The following is an interview with Jonathan Moo, a Theology professor at Whitworth University who specializes in New Testament, ecology and environmental studies, science and faith, early Judaism, book of Revelation and apocalyptic literature.” The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Siobhan McDonough: In a few sentences, could you summarize what a Christian’s ideal relationship with non-human creation is, and what verses/passages best inform this theology?
Jonathan Moo: I think the reason Christians care for creation can be summarized by loving God and loving our neighbor, and in the process discovering who we were created to be. If we love God we love what He values and cares for, and in scripture, particularly Psalm 104 and Job, we see a God who loves and cares in creation, even those who are far from us. God delights in creation; if we read right to the end of the Bible he has a future in his purposes.
Secondly, we can’t love our neighbors unless we love the world of which they are a part, and the least able to adapt are the most affected by current challenges regarding life on earth. The most obvious example of this is climate change, in which those of us who have benefitted the most from fossil fuels are for the moment suffering the least from these effects. The most affected are people in the majority of the world who have fewer resources and are less able to adapt to droughts and changes in weather patterns, sea rise.
I teach often on environmental issues, so I am reminded, but even I am so insulated from the effects. When I go and visit a country or am at a conference with brothers and sisters from Peru, Central African Republic, or Central Asia – places where people are more dependent on land and dependent on the vagaries of weather – people are already suffering in many ways from the effects of changing climate; they’re looking to the Western church and asking why we do not care for them and the earth they are part of which they need to thrive and live. The Gospel is all of life and so has to involve caring for other people’s needs and the earth of which they are part. This includes welcoming the stranger, which is one of the traditional Christian virtues. Will we be prepared to invite refugees? The refugee crisis in Syria has environmental factors involved. Part of the complex of factors involved was a long-standing drought.
Finally, we are given rule over other creatures, and we have responsibility other creatures don’t have for their care. In Genesis 2, we see that humans are put in the garden of Eden to serve it; caring for the garden was our first vocation. In the incarnation God takes up the material stuff of this world to redeem it. Christ lays down his life, and there is a restoration of the world as priests and kings in Revelation, those who are able to mediate God’s blessings on creation in a particular way. Creation praises God by being itself. In Psalm 148 – all of creation praises God and humans are invited to join in. Christianity is deeply concerned with the material, real stuff of this earth. The biblical account suggests we explore and delight in God’s creation in itself. So care of creation is not just a difficult and burdensome duty, but a way to find what it is to be truly God’s children and delight in what He has made.
SM: You write [in a preview chapter of an upcoming book] that it is not because of instrumentality to ecology or food systems that the author of Psalm 104 celebrates creatures and earthquakes, but “It is rather because the psalmist has a vision of the creator and sustainer God that is expansive enough to encompass the whole of reality . . . a stance of humility and awe before God and his creation that will foster discernment and wisdom and enable us to embrace even that which we do not understand” (Creation Care pp. 19). Could you expand on what that means, particularly in the psalmist’s view of “natural disasters”?
JM: One of the things I was really struck by as I worked through Scripture for this book, is that even the parts of the world we are tempted to think are bad – because they can have bad impacts on human life and thriving as unintended effects – nonetheless, in the book of Job and Psalm 104, we see the world is wilder than we even can imagine and that God delights in that wildness. Job is confronted with creatures he can never understand fully; there is a deep mystery in the way they live. There is a description of lions and their prey in Psalm 104, and lions are an existential threat to life in this context. It’s somewhat remarkable that the psalmist can look at lions here and see them as part of God’s work. There are descriptions of God touching the mountains and they smoke – God is actively causing volcanoes and earthquakes; they are not part of the fall. Scientifically, volcanoes are parts of the fruits of the earth; they create soils to grow food. All wild parts of the world are part of God’s goodness, and the mystery of why they are the way they are impacts human life; God is the God who wipes every tear from our eyes. We’re encouraged to say we can’t fully understand all of the wide, vast world which God has made.
SM: On a similar note, how are we to see the predation and earthquakes and darkness and sea praised in Psalm 104, in light of the fact that, eventually, these things are not part of the new creation in Revelation? Why is Eden different from the New Creation, and does its juxtaposition affect the way Christians should relate to the environment?
JM: Two things: first, when we think about how we live in the world, we live in an overlap of the ages. The new creation has broken in Christ, but that doesn’t mean we live in full realization of new heavens and new earth. We wait and long for the return of Christ and need to reclaim the seriousness of the creation context. As an obvious example, Jesus tells us there will be no marriage in heaven, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think marriage right now isn’t important. We live in the order of creation God has set up, we don’t already live in resurrected bodies. So there is a tension between the already and not yet of Christ’s kingdom. We need to celebrate when scripture celebrates God’s creation as it is now. We need to recognize brokenness in all relationships, in a world where people often experience these things as suffering – for example, when an earthquake hits a country with a lack of resources and corruption, people get crushed by buildings – we mourn that evil and pray for Christ to come and make all things right.
