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Considering What’s at Stake in Creation’s Deterioration

The recent papal encyclical, subtitled “On Care for our Common Home,” invites the global church and other interested persons of good will to consider what is at stake in the deterioration of the environment, especially the human roots of the ecological crisis.

The rich teaching tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, expressly drawing from the tradition of St. Francis, urges us all to a new level of communion with creation.

In this brief reflection, I will highlight key theological themes threaded throughout this compact call to a new horizon of ecological justice.

Deftly engaging scientific perspectives, Pope Francis calls for a conversion of the heart from negligible regard for an expendable environment to respect for the interdependence of all the biodiversity of God’s handiwork.

Indeed, the language of “sister” and “mother” in describing the abuse of creation reminds us of the rank disordering caused by patriarchal subjugation.

While lauding what technology can help achieve, there is a palpable wariness about its capacity to distance humanity from creation and from one another.

The objectifying of creation makes it vulnerable to special economic interests, with little regard for indigenous ways of living in closer harmony.

Warning against the distractions of the digital culture, the document summons contemporary persons to be attentive to what is transpiring in climate change, extinction of species, and the “destination of goods,” which privileges the few.

Further, many lose their vocations due to “technological progress,” and the erosion of social capital marginalizes the poorest.

A consumerist vision of human beings, “encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy,” is decimating the uniqueness of cultures and their particular connection to their local environment. The quality of human life in those contexts is impoverished.

There is a perceptive theological anthropology at work in this teaching. The life of every living thing matters, and while humans are imbedded in nature – not apart from it – they bear particular responsibility as God’s agent of justice.

This leads to the critical focus of the document: the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are linked inextricably.

When those created in the image of God abdicate their divine mandate to care for the earth and prefer to serve the interests of a “deified market,” the rupture of sin triumphs and a “tyrannical anthropology” ensues.

A robust pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) suffuses this document. The Spirit is God’s vibrant presence, and she continuously births creation toward its divine purpose.

Evoking new possibilities out of the nexus of materials God has brought into being, the Spirit displays creation as the art of God.

Creation is not divine, yet God’s intimate concern and mindfulness of it beckons our praise; indeed, we praise God, “Laudato Sí,” through its luminous design.

In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, and the gaze of Jesus grants dignity to all that is.

His wonder at the beauty of the natural world is compelling, and following his example would allow humanity to find their rightful place in the paschal rhythms of God’s economy.

The focus on incarnation both elevates the human responsibility in creation and warns against misguided anthropocentrism.

Humans cannot claim to be persons of faith if there is not concern about the impact of our patterns of living upon future generations and the kind of ecological home they will inherit.

In a sense, the encyclical humanizes the “eschaton” (the final stage of human history) and squarely places the responsibility for leaving an inhabitable planet on us.

The only apocalyptic threat is what we ourselves are causing, not some destructive act of God. In this analysis, we see the relative independence God has granted creation and the humans that steward it.

The encyclical is rife with concrete action steps that can retard our spiral to self-destruction, but more than policy decisions are needed, rather “ecological conversion” is required.

The rich heritage of Christian spirituality can “motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world.”

The tradition of St. Francis, with his profound communion with creation, offers powerful wisdom for our day. We can be converted to his tenderness toward all living things and humbly receive this creation as God’s loving gift.

Christian spirituality is anchored chiefly in the sacrament of Eucharist in Roman Catholic tradition.

While Baptists do not share the philosophical framework that undergirds transubstantiation, we could profit from a closer connection between this table and all tables.

Recognizing that in this meal, known to most Protestants as the Lord’s Supper, nature is taken up by God as a means of reconciliation, and Christ comes from within our material world, we understand the lyrical harmony God purposes.

The summative conclusion of the teaching is the communion of the Holy Trinity with the world.

The self-giving relations of God model how we should live for the sake of others in our common home so that together we might set the groaning creation free.

Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) in Shawnee, Kansas. Her writings can also be found on her blog, Trinitarian Soundings. You can follow CBTS on Twitter @CBTSKansas.

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment. Previous articles in the series are:

5 Observations from Pope’s Encyclical on Creation Care

Few Baptist Voices Join Global Discussion on Papal Encyclical

Pope Offers Clear Biblical Mandate to Care for Creation

4 Ways Pope Calls Us to Reimagine Creation

5 Ways Your Church Can Care for Creation – Right Now

How Will Seminaries Respond to Pope’s Climate Call?

Papal Encyclical Should Embolden Pro-Environment Voices