Humans in solidarity with nature

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Most of us would naturally take that phrase “to the ends of the earth” as meaning all human societies, everywhere.  But I want to explore with you the idea that God’s salvation is not only for people – but actually extends to every part of the earth, and to the whole of creation.  Salvation includes humans, but is not just for humans.  In other words, I am suggesting we human beings are – from God’s point of view – not separate from creation, but part of it.

Many commentators suggest that humans’ unique destructiveness as a species arises in part from our seeing ourselves as separate from that other non-human thing that we call “nature.”  We see nature as something to be exploited, or enjoyed – or even, perhaps, some of the time, cared for – but, in any event, what we do to nature we are not doing to ourselves.  We do not understand harming nature to be an act of self-harm.

This is, of course, simply untrue.  It is wrong on several levels. 

  • From a scientific point of view, humans live through and by a network of relationships with the non-human world.  Our own bodies are a kind of condominium that we share with non-human creatures – the bugs that live in your gut are not you, but you depend on them for your well-being.  Outside of ourselves, we rely in a myriad ways on non-human creatures to pollinate our food crops, to clean our air and water, and so on.
  • From a personal and subjective point of view, we feel better when we connect back with non-human nature.  We humans of the 21st century have imprisoned ourselves in a deeply alienating way life, and time spent in nature seems to act as an anti-dote.  I do not want to overstate this.  It is not a universal truth of human life, and in other times and places wild places were experienced as places of chaos and threat.  But it is our truth.

And I also want to suggest that, at the most fundamental theological level, we are in solidarity with the rest of creation through the simple fact that we are creatures.  To explore this, I want to go down to the deepest foundations of what Christians believe.  About what God is, and why anything exists at all.

The foundation of classical Christian theology is that God is spirit, rather than matter.  Spirit, which is to say mind; and God, being mind, has two basic faculties.  To know – and to want.  God knows… God knows all that is and could be.  And God wants… God consistently wants the best for the other.  This is what we mean, when we say “God is love” – that God always wants the other’s good.

God is enough, in and of God’s self.  God did not need to create the world.  Without creation, God was entirely complete – with no need of development, nothing unresolved within God’s own being.  But God knew all the possibilities and, wishing our good, God knew that the possibilities of our good were greater if we came into being, than if we did not. And so, God creates.

What does this act of creation involve?  It involves a potential being (which, being only potential and not actual, does not yet exist), taking a step over the threshold into actual existence.  And that step consists of beginning to participate in God’s being.  God is the only source of Being – there is no other power in the universe that can enable something that does not exist, to start to exist.  Everything that actually exists, does so by sharing in God’s own being.  That is why there is something, not nothing.

I say more.  Our rebellion against God consists of a partial withdrawal from our participation in God’s being.  That is why the classical view of sin is that it is not a thing in itself; evil has no power to create; the images we use for evil should be of what is cold, dark and lifeless.  Evil consists of a withdrawal from existence.

On the basis of that framework of understanding, I hope it is clear that we absolutely must see humans as part of creation.  Part of the Frankenstein complex under which we humans see ourselves as separate from nature, and separate from God, is a misunderstanding that we somehow carry within ourselves a spring of existence.  But it is not so.  We only exist, because we participate in God’s Being.  And a rock only exists, because it participates in God’s Being.  So we share the most fundamental and essential fact of our being with rocks, and with stars and butterflies and bacteria.  And we exist most intensely, participate most fully in the solidary of all that is created, when we cleave most closely to God.

This is not, by the way, some form of pantheism.  I am not at all saying that God exists in nature, or that nature is the main way that we understand God.  Quite the contrary – I am saying that God’s own being is quite outside creation.  The creature needs God, but God does not need the creature.  It has to be so, so that God’s own Being can be available as the source that powers the being of creation.  Suggesting that the source of being could be within creation is like suggesting I could lift myself up by pulling my own shoe-laces.  And the main revelation of God’s own being – that God is love – doesn’t happen through nature, it happens through Christ.  But once we have Christ as the key – as the index to the map or the cypher of the code – then the whole of creation becomes an open book for us within which we read of God’s love.

Understanding, then what God is, and what creation is, let’s return to humans and nature, and ask what salvation might mean for creation viewed as a whole.  Does the non-human creation need to be saved?  And from what?

Does non-human creation need to be saved from sin?

Now, at this point, I’m not sure what to say.  To me, personally, it does seem that there is a basic crack in the whole created order.  The ways animals are with one another can seem fantastically cruel.  All beings in nature seek to maintain their own existence.  But also, all beings in nature are required to surrender up that existence.  Because the basic law of life is one of recycling– either I eat you, so as to recycle you into me – or you die, and your nutrients become compost and then are recycled into me.  These two basic features of reality, in combination, produce suffering, and I cannot believe this is God’s initial intent for non-human creation, nor God’s final word.

What is more, biblical images of the final state, when God will have redeemed us from the effects of sin, include a redemption of relations within the natural world.  Lions lying down with lambs, and so forth.  So I think we certainly can see redemption as including the natural world.

However, our origin story, the Fall, tends to suggest it’s just humans who have messed up.  Also, we teach that non-human creation is not rational and therefore does not have free will.  So I struggle to see how bugs and rocks can have sinned.  I do not know the answer to this conundrum.  But, in any event, I would also want to emphasise that salvation is partly a question of development.  Even if sin has no impact on the non-human world, we can nevertheless say that we see God drawing creation towards its fulfilment.  In the book of the Revelation, it is suggested that the final state of things will involve a new heaven and a new earth, and this gives us a sense that “we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

One threat from which creation certainly does need to be saved, is the threat from us humans.  I’m not going to say much about this – that would require a whole other sermon.  I will now say only one thing.  That, although creation certainly need to be saved from human sin, the task is not entirely down to us.  We do not need to figure it out unguided, we do not need to carry it out under our own strength.  We have God’s promise: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  A promise rooted in covenant, which is to say, an invitation to walk in God’s way.

For now, let me conclude as I began, by encouraging you to broaden your vision of who you are, and where you stand.  You and I stand in the solidarity not only of all human beings, but of all creatures.  We are the pinnacle of creation, having the power of reason.  Let us use that reason, and the faculty of imagination, to recognise our interdependence with nature.  We are wholly dependent on the rest of creation, just as it depends on us.  We are part of nature.

This is the truth of our being – and it is by recognising this truth, that we prepare ourselves for God to come to us, who is Spirit and Truth.  Amen.