New Testament Foundations
Paulos Mar Gregorios
[Christians interested in ecological theologies have much to gain from an encounter with other religions. Emerging out of an encounter with Hinduism, we find in this Indian Orthodox writer’s essay a biblical and Christian understanding of the created order. By framing three ecological principles for the environmental movement, he shows the resourcefulness of an Orthodox point of view for ecological concerns. This essay first appeared in Tending the Garden, Essays on the Gospel and the Earth (ed. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 83-92)]
Introduction: Three principles of Bahuguna for the environmental movement
Recently I was present at a special function at our presidential palace. Zail Singh, the president of India, bestowed a privately endowed honor on one of our most creative friends of nature: Sunderlal Bahuguna. Bahuguna is well known and written about both in India and abroad. He initiated the Chipko movement, which has been an important factor in awakening Indians to the environmental question, particularly the importance of conserving the forest trees in the Himalayan region.
The mindless and tragic decimation of the Himalayan forests was the result of the government’s thoughtless felling of trees in that region. It resulted in heavy soil erosion, desertification, and climate change. After trying many ways of stopping the government, Bahuguna finally launched the Chipko (Embrace the Trees) movement. He trained the village people to go and embrace a tree as the government workers came to cut it down. The people understood Bahuguna’s goal and took on the concerns of the movement with enthusiasm. The highest government officials had to make major decisions to reduce the cutting of trees, decisions that would have been politically impossible without the Chipko movement.
Bahuguna is a simple Gandhian. At this function in his honor, he said publicly that he was ill at ease on the green lawns of the presidential palace; he wanted to be back among the forest trees and the mountain people. He accepted the award bestowed on him very reluctantly, but expressed happiness that in the process the movement was being recognized.
In his acceptance speech Bahuguna presented three principles for the environmental movement which have stayed in my mind:
Bahuguna is a Hindu; I am a Christian. As such I must reflect on these principles further, rather than accept them at face value. And it is in this context that I seek, trusting in the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to examine three passages from the New Testament in order to frame my own principles for the environmental movement. In what follows I will offer my own translation of each of these passages, and then discuss the three basic ecological principles I extrapolate from them.
I. Human redemption a part of the redemption of the whole creation
First Principle: Human redemption can be understood only as an integral part of the redemption of the whole creation.
For a long time now we have been conditioned to understand the redemption in Christ -- primarily, and too often exclusively -- in terms of personal salvation. A basic requirement for a healthy Christian approach to the human environment seems to be a shift of gears in this regard.
What is a "person" whose salvation Christ effects? A person exists only in relation -- in relation to other human persons (his or her father and mother, to begin with) and to nonhuman realities (light, air, water, food, and so on). It is not possible for a person to come to be or to grow without relation to other persons and things. The earth and the Sun as well as other people are essential parts of our existence. Without them we cannot exist. Both the Pauline and the Johannine witnesses in the New Testament strongly affirm this redemption of the whole creation -- cosmic redemption, if you like, of the participation of all creation in the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This strongly contradicts the Gnostic-Hellenic-Hindu notion that is most characteristically expressed by Plotinus, the so-called founder of Neo-Platonism in the third century:
No, if body is the cause of Evil, then there is no escape; the cause of Evil is Matter (Enneads 1:8:8).
Thus, it is quite correct to say at once that Matter is without Quality (in itself) and that it is evil; it is evil not in the sense of having Quality, but precisely, in not having it (Enneads 1:8:10).
In this tradition the body is the source of bondage and evil. Unfortunately this tradition is also very strong among Christians, who -- like Hellenists, Hindus, and Neoplatonists -- believe that the soul alone is to be saved and that the body and other material objects, whether living or non-living, do not participate in or benefit from the redemption in Christ. This Gnostic influence in Christianity is what has pervaded our understanding of the Old and the New Testaments. Why do we magnify the prophetic, and underplay the priestly? We prefer the prophetic because it fits better with our Gnostic temperament, which despises the material and the corporate, the sacrificial and the ritual, and prefers to focus on the individual soul and the prophetic word. I will come back to this point later, but here we only need affirm what St. Paul and St. John so strongly affirm, contrary to the Gnostic-Hellenic-Hindu tradition, and in the true spirit of the Hebrew Scriptures: that the whole creation -- not just a few human souls -- has been redeemed and reconciled in Christ.
Human beings have existed and do exist only as integral parts of a system that includes sources of sustenance -- meat, grains, and vegetables -- as well as Sun and earth, light and water, air and fire. To make a false distinction between nature and history, to limit the presence and action of God to history, to deny God’s action in nature -- these cannot be regarded as Christian.
Nature, in the way in which we use it, is not a biblical notion. Nature (physis in Greek) in the sense of nonhuman self-existent reality does not occur in the Old or the New Testament; it is a concept alien to the biblical world. Insofar as the word nature refers to something as it exists by itself, it is contrary to the Johannine affirmation that not a thing came into being without Christ the Logos. If the Hebrew Scriptures use the word nature, it is only in the Book of Maccabees, and there it puts the word in the mouth of a Greek (Antiochus) rather than of a Hebrew.
