Loving my Neighbor in the Whole of God’s Creation

[1] We Christians claim that our Christ is cosmic. We use the word to indicate “the entire universe, this earth and all else.” Likewise, the word can be our shorthand for “all of creation, both humankind and other-kind.” If we have a cosmic Christ, what does that mean for our calling to love our neighbor? The New Testament offers two chief texts for the idea that our Lord is directly related to the whole creation. One is in words we hear each Christmas season [John 1:1-4]:

[2] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.

[3] The “him” is Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. Christ is central not only to God’s redemption of a fallen humanity, but also central to God’s creation of everything. The same theme comes to us powerfully in the soaring poetry of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The key words in Col. 1:15-20 are “all things,” ta panta in Greek, and they appear five times in six verses. Hear this hymn to our cosmic Christ.

[4] He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers, all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church: he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

[5] These are profound words, mind-stretching words. They do two things for us. They proclaim our Lord’s central role in both creation and redemption. Equally important, they move us beyond our prejudice that humankind is all God cares about. To say Christ is cosmic means this: that Christ shows us God’s mighty deeds in creating everything and God’s mighty deeds in redeeming everything, which means ALL things will be reconciled back to God and ALL creatures will be reconciled to one another.

[6] Christians have largely missed this vision of a Christ whose purposes embrace the whole of creation. Joseph Sittler said in his classic 1961 address to the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi, India: “We [Christians] do not have…a daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christology for nature….” Speaking on the Colossians One text, Sittler continued, “It is true [in all Christian traditions] that the imperial vision of Christ as coherent in ta panta has not broken open the powers of grace to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of human beings as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they owned it.”1

[7] In the same vein, E.L.C.A. Lutheran Paul Santmire wrote in the mid-1990s: “The Captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ, cares for the ark of this universe and its eternal destiny….He cares for every creature on board, in appropriate ways, and, in turn calls upon the human passengers of this universal vessel to care likewise for the whole vessel and all its creatures, in every appropriate way.”2

[8] If our Christ is truly cosmic, two questions follow. First, what is the connection between God in Christ and the rest of creation, the non-human part? Second, who are the non-human neighbors to be loved and how do we love them?

l. The Rest of Creation and God in Christ

[9] The richest biblical material on this question appears in the older testament. We can begin with the Genesis stories of creation and their witness that God sees all of creation as good. And there are many other reminders that God is concerned about more than the human part of creation. Among them:

[10] Noah and the flood, Genesis 9. The covenant God establishes after the flood is not just with Noah and his human family. It is with all flesh. Eight times in just 10 verses we read that the covenant includes “every living creature” or “every animal” or “all flesh”- God is serious about species preservation. The same idea appears in the final words of Jonah (4:11). Nineveh is worth saving from calamity, God says, and God is then quoted as calling it “that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.”

[11] The Job story. Representing all humans, Job is told forcefully by God that there was a created world before he, Job, appeared, and that this creation has its own integrity apart from human beings. Job is told that he can learn a thing or two from the rest of creation: “But ask the animals and they will teach you, and the birds of the air, and they shall teach you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing.” (Job 12:7-10)

[12] The Psalms. They are packed with poetic statements that God doesn’t depend on humans for praise of the Creator. Even those parts of creation that we consider non-living–sun, moon, stars, trees, water-are presented as giving praise to God. Mountains, for example: “Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name” (Ps. 89:12).

[13] Revelation. The Bible’s final book, the Revelation of St. John, also admonishes us to treat non-human creation with respect. In Rev. 7:3, the angel with the seal of the living God says, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees….”

[14] The theological tradition of Luther has not been strong in creation Christology. We have been accused, rightly, of a preoccupation with redemption and the human-divine relationship. To a degree, we can blame Luther’s own life experience for this. But the other note is not absent in Luther. We Lutherans have simply neglected it. In Luther’s catechism, his very first sentence on the Apostles’ Creed reads: “I believe God has created me, together with all creatures….”

[15] Luther’s view of God is always a sacramental one, which means Luther is insistent that God comes to us precisely in the earthy stuff of this creation: water, grain, grape, oil, soil, and supremely in the Word made human flesh, born of Mary.3 Here are just a few examples of Luther’s creation-centered thinking:

[16] The Creator, says Luther, is wholly present “in a grain, on a grain, over a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately.”4 He notes, in reflecting on the mystery of Holy Communion, that if we truly understood the growth miracle of a kernel of wheat, we would die of wonder!

