Eschatology and the Promise and Care of Creation
We are experiencing a moment of crisis, in which you might say creation is groaning. Could a pandemic like COVID-19 be a reminder of our deep connection to the world around us? This virus is new. It is a product of evolution. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t speak to the intricacies of the virus, so I will leave it to them to speak in more detail. What is interesting about this moment in time is that while we hunker down nature is blossoming. The skies are clearer. I read that in the Yosemite Valley, now that visitors are banned, coyotes, bears, and other animals that normally live on the margins are coming out into the open. Could this be a reminder of our impact on nature? I doubt that climate change deniers will be convinced, but maybe at least some who’ve wavered might recognize our human impact on nature.
I was going to write a response to those who continue to play down the consequences of this pandemic, but then as I was thinking about Sunday’s sermon, which will look at the creation story as told in Genesis 1 as part of an Earth Day emphasis. With that in mind, I took a look at a chapter in John Haught’s book God After Darwin. Brett drew my attention to the book in our conversation about a paper he is writing that is comparing Haught’s attempt to bring together faith and science with an atheistic philosopher who seeks to use Darwinian evolutionary theory as a lens to view everything, including religion. I’m not going to get into that debate, but more specifically, in terms of this post, Brett noted Haught’s emphasis on ecology and its relationship to eschatology. Since I’ve been working on a project that will explore eschatology, and with a sermon focused on ecology, it seemed appropriate to read the chapter on ecology.
So, in this post, I want to emphasize a couple of paragraphs from Haught’s book that speaks to the relationship of Eschatology and Ecology. I know that there are Christians, including pastors, who shy away from any talk about eschatology. This is due in large part to the belief that eschatological talk demonstrates a lack of interest in the world as it stands. It’s true that some forms of eschatology are otherworldly and undermine concern about life in the present and in this earthly realm. We have seen many examples of this, including political leaders who use apocalyptic theology to justify the overconsumption of nature’s raw materials and downplay climate change, because Jesus is coming back soon, and so why worry about life way down the road. It’s sort of an apocalyptic version of Epicureanism. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. That is not the way I understand eschatology.
If we understand eschatology as a theological way of envisioning the future, then we might think in terms of evolution as a process that carries within itself the divine promise that is moving toward God’s future. This is the way John Haught expresses it:
Eschatology, in its deepest and widest meaning, adds up to the good news that a splendid fulfillment awaits the entire universe. The divine promise first announced to Abraham is extended not only to the "people of God" but also, if we listen to St. Paul in Romans 8:22, to the "whole creation." Any ecological theology failing to root itself in this cosmic eschatological vision, that is, in faith's sense that God's promise covers the whole evolutionary sweep of creation, is incomplete and only tangentially biblical. [John F. Haught. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Kindle Locations 2063-2066). Kindle Edition.]
In Haught’s eschatological vision of creation, the process of evolution holds within itself the seeds of something that at this point remains incomplete, but which is moving toward some form of completion, though whether or not we ever reach a point of completion is another story. But he makes the point that if we despoil nature we are putting a barrier in the way of that movement toward the fulfillment of the divine promise that as noted here was given to Abraham and has been extended to the whole of creation, as revealed by Paul in Romans 8.
Haught speaks of a sacramental understanding of nature, which has the potential to inform a deep valuing of nature as an expression of God, but he also feels as if this is insufficient to the task at hand. So, he writes further:
This means that the whole of nature and its evolution are essentially inseparable from promise. Indeed, in a literal sense, the evolving world is promise. And if through faith we can interpret the totality of nature as a great promise, we may learn to treasure it not simply for its sacramental transparency to God but also because it carries in its present perishable glory the seeds of a final, eschatological flowering. Hence, by allowing the embryonic future to perish now at the hands of our own ecological carelessness and selfishness we not only violate nature's sacramental bearing but also turn away from the promise that lies embedded in all of creation. When we interpret the evolving universe in terms of a properly biblical framework, then our ecological neglect is fundamentally an expression of despair. [John F. Haught. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Kindle Locations 2066-2070). Kindle Edition.]
As I read this, in light of the original calling of humanity to be stewards of creation (Genesis 1:26), what I heard is that we have a choice here. We can participate in God’s future by taking care of creation, or we can subvert that promise. Earth Day, which is a week away, was first observed fifty years ago as a response to a major oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel that polluted the waters and beaches of Santa Barbara (a community in which we lived for a decade). If eschatology, as a theological category, speaks to how we understand the future, then as Haught writes, “by allowing the embryonic future to perish now at the hands of our ecological carelessness and selfishness” we “turn away from the promise that lies embedded in all of creation.” We all have a role to play in making sure that this divine promise of creation is not neglected, but is allowed to flourish, at least in terms of our interaction with creation. This is rooted in an eschatological vision of God’s future, toward which God would have us move. The choice is ours!