Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22nd, and this year it falls on a Sunday, a timely reminder that it is not only an appropriate theme for Christian observance, but an essential one.
Variations on a Theme
From an article by Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Ministries
“We don’t believe we are going to reverse the environmental crisis by simply passing laws. We have to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. Unless you have that fundamental change in values, many of us believe environmental degradation will be irreversible.”
I often come back to the above words by Paul Gorman, the founder of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (USA), when I’m talking about the importance of faith communities in the environmental cause. Rethinking our “place and purpose in creation” is a deeply religious task.
Within Christian communities, an important part of that rethinking has involved a critique of two of the traditional biblical expressions of our distinctive human role.
- ’Dominion’ in the first chapter of Genesis certainly has received harsh criticism. While a case can be made for dominion, it requires theological nuance and a clearly defined context. With all of the historical, philosophical and emotional baggage that it carries, the big ‘D’, which so easily slides from ‘Dominion’ into ‘Domination’, does not guide us toward “a fundamental change in values.”
- Faith communities have often talked about being good ‘stewards’ of God’s creation. Environmental stewardship is a common expression outside of church circles, too, often referring to responsible management of natural resources. That sense of control over things, and of a sharp separation between people and nature, has led many folks to shy away from stewardship as the hallmark of our place and purpose in creation. Some people are so put off by the inherent relationships of ‘power over’ within the stewardship model that they refuse to use the term.
If these two traditional Christian notions of our place and purpose in creation are deeply flawed, where do we turn? What new description can we adopt?
One positive option comes out of process theology. The new expression is that we are to be ‘co-creators’ with God. This first struck me as incredibly arrogant, a claim of even greater power than we find in the notions of dominion or stewardship. To see ourselves as co-anything with God seemed like a dangerous extension of our role, our authority, and our wisdom.
But Anne Pederson’s book, God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation, offers the sense that co-creation is like the way an improvisational musician builds on a musical theme.
Process theologian Jay McDaniel wrote with a similar image in a recent article, God, Sustainability, and Beauty. Wholeness, in the spirit of improvisational jazz, “involves trusting in the availability of fresh possibilities, so that we do not become stuck in the past or immobilised by the tragedies of the present. In this trust there is a harmony with the wider horizon in which we live and move and have our being: a harmony with God which some call faith.” He emphasises that jazz is a metaphor: “Of course this way does not require an ability to play an instrument. But it does require an ability to listen deeply to the voices of other people and the natural world, responding to them with wisdom and compassion.”
The lovely metaphor of improvisational music erases the sense of arrogance in the notion of co-creation. This role does not give us god-like power and authority to do whatever we want. Rather, we can be creative and inventive as we build off of the framework that God has set out. (In process thought, God is still setting out new and creative themes.) I now see ‘co-creator’ as a very fruitful term that can inform and guide us as we rethink our place and purpose in creation.
Co-creation is not a license to make up our own stuff. We may build on a core motif, but we need to stay connected to it, just as a jazz musician may improvise all he wants as long as it fits it with the rest of the piece. If he doesn’t, the music can be quite painful. If we are called toward improvisational creativity as co-creators with God, what are the divine themes that should be foundational for us?
- Shalom, God’s peace, is one of God’s great compositions. The general theme of peace with justice through all creation sets out an essential and underlying framework. In each age and setting, we are called to find the right variations and harmonies from that theme to entice us back from the sins of violence, exploitation and alienation. The church should always be working to polish a fresh interpretation of ‘Variations on Shalom.’
- Another grounding composition for our improvisational work is the shape of creation itself. The laws of nature and the deep processes of the universe provide a melody line that must always be honoured in our variations. As McDaniel notes, this creativity, this co-creation, flows through all parts of the universe. “The laws of nature were like jazz standards; and every event in the universe plays one or another of these standards”, each its own unique voice.
Humans do have a distinctive freedom and creativity as we improvise on God’s themes. When we do it well, it is an act of praise. McDaniel wrote, “The practical outcome of praise is the development of a constructive vision of a new and better kind of community. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the beloved community. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.” McDaniel, descriptively, but not very poetically, calls it “inclusively sustainable community.”
‘Co-creators with God’ provides us with a wonderful way to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. By identifying primary melodies in natural laws and in the vision of shalom, we are rooted and constrained in our expressions of power and creativity. The call to improvisation requires that we deal fully and responsibly with the crises and opportunities of our own time and place.
I invite you, individually and as the body of Christ in this place, to explore the fresh insights of being co-creators with God. Through that new metaphor, may we find faithful, joyous and healing ways of living within Earth communities.