Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Resurrection and the community of shalom

Resurrection and the community of shalom


Presentation 2.pdf


This is the final week of our series, The Spirituality of the Earth.  In the first session we explored the Hebrew Wisdom tradition, and the Christian identification of Jesus as the Wisdom of God, and I suggested that Wisdom spirituality provides a framework of virtues for an ecological age.  Last week we explored the language of Biblical apocalyptic, particularly the lurid visions of St John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation, and I suggested that apocalyptic imagery provided an appropriate language for a theology of climate crisis, with its sense both of existential crisis and finalism, or the drawing of all things to their true created purpose.  I suggested that an ecotheological apocalyptic provided a sharp challenge to the Church to live out its true vocation of solidarity with creation.  You may however have been left with more questions than answers: Where are we heading?  And what should we do?  I suggest the answer lies in the Bible's great tale of paradise lost and creation restored. 
My aim for the series was that each of us would come away with a specifically Christian way to reflect on the challenge of climate change – a theology that refuses to minimise the risk to God's creation but that is capable of articulating hope.  The hope that is crucial for an ecotheology needs above all to be grounded in resurrection, and so my aim for this evening's session is that we will be able to identify a way of talking about the resurrection of Christ that grounds our life as a Christian community that is capable of living the way of shalom for all creation. 
We begin by tracing some connections between the Biblical theme of shalom and the Hebrew Wisdom tradition.  If shalom is God's dream for the Earth, then Wisdom spirituality is the human venture of living into our true selves as creatures made in God's image, and Wisdom ecclesiology is a way for the Church to fulfil its prophetic vocation in an age of ecological crisis.
The second part of our reflection this evening is a tale of two gardens - more precisely following Bonaventure I draw Eden together with Gethsemene, and the garden of the new tomb where Mary meets the risen Lord together with Isaiah's vision of a restored creation.  The first couplet represents the sixth day of creation - a day of decision and temptation, not to mention grief and loss for a humanity challenged to grow up to its co-creative responsibilities.  The second couplet is the first day of creation, and the first day of creation restored.  I offer here some tentative suggestions for an ecotheology of resurrection, with a vision of shalom in creation.

Shalom theology

The tale of two gardens is the story of God's dream for a creation of shalom - that rich mixture of righteousness and justice, wholeness and mutuality that runs like a sustaining stream through the Hebrew Bible and into the Christian scriptures.  Terry McGonigal points out that although the Hebrew word shalom and its Greek counterpart eirene occur over 550 times in the Bible, there has been no systematic development of a theology of shalom.  His paper explores the Biblical concept of shalom as peace within diversity or 'the way God designed the universe to be'.[1]
McGonigal traces the major themes of shalom from the divine act of creation itself in which the prerequisites for shalom are : 'order, relationships, stewardship, beauty and rhythm'.[2] The pattern of creation sets everything in its proper place and relationship, humankind is established in a particular relationship with the non-human creation, and relations between male and female are mutually completing.  The human creatures are placed in a special relationship through their imaging of the divine, but this implies a balance between human autonomy and dependence on the creator.[3]  The response of the man and woman to each other is intended to reflect 'God's own nature in shalom relationships'.  Human responsibility for creation is contained in two instructions, with the command to subdue and dominate in Gen 1.28-30 (Heb kabash, radah) being balanced by the instruction in 2.8 to till and to serve (Heb ebed) and in 2.15 to watch or protect (Heb shamar). McGonigal comments that the humans are intended to 'partner with the Creator ... to watch over creation like parents watch over, guard and protect their newborn child'.[4]  Themes of beauty are made specific in God's rejoicing at the outcome of the creative task (Gen 1.31 'it was very good' - Heb tov me'od).  McGonigal comments:
According to God's design, each and every part of creation is distinct, interconnected and interdependent.  God's separating-binding process results in creation's distinctiveness and connection: shalom beauty.[5] 
The rhythms of creation are set by the creation of time and the separation into the natural rhythms of day and night.  All this is what McGonigal describes as a 'webbing together' of God's own life with the life of creation in a mutual rhythm of 'justice, fulfilment and delight'.  Shalom, he concludes, is 'the way things are meant to be'.[6]
For McGonigal, what happens next is the breaking of shalom and the distortion of the web of creation, and the painful process of restoration that depends on God's capacity to transform human evil and separation.[7]  Through the narratives of the Fall, the first murder, the Flood and the tragedy of Babel, McGonigal describes a sort of see-sawing contest between the destructive ethnocentricity of humans who test the limits of their created condition, and God's efforts to restore the web of shalom relationships.  McGonigal traces the contest between divine shalom and human self-centredness through the narratives of Exodus and the history of the monarchy. 
It is however in the prophets, and most particularly in Isaiah, that McGonigal sees the consistent human effort to remember – and to remember forwards to - God's template of shalom for all creation. The book of Isaiah contains nearly half of all the instances of shalom and its cognates in the prophetic literature.  From the outset Isaiah has a vision not only of the moral and military precipice upon which Israel teeters, but also of the alternative vision of shalom that he emphasises:
Can only be received from God, not manufactured by human effort.  Isaiah see Israel as a vineyard tended by God, whose gracious care brings forth shalom (27:5).  The people know that their flourishing is the result of God's work among them.  "O Lord, you will ordain shalom for us, for indeed all that we have done, you have done for us" (26:12).[8]
Isaiah uniquely proclaims not only that shalom is God's original intention for creation, but that shalom is God's promise of creation restored.  And this promise is woven into Isaiah's Suffering Servant predictions which underpin Israel's expectation of a messiah.  We will return to Isaiah, and to Isaiah's most famous image of shalom in his vision of creation restored in chapter 11, in the second part of this evening's reflection, 'a tale of two gardens'.