In fact, there is no Hebrew word for nature. Hebrew uses "creating" (bara) as a verb, but it seldom uses beriah, a feminine noun, to refer to the whole creation. It does not make an entity out of creation, though it recognizes the act that produces and sustains the creation. The Hebrew Scriptures may make all the trees of the wood rejoice (Ps 96:12) and ask the trees and animals to praise the Lord (Ps 148), but they do not speak about nature or the creation as an entity representing the whole created order. The New Testament also does not speak of nature as the ensemble of created entities. If it uses the word nature (in expressions like physis, physikos, kata physin), it is to distinguish between natural and unnatural, or natural and artificial (see Rom 1:26, 27; 2:27; 11:21, 24), or to speak about what is spontaneous or connatural. It can speak of our being partakers of the divine nature (in 2 Pt 1:4, theias koinonoi physeos literally means "sharers in the nature of the Godhead"), but not of any nature existing independently of God.
Neither is the noun history a common biblical notion. Certainly the Bible does not know a God who acts in "history" but does not act in "nature"; it does not distinguish nature from history, as we do. A historia is a carefully researched narrative of a series of events, not a realm of exclusively human or divine action unrelated to nature. The noun historia does not occur in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures. The verb historeo occurs once (in Gal 1:18), but it is used to mean "visit."
We have seriously distorted the biblical perspective on redemption by introducing alien categories like nature and history into it, and by understanding redemption only in terms of souls and persons. In reacting against the exclusive emphasis on personal salvation, liberalism and neo-orthodoxy fell into the trap of false categories, claiming that God acts in history but not in nature, and that history rather than nature is the realm of God’s revelation. These emphases can be traced to a Gnostic bias that detests nature and sacrament as material, but can see history and word as somehow nonmaterial and (therefore?) spiritual.
A new understanding of the redemption in Jesus Christ will then have to take into account at least the following:
When we keep these relationships in mind, we will have a picture of our own faith that will facilitate a more respectful approach not to nature but to the created order as a whole. The continuity between the order of creation and the order of redemption, rather than their distinction and difference, should be the focus of our interest. Humanity is redeemed with the created order, not from it.
II. Meaning of Christ's incarnation
Second Principle: Christ himself should be seen in his three principal relationships: (1) to members incorporated into his body; (2) to the human race; and (3) to the other-than-human orders of created existence in a multi-planed universe. Each of these is related to the other.
A Christology based on this principle will not conceive of a Christ as somehow other than the created order. Today much of Christology sees Christ as being separate from the world, from culture, and so forth; we try to affirm the lordship of Christ over world and culture by conceiving even the incarnate Christ as somehow totally distinct from the created order. We then think of him as Lord of the world, Lord of the church, and so on. In the more individualistic versions of Christology-soteriology, some make him sole mediato between the person and God. This perception involves three realities: God, Christ, and the individual. God is there, the individual is here, and Christ stands in between. And the world and the church are fourth and fifth realities.
This kind of disjunctive thinking has to give way to an integral and participative way of understanding Christ. Jesus Christ is not an abstract or "purely spiritual" entity. He is incarnate. He took a material body, becoming part of the created order while remaining unchanged as one of the three persons in the Trinity who is Creator. He is one of us. He is fully consubstantial with us.
As Christians we are united with him in an especially intimate way. By baptism and by faith he has incorporated us as members of his body. By participation in his body and blood, we grow to be integral parts of him. Once he had a human body like ours. In fact, he still does -- though it has already been transformed and resurrected and is therefore no longer subject to the ordinary laws of our physics, which govern only mortal bodies and material objects. But he has chosen to have a larger body, partly in heaven (that is, beyond the horizon of our senses) and partly on earth. We belong to that body as a whole, but particularly to the earthly part of it. Christ is always with us, the members of his body, particularly as he continues to fulfill his ministry as high priest of creation and as prophet and servant to the world.
Christ incarnate is a human being, consubstantial with all other human beings. He did not become simply an individual human person or a Christian. He became humankind -- male and female. He assumed the whole of human nature, and now there is no humanity other than the one which Christ took on -- our humanity, in which all human beings participate, whether or not they believe in Christ, whether or not they recognize the nature of their humanity. This aspect of the Redeemer’s relationship to the whole of humanity, independent of human faith, is seldom fully recognized by Christians and its implications worked out. No humans are alien to Christ. whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Communist, or Buddhist. They share in Christ’s humanity in ways that we have to spell out elsewhere. They are not members of the body of Christ, but they are not unrelated to Christ.
Christ the Incarnate One assumed flesh -- organic, human flesh; he was nurtured by air and water, vegetables and meat, like the rest of us. He took matter into himself, so matter is not alien to him now. His body is a material body -- transformed, of course, but transformed matter. Thus he shares his being with the whole created order: animals and birds, snakes and worms, flowers and seeds. All parts of creation are now reconciled to Christ. And the created order is to be set free and to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. Sun and moon, planets and stars, pulsars and black holes -- as well as the planet earth -- are to participate in that final consumption of the redemption.
