Sunday, October 2, 2011

Do Christians concerned about 'the environment' risk becoming pagans? Part 1

As someone who has suggested Christians become active in caring for 'the environment' or more theologically correct 'the creation', even if it means being involved with, following information from and copying those who do not share our faith, I have been labelled a pagan. Is this fair?

In a second part I'll deal with the issue itself - i.e. is creation care itself a pagan practice or do we at least risk becoming so, I want to deal with the biblical critique of idols and what pagan means.

A major part of the Old Testament is a critique of idols and idolatry. It was what sent Israel into exile; idolatry led to an ignoring of the Torah and its emphasis on ethical monotheism; which included sustainable land practices and a reliance on God's provision. A classic example of this is the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah. Ahab followed his wife in idolatrous practices (1 Ki 16:30-34). In 1 Ki 21 is steals another man's ancestral land, his source of livelihood, to make it into a vegetable garden. In 1 Ki 18 Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal, mocking them about their god - is he perhaps on the toilet or asleep (1 Ki 18:27). Such a theology is carried into Romans 1 by Paul - declaring that sins (plural) are the result of idolatry, and indeed are a sign of its punishment.

Modern paganism is on the rise it seems, and some kind of Eco-spirituality undergirds a number of green groups. So what should our approach be?

Firstly, regardless of what we think about environmentalism, pagan should not be a slur. Treat people with respect - we live (for better or worse) in a pluralistic society.

In particular, be slow to label someone who is a brother or sister in Jesus with pagan as a slur. As I'll point out in another post, a thorough biblical theology of creation shows it is something to be valued as coming from the creator for what he says about him, for the gift of its use and for its own sake.

Secondly, it may well be worth reflecting that one of the reasons people turn to paganism in whatever form is that Christianity has often failed to show any value for life in this world, be it peace and justice or regard for our material setting. Blow back perhaps.

Thirdly, Paul shows us the way forward in dealing with those whose beliefs we might find difficult. To be thoroughly mission minded we do not avoid but engage. I think Jesus' principle of being in but not of the world means we can engage in creation care (though more later). When issues of implicit or explicit belief come into play Paul in Acts 17. Paul was provoked (to anger?) at the idols in Athens (v16), yet engages his hearers. He notes that they are very religious, or fearful of gods (v22) and goes on to draw a link between the creator God (v24f) with their poets. Paul builds bridges. Accusations and false denunciations of other Christians, to say nothing of a poor attitude towards those with green sensibilities does not achieve the aims of Christian love or mission.

Next post, what theology do we have to turn to, to engage in green mission without falling pray to syncretism (religious innovation or merging of beliefs).

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