A tale of two gardens

With the first few words of St John's Gospel we know that we are witness to a grand vision of the cosmos itself.  In making the startling claim that Jesus is nothing less than the Word and Wisdom of God, the Word breathed over the chaos of precreation and divine Wisdom who pitches her tent and makes her home with human beings, the Evangelist establishes creation as the arena of God's concern and saving action.  Through the subversive language of Hebrew Wisdom theology, the Evangelist recasts the first chapter of Genesis and interprets the event of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in nothing less than universal terms.  As Orthodox theology emphasises, the Incarnation affirms materiality and makes our humanity holy.[9] 
The Evangelist's orientation towards the second chapter of Genesis is less obvious, but can be read in his tales of two gardens.  Both, I suggest, represent the garden of creation itself, and should be read in tandem with the archetypal gardens of the Hebrew Bible.
The primal garden is of course Eden, which represents the tension between God's dream of creation in harmony and the human will to power.  Things go awry because of our deep-down desire to make the world around us conform to our own fantasies of control.  Eat this, and you'll know what's going on.  Except when they eat it, all the Bible's first humans see clearly is their own nakedness, their vulnerability and transparency.
Next we come to the Isaianic garden of shalom.  The most familiar image of peace in Isaiah (11:6-9) is a reconciliation of opposites: wild and domesticated animals, predator and prey all live together in peace and are led by a small (human) child.  The child who plays over the snake-hole exhibits casual superiority over the usurper of Eden, protecting as well as leading.  The animals themselves are all vegetarian ('the lion shall eat straw like the ox').   Commentator Gene Tucker points out this is not a vision of nature but of a natural world made safe by and for human beings because the emphasis is on the safety of the domesticated animals and it is the predators who in fact must change their ways.  The absence of birds and fish from the new order, and the fact that even the most vulnerable of humans is able to lead and control the animals makes clear that this is a pastoral scene, rather than a natural landscape.[10] Whether or not the vegetarianism of the animals is also practised by the human curators may be debatable; however vegetarianism seems to have been the order in Eden and it is only after the Flood that God specifically allows the eating of animals, and even then only after apparently conceding powerlessness over human destructive violence.[11]
Nevertheless, the child of Isaiah 11.6-9 fulfils the human vocation of care and protection given in Eden.  The Isaianic vision of shalom is no return to Eden, but the peace of reconciliation on the other side of judgement which for Isaiah is characterised as the Day of the Lord.[12]  This is a vision, in other words, not of an original ideal creation but of creation and human life restored to its true vocation.  It cannot, in fact, be a vision of a 'wild planet' so long as it has a human population, and relations between human and animal life, particularly domestic animals, are necessarily structured by the human vocation and will to be co-creative partners with God.  Isaiah's picture of creation at peace is of human beings fulfilling their original purpose of being custodians and protectors of creation rather than predators and plunderers.  The echoes of Eden are there, but this is the peace not of naïve innocence but of reconciliation.  The human curators model the virtues of restraint and self-limitation.  It is an ecological rather than an individualistic image of human life.
Tucker makes another vital point regarding this passage, which is that it is part of a longer pericope spanning Isaiah 11.1-9, the first five verses of which present a vision of shalom in the sociopolitical sphere characterised by a ruler with practical wisdom, diplomacy and reverence. Although the use of this sort of language does not necessarily mark the passage as Wisdom writing, it is nevertheless intriguing that the characteristics of the idealised ruler here are precisely those of the sage.   What connects this with the vision of natural predators at peace in vv. 6-9, Tucker points out, is the single word that does not actually appear at all in Isaiah 11.1-9: shalom: 'The rule of justice in human society is followed or paralleled by a transformation in the relationship among animals and between animals and human beings'.[13]  Here the intriguing connection between wisdom and shalom becomes apparent: if shalom is God's priority and promise for creation then wisdom is the human choice that is congruent with God's promise.
And so to the Gospel.  The first of the Evangelist's gardens is Gethsemene, the garden in which Jesus faces his fears and temptations - but unlike the first humans in Eden, resists the desire for self-serving control.  Gethsemene in effect may be seen as the recapitulation of the temptation of Eden.  Both gardens represent the sixth day of creation - Eden with its newly-minted human curators facing their fatal challenge, and Jesus alone with the shifting shadows, with his fears and the half-heard voices at the beginning of the sixth day of his final week.[14]  As in Eden the temptation is presented in the form of a desirable fruit, conversely in Gethsemene the temptation is to refuse the cup of suffering.  Jesus knows that his life can only unfold as it should in dependence on the one he calls his Father, and so he dies as he has lived, forgiving and loving those who have rejected him.  Jesus here is practising the priority of relationship that we call self-giving love.
The second garden for the Evangelist is the garden of the new tomb, the cave of Joseph of Arimathea.  This garden is not so much described as suggested – a place of silence and rest for Holy Saturday on which, as the medieval theologians suggested, the creative Word of God was so hidden in death that all creation must have slept, or at the least walked in its sleep, grieving and purposeless.  This is the seventh day of creation, the day on which God also rests.[15]  
But as the night of the seventh day draws to its close a new cycle is beginning.  The first day of the week, which in the Hebrew calendar corresponds to the first day of creation, becomes the day of resurrection.  A woman walks at first light across the damp grass of the garden carrying gifts for a dead lover, and finds nothing but an inexplicable absence.  The stone has been rolled away, appearing at first like a desecration even in death – she calls her companions who come and confirm the mystery.  But then Mary does see clearly when she sees the one she supposes to be the gardener, because that in a sense is exactly who he is.[16]  This is a renewed creation and it begins with a man and a woman standing together in a new garden.[17] 
For Luke, Matthew and John the resurrection appearances of Jesus are not over-spiritualised.  He speaks words of forgiveness, touches and allows himself to be touched, lights a fire on a beach, eats with his friends.  If the crucified Jesus conjoins the opposites of hatred and forgiveness, death and life, suffering and love, then the Risen One opens the way to a possible future with the single word.  The risen Christ greets his disciples on more than one occasion with the words, 'peace be with you' (eirene).  In this encounter the world is remade.  The resurrection is the final coincidentia oppositorum by which God commits Godself to creation as the arena of divine self-disclosure and saving action.  Resurrection is God's commitment to the life of creation, and the encounter through which God draws us to the fullness of life for which we were created.  The garden of the new tomb, in which Mary encounters the risen Christ on the first day of the week, or the first day of a new creation, is the garden of shalom that we have already encountered in Isaiah chapter eleven.
Specifically, in John the Evangelist's timetable, what is created on the first day is the beloved community.  Following his greeting to the traumatised disciples the Risen One breathes on them, saying 'receive the Holy Spirit'.[18]  The breath which is also spirit (pneuma) recalls the spirit or breath (ruach) of God that hovers over the chaos of precreation on the first day in Gen 1.2.  In both cases we are witness to the primal creative Word of God.  In conferring the breath of the Holy Spirit the Risen One draws the community of shalom into the triune life of God.  It is in this act that we experience all things made new, and it remains only for the community (which we identified in Week Two as the martyrios or witnesses to the work of creation) to fulfil its vocation as an icon of God's own life.

