Europe’s Rainforest: a theological response

In one of the spurious endings to Mark’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16.15). It’s not in the oldest manuscripts, but I think it echoes the way Mark tells the temptation story at the beginning of the gospel. There, in just one verse (1.13) Mark tells us that Jesus’ companions in the wilderness were Satan, angels, and wild beasts. Jesus is good news for the animals and for the whole creation. Maybe in the wilderness Jesus was modelling Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable rule of God (Isaiah 11.1-9) that would be fulfilled through him.

In my work with churches, I try to focus on positive stories from the Bible that will motivate and inspire people. I don’t think many people are persuaded to change by graphs and numbers, and fear tends to be more disabling than motivating. So I talk about Abraham being called to be a blessing (Genesis 12.3), a promise echoed to his grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28.14), and the calling on Israel in the days of Moses to be a priestly nation (Exodus 19.6): this emphasis on God calling people to serve the rest of the world in order to bless all. Jesus took a servant’s role too (e.g. Matthew 20.28, John 13.1-15). Then Paul in Romans 8 writes about creation being set free from its ‘bondage to decay’ as part of the great move of liberation that includes the liberation of ‘the children of God’ (Romans 8.18-23). His vision is one of a new creation, not just a few humans being given some sort of blessed afterlife; an inclusive, cosmic vision, stated again in Colossians 1.15-20. It seems to me that, while that longer ending of Mark’s gospel is likely to be a later addition and so of doubtful authority, it’s nevertheless true: the commission of Jesus to his followers is to express good news to the whole creation.

It seems to me that this is a fundamental idea for Christian action on the environment. We are part of creation, not separate from it, and we are here to serve and to be a blessing.

I think this takes environmental action to a whole new level. The challenge is more than simply doing less harm. It is to be good news. That’s why I’m writing this as a theological response to my last blog post, where I wrote about the abundance and diversity of chalk grassland being the result of careful human intervention.

Perhaps the argument that humans should intervene as little as possible in nature forces the same divide between humans and majority-nature as the argument that humans are somehow privileged and of a different order of being, as seen in the folk-religion that claims only humans have souls, and in the wide-spread sense of entitlement to extract, commodify and destroy nature to serve human wants. The truth is (and we really need this truth) that humans are one species among all the others. We are nature – interconnected, interdependent, part of the web of all things. Theologically, we are created beings, creatures of the earth, formed of the same dust of earth as the animals, animated with the same breath of God (e.g. Genesis 2.7, 19; Psalm 104.30). Historically, humans have been a feature of the British landscape for nearly a million years, and Homo sapiens came north with the plants, the trees, and the other mammals as the last ice age retreated. We are nature: inextricably part of the living world.

It would be irresponsible of us to claim a division and try to retreat from nature – irresponsible and a denial of our nature. The key is that idea of being good news. Chalk grassland, heathland, well-managed woodland, all point to the way that human interaction in nature can be beneficial to many – it can be good news. Of course there is a huge challenge before us to reduce our enormously harmful impact on the living world. But alongside that there is an equally huge challenge to be regenerative, to serve and bless, to be good news to the whole creation.

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