Pilgrims from Paradise:
The environment—just mentioning it fires a host of concepts, images and emotions. Our relationship to the world around us, the responsibilities we have to it, the level at which its needs ought to take precedence of our own—these issues fuel some of the most volatile debates of our day.
But are these matters merely for the world of politics? I do not think so. In fact, I believe there is a spiritual element to environmental questions that make them a uniquely Christian concern.
After all, God spent six days lovingly crafting the environment before human being came along. He certainly must care for the material realm. What is more, the environment is the arena in which we cooperate with God in working out our salvation. Much of our character development, our preparation for the life in the Heavenly Kingdom, revolves around our use or misuse of the resources that the environment supplies.
In fact, as we contemplate the physical world through Christian eyes, we begin to recognize that what God expects of us in our treatment of the environment far transcends the concerns championed by ordinary environmentalists. We have an obligation to creation and a role in its life which the typical passionate activist does not understand.
We are going to investigate this over the next few podcasts and I confess that I myself had not thought very deeply about this question until I was asked to present a talk at a youth retreat recently where the emphasis was on environmental issues. For me it was quite eye opening and I am looking forward to sharing what I have learned with you, my listeners.
Let us start with a simple question. Why does God create?
Philosophers and theologians have supplied numerous answers to that question. In some ancient lines of thought God creates because some intrinsic necessity within His nature compels Him. Just as old is the notion that creation sort of spontaneously emanates from God and that God is relatively unaware of it.
As Christians we know that the motives and methods of the Divine are generally inscrutable to us. Saint Paul tells us that God’s judgments are unsearchable and that His ways are past finding out (Romans 11:33). But the revelation of Scripture does allow us to make certain presumptions about God’s act of creating.
First of all, Saint John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8). So whatever else we can or cannot say about His creative act, we know that it springs from love. We also know that like any other act of love, creation is an act of God’s free will. The book of Genesis bears witness to the [purposebness 4:00] behind the creation of the world. “Then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light (Genesis 1:3).”
Over the seven days of creation, God again and again speaks the words, “Let there be…,” and everything from light and darkness, to flowers and human beings, come forth. They spring into being at the time and in the order that God commands.
I think it is important to note that the order in which they arise is not always logical. For instance, light, darkness, the earth, the sea and vegetation are all created before the sun, moon and the stars appear. What is more, God evaluates His efforts at the end of each day, determining that what He has done is good, as we read in (Genesis 1:10) and various other verses.
All of this speaks of definite, willful intent with the divine mind. Creation is no spontaneous, accidental emanation that God does not control. It is not something that flows from Him unnoticed, escaping His interest. He plans and carries it out according to His own deliberate purpose.
And this is a purpose shared by all three persons of the Trinity. All of them are involved in the act of creating the cosmos. The Nicene Creed declares that the Father is the maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ the son is the one by whom all things were made. The Spirit is the giver of life, He who upholds and animates all that exists.
But the Godhead’s connection to the world is much deeper and more intimate than that of a great artificer who fashions the cosmos and ingeniously makes it run. This becomes clear as we consider a truth which Christians have traditionally confessed, although there are some who do not these days. It is expressly stated in (2 Maccabees 7:28).
I beseech you my child to look at heaven and earth and see everything in them and know that God made them out of nothing. So also He made the race of man in this way.
Ex nihilo is the Latin phrase commonly used to denote this coming forth of the cosmos from prior non-existence. This profession stands in sharp distinction to other religious and philosophical views about how the universe came to be. For some, the physical realm has just always been. If there is a deity, it never created the cosmos. The Divine may impact and interact with the material reality, but it is not responsible for its existence.
Others hold to a view consistent with Plato and the ancient Greeks. The material universe, and all the things in it, are the product of two separate, ever-existing realities—chaotic, unformed matter and some force that organizes this pre-existing matter to form rocks, trees, cows, people, flowers, etc. In other words, whoever or whatever makes the world, fashions it out of stuff that was already there on hand.
