Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis
Reviewed by Alice L. Laffey, Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross
In the past 35 years this reviewer has read many books in the field of biblical studies and many books on the environment. There has been an occasional book that has combined biblical studies and the environmental crisis, but these usually have been either simplistic (on the way to literalist or fundamentalist) or unbalanced and disjointed (too much Bible with too little environment or too little Bible with too much environment, and very little connection between the two). None, to my knowledge, has done what Moo and White set out to accomplish: to face the environmental crisis of the twenty-first century head on, no sugar-coating, as well-educated global citizens, but also to transcend its “depressing data” with a competent approach to the good news that is the gospel.
The book’s intended audience is intelligent Christians who take their faith seriously. No information is watered down but all information is presented in a clear, inviting, and easily understandable way. The volume is divided into nine chapters, with a Preface and an Afterward. Chapters 1 and 8 might seem to form an inclusio, both dealing with Apocalypse, yet while chapter 1 asks realistically, because of the enormity of environmental degradation, if the present is moving quickly toward the end, chapter 8 interprets the biblical book of Revelation as the renewal of all things. Chapters 2 and 3, “Life on Earth Today” and “Global Climate Change,” do not shrink from providing devastating information regarding the state of the earth and lay at the foot of human beings a hefty share of responsibility for its deterioration. Chapter 4 posits the gospel, despite the state of the earth, as the reason for our hope. God sent Jesus who lived, suffered, and died to redeem humankind, but Jesus triumphed over death in His resurrection. He is the reason for our hope. Each of the following chapters – 5, 6, 7, and 8 – focus on at least one passage from the Gospel to show how it affirms our reason to hope. Chapter 5, “Bringing New Testament Hope Down to Earth,” focuses primarily on Romans 8; chapter 6, “Cosmic Catastrophe?,” on 2 Peter 3; chapter 7, “Jesus, a Thief in the Night and the Kingdom of God,” on Luke 12, and chapter 8, “Revelation and the Renewal of All Things,” on Revelation 18-22. Finally, chapter 9, “Finding Joy in an Active and Living Hope” brings together the content and emphases of the other chapters – the environmental crisis and the good news of the gospel – to focus on what it means to live in the present toward the future. Grounded in Jesus’ triumph over death as the source of our hope, Christians are called to confront the sin of the present, to live the already in the not yet, to reject the cultural pressures toward excessive consumption, and to embrace with gratitude and awe all of God’s creation.
Chapter 1 serves as an Introduction. It sets forth “the state of the question” as the authors see it. They appear to concur with Martin Rees, a former president of the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, who suggested “that there is only a 50 percent chance that civilization as we know it will make it through the present century” (12). His prediction is dire and can easily give way to depression and despair. Yet Moo and White assert that the purpose of their efforts is “to help readers understand why scientists are making such apparently radical claims” (the content of chapters 2 and 3) and “to help readers consider how Christians might respond if we take seriously what the Bible has to say about the gospel and the future of life on earth” (12; chaps. 4-9). The most common responders to the information provided in chapters 2 and 3 are: 1) those who ignore the severity of the reality for whom the crisis does not really exist!; 2) those who know something is going on but who are not really sure what to make of it; 3) those who deny that there is a problem; 4) those who recognize the problem and who look to the natural sciences to solve it; 5) those who understand the enormity of the problem and consequently despair; 6) those who believe that the world as we know it will end but who are hopeful of some new beginning, and finally 7) those who support what Moo and White call “a distinctly Christian response” (18). The remainder of the book lays out this response.
Chapters 2 and 3 are filled with well-documented data that make the case for the recent and unprecedented destruction of the earth: “Those living in the United Kingdom are using nearly three times the ecological capacity per capita of the earth as a whole; in the United States the excess usage is even higher, more than four times the earth’s capacity” (23). The chapter considers population growth, diminishing biodiversity, water as a finite resource, the increase of nitrogen, changes in food production and distribution as well as land usage. Chapter 3 focuses specifically on global climate change. It charts the decline in Arctic Sea ice, explains the cause of greenhouse warming and suggests likely temperature change. The chapter then explains “tipping points,” when “a small perturbation is capable of driving rapid change” (72). The chapter then tries to answer two questions: Are there technological solutions to climate change and why is it so difficult to make changes?
