I released a short book today, A Beautiful World. Reframing our Relationship to Creation. It’s just four chapters and 70 pages long, plus a study guide at the back. The aim is for it to be short enough that a pastor could comfortably build a sermon around each chapter; that those who don’t regularly read books may find it surprisingly manageable to read a chapter a week and then join a small group using the discussion guide at the back; but that it will prove substantial enough that both voracious readers and those who don’t read much will find plenty of food for thought.
The book asks the question, what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the age of “the Anthropocene”? The Anthropocene is the term a number of scientists are using to describe the age in which we live. It identifies humankind as the most significant natural force on earth, the species that has become so widespread and powerful that we are reshaping key environmental systems on which we all depend for survival. Our greenhouse emissions are changing the climate; our insatiable demand for land on which to live and farm and build is one of the chief culprits in the terrifyingly rapid decline of wild animal populations; our oceans are acidifying; and nitrogen that we artificially create is leaching into the rivers and lakes creating large algal blooms that suck the oxygen from the water.
For Christians there’s a lot of catch up. Most of us are the heirs of a theological tradition that undervalues the earth and its living creatures. This tradition taught us to see the drama of history as the struggle for the salvation of the human soul. The planet on which we live is but the stage on which this drama is played out and the nonhuman living creatures mere props designed to serve the real focus, which is the relationship of God and humanity.
I argue that from start to finish the story told by the Bible is far broader, richer, and exciting. The earth is imagined as the temple of God; the place God is to be found and that reflects God’s gracious and loving character, unrivalled wisdom, and extraordinary power. In the biblical universe God’s love blazes for every living thing and God’s attention is turned towards every living creature.
Far from the earth being merely the stage upon which the great drama of history is played out, it is part of the drama. Salvation is not God taking us from the earth and from our bodies to an immaterial heaven, but the work of God to make all things new, to bring everything to unity and completion under the reign of Christ – people, communities, planet, animals, environmental systems, and anything else you can think of. The image of eternity that it offers me is not an angel on a cloud playing a harp but whales dancing through oceans; humans in bodies, minds and hearts that are turned towards love, generosity, kindness and justice; a God whose presence is as tangible as the touch of a lover.
If this be the case, humankind’s commission to rule and subdue the earth must be understood through the biblical lens of service. Our responsibility is to secure the well-being of the planet and its living creatures and of one another, to be God’s representatives in this temple that is the world, caretakers of God’s creation.
In the age of the Anthropocene we bring a vision that is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric but theocentric. Our engagement with the earth is an opportunity to know God and to experience God’s love; to love and serve God; to participate in the joy of God; and to love our neighbour.
The book has been published by A Just Cause as a preaching, Bible study, and reflection tool. Before publishing we sought feedback from an Old Testament scholar, a scientist working on the environment, and an environmental activist, who all offered useful critique and helpful suggestions. Any flaws of course are mine.