Some Christians worry that too much focus on creation care will take us away from the gospel. Here ‘s why they’re wrong.
By James Amadon
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, salmon is a major symbol and food source. But wild salmon populations have been in trouble for more than a century due to overfishing, loss of habitat, water management systems (such as dams), and water pollution. Significant effort has been made to restore salmon populations, with mixed results.
This is not a major issue or ministry focus for many Christians or churches in our area, but it should be, because it’s not just about salmon.
Biologists refer to salmon as a keystone species—a species so important that an entire ecosystem largely depends on its presence and health. More than forty species of mammals and birds depend on salmon for at least part of their food (including many humans). Salmon transfer important nutrients from the ocean to freshwater streams; their carcasses, carried by bears and other mammals, have been shown to be a major source of fertilizer for forests, which, in turn, play a key role in supporting the biological diversity necessary to support life.
When the salmon suffer, every part of the ecosystem suffers, including human beings. Perhaps no community has understood this better than local Native Americans, whose histories, cultures, and general well-being have been negatively affected as non-Native human populations reduced access to historic fishing sites, overfished existing salmon, and generally disregarded the wisdom, care, and stewardship practiced by these communities for centuries.
In a region that is particularly sensitive to environmental issues, Christian complicity in the past and lack of engagement in the present expose our narrow view of justice and compassion, and hurt our evangelistic witness. It turns out that our ability to fish for people is connected to how we fish for fish.
Not everyone shares this perspective. While acknowledging the value of caring for God’s good earth, some Christians worry that too much focus on creation will take us away from the gospel. Why spend time saving an old-growth forest when someone’s eternity is at stake? Isn’t heaven our true home?
Others wonder how we can justify putting time, energy, and money into creation care projects when there is so much human suffering to be addressed. Isn’t an orphaned child more important than an orphaned elephant? Isn’t working for racial justice more crucial than growing organic vegetables? Still others get nervous about crossing the line into worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. Doesn’t Scripture clearly warn us about those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)? If we follow the creation care trail too far, will it take us off track?
These are important questions, but they stem from a deeper problem that affects both opponents and adherents to creation care.
When people think of creation care, most assume it involves work on behalf of non-human “nature.” Behind this assumption lies a dualistic view of the world that is at odds with the Bible. Originating in Greek philosophy, this worldview separates reality into material and spiritual realms, with the spiritual seen as the greater and more desirable. In this view the goal of humanity is to rise above mere materiality or even escape from that material realm into a purely spiritual place. This perspective inevitably sets humans apart from (and sometimes against) the rest of the natural world.
Such dualistic thinking elevates heaven above the material world and pulls human beings away from the earth. It leads to a narrowing of evangelism that reduces human beings to disembodied souls. It leads to a reductive understanding of compassion and justice that disconnects human problems from their ecological context. And it leads to an impoverished view of Jesus, who blesses creation by eternally binding himself to it in the Incarnation, and secures creation-wide redemption in his cross and resurrection (see Colossians 1:15-20).
Dualistic thinking reduces creation care to what humans do for non-human creation. It fails to hear the Genesis story that tells us that human beings are called to care for creation as part of creation—when we soothe a crying baby, talk to our neighbor about Jesus, host a seminar on race relations, or help preserve a wetland, we are practicing creation care. Dualistic thinking also prevents us from seeing how inextricably connected we are to the web of relationships God created (see Psalm 104). It forces us into false choices (humans or elephants?) that blind us to the reality of how dependent all creatures are on the well-being of other creatures and the ecological systems that sustain us. It fails to recognize that for our Christian witness and mission to be effective we must think evangelically and ecologically.
Embracing the Bible’s comprehensive vision of creation care means rejecting the false simplicity of dualistic thinking. It means acknowledging the connections and complexities through which God creates and sustains the world. It requires living humbly, confessing our ignorance, and seeking to work within the limits of creation. It calls us to remember that all we do flows from our primary calling to be caretakers of everything God has made, from newborn babies to ancient glaciers. For Christians, it is not a question of whether or not we are involved in creation care, but whether or not we are doing it faithfully.
Faithfulness can be as simple as turning off the light when you leave a room, supporting a child in Congo, or spending time in one of our beautiful Covenant camps. The encouraging truth is that, any time we care, we are practicing creation care! But we must shift from seeing creation care as a set of particular actions to a way of life. We must see the connections between our light switch and the problems of fossil fuel, or the connections between a Congolese child and clean water, or between Covenant camps and the ways we take care of our own home. We must recognize that, due in large part to human abuse and neglect, much of creation groans and suffers (Romans 8:18ff.). We must repent and live differently.
The landscape is shifting. It’s time for us to feel the earth moving under our feet as an invitation to get our hands dirty (literally!) and live in ways that celebrate the beauty of creation and enhance its health. It’s time to see the Holy Spirit still hovering over the waters. It’s time to follow Jesus deeper into the heart of the world he came to save. It’s time to anticipate God’s new creation, so beautifully envisioned in Revelation as a God-centered habitat, split by the river of the water of life, whose tree-lined banks offer fruit for the healing of the nations.
About the Author
James Amadon is pastor of Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington, and a member of the Commission on Christian Action. In the land of Starbucks, he is an unapologetic drinker of Lady Grey tea.