In this post, I start from the very beginning. If you are familiar with the concepts of Creation-Fall-Redemption, then this post should hopefully depict the place of the Earth in the Biblical Narrative in an easy-to-follow way that will lay the groundwork for the next post.
Caring for Creation and the Biblical Narrative
Author Brian Mattson notes that the best stories have endings that resolve something that had potential from the beginning.
Something I love about accepting Christ as my Saviour, is that the grace I have accepted is a resolution and hope not just for my own brokenness, but for that of the world. As I know it, just as I am saved by grace, so too will all of the Earth be; just as humanness is redeemed rather than destroyed, so too is all of physical creation.
In other words, the ‘happily ever after’ ending of grace resolves the ‘once upon a time’ potential of creation.
Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time
The creation story of Genesis has a bad reputation, mostly because the NIV Bible translates 1:28 as the following –
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Which in turn has been translated as “humans > creation”.
For a long time, we have harmed the Earth because we have regarded it as a commodity that belongs to us. We have forgotten that God is not an anthropocentric God.
This breaks my heart.
God is not anthropocentric, God is communal and relational; God has created a communal and relational creation. This renders the Earth part of a community to which we belong and which we were created into.
Genesis 2 contains a parallel account of creation, which adds detail to the narrative of the first chapter. The expanded instruction to the one above, found in verse 15, reads as follows:
“Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend [dress, KJV] and keep it”
Tend (Hebrew ‘abad) means ‘to work or serve’. In the context of the garden, it refers to cultivation. The reason the KJV translates this word as ‘dress’ is that it has the nuance of adornment, embellishment, and improvement. Likewise, keep (Hebrew shamar) means ‘to exercise great care over’.
Over the ‘once upon a time’ creation, we have God expressing a wish that mankind acts as caretakers. A caretaker maintains and protects his land so that he can return it to its owner in as good or better condition than when he received it.
The stereotypical picture of the Genesis creation story sets up Adam and Eve in the hierarchical position of rulers. This is a picture which has lost the nuance of the actual position and vocation entrusted to them. They are not there to dominate but to cultivate.
Adam, my friends, is a gardener.
Chapter 2: Brokenness breaks in and enters
We know what is coming in chapter 2, although we don’t always frame it well.
Often ‘the fall’ is used to solely explain our brokenness, which originates from our fractured relationship with God.
But God is communal and relational; he has created a communal and relational creation. This is expressed in a life-giving triangle of relationships between God, humanity, and the earth – mirroring both the triangle of relationships which is expressed in the mystery of Father-Spirit-Son, and the triangle of relationships in the Hebrew Bible expressed as God–Israel–the land.
This triangle of relationships of God–Humanity–Earth features in the writings of theologians such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis of Assisi. It is called the cosmic covenant.
It is this set of relationships that fractures when sin enters. Our brokenness is not just the God-humanity relation, but the humanity-Earth, God-Earth relation. (“Cursed is the ground” Genesis 3:17)
We often frame our brokenness as relational, but not often do we acknowledge that it is also communal.
Our brokenness is visible in our crisis of both not knowing who we are in relation to God and also not knowing who we are in relation to the earth.
In our brokenness, we lose ourselves. We also lose sight of our gardening vocation.
Chapter 3: Happily Ever After
If we have lost sight of creation’s place in the fall, it could be said that we are blind to creation’s place in redemption.
I think it would be fair to claim that most Christians, asked what their calling is as followers of Jesus, could easily talk about the Great Commission (Matthew 28), but would look a bit startled if you subsequently asked where care of the Earth came into this.
This is a tragedy because it shortchanges us out of the full riches of redemption: restoration of the humanity-Earth relationship. We lose an entire dimension of our understanding of grace, which also impoverishes the meaning of our redemption in relation to God.
Because God is communal and relational, our redemption is too. Redemption is restorative, it gives us what we were always meant to have: wholeness of community and relationship.
And this is why our redemption in relation to creation is so important: the redemption we are offered cannot abstract us away from our community, our earth-liness.***
The gospel is holistic. Jesus is both our hope and the hope of the Earth.
Jesus is the pivotal figure in this redemption narrative. He simultaneously reconciles God to us and to the Earth. His crucifixion and resurrection are well understood in terms of the God-humanity relationship, but they can also be understood as a restoration and redemption of the God-Earth relationship – because Jesus triumphs over the brokenness of death. (It is noteworthy that the gospels record earthquakes at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion and again upon his resurrection. The Earth bears witness to Jesus as Redeemer.)
Furthermore, Jesus lives out a restored humanity-Earth relationship (more on this in another post). In fact, Mary Magdalene’s Easter ‘mistake’ of thinking Jesus was the gardener can be read as a poetic hint of how Christ, the Last Adam, leads us back to our first vocation: gardening.
Jesus shows us how to garden.
Our view of ‘end times’ has a lot to do with our erasure of creation from the gospel.
Christianity has co-opted a Platonic, Greek philosophy regarding the idea of ‘spirit’ which construes it as a substance (which arguably got us onto the whole ‘where and what is the soul’ discussion) when the Jewish, Hebrew origins take ‘spirit’ to be a quality. The word for spirit is ruach which can be translated breath, as the quality of life.
The Spirit is life-fulness. We are animated with life-fulness, and our identities are embodied ones. But instead, the Spirit-as-substance Platonic understanding has sold us an idea of our identities as composite body-soul ones, which has lead to a ‘God in a cloud, floating souls’ idea of life beyond death.
In contrast, the New Testament Gospel teaching that we are saved from death not for life in a ethereal, floaty, glowy heavenly realm, but life in a resurrected body is so much richer.
Our life post-death in Jesus is not unhuman, but more human. It is everything that humanness was ever meant to be. And our humanness is rooted in earthly creation. Jesus’ resurrected bodily existence is our model for this.
Going back to the idea that grace as an ending resolves the potential of the beginning, we see that resurrected bodily existence is the completion of the created bodily existence that Adam and Eve had pre-Fall.