[17] Luther’s view of God and the creation can be termed pan-en-theism. This is not pantheism, in which God and nature are identical, making God indistinct from the creation. Pan-en-theism is literally “God IN all things.” God is mysteriously present in everything that is made, while remaining transcendent and distinct from all things. Thus we worship the Creator, not the creation. But Luther is very clear: God is to be found in all that has been made. Indeed, God’s gift of nature should be read as Scripture, Luther says: “All creation is the most beautiful book or Bible; in it God has described and portrayed himself.”5

[18] Luther even found good in creatures we consider pests or threats to human well being. I have never, for example, understood how God could make the mosquito and pronounce it good. I have had to concede that I am seeing this humanly and have concluded that, when God says something created is good, God is not saying it’s good necessarily for people. The mosquito has its own integrity; it may be good only for itself and its own kind, or as part of the inter-species chain of life. Thus Luther can say, “In a mouse we admire God’s creation and craft work. The same may be said about flies.”

[19] We can go even beyond Luther. It’s now apparent that the rest of God’s creation could get along better without us human latecomers. It even seems clear that the creatures we humans respect least are those most vital to our ecosystem. Hear this from a 1993 New York Times Magazine article, “Bugs Keep Planet Livable, Yet Get No Respect”:

[20] Humans may think they are evolution’s finest product, but the creeps, crawlies, and squishies rule the world. Remove people from the…earth and the biosphere would perk along just fine, ecologists say. Remove the invertebrates-creatures like insects, spiders, worms, snails, and protozoans-and the global ecosystem would collapse, humans and other vertebrates would probably last only a few months, and the planet would belong mostly to algae and bacteria. Invertebrates…are the biological foundation of ecosystems and crucial to every one of the ecosystem processes.

[21] The Bible is obviously a human-centered book. It deals largely with God’s redemptive program for humankind. Yet, reading Scripture ecologically lets us see that fish and birds too are blessed by God’s order to be fruitful and multiply. And that the sun and moon are instructed to govern, one lighting the day, one the night. There’s biblical support also for the idea that before the Fall humans were not to eat other animals. We were likely created to be herbivores and may be again once Messiah’s work is done.

[22] And does it ever occur to us that the cross of Christ itself, the vehicle for our human redemption, is also making a statement to other animals? By offering himself once for the redemption of all, Jesus retires forever Judaic animal sacrifice. Yes, the blood of the cross really does make peace for more than just us humans!

[23] Lastly, the relationship between God and the rest of creation is a direct one. It does not need human beings to mediate it. God has immediate contact with the lilies of the field, the cattle on a thousand hills, all wild beasts and things that creep on the earth, and the creatures of the ocean deep. These all have their own reason for being, apart from what we may see as their utility or their hostility to humans. They have their own history with God. It’s a history that is independent of God’s history with humankind, even as the two, humankind and other-kind, are intimately and inevitably linked together.

2. Who Are the Neighbors To Be Loved and How Do We Love Them?

[24] This is our other question. Given the sort of distress-filled creation that we know, and a Christ who is cosmic, how do we follow his command that we are to love our neighbors?

[25] Paul Santmire reminds us that, while reading the Bible with ecological lenses changes much, it does not change everything. The Reformation principle of GRACE ALONE stays at the center. But, unlike the Reformation’s focus, grace is not limited to humans. Santmire notes that in the ecological paradigm the grace of God overflows not just to the human creature but to all creaturedom. The scriptural promise is that the gift of a new heaven and a new earth will shower blessings on all beings, that all creatures will dwell in a land filled with righteousness.6

[26] The fact that we humans are justified by grace alone gives us a pair of vital freedoms. One is that, since we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, we are entirely free to concentrate all energies on loving our neighbor. Indeed, what you do when you don’t HAVE to do anything is precisely that: you love your neighbor. Someone has observed that, to a community of pickpockets, the whole world is filled with pockets to be picked. Our adaptation of that is: to a community of Christians the whole world is filled with neighbors to be loved.

