

I walk on and I notice an ant on the ground which has stopped moving, maybe when I stepped near it. I bend down to observe it, gently prodding it to see if it is still alive. It moves slightly, then stops again, so I prod it again, and it moves slightly again, and starts walking, over the bumps and grooves in the dirt made by my boots. I notice that it doesn’t need to walk straight in the grooves, to be ordered like I think I have to be. It just walks wherever it sees is best for its purpose.

This was my morning with nature. It is something I think everyone of us should do with some regularity. We spend too much of our time inside these days, trapped in front of our screens, slaves to technology. And the more we are enslaved, the more we miss the goodness of the vast, wild awesomeness of the pure, natural world that God created simply because it is God’s nature to create. We do well to immerse ourselves in it.

Life is hard

I’ve had an emotional couple of weeks. It started when my wife and I attended a conference on a Christian response to climate change. The situation really is dire but our response is not to be one of despair and throwing our hands up in defeat. Our response is to be one of Christlikeness – of love, justice and mercy, especially for the millions who will be affected the most and who have done the least to contribute to it – the poor.

During some breaks in the conference I was speaking to a few people and found out that a dearly loved woman in our church community who has been suffering from brain cancer had a week to live (she passed on the next morning. RIP Kate – safe in the arms of Jesus). We all thought she had about 9 months but not so now. A few of us went to see her the day before she died, along with her 12 year old son who she last saw as an 8 month old baby. It was so touching seeing her son take his mother’s hand, but also so sad knowing that this will be his only memory of seeing his mother.

During another break in the conference we also found out that a couple we knew had split up, leaving kids traumatized and confused. That weekend was truly a sobering one.

Life is unspeakably sad, as psychologist Larry Crabb puts it. And as a song that we used to sing in church says, life is sad, and it might not get easier. There are no guarantees in life, not in this life anyway. Whatever we try to do to control life, in the end we cannot. Instead we are beholden to the whims of outrageous fortune and there is simply nothing we can do about it. Millions of people in Japan know all about that as I write.

Throughout the uncertainties and failed hopes of life, the Christian message is what sustains me. That is no glib statement; it is the hope of my heart. In Christ is my ultimate hope. He has promised that there will be a day when suffering will be no more, when brain cancer will be wiped away, when love will reign supreme in relationships and when the climate will sustain a healthy planet. Until then, loving is sadness, and we toil on, trudging the rugged, uphill road of life.

But despite our trudging, it is forward that we go, and forward we go together. In community, never alone, and never without ultimate hope.

Life is hard, anyway you cut it. So sang John Mellencamp in a song to which every honest person in the world can relate. We are not spared simply because we are Christian. To the contrary, it is because we follow the crucified One, the suffering God, that our suffering is all the more acute. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. No one is spared, but at the same time, no one is beyond hope.

Personally, I don’t want to give my life to anything else. I love the way of Jesus. No, more than that, I love Jesus Himself. In a world of nonsense, he makes sense. In a world of bitterness and hatred he brings love, and in a world of disease he brings healing. O how I love Jesus, as the old hymn says it.

It is in the times of deepest sadness that love is found. It is at these times that we are shaken out of our slumber and reminded again of what really matters – love, relationship and grace. These are the things that endure. Ross Langmead sings a song which reminds us that we are not alone in suffering, that Jesus goes before us: “We are not alone; he knows our sorrows, he will turn our tears to joy.”

Our suffering is not meaningless. Martin Luther King talked about redemptive suffering, suffering that grows and heals us. The road to life feels like the road to death at times. But it is redemptive. Our pain does not go unheard. It does not simply disappear into an indifferent universe, lost forever with no one knowing and no one caring. Who of us can deny that suffering is real? The promise given to the ancient Israelites when they were suffering under the yoke of slavery in Egypt is the same promise given to us: ‘I have heard your cries and will do something about it.’

What God has done about it is absorb our pain on a brutal Roman cross, and rise from death, never to be defeated again. This was truly victory in defeat, as Sammy Horner so beautifully puts it:

That the nails that pierced his hands

And the thorns that pierced his brow

And the spear that pierced his side

And the nails that pierced his feet

Showed us there can be victory in defeat

We do not go forward in this life alone. Jesus does indeed go before us. Our suffering does not go unheard. It has a purpose and will one day be turned into joy unspeakable. Until then we toil and trudge, but with the hope of a future where this old order of things – death, decay and disease – will have passed away forever. Amen, come Lord Jesus.

John Clarke and Bryan Dawe at it again

To gain insights into insightful political commentary, you often can’t go past comedians. John Clarke and Bryan Dawe have been doing it for years. In this one they expose the hypocrisy and folly of the Rudd Government’s total backflip on emissions trading. Not that I think the ETS was a good idea in the first place, but the Government has shot itself in the foot by giving the impression that it was the be-all and end-all of climate change mitigation. Now that they have deferred it, people will think they have abandoned the fight against climate change. What this sketch highlights though is their failure to provide enough incentive for renewable energies. The reason, according to John ‘Kevin Rudd’ Clarke – “because we have coal!” Check out the video here.