4 Conclusion: Shalom and Wisdom

How, then, shall we live?  More relevantly, what is the challenge for the life and witness of the Church in an age of ecological crisis?  Over three weeks I have suggested an answer in two parts: firstly, that the existential crisis of climate change requires of the Church nothing less than the faithful commitment to recapitulate in its own witness the saving work of Jesus.  Specifically, the vocation of the Church is to witness to the divine work of creation, and to stand in solidarity with a creation that in its suffering reveals the suffering of the Crucified Christ.  Invoking the language of apocalypse means acknowledging not only the existential risk to the living systems of the Earth (which are the creative self-disclosure of God), but the reality that the eschaton of a creation at peace can only be reached through the faithful witness of the martyrios.  This ups the ante for a Church who never seems quite sure whether it is up to God, or up to us.
The second part of the answer I have suggested is that the story of the Earth and the divine commitment to creation is woven into the central Christian narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection.  This reveals creation as the locus of God's own life and the inescapable context within which the Christian community strives to live out its commitment to the kingdom of God.  We are reminded that our created context, and our relationships with the Earth and its living systems, are not optional extras but the core both of our being and of our Christian kerygma.  The resurrection is revealed as a narrative of hope not just for human followers of Christ but for the whole of creation, and the community of Christ is revealed as an icon of God's own life and a co-creative partner with God.  This reminds us that our task is simply to live faithfully into the reality of the kingdom that the death and resurrection of Christ has already accomplished.
The challenge, then, is simply to take our vocation and our identity seriously.  If as a Christian community our own life flows out of the triune life of God, then we must love what God loves.  If creation is not just a commodity but the self-expressive Word of God then the ethic of reciprocity taught by Jesus needs necessarily to be drawn more widely.  The Christian community must become more inclusive, like the Ark; a shelter and a transformative space for all species.  The virtue of restraint, long taught by environmental groups, becomes the Golden Rule that binds us together not just with fellow humans but with all life.[19]  We are challenged to develop, and to rejoice in, a spirituality of the physical; celebrating the goodness and beauty of our own bodies, and the kinship we suddenly glimpse with creatures domestic and wild, birds and fish and living systems of water and earth and air.  We become aware of the creatures that live around us, the fierceness of their desires, the poignancy of their needs and their vulnerability to our self-obsession.  We reconsider our own use of animal bodies and of the natural resources and habitat they need in order to live - not for the sake of conservation, not even because of the needs of future generations of humans, but simply because of the delight and the love God feels for all that lives.[20]  We remember that our original vocation is to serve and nurture (ebed) and not to plunder and consume.
The community of shalom is the community that delights in Wisdom.  We recognise the Earth as our teacher and understand that in its rhythms we feel the murmuring of God's own life.   We understand that to flow into the current of God's life is to live in harmony with the natural world, and that to take for ourselves without thought for creation is to alienate ourselves from God.  This is the ethic of poverty that leaves room for the Other.  We look for ways to bring our lives into closer contact with the Earth because we have learned that by so doing we are ourselves blessed, and are formed as a community of blessing.  We build churches that incorporate environmental spaces shared by human and non-human guests.  We celebrate the goodness of creation and the wonder of all life in our liturgy and we proclaim God's love and God's promise for the whole creation.  This is the ethic of chastity, which recognises the Other not as a resource to be incorporated but as a Word of God to be attended to.
The community of shalom is the community of solidarity.  We unshackle our ecclesiology from the structures of power and commit ourselves to living out the relationship with all life for which we were originally created.  We learn to become smaller, to take up less space - imitating the way of self-emptying love that pours itself out in the primal act of creation, just as it does in the Incarnation of God's creative Word.  This is the ethic of obedience, that recognises the triune life of God as the template for our own.  We pin all our hopes on the Earth that bears the imprint of divine hope.  Apocalypse is the escalation both of risk and of love, and the hope of God for the shalom of the Earth - is incarnate in us.