There is an irreducible mystery to the new Creation. All texts regarding new creation have to portray a picture where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We cannot interpret this as if we know just what it will look like. In the Isaiah text with wolf and lamb, it may well be the case that predation is gone, but this also represents peaceful harmony: domestic and wild not being at odds with each other, and we can’t know what this looks like. We do know it is a making of all things new, not all new things, all things finding their final purpose in Christ, which we are given a beautiful picture of in Revelation 21-22. We can’t say “because of their effects, these things are evil and part of the fall;” if the rest of Scripture sees them as part of God’s good world, we’re called to do that too.
SM: What are ways to put this theology of creation into practice?
JM: I use this silly acronym I came up with to remind us of how we can live differently. Are you familiar with Thoreau’s quote about how only 1 in a million people who are truly awake? So I use AWAKE from Thoreau, but also the Apostle Paul saying we should be sober and awake.
Attentiveness. Attentiveness means paying attention to the community of creation and the immediate world around us, to take up the invitation to wonder at God’s creation. As followers of the incarnate God and Christ, we should have interest and desire in the beauty and wonder around us. I live in Spokane, Washington, where it’s easy, but even here in London, I try to pay attention to landscape and creatures that make their home here, as well as humans. We all would benefit in all sorts of ways by paying more attention to our creatureliness.
Walking. Deciding to walk places has a pretty obvious benefit in terms of emissions/alternative means of transport, but also helps us to be attentive to human and non-human community. My wife and I decided we would only live somewhere we would walk to campus, so we could be a more immediate part of the world. It’s become so easy for us to travel wide and far that we do it without a second thought. I use the analogy in my book that many of the things we do would’ve required hundreds of human laborers to do in the past, so we almost live like kings and queens in the past – we often forget the responsibilities that come with the opportunities we have.
Activism. As we become attentive, we will become inevitably aware of challenges. Aldo Leopold said: “one of the challenges of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.” We will become confronted with loss. To live in a broken world is to become acquainted with loss, as Jesus did.
“Konsumerism.” We can change the culture of consumption of which we are part. Consuming differently is part of this, but that can become another form of consumerism. We need to question the idea that we find joy and happiness in what we buy and find better ways of finding joy, such as deciding not to purchase, to supporting sustainable livelihoods for brothers and sisters around the world.
Eating. This is the most immediate and obvious way we are connected to the life of creation, and university students can adopt habits related to eating. We can eat with gratefulness and recognition of those who raise our food and where our food comes from. It is also a challenge to think about where our food comes from. Many of us, if we saw how animals were treated, would not be able to continue eating meat. We might also eat less meat, knowing how it affects climate change, land use, and rainforests.
All these things need to be done in the context of grace – and in the fallen world where perfect can be the enemy of the good – in a way that honours brothers and sisters and Christ. For those who are preaching the Gospel, they can recapture the cosmic scope of the Gospel, how creation is related to new creation – salvation is not just an existential matter between me and God, but salvation is in the context of him reclaiming the whole world for himself, where the world’s breadth and depth influences all of life. This idea holds beauty and power for non-Christian friends and captures their imagination. In the whole New Testament, when Paul is preaching to non-Christians, he always begins by preaching about God, the creator of all things.
SM: Theology regarding ecology is not a focus at many churches and is even controversial in some circles: why do you think this is? How much of a priority do you think the environment should be for Christians?
JM. There is more than one cause: the first, I think, is that separation, Cartesian dualism, and spiritualization has taken place in parts of Christianity, divorcing the concerns of Christianity from the world. In response to the liberal ideology of the social gospel, which focuses on human needs and not Scripture and Christ, in some ways giving up the centrality of the Gospel, there has been a reaction of giving up the world entirely and only focusing on the existential relationship with Christ.
In the U.S. particularly, evangelicals became very wedded to a political ideology that affirmed some things (morality, religious freedom), but then were so influenced by the rest of Republican ideology (individual liberty, free markets, controlling corporate interests), that those things came to influence Christian ideology more than vice versa. So in recent times this has led to denying climate change and policies regarding it.
Christians should be a prophetic voice in whatever political party they are a part of and always be attentive to being captured by our culture.
Siobhan McDonough ’17 was a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House and was the former Editor-in-Chief for the Ichthus.