The Season of Creation is an optional season of the church year that celebrates God the creator and various domains of creation. There are four Sundays for each of the three years of the common lectionary, celebrated most often during the month of September. (For more information, visit www.letallcreationpraise.org and www.seasonofcreation.com).
We are most fully human when we care for creation in humility.
By Robert Saler
One of the suspicions that many people have concerning modern environmentalism(s) is that environmentalists must be “people-haters;” that is, that environmentalism is so intent on blaming humans for ecological degradation that to be pro-creation is to be anti-human. Legislators sponsoring ecologically destructive legislation often depict environmentalists as caring more about spotted owls than human beings, and activists concerned about such issues as human overpopulation are sometimes accused of treating the existence of humanity itself as a threat to the Earth’s well-being.
Any sober survey of contemporary ecological thought soon reveals such allegations to depend upon caricatures and misunderstandings; aside from a few largely inconsequential fringe groups, environmentalists are just as committed to the welfare of humans as to other forms of life on the planet. Indeed, more so! Part of the point of caring for creation is that living in an ecologically healthy biosphere benefits humans greatly, while damage to our environment has severe repercussions for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
That said, Christians in particular have an interest in giving an account of human beings (what systematic theology calls “theological anthropology”) that does justice to the fact that, according to the biblical account, humans are given an honored place in the scheme of God’s creation. Psalm 8 contains the classic expression of this: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Similarly, Genesis describes God creating humans “in our image” (the plural generally being taken by Christians to be a reference to the Trinity), and granting to humans “dominion” over the rest of creation.
As we now know, however, it is precisely this “dominion” language that has caused so much tragedy throughout the ages. In his seminal and disturbing 1967 article, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” the historian Lynn White, Jr.—himself a Christian—nonetheless argued that the “Judeo-Christian tradition bears a huge burden of guilt” for the onset of environmentally unsustainable practices in the Western world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. White’s contention was that the Christian habit of reading the “dominion” language of Genesis 1:26-28 as permission to dominate, or even trample on, creation by treating it like an inexhaustible storehouse of resources for expanding human consumption. Because Christians have interpreted dominion as “domination,” Christianity has become an ideological ally to consumerism and unsustainable development of industries that damage the environment.
It is certainly the case that one can find Christians who see in the Genesis account license to dominate the earth in order to fulfill humanity’s cravings for material goods. Such a theology fits well with an (equally misguided) view that “salvation” in Christ consists of what theologian Joseph Sittler referred to as a “hot-air balloon lift out of material existence” and into a purely spiritual, incorporeal heaven. However, taken collectively, the readings for this week present us with a chance to reflect on what a truly biblical theological anthropology might look like, and how a celebration of humanity as God’s good creation might lend itself to the work of caring for the rest of creation.
As the readings progress (presumably read back-to-back in the assembly), the initial emphasis is upon the singular honor afforded to humans – they are given dominion over wild things and are praised in the Psalm as God’s handiwork “crowned with glory and honor.” However, with the progression to the Philippians text, the argument shifts to a new key. While humans are endowed with an unprecedented level of power over creation, and many humans are endowed with powers that exceed those of other humans, Christians are called into a life of imitating Christ. In other words, Christians are called to live in humility vis-à-vis others so that the lives of others might be enriched. The context of the so-called “kenosis” Christological hymn (Christ “emptying himself” and “taking the form of a slave”) makes it clear that the author’s intent here is not simply to describe Christ, but rather to describe a Christian ethic that seeks the good of the neighbor above one’s own good. Such inversion from master to servant, of course, has its roots in Jesus’ own words in the gospel—“whoever wishes to be great must be a servant.”
This seeming contrast within the readings—from celebration of humanity’s privilege to a call to service—is in fact a piece of marvelously theological anthropological logic. Humans are given a place of pride in creation, but the call from Christ is for us to think about how we might humble ourselves for the purpose of serving others. In the context of the Season of Creation, the preacher then has a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which, in our imperiled 21st century, care for the other is inextricable from care of creation.
This can be done in at least two ways. The natural—and perfectly appropriate—inclination might be to expand the concept of the “other” for whom Christians are called to care to the non-human “others” with which we share God’s good earth. However, this Sunday’s focus on humanity might also be an occasion to point out the deeply human costs of environmental destruction. Ecological degradation does not affect all of humanity equally, as theorists of “environmental racism” have shown us. Dangerous waste dumps are disproportionately located in poor areas with minority populations. The effects of global climate change will be felt most keenly in parts of the world that are already plagued with famine and disease. While the Season of Creation’s ultimate goal is to celebrate all life in creation, human and otherwise, this Sunday might be an occasion to revel in the Bible’s celebration of humanity—and then ask hard questions about whether our lack of humility towards other humans and the environment on which they depend to survive is in keeping with Christ’s call (“vocare,” as in “vocation”) to serve.
When we care for creation in humility, we are being most fully human—and it is humans, as well as all that God has made, who are blessed by this work.