Bonaventure. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Edited by Stephen Brown. Translated by Philotheus Boehner. Vol. 2. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998. http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/opera/bon05295.html.
Brown, Raymond Edward. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave; a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels Vol. 1 Vol. 1. New York [u.a.: Doubleday, 1998.
Fields, Stephen. “Balthasar and Rahner on the Spiritual Senses.” Theological Studies 57, no. 2 (1996): 224ff.
Grim, John, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Ecology and Religion. Kindle Edition. Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies. Washington: Island Press, 2014.
McGonigal, Terry. “‘If You Only Knew What Would Bring Peace’: Shalom Theology as the Biblical Foundation for Diversity.” Spokane, WA: Whitworth University, 2013. http://studentlife.biola.edu/page_attachments/0000/1395/ShalomTheology-TerryMcGonigal.pdf.
Rosik, Mariusz. “Discovering the Secrets of God’s Gardens: Resurrection as New Creation (Gen 2:4b-3:24; Jn 20:1-18).” Liber Annuus 58 (January 1, 2008): 81–98.
Tucker, Gene M. “The Book of Isaiah 1-39: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VI, 25–305. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

[1]    Terry McGonigal, “‘If You Only Knew What Would Bring Peace’: Shalom Theology as the Biblical Foundation for Diversity” (Spokane, WA: Whitworth University, 2013), 1, http://studentlife.biola.edu/page_attachments/0000/1395/ShalomTheology-TerryMcGonigal.pdf.
[2]    Ibid., 3.
[3]    Ibid.
[4]    Ibid., 4.
[5]    Ibid.
[6]    Ibid.
[7]    Ibid., 7.
[8]    Ibid., 14.
[9]    John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Ecology and Religion, Kindle Edition, Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies (Washington: Island Press, 2014), 102.
[10]  Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 141–142.
[11] Gen 1.29-30; 2.9 cf. Gen 9.2ff.
[12] Isa 2.13.
[13]  Tucker, “Isaiah 1-39,” 141.
[14]  The sixth day begins with sundown on the Thursday evening. I take my analogy from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflection on the correspondence between the six days of creation and the Triduum in Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, ed. Stephen Brown, trans. Philotheus Boehner, vol. 2, Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. (Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998), http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/opera/bon05295.html; Stephen Fields, “Balthasar and Rahner on the Spiritual Senses,” Theological Studies 57, no. 2 (1996): 224ff; Raymond Brown, in The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave; a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels Vol. 1 Vol. 1 (New York [u.a.: Doubleday, 1998) also notes that this connection is made by several of the Church Fathers and various modern commentators, though he believes there is “little in the text to encourage such speculation”.
[15]  St Bonaventure concludes his treatise, Bonaventure, Itin., vol. 2, sec. 7(6) p. 101, with the exhortation: “Let us then die and enter into this darkness.With Christ crucified let us pass out of this world to the Father.”
[16]  Just as the God who walks in Eden in the cool of the evening is the archetypal gardener.
[17]  The correspondence between the garden of the new tomb and the first day of creation is developed by Mariusz Rosik in “Discovering the Secrets of God’s Gardens: Resurrection as New Creation (Gen 2:4b-3:24; Jn 20:1-18),” Liber Annuus 58 (January 1, 2008): 81–98 More generally the correspondence is suggested simply by the day of the week on which it falls.
[18] John 20.22
[19] That is, doing to others what we wish them to do to us becomes the maxim by which we live, not just with other human beings, but with all creation.
[20] Vegetarianism, for example, becomes a serious question for all Christians.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Spirituality and the Earth Week Two: Apocalypse Now? Witnesses to a suffering creation

Slide Show
  Apocalypse Now


I began last week by talking about the urgency of the problem of climate change.  None of this is new – there were no raised eyebrows in the cathedral as I reported that the latest IPCC report by the world's top climate scientists warns we have just what's left of this decade to put some good global energy and resource habits in place in order to avert runaway global warming of the order of 4-6 degrees.[1]  The IPCC tell us in their latest report that climate change is no longer just a prediction, and they detail examples of how climate change is producing the expected changes across the planet right now.  They also warn us that unless we – which is to say all of the economies and governments, all of the world's multinational corporations – and in particular the we who represent the real problem – consumers, particularly Western consumers who typically consume the per capita equivalent of at least two planet's worth of annual capability – unless we make the rapid structural changes that are required this decade, then on the basis of today's knowledge and today's technology uncontrollable catastrophic climate change is unstoppable. Already the talk is beginning to morph into when rather than if, and the dismal reality of adaptation rather than mitigation.  But – and it's a big but – there are no guarantees that a planet warmed by 6-8 degrees can offer natural habitats for most of the species we are now familiar with, and no guarantees that agriculture and food production can be sustained at anything like the rate a 9 billion people world will require.
Last week we spoke about the Hebrew Wisdom tradition and the Wisdom tradition of Christian spirituality, and I suggested that Wisdom provides a language and a praxis for a green Christianity.  It is a spirituality that tunes us in to the Earth as the web of sustaining relationships that is the necessary context for our own lives, and that has integrity and value in and of itself.  Wisdom takes the point of view of the Other, and Wisdom sees human life as inseparable from the life of the Earth.  Wisdom gives us virtues for an ecological age, like self-limitation and relationality – and I suggested a Wisdom praxis based on love for the Earth needs also to be balanced by the Franciscan cautions of poverty (not taking what isn't really ours), chastity (seeing the Other as a unique Word of God, not as an object of our own desire), and humility (knowing the reality of our own lives as connected to the Earth).
But is any of this enough?  If we believe what we are being told by climate scientists then we are facing an existential crisis.  How can Christian theology and spirituality find an appropriate language to frame a response?
This week we engage the language of Biblical apocalyptic to find a model for speaking theologically about climate change in a way that acknowledges both risk and contingency on the one hand, and redemption and hope on the other.  Our model also provides a framework for Christian activism which is aware both of its own responsibility and the grounding of future hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  My aim for this session is that we will gain some experience in using apocalyptic language as a theological resource at the same time as recognising the dangers of an over-literal application.  I hope that in our discussion participants will be able to evaluate some proposals that come from this model.