The risen Christ is thus active, by the Spirit, in all three realms: in the church, in the whole of humanity, and in the cosmos. Each of these relationships is fundamentally different, but all are real and meaningful to Christ, the Incarnate One.
Our theology’s weakness has been its failure to recognize the wider scope of the redemption beyond the "individualized soul" or the person. Liberalism still spiritualizes the incarnate Christ by confining his actions to so-called history, as if that were a realm in which nature and the material elements of creation were not present. We must move beyond personal salvation to declare and teach the three basic dimensions of the redemption.
III. Nothing exists apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit
Third Principle: Christ and the Holy Spirit are related to the whole created order in three ways: by creating it, by redeeming it, and by finally fulfilling it in the last great consummation.
There is no need to elaborate these points. The act of creation is a corporate act of the three persons of the Trinity. God’s relation to plants and trees, to air and water did not begin with the redemption in the incarnate Christ. Not a single thing exists that did not come into being without Christ and the Holy Spirit, including the primeval water over which the Spirit was hovering at the time of creation (Gn 1:2). Neither art nor literature, neither mountain nor river, neither flower nor field came into existence without Christ and the Holy Spirit. They exist now because they are sustained by God. The creative energy of God is the true being of all that is; matter is that spirit or energy in physical form. Therefore, we should regard our human environment as the energy of God in a form that is accessible to our senses.
We have already discussed the relationship of the human environment, of the whole cosmos, to the redemption. It is a redeemed cosmos that we meet in our environment, and as such it is worthy of respect.
It is the final apokatastasis, the fulfillment at the end, that still needs to be stressed. The consummation, which Paul calls anakephalaiosis, means adding up everything (Eph 1:10) -- that is, the consummation of the whole created order in Christ. Take the three numbers 5, 7, and 14. When one adds them up, one gets 26. At first it may not be obvious that the three smaller numbers are contained in the larger number, but they are there; they are not lost. Analogous to this is the process in the final apokatastasis, about which Peter preached in Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem. There he talked about "Christ Jesus, whom the unseen realm must keep until the times of the final restitution of all things, about which God spoke through the mouths of his holy ones, the prophets, from ages ago" (Acts 3:21; my translation).
The Christian understanding of the status of the world, of all life and of inorganic matter, is determined by these three factors:
Q. How did they come to be, and how are they sustained?
A. By creation.
Q. How does the incarnation of Jesus Christ affect them?
A. They share in the destined freedom of the children of God.
Q. What is their final destiny?
A. To be incorporated, through transformation, in the new order that fully emerges only at the end, in the final recapitulation.
The whole created order comes from
God the Holy Trinity, is redeemed by the incarnate Christ, and will
be brought to fulfillment after transformation by the same Christ
and by the Holy Spirit, the perfector of all.
Conclusion: Evaluation of Bahuguna's Principles
Now that we have explored these three basic Christian principles, we are in a position to look again at Sunderlal Bahuguna’s three principles:
As for his first principle, Christians cannot say that nature is to be worshiped and not exploited. Christians would say that the created order (not nature) is to be respected as the order that has given birth to us, sustains us, and will still be the framework for our existence when the whole process of creation-redemption has been consummated. We respect the created order both because it comes from God and is sustained by him, and because it is the matrix of our origin, growth, and fulfillment as human beings. But we do not worship the creation; worship is reserved for the Creator. We have to tend the creation, use it for our own sustenance and flourishing, but we also have to respect it in itself as a manifestation of God’s creative energy and cooperate with God in bringing out the full splendor of the created order as reflecting the glory of the Creator.
Bahuguna’s second principle -- that one who takes less from nature is to be more honored than one who takes more -- is also dubious from a Christian perspective. Simplicity of life is a high value, but enforced poverty is not. And the poor are to be respected not because they take less from nature but because they are friends of God and the victims of injustice. Christians can choose from two lifestyles: the simple life of John the Baptist, who lived on locusts and wild honey in the desert, and the fuller life of our Lord, who prayed all night and worked all day, but who ate and drank with others. Neither of these lifestyles would, however, justify the mindless affluence of our consumer society. To impose austerity on a society may be unwise, but it is even more unwise to impose affluence on a nation through hidden persuasion and to make some people more affluent than others. In taking what is given by nature, we should be careful to give back to nature what it needs to maintain its own integrity and to supply the needs of the future.
Bahuguna’s third principle -- that the individual’s inner life is more worthy of development than the outside world -- is also wrongheaded. Christians need not despise or reject the outer world in order to develop the inner world. And we should not think of the inner world as an individual realm. Rather, we should think of it as the unseen, the heavenly, that which lies beyond our senses. It is a different perception, one that Paul talks about when he says, "If then you have co-risen with Christ, seek the higher things, where Christ now is enthroned at the right hand of God. Meditate on and will the heavenly realities, not the earthly ones" (Col. 3:1-2; my translation). We should not speak of the inner world but of the final fulfillment that is already present in the realm beyond our senses, and that now moves our world as its norm and goal. Even when we are thinking about the environment or socio-economic and political life -- ta ano phroneite, we should focus our minds and wills on the higher realities (not the inner), which must be manifested in the earthly realities -- now partially, but in the end, fully.