[27] The second freedom provided us by justification through grace is the freedom to make mistakes. Since salvation does not depend on our good deeds, we are free to risk being wrong, even as we seek to love the neighbor. Sometimes Christians choose to deal with tough ethical questions by doing nothing rather than making a choice that could be wrong. I’m arguing that, in caring for creation, it is better to try another way, better to change human behavior, than to do nothing, if no action means continuing on present, obviously destructive paths. We may not be certain that accelerated climate change and erosion of the ozone layer will be reduced by curbing carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases. But if we wait till certainty comes, it will be too late. Thus we act today and, knowing sin is attached always to any human activity, we rejoice that our God is a forgiving God.

[28] Now, to the specific neighbors needing our love. I find it helpful to picture the relationship among God, humankind, and other-kind as a triangle with equal sides. God is at the apex. One of the downward sides leads to the human part of creation. The other downward side connects God with the rest of creation. God and either aspect of physical nature are in direct contact. God does not need to move through one to reach the other. The reverse is also true: humankind and other-kind separately have their own immediate relationship with their Creator.

[29] Across the bottom of our triangle is the third side, the third relationship: that of human-kind and other-kind. We clearly have a connection, one could call it a kinship, that doesn’t require us to reach the other by way of the Creator, or even to acknowledge we have a Creator. We share this community called creaturedom. We are alike in that as creatures we owe our very being to an outside power, which believers call God, the Creator. “In his hand is the life of every living thing,” Job is reminded (12:10). And Larry Rasmussen’s memorable summary is “The createds are all relateds.”7

[30] But we see two differences between these two parts of nature at the triangle’s bottom. One part, humankind, has wilfully rebelled against its Creator. The other part has not, though the human rebellion has drastic consequences for the well being of other-kind. Secondly, one part, humankind, is said to be made in “the image of God.” Biblically, IMAGO DEI is never really defined. Some scholars argue that “image of God” is mainly about free will and the ability to make decisions. Others say it refers to our human knowledge of right and wrong.

[31] In my view, Douglas John Hall has it right. To this Canadian theologian, the central significance of IMAGO DEI is the human responsibility to care for the rest of creation. In this view, God has designated humankind as God’s trustee to tend this garden, the creation, as a loving and gentle caregiver. The human calling within the created order is to image the Creator, to reflect the Creator’s loving purpose.8

[32] “Having dominion” then means not domination, not exploitation, but respect for the integrity of all that God has entrusted to us, along with a decent humility regarding the mandate God gives us and our place in the divine scheme of things. Indeed, the model for our relating to the rest of creation is none other than Jesus, our cosmic Christ. He comes to us as Lord of all, surely. But he comes also as servant of all. He brings us God’s love not by top-down power and glory. He shows us love by entering our history as one who is poor and lowly. From the under-side of human existence he comes to us. So we can imagine our triangle turned upside-down, with God-in-Christ at the bottom, humbling himself as servant of all that God has made. In like manner, human creatures are to serve the rest of creation-tenderly, gently, lovingly, carefully.

[33] Our role does not, in my view, mean human caregivers can’t cut down trees or break sod with a plow or eat other animals or extract oil and ores from the earth. It does mean that all we do is guided by the principle of renewing life, of sustainability. When the spirit or breath of God goes forth, all things are created “and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:30). That is how WE are to live with the earth, always renewing it.

[34] Being in the image of God lets us use the soil. It does not justify our using up the soil. Being in God’s image lets us cut trees for building material and fuel. But it requires that we routinely plant new trees and leave alone trees that protect life-giving soil from erosion. Being in God’s image means we see God’s gifts in the rest of nature as more than commodities in a global market. These gifts are, in a profound way, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Native Americans can teach us much in this regard. They have a deep sense that all living things are family. The earth is seen as our mother; the other creatures are called “all my relatives.” In this tradition the killing of an animal for meat is allowed but only after one first thanks the animal and asks its forgiveness.