As I say, there are Christians who, perhaps under the influence of evolutionary theory, have come to question the whole notion of ex nihilo. I will not concern myself with that now. The observation I do want to make here though is that I am afraid many Christians who profess creation ex nihilo do not think carefully about what that means and what it implies about the Holy Trinity’s relationship with its creation.
For what is this nothing from which God creates us? I mean, is it some void or emptiness that has its own reality and exists over and apart from God out beyond the edges His divine existence? I have a feeling that is how many Christians see it. But in reality that is as dualistic a notion as the thinking of Plato and the ancient Greeks.
No, God is everywhere present. There can be no “nothing” that exists apart from Him. Recognizing this suggests two things with regard to creation.
First, to say that the whole world is created from nothing can only be that existing things are not made from something, that is from some pre-eternal physical material that exists separately from God from which He shapes and molds objects, both animate and inanimate.
Secondly, it seems that if there is no place which is not fully penetrated by God’s being then creation must necessarily arise of God. His being must be the source of all substance and all life.
I like that way his beatitude patriarch Ignatius IV has put it. “God, who has no beyond, makes the universe appear by a kind of self withdrawal.” The image I get when I read that is of God mysteriously and incomprehensibly drawing back a part of Himself, and it leaves creation in His divine wake.
And so all the being that creation possesses is God’s. The troparion of the Holy Spirit declares this when it describes God as “everywhere present and filling all things.” Again, quoting patriarch Ignatius, “The location of the world is thus within the love of God, a love which is supremely inventive while at the same time sacrificial.” In other words, the cosmos and all it contains is given birth within God. God lovingly gives of himself to make it be.
Let us be clear, however. This is not a pan-theistic understanding of the world. Though they arise from Him, created things are not themselves God. Rather it is what we call a pan-en-theistic view. It is God filling all things, which is not the same as God being all things. Somehow, and perhaps this is the greatest mystery of all, the material realm that comes entirely from God and is inseparable from Him, still has its own distinguishable reality.
This is most readily seen in the case of human kind, for the gifted with being from God, human beings possess the self-determining power of free will. We get to decide what we shall do with this life that comes entirely from God. If we are wise, we will embrace the truth about ourselves and God. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
But what is the nature of that living, that moving, that being? If our life springs from a sacrificial act of a loving God, what does that tell us about the purpose of our life and the reason for which we exist?
Well, if I truly love someone, what is it I desire for them and from them? It is to be joined with them intimately. I desire that we become entwined in one single, inseparable life, knowing the other as I know myself and being know by the other in that same profound manner.
Of course, this mutual sacrifice must be free and willing. For that which is not freely and willfully given cannot be love. All this is exactly what God wishes for His creation. He longs for it to willingly share His life, to love Him, to become one with Him.
And this is not just something He desires for His human creatures. No, He wants to be one with all that He has made— humans, animals, trees, flowers, the waters, everything that is. Saint Paul teaches us this in the first chapter of Ephesians. He says that, “God has made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one, all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are in earth in Him” (Ephesians 1:10).
To bring to all things, every created thing, into oneness with Himself, this is God’s eternal purpose. And how does God bring the entire created world into His intimate embrace? It is through Christ, Saint Paul tells us.
We see this vividly proclaimed in the Feast of Theophany. At His baptism, the Lord Jesus does not go down into the waters of Jordan because He needs cleansing. Rather, by His entry into them, the curse that fell upon the waters when Adam and Eve sinned, the curse of separation from their creator, is annulled. The blessing the waters received spreads to the entire created world, and thus through this loving act of Christ all creation is once again sanctified to God.
For us human creatures, the sacrament of baptism is just the beginning of a spirit guided process of transformation which turns us into people who can be genuinely one with God. Likewise, Christ’s consecration of the physical realm is just the beginning of its own journey. Sanctified, it must still be raised to living union with its creator.
And it is in this that we begin to discern the critical role human kind plays in the life of the environment. By right of the relationship that exists between Christ and us, we have a special part to play in uniting all else that exists with its loving maker. For Christians, environmentalism has a breadth and depth that transcends all its ordinary denotations.
Over the next few podcasts, we will investigate this profound connection we have with the physical realm. We will also consider the important role that our relationship with the environment plays in our relationship with God.