Apocalypse now?

The Hebrew Bible offers several helpful narratives for the current crisis,[2]  perhaps most obviously in the story of the Flood and the subsequent Noahide covenant.  This narrative needs to be accessed carefully given that the Flood is sent by God as a punishment.  Problematic also for the purposes of the current ecological crisis is the fact that in the Noah cycle God changes God's mind.[3]
A more relevant question may be whether the present existential crisis invites the use of Biblical apocalyptic.  Again, we need to access the resources carefully, with consideration to the historical circumstances in which the apocalyptic narratives were written.  Every age has its own crises and challenges – I think a worthwhile analogy to the current crisis is the Black Death which struck Europe in the 14th century killing about one third of the population and driving survivors mad with fear.  Was the world ending? Many thought so, and apocalyptic cults magnified the hysteria and possibly even provided greater opportunities for the transmission of the virus.  The use of Biblical apocalyptic needs to cautious, and needs to be grounded above all the Gospel imperative of hope.
However I believe there is merit in exploring the opportunities for applying apocalyptic categories to the current crisis, for two reasons.  Firstly, because apocalyptic language is used in the Bible in relation to existential threat, and so offers starkly delineated alternatives for the future of a creation grounded in God's own life.  Secondly Biblical apocalyptic deals with questions of eschatology, or the true end of all things.  This, I believe, is an appropriate framework for a theological reflection on the choices forced upon us by climate change. 

Eschatology: A systems approach?

Differentiating between eschatology as the 'end of everything' and the 'telos, or true goal of all things', Walter Wink provides a way of thinking about the true end of institutions and systems.[4]  This is a vital distinction in the expanding frame of reference that modernity has forced upon us – and especially if we are seeking language to talk about the pull of all things towards their true identity and true purpose within this creation – rather than in some over-spiritualised heavenly dimension.  How, for example, can we meaningfully talk about the 'true end' of humankind in a 14 billion year old universe hundreds of billions of galaxies,  in a single galaxy of up to 300 billion suns, on a planet that undoubtedly will see other forms of life evolve long after our species has expired?  How long do we have to wait for all things to be gathered 'in Christ'?[5] As long as another 14 billion years?  What if there's not a 'big crunch' but a 'big freeze', and everything falls silent and speeds apart faster and faster, for ever?
The point is that eschatology at the grand or cosmic scale is eschatology trivialised.[6]  Wink takes another direction, reflecting on the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the second and third chapters of Revelation in order to develop an eschatology of institutions.  He notes that the 'angel' of an institution might be its character, or its culture, which sometimes seems independent of the individual people in it, and which may take decades or even centuries to develop.  The 'angel' of an institution is its guiding light, how it sees its purpose and how it conducts itself.  Wink comments that the 'angel' of an institution may become demonic - for example when the institution starts to behave in a way that puts its own life above those of the people it serves.  The eschaton of an institution, Wink believes, is to be recalled to its truest purpose.[7] 
This is an eschatology that discerns a movement within society, or within creation itself, that is always working to redeem institutions - nations, corporations, universities, churches - towards the truth of their own existence in relation to Christ and the world around them.  Wink's eschatological model discerns a subtle pull within creation that orients all things towards the truth, just as other forces within and outside of institutions may also be working to distort that image.  Wink's eschatological model bears a resemblance to Teilhard's force of unire, the attractional power of love that pulls creation forward in the direction of complexity-consciousness.[8]  And like Teilhard's model of Christ-Omega, Wink's suggestion also implies there is a stable point within the wider system to which a particular institution may be drawn even though other parts of the whole system may be far from their own eschatological completion.  The primary difference between Wink and Teilhard is that Teilhard takes the big picture approach and talks about the whole cosmos being drawn towards an escahtological or final fulfilment in Christ.  Wink, on the other hand, focusses on small discrete systems which have their own life-span and time frame, and proposes a model in which each is drawn in its own time to its eschatological fulfilment, which is the underlying truth of what it was created to be,  It is also worth noting that Wink doesn't focus on the individual but on the relational system or ecology within which individual lives unfold.  The point is that just as we can't live in isolation from the world around us, so to we can only grow towards our eschatological completion in company.
Wink's point may be generalised from institutions to natural systems or ecologies.  The implication is that there is an eschaton, or true vocation of any system towards which its angelos or corporate life is drawn, but this may only be revealed to the extent that the system allows itself to be conformed.  That eschaton might dance just out of reach throughout the life of a species, or an ecology - but it is nonetheless the truth towards which the entire life of the system is directed.  Sometimes the eschaton might be the distant memory of how an institution once was, or what its founders intended, and which functions as an aspiration or an ideal against which the reality is measured.  The advantage of Wink's notion is that the eschaton of an institution is essentially local and specific to the life of that system. 
It might be asked, for example, what has become of the angel of the coal industry - as it continues to extract fossil fuels despite knowing that accessible reserves are now way in excess of the amount that can be burned without breaching the 2 degree Celsius climate tipping point?  Or where is the angel of Federal Parliament - as it prepares to debate the repeal of existing carbon pollution legislation?  What is the angel of the glacial fresh water systems of Peru - a system on the brink of collapse.  Are these institutions or ecologies in tune with their true purpose?  Wink's terminology becomes a way to identify the wrongness of things and point to the truth of how they should be.
However, if the eschaton of a system or an institution is the critique of its angel from the perspective of eternity - then what if anything requires that its eschaton ever be realised?  History is replete with tragedy – indeed, that might even be its predominant genre.  Evolution is predicated on predation, suffering and extinction.  If eschatology simply tells us of the way things should be then does it have any substantive hope to offer at a time of existential crisis?  Wink's model may be overly optimistic in suggesting an inevitability that all things will be drawn to their true end, particularly when faced with an existential crisis in which the unthinkable is a realistic outcome.  Realistically, some systems must collapse, and our theology around the climate crisis must give us a way of acknowledging the true contingency of our situation.  For this, I suggest the language of apocalyptic is appropriate.

