The problematic relationship between Christian theology and ecology is often set up as a question of eschatology. The problem of whether Christians can really value created being is made synonymous with the question of whether the planet is destined for fire when we all “go to heaven” or whether the earth, too, will be redeemed. The ecological program of theological re-education becomes the task of convincing people that all of creation has a future with God (and usually involves copious, and atypically literal, reference to Revelation 21). While this eschatological perspective on creation is clearly important, more and more I think that it is a red herring rather than the crux of the issue.
A metaphor is helpful here. If we think of creation as the stage on which salvation history takes place, then the real drama is human history, and “nature” is made into a static entity which serves as the backdrop. The stage is manipulable according to the needs of the story and the movements of the characters. In this context the questions in the paragraph above come naturally. Will the stage be preserved? Does the stage get to come along when the actors who have gone off-stage are finally invited into the fullness of fellowship with God? In this vision, history happens to, and with, and through human beings while creation merely tags along as the proper habitat for bodily resurrection at the great day of the Lord.
But the real issue ecologically is not what “will happen” (or better put theologically, the shape of the “not yet” for creation that corresponds to the “already” of Jesus Christ), but the human relationship to creation in the present. We can think about creation as a resource to be instrumentalized even while we hope for its eventual replenishing. Our willingness to undermine the integrity of all the planet’s ecosystems and consume the ground out from underneath our own feet betrays a flippant conception of the world in the present.
Here are a few questions rumbling under the surface:
In what way do rocks, trees, birds, fields, and rivers relate to God on their own, without human intrusion?
Should we (can we?!) try to think about this relationship theologically in order to protect it?
How can we think theologically about positive human interaction with creation—inevitably including eating, building, and being creative—without assuming that creation is a resource provided for our purposes?
How can we comprehend the magnitude of God’s acts in Jesus Christ, without arrogantly assuming that humanity mediates creation’s significance to God?