Interwoven among the more scientific content of these two chapters are efforts to contextualize the information within Christian belief and practice:
- “From a Christian perspective … we have been set the task as God’s image bearers to care for his creation, to be vicegerents in its governance on his behalf.” (36)
- “Scripture sets out clearly the way in which human behavior has the potential either to enhance or to harm and even destroy the very environment in which we live. It warns us against the folly of presuming that the earth is limitless or that God would not allow us to suffer the consequences of our poor treatment of his creation….” (53)
This reviewer is ambivalent about the interjections. They are probably as well integrated as it is possible to make them, yet they seem like “pious preaching” set in the midst of scientific analysis. On the other hand, they serve as a foreshadowing of what is to come, a very serious analysis of biblical texts that undergirds the book’s argument and is also an expression of Moo and White’s faith: the kerygma of Christianity, that Jesus lived, suffered, died and rose from the dead is the broader and appropriate context for believing Christians both to do and receive scientific analysis. While “Christians have hope for a future that does not depend on us saving the planet” (79), neither can we forego responsibility and action.
If we are truly to love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus commanded us to do, then those of us in the high-income countries that historically have caused global climate change through our emissions of greenhouse gases have to take account of the effect of our actions on our neighbors and on all of life on earth. (79)
Romans 8, a major focus of chapter 5, asserts that all creation, not just human beings, is the object of God’s care and concern.
Creation waits with eager longing. … Creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but of the will of the one who subjected it … creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. (excerpted from 18-22)
Like us, creation is now suffering, but also like us, creation has reason to hope.
In contrast to Romans 8, 2 Peter 3 (chapter 6) is rarely part of the conversation on the environment. And yet, Moo and White rightly note that this “dramatic portrayal of the coming of God to his creation is meant … to transform the way we live and act in the world today” (119).
2 Peter challenges us to resist the temptation of buying into our culture’s idolatrous exaltation of individual liberty above all else – above the claims of other human individuals and the claims of nonhuman creation, the less powerful voices of all those whom our culture would urge us not to hear. (121, italics mine)
Chapter 7 takes on the unpredictable character of Christ’s coming (Luke 12). For Christians, the kingdom is already here, brought about by Christ’s victory over sin, death and evil and his resurrection. His servants are now awaiting his return. In this in-between time, Jesus’ followers are called to watchfulness and readiness. We are called to “responsible, selfless, stewardship of all that has been entrusted to us” (134). Today such stewardship requires a recognition that what “in former times appeared morally neutral – what we eat, what sort of home we live in, how we keep warm, where and how we dispose of our garbage, how we get around – [is] now fraught with moral weight” (135-136).
Chapter 8’s focus is the book of Revelation. The challenge for John’s readers was to “refuse to worship the idols of the empire and keep from participating in her sins and falling under the judgment that must surely befall her” (154). The text suggests that we examine our own lives, embedded as we are in consumerist cultures that depend so often on “the exploitation of people and their lands and the ruin of the earth” (154). But the text also celebrates the coming of God’s kingdom, of “a new heaven and a new earth … the future that Christ’s death and resurrection have secured” (156). Revelation provides a “fundamental consistency between this creation and the new creation, a continuity that gives us hope for the world in God’s future and challenges us to anticipate his kingdom even in how we live and care for the earth now” (158).
The final chapter of the volume brings together other important biblical texts that fill out the teaching, such as Matt 28:20, Luke 18:1.7-8, and 1 John 4:18. But the chapter also, in some sense, serves as a conclusion. “Love and joy are the marks of the radical hope of the gospel grounded in faith in Christ….Our sure and certain hope in the resurrection and the new creation does not keep us from weeping while we yet live in a world of wounds” (168, 169).
This past year I began teaching a seminar entitled “Theology and Ecology” to college seniors. If only I had read this book before now. While the reading list contains several excel- lent books, none does what this book seeks to accomplish: to present the central teachings of Christianity in such a way as to empower its readers to take responsibility for the world in which they live. It is a book about faith and it is a book about the right ordering of creation in the twenty-first century. It is a book all Christians need to read.