“For a long time now we have understood ourselves as traveling toward some sort of industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity. And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise. Now we face overwhelming evidence that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault, and that nature does not tolerate or excuse abuses. If in spite of the evidence against us, we are finding it hard to relinquish our old ambition, we are also seeing more clearly every day how that ambition has reduced and enslaved us. We see how everything—the whole world—is belittled by the idea that all creation is moving or ought to move toward an end that some body, some human body, has thought up. To be free of that end and that ambition would be a delightful and precious thing. Once free of it, we might again go about our work and our lives with a seriousness and pleasure denied to us when we merely submit to a fate already determined by gigantic politics, economics, and technology” (Wendell Berry, What are People For?, 209-10).
“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 labor 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” (Romans 8:19-23).
I must confess that environmentalism has not traditionally been one of the issues about which I have generally gotten exercised. Part of the reason I’m not usually attuned to environmental issues is that I’m so deeply entrenched in an economic system that causes those problems; and quite frankly, I like the convenience it affords me. Oh, I try to do my own small part. But when it comes right down to making decisions, concern for creation has not usually high on the list of criteria I use to decide. I am, when I’m honest with myself, more a part of the problem than the solution in this case.
The problem for me, though, is that I know my inattention to creation is merely a matter of convenience, not a matter of a studied reflection on discipleship. That is to say, I claim to live by the conviction that the determinative factor in my life is my attachment to the community of the baptized; I am a part of a group of pilgrims whose lives are shaped by their relationship to Jesus. But when it comes to creation, I have conveniently exempted myself from having to take my faith seriously when it comes to making decisions that impact the very world for which Christ died; and that’s not right.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” Paul says. He seems to be talking about what Ireneaus called the recapitulation of creation, in which everything will be redeemed in the end by Christ and his return in glory. But I also think Paul is talking about our inexorable relationship to that which God has created right now. Perhaps creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” not just at some eschatological point in the future. Perhaps creation “waits with eager longing for” the children of God to take seriously their link with God’s creation right now. Perhaps it’s not enough to admit that we’re a part of the problem; maybe what is necessary as followers of Jesus is to begin taking seriously our responsibilities as providers of hope for the world in the present by the way we make decisions.
If as followers of Jesus, Christ ought to be the ultimate shaper of our lives, then even little decisions about our relationship to creation have eternal implications. The only Eden we care anything about isn’t one we could recover by assault anyway.
Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions. He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville. He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon. Penwell loves Count Chocula and break dancing to Montovani records (Yeah, that’s right, records . . . the old black vinyl that doubled as frisbees).