I know very few Christians who are passionate about the environment. I know passionate environmentalists and passionate Christians, but they never seem to be the same people. It doesn’t usually bother me – I’ve got used to my green friends skirting around conversations about faith and my Christian friends rolling their eyes when I mention pollution, global warming or cycle paths. But it is bothering me at the moment, hence writing this to try to thrash it out in my head. Why is there so much distance between the two?
I’ve been in both camps myself at different times in my life. I didn’t have much of a faith until I was 20, when I was passionate about nature and especially organic farming – in fact, I was working on an organic farm in France when, with no other human present, I had my first encounter with God. From there I went to university and explored my new-found relationship with him in the company of loads of new friends, all Christian. I was off-the-chart excited about Jesus. Meeting him was (and still is) the best thing that has ever happened to me. Saving the world was put aside for the all-important work of saving souls.
I remember walking to a bus stop one day musing on my old ambition to see the world become a greener place, and rather sadly concluding that I should no longer be concerned with such things, as they clearly didn’t matter to God. It’s people who need saving, I thought; I’ll have to wait until I get to heaven to have my own vegetable plot (though I realised this was unlikely, vegetables not being very spiritual). One Christian friend even pointed out that since God will conclude history by burning the world to a crisp, what would be the point in trying to protect it in the meantime? We are taught to ‘hate the world’, and seek to escape from it to our home in heaven, taking as many souls with us as we can. So I can understand my Christian friends who genuinely believe that caring for the planet is not one of God’s priorities.
It was only many years later, studying theology, that I came across a Christian view of the world that was radically different. It came from the most subversive of sources: the Bible. It turns out that the Bible suggests nowhere that we are on this planet merely to rescue souls and snatch them up to heaven before the whole thing goes up in smoke. That thinking is influenced by Gnosticism, which taught that material things – this world, our bodies – are corrupt, verging on evil, and the spiritual seek to escape them. No, it was the Bible’s very different vision for the future that got my attention. It talks about the end goal being ‘the age to come’, rather than just individuals ‘getting into heaven’. In that unending age, heaven comes to Earth. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven’… God’s plan is for that prayer to be answered. This means a world at peace; death destroyed; and – among other things – creation restored. Physical, material creation, liberated at last to be itself in all its fullness.*
What difference does this make? For me, it makes all the difference in the world. It means it’s okay to daydream about how the Earth could be when everything is finally as it should be. In fact daydreaming about a renewed Earth is a lot easier than trying to imagine eternity ‘in heaven’. Then from imagining, it’s a short step to ‘What can I do now to start making this happen?’ Here’s an example. One of the things that I bang on about is to do with my suburban environment: that residential streets should be safe places for children to play and neighbours to be sociable. Streets should not just be conduits for speeding cars. Knowing that one day God’s will will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven, gives me hope for our street now. I don’t know what streets will look like on a renewed Earth (the whole ‘paved with gold’ thing may not be literal, after all) but I know that they will not be death traps, or polluted, and that people will live in community rather than always lurking behind closed doors. That inspires me to start stirring up change now – because the ‘age to come’ has already started (a subversive, underground movement ushered in by Jesus – ssh, don’t tell anyone).
So along with some neighbours I’ve been helping to turn our street into a ‘play street’, where once a month the traffic has to make way for hoards of children having fun. It doesn’t matter whether or not my fellow organisers share my faith – when I see children making good use of a street with chalks and scooters and skipping ropes, I am seeing a little bit of God’s will being done. For a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, the power of the motor car gives way to small children who have no power at all, to do nothing more productive than skipping. I love it. Given God’s love for the powerless and overlooked, I’m pretty sure he loves it too.
This understanding of God renewing the Earth and seeing it as worth saving has transformed how I see the world around me. The pendulum could even swing the other way – since God is so concerned about the environment, why even bother with church? Why not devote my time to working and campaigning to change the world?
Well, let me tell you about my church… It isn’t big, and it doesn’t meet in a beautiful building, make amazing music, or have any rich or influential members. In fact we have our typical quota of unemployment, divorce, mental health issues and refugees. Yet people come to our meetings and find God. Their lives get changed, literally from the inside out – I’ve seen it at close quarters. I might want to change the world, but not half as much as God does. The other day I had to make a difficult decision: attend a crucial debate about cycle paths on our high street, or lead a Bible study for new Christians? I agonised, but the Bible study won. It won because it seems to me that the unlikely instrument God has chosen first and foremost to change the world is the local church. I have to trust him that he’s got that right, and make it my priority to help people become his disciples too.
Actually it was that Bible vs. bikes decision which triggered this post – and this blog – where I hope to go on indulging my twin passions for Jesus and environment. I’m still involved in the cycle paths debate (expect to a LOT hear more on this – sorry). I have to balance my priorities carefully, yes, but I think what I’m starting to see is that they are not really either/or at all. I can’t divorce loving Jesus and following him from loving either the people or the world he has made. And that vision of the ‘age to come’ has planted a delicious seed of subversion in me, which I intend to cultivate, and see where it leads me. I expect it to be a lot of fun.
*I was reluctant to pepper this post with Bible references, but if you’re interested, I can give you chapter and verse for these ideas.