Identifying the martyrios?

Apocalyptic themes are especially relevant in relation to the question of whether or not there can be confidence that the current existential crisis of climate change will lead to the true vocation or eschaton of the planetary system.  Stephen Finamore reflects on the apocalyptic themes of Revelation ch. 3-5, noting that the eschaton in John of Patmos's vision is actually hastened by the witness of the 'martyrs'.[9]  Finamore's general thesis (following a Girardian perspective) is that apocalyptic violence follows on a culture's loss of effective ritual and sacrificial resources to provide an alternative to victim-creation.[10]  The attempt by Christian communities to live by Jesus' enunciation of the values of the kingdom of God represents an alternative reality based on the universal renunciation of violence and retribution.  This countercultural enactment has the power to break the cycle of ritual fabrication and mimetic violence and so 'drives humanity towards the eschaton'.[11]  Christian communities can only offer indications of the reign of God, however, because both the Christian community and the world in which they offer witness are immersed in the web of human language 'derived from the scapegoat mechanism'.[12]  The witness of Christian communities can only be heard when articulated from the position of the dying Christ, because 'this is where God's clearest word to a violent humanity is spoken'.  This means that the faithful witness of Christian communities will be most effective where it provokes the violence by which the self-serving ideologies of the powerful are maintained.[13]  In the context of the unfolding crisis of climate change, Finamore's model suggests the Christian community can best unmask the violence being enacted against creation by powerful political and economic interests by speaking from a position of solidarity with the Earth and its living systems.
Although the language of Revelation has its own historical context in the persecutions of the early Church around the end of the first century, Finamore's reflection appears to imagine a generalised situation of existential crisis.  Finamore claims the witness of the faithful martyrs 'torments and provokes' a world that responds with persecution, and this hastens the collapse of untenable and unjust systems.[14]  For Finamore (and Revelation) the witness that provokes the powers and principalities into over-reach is that of faithful Christians.  However in the context of ecological crisis the whole of creation suffers and bears witness to the disjunction between the relations of shalom that are its true vocation, and the relations of predation and exploitation that disfigure all life.[15]  Following Ilia Delio we see that creation itself is cruciform, in that its suffering is the coincidentia oppositorum of oppression and shalom, or suffering and love.[16]  Thus in the context of ecological crisis we may say that the martyrios or witnesses to the unsustainable wrongness of relations in the created world are the living creatures themselves and all the living systems of Earth and water and air.  These eloquently testify, and by their threatened collapse provoke a sharp reaction from the beneficiaries of an economic system based on unsustainable growth and consumption.  However creation's witness is mute and non-verbal; it can only be articulated and made intentional by human witness and specifically the witness of the Church as the body of Christ.  Note that this supposes the Church can stand in the same relation to the non-human creation as that of Hebrew Wisdom.
Finamore believes the action of the martyrios provokes a 'winner take all' contest with the powers of the world, with the stakes being nothing less than either collapse into chaos or entry into a state that he refers to as the 'kingdom of God' or in the terms I will introduce next week, the eschatological vision of shalom.[17]  He is offering a vision of apocalypse without guarantee, a bloody birth that differs sharply from the gradual drawing of living systems into their eschaton suggested by Wink. 
However we can consistently combine this with Wink's idea of local or systems-based eschatology within the history of creation in a universe that is indescribably vast in scope.  The wasteful and costly energy of the creative process that admits collateral suffering and chaos as the concomitant of evolutionary progress necessitates the ubiquity of collapse and chaos.  An ecological theology must take account not only of galaxies and worlds but of countless species and ecological systems and civilisations that evolve with beauty and promise only to fall victim to randomness and violence - all while affirming the promise of Col 1.17 that 'in him all things hold together'.  In some sense beyond our comprehension the promise is that the countless rises and falls of living systems, and of systems within systems, make a concordant whole.  Thus, although (following Finamore) the outcome of apocalyptic crisis cannot be foreseen, the victims of collapsed systems are not lost but gathered into new beginnings.
Finamore discusses the plagues of Revelation ch. 6, noting the difficulty that in the Biblical text these are seen as divine acts even though elsewhere God acts to bring chaos out of order.[18]  The plagues are certainly suggestive of the unpleasant consequences of climate instability.  These consequences are ultimately not divinely caused but the result of the human choice to turn away from the original (Edenic) command to nurture and live in harmony with creation.  For the purpose of this evening's discussion, however, the crucial point is that the plagues of Revelation ch. 6 are the crises of a universe that is still in some sense awaiting the sacrifice of the Lamb - in other words the vision of John of Patmos apparently being experienced from a privileged position beyond time streams 'back from the future' to a world still contingent on the saving work of Incarnation.[19] The analogy with climate change is less evident here, as from our prosaic 21st century perspective the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are established historical facts.  However Finamore argues that the work of Incarnation is inseparable from the historical witness of the martyrios, which is to say that the Church as the body of Christ must recapitulate through faithful Christian witness the sacrificial witness and death of Christ.  This means that the sense of 'already but not yet' applies not just forwards in time to the eschaton, but also backwards in time to the work of redemption.  Finamore argues that the 'martyrs' in this eschatological crisis are those who 'secede ... from the mimetic consensus' - which is to say that what provokes the crisis is not just the clash of ideas but the enactment of an alternative reality.[20]
What this means is that today's Church stands at a time of unique challenge.  We can secede to the culture we live in – and in fact my argument suggests that we are already sleepwalking into collusion with the individualistic and human-centric culture that is inimical to the life of the Earth.  Or we can recognise a wider application of the Gospel and stand in solidarity not just with human victims of injustice and violence but with the suffering creation itself.  This means developing a new language and a new way of being a community that recognises all creatures as kin and the Earth as the body of God which we share in the symbolic meal of the Eucharist.  New rituals and practices are needed to enact a new understanding of community – for example a friend's proposal many years ago that the leftover crumbs for the communion table should be shared with the ants and the birds takes on a new seriousness.  
From the point of view of ecotheology the crisis of climate change becomes a defining challenge for the Church not just to issue prophetic warning, but to practise solidarity in our own life with the mute witness of creation.  By living in such a way that the Church becomes an icon of shalom in its own life - liturgically, ecclesially and politically - the Christian community is finally enabled to fulfil its own true vocation as the Body of Christ and is drawn (in Wink's terms) towards its eschatonIn the final instalment, I will turn to the Biblical model of shalom and a model for the evolution even more so – community based on an ecotheology of resurrection.