[35] The practice of at least the past half-millennium, led by Europeans all around this planet, has shown little sense of need to be forgiven. The chief theme has not been one of nurturing the earth, not one of renewal and sustainability. It has been one of mastery over the earth as a human right. Larry Rasmussen notes that it was not humanity as a whole conducting this campaign of conquest, but European and North American white, male humanity. Rasmussen quotes an observation made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 70 years ago: “Human conquest of nature is the foundational theme of Euro-American history.”9

[36] What has resulted from this conquest, this mastery/domination approach to nature? The human/non-human relationship has been consistently degraded, and most dramatically during the century just past. Listen to this summary indictment:

[37] For the first time since humans appeared, soil loss is exceeding soil formation, freshwater use is exceeding aquifer replenishment, forest destruction is exceeding forest regeneration, fish catches are exceeding fish reproduction, carbon emissions are exceeding carbon fixation, and species extinction is exceeding species evolution. Some of the effects…are or may be irreversible. Species loss is one example, accelerated global climate change possibly another. In short, cumulative human power to destroy is gradually outstripping earth’s power to restore.10

[38] But enough of the bad news. The good news is, since it is humans who have degraded Planet Earth in these ways, it is humans who have the skills and the power needed for a planetary renewal campaign. Now we can talk about the neighbors we’re to love in such a world. They come in three categories:

* Our non-human sisters and brothers, all our relatives who are fellow creatures

* Our human heirs, still unborn, who will follow us in years to come

* All the human passengers sharing Spaceship Earth with us today

[39] First, our fellow creatures. How do we show them love? One powerful clue comes in the guidelines for observing the Sabbath in the Hebrew Scriptures, which appear mainly in Deuteronomy 22-26. The Hebrews understood the Sabbath as good not just for humans, but also for the rest of creation. The land needs a rest, a break from continual cultivation.

[40] And even if you, O Human One, are tempted to pursue economic gain seven days out of seven, your beasts of burden deserve a day off. Further, you dare not muzzle your oxen to prevent their eating the fruits of the earth as they tread the grain. Nor shall you reap to the very edges of your fields; you must leave something behind for poor people and for wild animals. And when hunting fowl, you may not take both the mother bird and her young.

[41] Something other than pure market economics is going on here. We moderns would serve our neighbors in the rest of creation quite well, were we to return to the ancient Hebrew laws: of fallow land, limited cropping, gleaning, first-fruits set aside for God’s purposes, which include the needs of the poor. Yes, Adam, the garden trees are yours, but there are limits. Of the fruit of one tree you shall not eat. Enough is enough, Adam!

[42] Behaving as God’s redeemed ones, those with whom God has made peace through the cross, does in fact mean a change in how we relate to the rest of nature. St. Paul,in his Romans 8 discussion of Christ’s redemption of humankind, says that human redemption is to transform ALL of the natural order. “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay…the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now….” So you and I aren’t the only ones born-again. In Christ there is a new birth for the earth, too.

[43] A second crop of neighbors to be loved are not yet here. They’re the children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren of us who are here. They are the future generations to whom we will bequeath an earth. The kind of earth we leave them is being decided by our decisions today.

[44] In our day we hear much about sustainability: sustainable agriculture, sustainable development. Sustainability can be defined as using the earth’s resources in a way that provides a decent quality of life for present generations without compromising that of future generations. It asserts that when we today do not exist sustainably with the creation, we are literally stealing from our children. A worldview of sustainability understands the charge of Genesis 2:15 in its original Hebrew. The meaning of our human directive to “till and keep” the Garden is literally to “serve and preserve” the Garden.

[45] I grew up among farm folk in the Upper Midwest. One of the favorite sayings of those farmers was, “I want to farm in a way that lets me turn this land over to my children in better condition than I received it from my parents.” Such farmers knew how to farm so that the soil would be upgraded, not degraded. Many of them, pleading short-term economic necessity, often abandoned those methods. But some refused to do so. Their philosophy reflected a belief that the farmer’s land is not hers or his alone. It is also that of those who will farm it after them. Most such farmers know that the true owner of the land is God, and that they are God’s stewards over it for just a brief time.

[46] Lastly, we are called to love all the human passengers now on board Spaceship Earth. That’s easy to say. What is hard is to make judgments about WHICH neighbors to love WHEN. The biblical imperative is that we always tilt toward those who are poor: orphans and widows, landless ones, the exiles in our midst. And it is true, in rich and poor countries alike, that environmental degradation hurts first and worst those who are the most vulnerable economically. And so economic justice and environmental justice always walk together.

