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In the Beginning & In the End: Christians & Climate Change - An ON Scripture Feature

Genesis 1:1-5, A Reflection By Eric D. Barreto

In the beginning, God created the world. In the beginning, God drew order out of chaos. In the beginning, God breathed life into every living creature. In the beginning, God crafted and made the world.

In contrast, it seems like we as a people are committed to leading the world back into chaos, to recreating the world in our distorted image. We seem determined to create a world characterized by death and loss not the miracle of life and breath and goodness and the flourishing of all living things. 

In the end, we seem driven to dismantle the world. In the end, we are opting for the chaos God held at bay as an act of grace, love, and power.

The threat of climate change and the pollution of our natural resources is a theological problem. In our efforts to enhance our comfort and ease our work, we have mistaken what is good with what is merely advantageous for a narrowly circumscribed us. Our ravaging of natural resources reveals our arrogance. We think that the world’s water and air and many precious resources are due to us, recompense we have earned by the sweat of our brow or the ingenuity of our efforts rather than gifts from God meant to enhance the life of all not just the extravagance of a few. We have turned the world upside down, served the forces of destruction, and declared them “good.” 

In short, we have lied about what we do to the world. We have concocted complex (but easily disprovable) denials of our many sins against the world God crafts, God loves, God calls good. 

So let’s go back to the beginning and wonder for a moment why the Bible starts in this way and why a community of believers chose to capture the dawn of creation in this way. As we well know, these opening chapters of Genesis have been embroiled in unavailing arguments about science and evolution. Are these opening chapters blueprints of the created order? Are they precise recollections of the world’s creation? Are they science or theology, both or neither?

Just last year, a “debate” pitching creationism against evolution drew plenty of attention on Twitter but did little to clarify the meaning of these resonant words, “In the beginning.” The “debate” was an exercise in missing the very point of Genesis 1. These verses are not a blueprint of the world or a play-by-play of the dawning of creation. These verses are not just an ancient fairy tale we can dismiss as the atavistic ramblings of our ancient ancestors. All such readings miss a critical point. These verses are controversial precisely because we think these verses about us. 

They’re not. Genesis 1 is about God first and foremost.

And yet when we turn to these passages we are usually propelled not by knowing something about the past but understanding something about the present, the future, and the God who accompanies us always. The authors and collectors of the traditions we find in Genesis and we its readers are not just driven by historical curiosity, by a drive to know what happened back then. We want to know why more than we want to know how and when. 

Why is the world the way it is? Why does life sometimes flourish while at other moments death seems to strike us at every turn? What kind of God created this world? And what kind of world is it anyway? 

Creatures "mentioned" in the Book of Genesis that are threatened by climate change.

In Genesis 1:1-5, we confess that the world and the God who created it are both good. We join in God’s declaration even as we might whisper it, unsure that it is true. We hope that the God who created the skies and the oceans, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys is the same God who will shelter us from the storm and hold death at bay. We yearn for a world that can dazzle us with its beauty, silence us with awe even as we tremble at forces largely beyond our control: winds and mudslides and tornadoes and typhoons.

And if we’re honest, we can acknowledge that the “natural” evils that harm our neighbors are not always beyond our control, that these disasters are not “acts of God” as the insurance companies say. Yes, we did not control the tsunami that decimated Indonesia or direct the vicious path of Hurricane Katrina or determine than an earthquake would strike Haiti. And yet aren’t we all embroiled in systems of oppression that while they advantage us force others to live out with difficulty on faults and on seacoasts? Our cheap produce is expensive, our inexpensive water is costly, and our affordable energy comes at a steep cost. Someone always pay the price, whether the earth or our invisible neighbors near and far.

And yet God called the world good. God was and is right. But in the ways we pollute the world and oppress one another, we seek to deny this divine declaration.

In the beginning of this new year, we can resolve to do otherwise, to count the costs of our conveniences, to join God in the declaring of a “good” world in which life always prevails. 

Bible Study Questions:

What do you think God means when God declares the creation “good” in Genesis 1?

In what ways does your daily life help affirm God’s declaration of the creation as “good?” How does your daily life deny this declaration, even if you do so unintentionally?

What changes might you make in your life in order to be a part of helping make the world more life-giving to your neighbors?

For Further Reading:

Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science

Revkin, Andrew C. Tracing the Roots of Pope Francis’s Climate Plans for 2015

Palmer, Parker J. Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold

Blanchard, Kathryn D. and Kevin J. O’Brien. An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014.

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