Delio, Ilia. Christ in Evolution. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.
Finamore, Stephen. “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim.” In Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition., 196–217. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Christianity and Evolution. London: Collins, 1971.
Wink, Walter. “Redeeming the Entire Universe: The Spirit of Institutions.” In Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition., 171–76. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011.
Worthing, Mark William. God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

[1]T. F. Stocker et al., IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.  Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014 See Fig. SPM7(a), page 21.
[2] For example, the narrative of the Fall speaks to the sense of alienation from creation.  More generally, the narratives of Exodus and Exile provide resources for communities facing an uncertain future, and I shall argue below that the apocalyptic narrative of Revelation provides more specific resources for an existential crisis affecting the whole of creation.
[3] Appalled by the Flood visited on the Earth because of humankind's propensity for violence, God eventually accepts that humans are 'evil from their birth', and accedes to the use of animals for food as a concession to violent human tendencies.
[4]Walter Wink, “Redeeming the Entire Universe: The Spirit of Institutions,” in Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, ed. Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011), 171–76.
[5]Col 1.16-17.
[6]For example Mark William Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), which takes the approach of trying to connect Biblical escatology with physical cosmology.
[7]Ibid., 176.
[8]Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution (London: Collins, 1971) See especially “Christology and Evolution”, pp. 76 ff.
[9]Stephen Finamore, “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim,” in Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend, ed. Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, Kindle Edition (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2011), 205.
[10]Ibid., 202.
[11]Ibid., 203.
[13]Ibid., 204.
[14]Finamore comments that Revelation consistently refers to Jesus as “a witness and one who testifies”, and that the Christian is called to reprise this role.’The word for witness is often linked in the text to death, and it is clear that in Revelation the word for witness carries connotations of the English word martyr that is derived from it’. Ibid., 205.
[15] cf Rom 8.25
[16]Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008).
[17]Finamore, “A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse? René Girard, the Book of Revelation, and the Bottomless Abyss of the Unforgettable Victim,” 205.
[18]Ibid., 208ff.
[19]Ibid., 210.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spirituality and the Earth - Session One: Wisdom and the Earth

Slideshow Spirituality and the Earth.pdf

Climate Crisis and Theology – a quick introduction

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, released in April 2014, bluntly informs us that climate change is no longer a prediction but a present fact. The report details current impacts including rising sea levels, ocean acidification and slowing of increases in crop yield, and provides evidence that these impacts are primarily affecting the poorest of the world’s poor. The IPCC publication warns of a 4–6 degree global temperature rise by the end of the century under the most alarming RCP8.5 ‘business as usual’ scenario. The authors note that unless effective mitigation measures are implemented globally by the end of this decade, adaptation will be virtually impossible on the basis of currently available technology[1]. The report predicts major disruption to human activity as extreme weather events become normal, fresh water reserves including deep aquifers and river systems become unusable, and crop production is rendered impossible across major parts of the globe. This is expected to cause huge uncontrolled movements of human populations over coming decades, breakdown of national and international political systems and major conflicts. Less moderate predictions by climate activists include collapse of the human population to pre-industrial levels or even total extinction of the human species.
None of these claims are new. The first scientific warning of climate change caused by combustion of fossil fuels came in 1896 from Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius[2]. Since the formation of the IPCC in 1988 the consensus message from the world’s top climate scientists has been consistent, and observable changes have by and large vindicated climate change modelling. During the same period of time, carbon mitigation schemes have been implemented in over 60 countries covering 90% of the world’s emissions[3], although there appears to be little will to enact the swingeing cuts in atmospheric carbon pollution that the IPCC is recommending.
The 2013 State of the World Report comments that the problem is not the science, which has for some time provided at least adequate justification for effective action[4]. According to this report the roadblock to effective action has now become the more basic existential issues of how human life is framed and valued, and the competing moral claims of present and future generations, human versus non-human interests, and how the lifestyle of wealthy countries is to be balanced against the basic needs of the developing world. It is thus the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life that need to be made explicit in the political struggle for implementation of measures aimed at preserving the Earth’s ability to sustain human populations and the natural environment into the future.
It is against this backdrop that Christian theology is challenged to provide discourses of hope and a language for framing the existential crisis within the overarching narrative of faith.

