By Stephen W. Hiemstra
How does creation fit into your spirituality?
Myself, when I am anxious at the end of the day, I retire with a good book to my front porch to enjoy a cool breeze, listen to the birds, and watch the sun set through the trees. Here God’s presence comforts me.
Spiritual Roots to Ecological Sensitivity
One of my earliest and most enduring influences was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. He begins:
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner to civilized life again.” (Thoreau 1960, 1)
He goes on to explain:
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce to its lowest terms…” (Thoreau 1960, 62-63)
The idea of a Spartan existence, which he immediately related to reformed spirituality paraphrasing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, always had a special appeal to me:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (PCUSA). 1999, 7.001)
Exposed to the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and to Thoreau, I have always implicitly associated creation with spirituality.1 However, it took a recent reading of Holt (2017, 31) to remind me of my own spiritual roots in this regard.
Genesis describes the earth as God’s creation (Gen 1:1) over which the Holy Spirit hovers (Gen 1:2). We are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and given the mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Later, God created the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) and put man into it to “keep it” (Gen 2:15). Reluctant gardeners, perhaps, Adam and Eve sin (Gen 3:6) and are driven out of the garden (Gen 3:24). It is therefore correct to say that original sin not only separated us from communion with God, it introduced tension into our relationship with creation and our intended stewardship role.
The Apostle Paul speaks of this tension, writing:
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23)
In the hours immediately before his arrest, Jesus retired to the Garden at Gethsemane to pray. Some have interpreted this retreat to Gethsemane as a kind of return to Eden.
In recent years anxiety about the fragility of our earth’s environment has reached a fever pitch. Where nineteenth century anxiety focused on limits to the quantity of food available to feed a growing population, recent concerns about global warming might be described as prophecy of an ecological Armageddon. How should Christians respond to these concerns?
Few scientists question that the earth is warming. The opening of Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans which was icebound in the nineteenth century, reminds us that global warming is taking place. Less certain is the question: what can be done about it? In my experience as a Washington economist, the more heated the debate, the less obvious the solution.
What is Our Mandate?
Because the science and politics of global warming are not easily discerned, I do not profess to have all the answers or the ability to direct a solution. My personal limitations, however, do not relinquish me of responsibly as a steward of creation. As Christians we should refuse to play the victim or the villain or to claim that we are powerless in any endeavor. We can do a number of things:
- We can pray for the Holy Spirit to sustain us and our planet.
- We can inform ourselves and others about ecological matters.
- We can reduce our consumption of energy and products known to create environmental hazards.
Following Thoreau, we can live a Spartan lifestyle as a spiritual discipline, mindful of God’s provision and thankful for his protection. Waste not; want not.
Holt, Bradley P. 2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Meadows, Donella, H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III (MMRB) . 1975. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books Publishers.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1960. Walden and Civil Disobedience (Orig pub 1854). Edited by Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
1 I went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics, possessed as it were of a strong desire to deal with the world food problem following the 1970s concern for limited resources and limits to growth (MMRB 1975). This background does not make me an environmentalist, but it gave a deep appreciation for our role as stewards of creation.