We describe ourselves in many different ways—for example, as citizens or voters. Many of us describe ourselves as believers. Yet there is one word that I think people of future generations will be amazed that we use of ourselves with such lack of self-awareness: “consumers.”
For to consume is to eat, to devour, to destroy. And that is how we describe and define ourselves in the 21st century! Eating, drinking, shopping, selling, buying, banking—“consumers.” We fail to see the cruel irony of our self-designation: devourers of our children’s inheritance and consumers of their future. We are not just borrowing the earth from our children, as the proverb goes; we are consuming it, devouring it, and destroying it!
Just as we look back on previous times with incredulity and wonder how people, especially believers, could have condoned and succored slavery, so I think later generations, who will live consciously with the reality that the earth is not a limitless larder, will find it difficult to understand this failure of our cultural imagination. And just as it was a theological and, in truth, a biblical vision that informed and shaped the abolitionists’ response to the enslavement of racism, so it is a theological and biblical vision of the earth that is beginning to inform our understanding of today’s ecological crisis.
A biblical vision of humanity in, from, and of the earth brings to bear upon our imagination our moral responsibility—to God, to other creatures, and to future generations—for how we serve and preserve the earth.
For example, consider the verse in the second chapter of Genesis: “The Lord God took the man (adam) and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” As scholar Gordon Wenham expounds it, the Hebrew words avad (to till) and shamar (to keep) are better translated as “serve” and “preserve.” As Wenham highlights, “the only other passages in the Pentateuch where these verbs are used together are to be found in Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26, and 18:5-6, of the Levites’ duties in guarding and ministering in the sanctuary.”
If the garden of Eden is seen as God’s sanctuary, Wenham points out, then perhaps “Adam should be described as an archetypal Levite”—a priest in God’s garden. This point gives a solid biblical foundation to an idea in which the Orthodox tradition is rich: that humanity is the priest of creation, “created to unite all nature to God,” in the eloquent words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon.
Serving and preserving the earth is humanity’s vocation as we exercise dominion after the likeness of God. Adam is called to be the first servant lord; humanity, the children of Adam, have a priestly role to serve and preserve creation. Indeed, it is God’s providence that provides humanity as the agent of that conservation. It is this theological and biblical vision that must inform our attitude to the earth and to the whole of God’s creation.
In the burgeoning writing about Christian theology and the environment, one interesting feature is the disproportionate emphasis upon the Hebrew Testament. In the Harvard University Press reader Christianity and Ecology, there’s an essay by Sallie McFague called “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?” which reflects on Jesus’ enigmatic question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” McFague pointedly asks, “Is there an ecological answer?” She insists that it’s a question that cannot be avoided, for “to be a Christian is to deal with Jesus: Jesus is, for Christians, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Hence, current issues of oppression needing God’s saving grace provide the contexts for Christological interpretation.”
In particular, I call for a study of the sayings in the gospels in which Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man” and in the same context refers to “the earth” (Matthew 9:2-8; 12:38-42; 24:27-30; Luke 18:8; 21:35-36; John 12:23-24; 12:32-34). The etymological roots of the title “Son of Man” are in Adam and adamah, meaning the “earth.” I am not suggesting that we should add a meaning that is not there in the original context—but I am open to the possibility that cultural preoccupations might have blinded us to some hidden meanings, as surely as they open our eyes to others.
In Matthew 19:28 Jesus explicitly links his cataclysmic role as Son of Man to “the renewal of all things”—the palingenesia: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory … ” This unique use of palingenesia raises many questions, not least because it is a concept from Stoic philosophy. However, Philo used it to speak of the world after the flood, and Josephus used it to describe the restoration of the homeland to the Jews after the exile. The fact that Matthew associates the Son of Man with restoration and renewal, as well as linking the Son of Man to the earth, merits study.
Turning from theory to practice, and from the Word to action, I believe we need to take our knowledge forward on multiple levels. On a personal level, we need to communicate a vision that changes hearts and minds—the religious word for this is repentance! Three years ago during Lent, the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool, England, invited people, instead of giving up alcohol and chocolate, to shrink their carbon footprint. In 2008 the Carbon Fast went nationwide, enlisting more than 300,000 participants. Last year it was launched internationally.
But acting individually is not sufficient if we want to effect real change; we need to work at the community level. With the Catholic Diocese of Liverpool, we are building two inner-city high schools with an ethos of being connected with and caring for their local environment. Solar panels, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, and a curriculum in which every subject reflects the environmental emphasis are just some of their features.
And what happens at personal and parochial levels needs to be reflected at the level of government policies. In the U.K., the senior bishops in the Church of England have a seat in the House of Lords, the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. As the U.K.’s Climate Bill went through a year ago, the bishop of London and I were able to insert consideration of environmental refugees and the poor, who are most affected by climate change. Previously there were no references to international agreements or to the needs of the millions of environmental refugees in other parts of the world.
We must turn our environmental awareness, informed by theological belief, into action. Faith without works is dead—which is as true in the field of ecology as it is in the realm of personal faith.
Rt. Rev. James Jones is Anglican bishop of Liverpool, England, and author of Jesus and the Earth (SPCK). This article is adapted from the 2008 Kreitler Environmental Lecture at Virginia Theological Seminary, and is published with permission of the Kreitler Environmental Fund.