For lots of religious folks, to say that humans are made in the image of God is to say that humans are separate from the rest of creation. Somehow plants and animals and ecosystems do not reflect the image of God like we do and therefore they are inferior. Sometimes that means that they are expendable. It also means that humans have dominion over the earth. We’re at the top of the food chain. We’re the only ones with souls. There is a strict separation between humans and everything else. And that is the way God meant it to be.
I was taught such a traditional view as a child, but I never quite bought it. I loved plants and animals. But I also loved rocks and dirt and sunsets and the smells of the seasons. I guess I was a child mystic who saw God in lots of places and wondered how “alive” these other things might actually be.
The theology of strict separation between humans and everything else has dominated the thinking of the church for centuries. But one of the great blessings of my own theological journey is the understanding that just because a theology dominates does not make it necessarily so. And this particular theology has had some very bad consequences. It’s become a convenient excuse for us to do with earth as we see fit. And so, with the supposed blessing of God, we rape Mother Earth. We bless colonialism and capitalistic greed. Natural resources and human beings are used as fuel for something we call “progress.” Certain religious people actually rejoiced when the president removed us from the Paris Climate Agreement because their theology is in bed with big business. We used to call that kind of thing heresy.
And boy oh boy has this theology gotten the human race into a great deal of trouble. Scientists now say that the heating of the earth is happening much faster than previously predicted. Terrifying scenarios that once seemed like science fiction are now at our doorstep.
The tiny Alaskan village island of Kivalina is situated 130 miles above the Artic Circle. About 400 indigenous people live there. Scientists now predict that this island will be completely submerged in less than ten years and those 400 or so souls will be forcibly removed at an estimated cost of $100 million.
Much closer to home and affecting many, many more people, Professor Hal Wanless of the University of Miami says “he cannot envision southeastern Florida having many people at the end of the century.” That means that iconic places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale and the Florida Keys will simply be gone. And if they are, will New York be gone too?
By 2050, some experts predict that 25 million people will be involuntary migrants due to climate changes. Where will they move to? What will that do to the geopolitical balance in the world? What will happen to food production? We have been warned again and again, but still we pollute and abuse and ignore and disrespect the glorious creation of which we are an intimate part, as if it has nothing to do with us. And a large segment of the church has colluded in this destruction. And sometimes I despair.
In his foundational epistle to the church at Rome, St. Paul uses graphic language to describe the suffering of creation. He likens it to the pain and blood of childbirth. And he is quite clear that human sin is linked to this pain. Listen again to his words: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility… (But) the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”
So there it is – a description of the suffering of all creation and a promise that it, humans included, will be saved. Very lovely words indeed, but how are we to understand this promise of a creation restored when we are bombarded with scientific predictions of gloom? It might seem inconsequential at first, but the first step is to change one’s theological perspective of the rest of creation.
It might be commonly assumed that humans stand above creation, but that has not always been believed. St. Francis often referred to his Brother Sun and his Sister Moon and his Mother Earth. These were not metaphors for Francis. They were descriptions of intimacy and connection. For Francis of Assisi and the Celtic Christians and others, humans don’t stand above the earth. Humans are of the earth. And the earth is the Lord’s. And that is a very different motivation for our ecological impulses. We work to stave the rising tides not only out of fear for our survival, but also out of love for God’s creation.
Now, it’s true that fear is a great motivator. But fear cannot teach us the lessons of faith. And if our efforts at loving the earth are based in fear, then we need to be born again. We need to see, with the eyes of faith, God’s promise to save it all.
God is going to save it all. Now, believing that is asking a lot of us. Cynicism is easier. Doubt and fear are the more natural courses. It doesn’t take any effort to be afraid. But Christians have always been called toward hope, despite whatever is happening around them. Paul says that “in hope we (are) saved.” And “hope that is seen is not hope.” So having nothing visible to base your hope on is the way it works.
It’s also good to remember that we are not the first generation of people to face the prospect of devastation. God’s people in every age have lived with dire existential threats. They lived under the crushing brutality of Empire and the threat of famine and the specter of epidemic and the terror of nuclear annihilation. And in each of these times, the people of God were called upon to work for the common good in hope – not wishful thinking but a leaning in to what has been promised and then doing what you can, in your own place and time, to make those promises a reality.
In the 2014 film The Man Who Stopped the Desert we see what hope in action can do. Yacouba Sawadogo is an illiterate farmer from the West African nation of Burkina Faso. But this simple man has done more to reverse the ravages of drought brought on by over-farming, deforestation and climate change than any Western intervention. Sawadogo’s unorthodox methods have turned 50 acres of harsh desert into lush forest. How did he do it? Well, it was all rather simple. First he dug something called a “Zai holes.” They are much deeper and wider than what is usually used for planting. Then he filled the Zai holes with water-absorbing compost. Then he used small stones to create pathways for the rainwater to fill the holes. Then he planted trees and vines and crops in those Zai holes. Whenever it rains, the stone paths direct more water to the holes and when it doesn’t rain, the compost retains the dampness necessary for the plants to thrive. In the beginning, the other farmers mocked him. Government officials try to dissuade him. But Yacouba persisted in hope. And it worked. He and others like him now enjoy “food sovereignty.” And because of him and his hopeful connection to the earth, the desert blooms and rejoices. And the groaning of creation eased.
Fear paralyzes us, making us believe that there is nothing we can do. But hope, which is the gift of God, moves us to action, no matter how small. Our actions might seem foolish to some, but with every step forward, we gain insight and strength. As Paul said, “in hope we (are) saved.” And the deserts bloom. And the whole creation inches toward that salvation which has been promised from the foundations of the earth.
 The New Yorker, December 21, 2015