[47] Under a christology of nature, as in any human setting, it is clear that loving the neighbor is not only altruism. Loving my neighbors bears fruit for me, too. That fruit takes many forms that I find advantageous: healthier and more peaceful community, a creation sustained to keep on blessing me, and the simple joy of knowing I am in step with God’s will for my existence on this earth.

[48] Thus loving my neighbor is about caring for both my neighbor AND myself. Neighbor-love, in other words, is always linked with my own self-interest. And that too is biblical. Jesus does not ask us to love the neighbor INSTEAD of ourselves. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor AS yourself.” “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.” (Luke 10:27-28).

[49] And so we are freed to live out our lives in precisely that way. Let us believe the promise that loving our neighbors in the whole of God’s creation will give life to ourselves as well.

[50] Now, to a few practical implications of such neighbor-love. A key word for biblical people is the Hebrew “shalom.” Often translated peace, it really means more than an absence of violence. It has the content of harmony or wholeness, among all parts of the created order. If we say a harmonious and just interacting of the human and non-human creation is our goal, what might some specifics look like? Let me suggest four.

1. Our care of the earth itself, its soil and water, its grasses and its glaciers, is surely at the heart of loving the whole creation. We have now learned that the crass human over-consumerism of the industrial age is changing drastically everything from climate to sea levels to quality of the air we breathe. A pastor who once served me preached on occasion about SUVs as an earth-stewardship issue, an ethical concern, a matter for the biblically faithful to weigh. He didn’t ask “What Would Jesus Drive?” but he might have.

2. Love of our non-human neighbors surely demands a drastic change in U.S. animal farming. “To visit a modern CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is to enter a world that, for all its technological sophistication, is still designed according to Cartesian principles: animals are machines incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this any more, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else.”11 If all of us meat-eaters knew how brutally, how unnaturally our food animals are raised and slaughtered, I think there’d be a fully deserved outcry of anguish. It is incumbent on a biblical people to help make known this phenomenon in our food production, a relatively recent development, and to advocate intensely for change.

3. Can we look seriously at our urban/suburban lawncare practices? Can’t we find an alternative to chemically fertilizing crops of unneeded grass production, which we then use fossil fuels to cut and have carted away to landfills, with lawn runoff meanwhile polluting our lakes and streams? There has to be another way.

4. And, with tongue just partly in cheek, let me note a chemical development that’s more hopeful. The question concerns Viagra. Is it a creation-friendly drug? (I didn’t say PRO-creation-friendly.) Yes, it seems so. The New York Times Magazine reported recently that, in just five years, sales of Viagra have significantly reduced the market for animal-product alternatives in certain cultures, especially in Asia. The writer cites decline in demand for such supposed aphrodisiacs as the velvet from Alaskan reindeer antlers and products from sea horses and geckos and green turtles.(11) Maybe a new ad slogan is coming: “Better living for wildlife through chemistry” March 18, 2003? Sometimes unintended side effects can be good for our siblings in the rest of God’s creation.

End Notes

1 Joseph Sittler, “Called To Unity,” address to WCC Assembly in New Delhi, November 1961, South East Asia Journal of Theology, April 1962, 6-15.

2 H. Paul Santmire, “Toward a Christology of Nature: Claiming the Legacy of Joseph Sittler and Karl Barth,” Dialog, Fall 1995, 279.

3 For a fine overview of Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s earth-friendly theology, see Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s “The Reform Dynamic,” The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 131ff.

4 Martin Luther, WA 32.134.34-235.36, as cited by Santmire, The Travail of Nature (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

5 Cf. WA 48.201.5. Cited by Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s World of Thought, trans. Martin H. Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 179.

6 Santmire, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970), 131. Santmire makes this point consistently in his writings; see also The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985) and Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

7 Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1998), 262.

8 Douglas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986).

9 Bonhoeffer, “Das Recht auf Selbstbehauptung,” in Gesammelte Schriften, 3:262-63, cited in Earth Community Earth Ethics, 313.

10 Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, op. cit., 131-2.

11 Margaret Talbot, New York Times Magazine, 15 December 2002, p. 133.