Numerous groups and individuals today are challenging us in regard to our relationship to mother earth, urging us to be less blind, less unthinking and less reckless in terms of how we relate to the earth.
Every day our newscasts point out how, without much in the way of serious reflection, we are polluting the planet, strip-mining its resources, creating mega-landfills, pouring carbon dangerously into the atmosphere, causing the disappearance of thousands of species, creating bad air and bad water and thinning the ozone layer.
And so the cry goes out: Live more simply, use fewer resources, lessen your carbon footprint, and try to recycle whatever you’ve used as much as you can.
That challenge, of course, is very good and very important. The air we breathe out is the air we will eventually inhale and so we need to be very careful about what we exhale.
This planet is our home and we need to ensure that, long-term, it can provide us with the sustenance and comfort of a home.
But, true as this is, there’s still another, very important reason why we need to treat mother earth with more caution and respect:
Christ himself is vitally bound up with nature and his reasons for coming to earth also include the intention of redeeming the physical universe.
What’s implied here? Let me begin with an anecdote which captures, in essence, what’s at stake.
The scientist-theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in conversation with a Vatican official who was confused by his writings and doctrinally suspicious of them, was once asked, “What are you trying to do in your writings?”
Teilhard responded, “I am trying to write a Christology that is wide enough to incorporate the full Christ because Christ is not just an anthropological event but he is also a cosmic phenomenon.”
Simply translated, he is saying that Christ didn’t just come to save people; he also came to save the planet, of which people are only one part.
In saying that, Teilhard has solid Scriptural backing. Looking at the Scriptures, we find that they affirm that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came to save the world.
For example, the Epistle to the Colossians records an ancient Christian hymn which affirms both that Christ was already a vital force inside the original creation (“that all things were made through him”) and that Christ is also the end point of all history, human and cosmic (Colossians 1:15-20).
The Epistle to the Ephesians, also recording an ancient Christian hymn (Ephesians 1:3-10), makes the same point.
The Epistle to the Romans is even more explicit in affirming that physical creation, mother earth and our physical universe, are “groaning” as they too wait for redemption by Christ (Romans 8:19-22).
Among other things, these texts affirm that the physical world is part of God’s plan for eventual heavenly life. Three clear principals are contained in these texts if we tease out their implications.
First, nature, not just humanity, is being redeemed by Christ.
The world is not just a stage upon which human history plays out; it has intrinsic meaning and value beyond what it means for us as humans.
Physical nature is, in effect, brother and sister with us in the journey toward the divinely intended end of history.
Christ also came to redeem the earth, not just those of us who are living on it. Physical creation too will enter in the final synthesis of history, that is, heaven.
Second, nature has intrinsic rights, not just the rights we find convenient to accord it.
What this means is that defacing or abusing nature is not just a legal and environmental issue, it’s a moral issue. We are violating someone’s (something’s) intrinsic rights.
Thus, when we mindlessly throw a soda can into a ditch, we are not just breaking a law, we are also, at some deep level, defacing Christ.
We need to respect nature, not, first of all, so that it doesn’t recoil on us and give us back our own asphyxiating pollution, but because it, akin to humanity, has its own rights. A teaching too rarely affirmed.
Third, the quest for community and consummation within God’s kingdom (our journey toward heaven) is a quest that calls us not just to a proper relationship with God and with each other, but also to a proper relationship with physical creation.
We are humans with bodies living on the earth, not disembodied angels living in heaven, and Christ came to save our bodies along with our souls.
He came, as well, to save the physical ground upon which we walk since he was the very pattern upon which and through which the physical world was created.
Ron Rolheiser is a Missionary Oblate priest who is serving as president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with his permission. He can be contacted through his website, RonRolheiser.com, and you can find him on Facebook.
A Missionary Oblate priest who serves as President Emeritus of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.