Today is the day

The International Day of Climate Action has finally arrived. Join with millions around the world to show our leaders, particularly in the lead up to Copenhagen, that now is the time to put a serious deal in place that will protect our children. check out the following video for some inspiration:

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Climate change and the world's poor

As we count down to Copenhagen, we have recently been told here in Australia that climate change has slipped down a few rungs in terms of priorities for us. I find that quite frightening. Whilst it is understandable that people are still concerned about the global financial crisis and the recent rise in interest rates, we face an inevitable, much larger, financial crisis if we do not become serious about what Kevin Rudd has called the great moral challenge of our time.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in issues of justice and human actions, it is the world’s poor who will be overwhelmingly affected by the changes to the planet’s climate over the next 50 – 100 years. As my colleague, Brett Parris, says,

“They are least able to protect themselves from its effects and they are least able to recover from climatic disasters. They tend to live in the most vulnerable areas, such as low-lying land prone to flooding, or marginal agricultural land prone to drought. They are the most vulnerable to the spread of tropical diseases. They are more likely to have to leave their homes in search of water or to escape flooding. They are the most vulnerable to the effects of the conflicts likely to arise from international tensions over water, energy and displaced people. Climate change will exacerbate poverty and the solutions proposed to help mitigate and adapt to climate change will affect the trajectory of every country’s future development.”

Fortunately though, there are plenty of ordinary people like you and me who are taking serious action in their local communities and online, in actions like Blog Action Day, to deal with this great moral challenge. Join them today and ensure you can look your grandkids in the eye when they ask you what you did to combat the major threat to our planet in the early years of this century.

The media, climate change and 'balance' (cont'd)

Further to my previous post, Crikey have written an excellent detailed response to Steve Fielding’s concerns that, while the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been skyrocketing over the last 15 years, air temperatures seemingly have stayed steady.

The graph that Steve Fielding is up in arms about

The graph that has Steve Fielding up in arms

I’m sure that others have pointed these arguments out to Senator Fielding and if he remains steadfast in his stance, one of the conclusions we can make is that he is not sincere in his desire to see the truth. The fact that he comes across as so dogmatic in his stance on his website suggests that he seems like he does not have much of a desire to budge. To his credit though, he has asked for an appointment with Al Gore while he is in Melbourne.

As well as this, we cannot judge him if, after seeing evidence such as Crikey’s, he remains convinced that climate change is not being caused by human activity. After all, the same evidences that convince some people of the claims of Christ are the very same evidences that cause others to remain unconvinced of the same claims. An honest position is to pray for Steve Fielding, and for ourselves, that the Spirit of God will pierce our hearts with His truth.

The media, climate change and 'balance'

Have you noticed recently that articles treating climate scepticism as one side of a level debate on climate change are becoming more numerous? There is now even a political party in Australia called The Climate Sceptics. Of course they were outside protesting in Melbourne today as Al Gore did his bit to convince more people of the deep peril that we are in.

The media in this country have a heck of a lot to answer for as they continue to portray the illusion that this is a balanced debate. Checking out some of the websites in my ‘climate change’ list on the right will show you that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists the world over are convinced that the climate is not only changing but that it is being caused by human activity.

Much of the recent flurry of articles showing sympathy for the deniers has been sparked no doubt by the actions of Senator Steve Fielding and his scepticism over anthropogenic global warming, after he attended a climate sceptics conference in Washington (funded mainly by The Heartland Institute – a group that was instrumental in denying that tobacco causes cancer).

When the ABC showed The Great Global Warming Swindle last year I called taklback radio and asked whether or not the ABC would be willing to show a documentary (if one exists) denying the Holocaust, in the name of balance. Of course there are those around who deny the Holocaust but they are not taken seriously by the vast majority of the population. Or take the moon landnig, which we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of next week. Many people are convinced that it never happened (as a brilliant headline – The Eagle has landed – in Studio 4, announced some years ago!), but, again, these people are not taken seriously by most thinking people.

In years to come the climate deniers will be seen in the same light.

More to come…

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0

Back in 2007 I wrote an article on the decay of western culture, in which I mentioned the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. This is an index that addresses the relative success or failure of countries in supporting a good life for their citizens, while respecting the environmental resource limits upon which all our lives depend. Australia was ranked 139th out of 178, which suggested that Jesus was right when he said that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

Photo by Craig JewellWell, the NEF has published its latest version of the Index, and it is indeed quite prophetic in its call for a new way of living in a world in which the earth’s resources are being depleted at a simply alarming rate. The report begins by stating that,

“In an age of uncertainty, society globally needs a new compass to set it on a path of real progress. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) provides that compass by measuring what truly matters to us – our well-being in terms of long, happy and meaningful lives – and what matters to the planet – our rate of resource consumption.”

