I’m currently reading the N. T. Wright book Surprised by Hope (published under the name Tom Wright, 2007, published by SPCK, London). It’s one that was recommended to me several times over the years by various theologically-inclined friends. If you’re not familiar with Wright, you can track down a heap of his materials at an unofficial fan site, http://ntwrightpage.com/. He is a retired Anglican Bishop from the UK, theologian, prolific writer and scholar. In coming weeks I will add some NT Wright lecture videos to the series of spirituality videos I’ve been sharing on this blog.
I recently visited some friends who lent me their copy of Surprised by Hope (along with some other books from their collection). I am grateful to their entrusting me with their books. It is good to have friends who read – the sorts of friends where, when we visit each other’s houses, we’re scouring each other’s bookshelves looking to see what’s there.
I would love to share many, many quotes from Surprised by Hope. Though I’m only up to page 106 in a 338-page book, my notebook is filling up with my personal handwritten note-taking from this text. However, I will resist the urge and say that so far this book is excellent, thought-provoking, sociologically and historically fascinating, theologically challenging and definitely worth reading carefully and meditatively. When I read texts like this I find in myself a renewed excitement about the Gospel – the unique and strange “good news” of Jesus Christ. I realise just how small and limited my prior understanding was, too. The basic premise of the book, as I understand it, is a Biblical, theological and historical critique of the notion that Christianity is about getting people into the right Afterlife, and that this Afterlife is a disembodied spirit realm called “Heaven.” But when we delve a bit deeper into the Biblical texts we find that the ancient Judeo-Christian worldview in fact embraces physical matter as intrinsic to God’s Creation – matter is not some evil, weighty thing that we shed when we die: Resurrection speaks of literal, physical recreation, in a sense. For anyone interested in exploring these ideas, I’m finding this to be a really interesting, accessible read on the topic. I’ve come across this topic before – little hints and whispers that we (myself included) missed the mark when we emphasised saying a Jesus prayer and getting people in through the “narrow gate” into heaven, even if that meant that they had to be dragged in kicking and screaming, emotionally manipulated, cajoled, frightened or condemned into “accepting Jesus.” I haven’t yet read the whole book but it’s one that I’m not likely to put down.
I will share this quote I just read because I think it embodies a really valuable point as to why this issue matters in a practical, tangible sense. As a Christian deeply concerned about the environment, this following section of Surprised by Hope leaped out at me. It is from chapter 5, “Cosmic future: progress or despair?” in section 3, “Option 2: souls in transit.” It talks about the influence of Plato’s philosophy on western Christianity, through the platonic (and gnostic) concept of the material realm being lesser, or morally abhorrent, or philosophically problematic.
Quote from Wright, Surprised by Hope (2007: 102-103):
“A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of gnosticism. The ‘just passing through’ spirituality … though of course it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a gnostic attitude: the created world is at best an irrelevance, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we are allowed to. There has been such a massive assumption made in western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, that texts which don’t say that, but which mention heaven, are read as if they did say it, and that texts which say the opposite, like Romans 8.18-25 and Revelation 21-22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.
“The results are all around us in the western church and in the worldviews which western Christianity has generated. Secularists often criticize Christians for having contributed to ecological disaster, and there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge. I have heard it seriously argued in North America that since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe, and moreover since he intends to do so quite soon now, it doesn’t really matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rainforests and the Arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain. That is a peculiarly modern form of Christian would-be negativity about the world, and of course its skin-deep ‘spiritual’ viewpoint is entirely in thrall to the heart-deep materialism of the business interests that will be served, in however short a term, by such hazardous practices.” (End quote.)
Here in Australia, in the particular churches that are heavily influenced by American ideas (Pentecostalism is my main experience of an Americanised and politicised Christianity), I have also been told – by people who meant it – that I was wasting my time studying environmentalism at university because apart from the underlying view that a house wife and mother ought to be nothing much else, and certainly not academically inclined, there is an inherent assumption that God Himself hates the world He created. “God’s going to burn the world anyway,” I was informed in one conversation several years ago, “so what’s the point of looking after it? The fires on this Earth will become the fires of Hell.”
This was in response, I recall, to my saying that the relatively tough water restrictions imposed on city dwellers at the time were not so terrible, that they were normal behaviours for thoughtful farmers who know that water is a limited resource, and that I believed that in the grand scheme of a world where people die of literal thirst and hunger every single day, a lawn wasn’t really that important that it needed watering more than people needed water to drink (not to mention that in Australia there are, in fact, drought-resistant varieties of lawn grass). Let’s just ponder the intensity of that for a moment. I said something to the effect of, “Hey, the water reservoirs are getting quite low so asking people to limit their showers to four minutes and not water their lawns is not a bad thing – it means there’ll be drinking water, which humans need to live,” and in a short mental leap my Pentecostal acquaintance had taken it to the level of, “I should be allowed to water my lawn because everything else is going to burn in Hell anyway.” By that logic, his lawn was going to Hell, too, so really – why bother with a garden in the first place? What if God hates your garden, wasting your time on nonsense like flowers when it’s all just temporary and fleeting? Perhaps he would’ve been better off standing on a street corner and sweltering through the drought with a “turn or burn” placard. But see, that’s not an intrinsic, inherent part of Christian thought – that’s a set of cultural and philosophical beliefs that have stood largely uncontested, it would seem.
The particular perspectives on environmentalism that most resonate with me tend to point to the fact that nature exists for its own purposes, and that we ought to treat it with care for its own sake. However, if there is a spiritual level that needs to be added to the argument, it’s that loving the environment can be a form of loving one’s neighbour. Who is my neighbour? Perhaps my neighbour is the Arctic indigenous people group whose ancient ways of living in connection with the ecology of their lands are under threat as the climate changes and their once-predictable hunting routes melt away, sometimes with tragic consequences. (1) Perhaps my neighbour is the farmer who cannot grow their crops without the use of potentially dangerous chemical fertilisers, to try to keep unhealthy land producing food (2) in a culture where around 20% of our grocery purchases are thrown in the bin (3). Whoever it is, there are people whose lives and livelihood are adversely affected by environmental degradation and climate change. The Christian notion that God is going to one day, presumably soon (they’ve been saying “soon” for around 2,000 years now), annihilate the world he “so loved” (John 3:16) can not only result in an apathetic approach to the suffering of others, it might actually not be true to the views of historical Christianity but rather an outcome of the influence of pagan Ancient Greek thinking on western culture. And if that’s a possibility, we Christians owe it to ourselves as believers, and owe it to our cultures where we form the religious majority, to seriously consider whether we’re called to treat the world with indifference, as a temporary resource to be used up, or whether we’re called to live a fully embodied, Christ-likeness in this time and space; not disparaging our bodies, our world, and its creatures, but embracing the material universe that our scriptures say God called “good” (Genesis 1).
Edit: for further reading, this article at the Christianity Today website is a useful overview of Wright’s teachings: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april/surprised-by-n-t-wright.html