It goes on to say that “we are still far from achieving sustainable well-being, and puts forward a vision of what we need to do to get there.”

Some of the interesting results to come out of the study we as follows:

  • The highest HPI score is that of Costa Rica (76.1 out of 100). As well as reporting the highest life satisfaction in the world, Costa Ricans also have the second-highest average life expectancy of the New World (second only to Canada). All this with a footprint of 2.3 global hectares. Whilst this success is indeed impressive, Costa Rica narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ‘one-planet living’: consuming its fair share of natural resources (indicated by a footprint of 2.1 global hectares or less).
  • Of the following ten countries, all but one is in Latin America.
  • The bottom ten HPI scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table with an HPI score of 16.6 out of 100.
  • Rich developed nations fall somewhere in the middle. The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands – 43rd out of 143. The USA comes a long way back in 114th place. Australia comes 102nd, a slight improvement on its 139th in the original study.
  • Many of the countries that do well are composed of small islands (including the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba and the Philippines).
  • No country successfully achieves the three goals of high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and one-planet living.
  • It is possible to live long, happy lives witha much smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations. For example, people in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the USA, and have similar levels of life satisfaction – and yet their per capitaecological footprint is less than half the size (4.4 global hectares compared with 9.4 global hectares). This means that the Netherlands is over twice as ecologically efficient at achieving good lives.
  • More dramatic is the difference between Costa Rica and the USA. Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint which is less than a quarter the size.

What this study clearly shows is that our way of living in the (still) affluent west is unsustainable, as if we needed reminding. Brian McLaren calls our way of living the ‘suicide machine’, because it is a way of living that is literally killing us and the rest of the planet. His brilliant book, Everything Must Change, explains this in more detail.

The study also highlights what many people have been saying for a long time now. Consider this quote from Thomas Friedman, a long-time advocate of growth and globalisation:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more'”

Jesus was indeed right when he warned of greed which is idolatry. Our whole way of living is based on greed and it is not just a doom-and-gloom killjoy remark to say that it is killing us. It is an undeniable fact. T. Jackson, in a NEF publication called ‘Chasing Progress’ has said that “every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth.” The Happy Planet report has an excellent section on this myth in which it discusses the history of the philosophy behind economic growth and how it came to prominence.

Photo by Ramiro PérezMany respected social thinkers have long put forward the argument that a religious outlook on life is beneficial to a peaceful and harmonious society. A society that places ethical values and a positive outlook for the future, often based on a religious faith, is a society that is based on a solid foundation. The Happy Planet report echoes this by saying that even a magazine such as The Economist says that 

“attempting to explain why well-being does not keep rising in line with consumption, [The Economist] suggests that ‘there are factors associated with modernisation that, in part, offset its positive impact.’ Specifically, it argues that alongside consumption growth, [a] concomitant breakdown of traditional institutions is manifested in the decline of religiosity and of trade unions; a marked rise in various social pathologies (crime, and drug and alcohol addiction); a decline in political participation and of trust in public authority; and the erosion of the institutions of family and marriage.”

An article in The Age a few years ago showed that, if all people in the world lived like Australians, we would need 4 planets to maintain our lifestyle. And of all the states in Australia, my home state of Victoria was the worst of the lot. That is mainly due to our  reliance on brown coal to create electricity. We have a lot to change, but happily, there are signs that change is happening. The Happy Planet report tells of incidences such as a community in Scotland sharing ownership of a new windfarm with developers, a ‘Big Lunch’ being arranged on streets across Britain to bring neighbours together, a community in a council estate in Luton partnering up with tea-growers in Southern India to ensure trade that is even fairer than fair trade. Things are happening. As Gandhi famously said, we must be the change we want to see in the world.

Jesus said the kingdom of God is among you. Through Jesus, the kingdom is invading history, and the good news is that all are invited to be a part of it. Heaven on earth will only happen when the resurrected Jesus returns to put the world to rights. But in the meantime, we have the absolute privilege of laying the building blocks. That is why everything we do matters. Every act of kindness, every act of justice. It all matters because when we do it in the name of Jesus, it has cosmic and eternal implications. As Ross Langmead sings,

“the kingdom is coming, a kingdom of peace. Beat swords into ploughs for fighting will cease. Justice will prosper, love will be king. Peacemakers will be able to sing that this is God’s earth and it has been worth all the pain.”

The Happy Planet report is a huge step in showing us how our current way of living is not of the kingdom, but it also shows some of the things we can do to help fulfil Jesus’ wish that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

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