Spirituality and the Earth – a series outline

This evening we begin a series of three workshops which collectively are entitled ‘Spirituality and the Earth’. This session is entitled ‘Wisdom and the Earth’, and the following two sessions are ‘Apocalypse now?’, and ‘The Community of Shalom and the Future as Friend’. As a whole, I aim to provide some ways in which we can think about the current climate crisis in explicitly theological terms, but also to provide a theological framework that is practical enough to help us answer real-world questions like: ‘how shall we live as Christians’, and ‘where are we headed’? I believe passionately that the Church has a vital role to play in the current climate crisis, because as the Church we must provide answers to the moral and spiritual questions that alone can galvanise effective change. Questions like: ‘Does God care about ecology?’ Or: ‘Is the Earth a resource for our use, or do we have a moral obligation to care for it?’ Or: ‘can we even be human if we live in a way that is alienated from the Earth?’ All religious traditions deal with fundamental questions about who we are and what our place is in the context of creation, and unless we are prepared to allow the answers of capitalist economics to dictate both public and private responses then the Church must provide a compelling narrative. My aim for the series of workshops, then, is that each of us will be able to provide our own answer to these questions.
This evening’s session begins with the theme of Wisdom, which we trace through its beginnings as a subversive strand of creation theology within the dominant Hebrew story of salvation history, and as one of the Bible’s answers to the question of the meaning of the life of Jesus. We will explore the theme of Wisdom in the creation spirituality of an early Franciscan writer, St Bonaventure, and discuss the potential for Wisdom spirituality to provide a subversive praxis for Christian lovers of the earth. My aim for this session is that each of us will be able to identify an ancient tradition within the Bible that sees God as intimately involved not just in the lives of human beings, but in the lives of all living creatures and the living systems of the Earth. The aim is that we will be able to define what we mean by Wisdom spirituality and how it might differ from some other Christian spiritual traditions, and that we will be able to define some virtues for an ecological age, based on Wisdom spirituality.

Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible

We begin by teasing out the beginnings of the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible. For a start, Wisdom is not the main game – the dominant narrative through the foundational stories of the people of Israel in Exodus, the histories of conquest and the monarchy, exile and the prophet writings is the salvation history of God’s people. The ‘golden thread’, if you like, through the Old Testament with all of its competing voices and points of view is the history of the covenant that God makes with God’s people, the disastrous effects of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant, God’s unchanging faithfulness and the promises of restoration that gradually coalesce around the promise of a messiah. The land is experienced as both gift and promise, but the focus is on covenant faithfulness. Wisdom writing is different – Wisdom focuses broadly not on history but on creation. Related points are that Wisdom writing doesn’t just focus on Israel but draws widely from the traditions across the Ancient Near East, and that Wisdom writings are occasionally referenced with suspicion in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom, I suggest, is a good resource for subversive Christian activists who suspect that God’s agenda is very often wider than the Church’s.

Personified as an alluring, desirable woman for the benefit of the presumably all-male readership, Wisdom bursts onto the scene in Proverbs chapter eight. Some commentators believe that Hebrew Wisdom is an appropriate of the goddess traditions of surrounding cultures; some think that the Wisdom sages wanted to set up a female consort for Yahweh, though most agree the sages weren’t that literal-minded. In any case, Wisdom is described as God’s amonan ambiguous word that means either God’s darling child or God’s apprentice – in any case, she is Yahweh’s right-hand girl. Wisdom is the first of God’s creative works – Hebrew writers didn’t do metaphysics and they definitely aren’t trinitarians, so this is left unexplained except that Wisdom is like a prototype or template of everything else that God subsequently makes.
Not only that but as the skilled understudy Wisdom attends to the detailed work of creation – she puts it all together under Yahweh’s supervision, and not only are all things made by Wisdom but she provides after-sales service. Wisdom sets up her home on Earth, she attends to the needs of the Earth and all its creatures, and she also provides an ideal for human emulation. Wisdom writers give us a model for talking about this creation as the arena of God’s activity and the focus of God’s concern – this creation, and not just us. For example in Job, God points out that the rain falls even where human beings do not need it in order ‘to satisfy the waste and desolate land’ (38.26–27); that God hunts for the lion and provides prey for the raven ‘when its young ones cry to God’ (38.39–41) and that even creatures that human beings do not value or understand are part of God’s intended creation (39.13–17). Wisdom gives to the non-human creation a language, and an instructive role. Humans are exhorted to seek instruction from animals, birds, plants and fish (Job 12.7–8). Small, powerless and insignificant creatures are praised as exceedingly wise because of their ways: ants, badgers, locusts and lizards all provide instruction (Prov 30.24–28).
Woman Wisdom lures the wise – inviting passers-by to her feast - her template for human life is about moderation and integration, recognising the interconnectedness and the God-givenness of all things. She inspires the sciences and the humanities – the human enterprise of learning through close observation of the Earth is commended because in the natural world we see the imprints of Wisdom herself. The human arts reflect the beauty of divine Wisdom – in general human wisdom as an aspiration is grounded in God’s own life through the agency of divine Wisdom.
The 13th century Franciscan, St Bonaventure, expresses this in terms more suited to moderns with a built-in but unconscious bias toward Greek philosophy – in his very short book The Reduction of the Arts into Theology he develops the idea that all of the human arts and sciences are gropings towards true knowledge of God, and that close observation of the world reveals the beauty of God[5]. Theology goes one step further, because it avails itself of the revelation of God in scripture. But the point is that Wisdom makes two big claims – (1) that the natural world is intimately connected to God – and not just as a resource for humans, and (2) that science is the human pursuit of divine wisdom. Wisdom commends the scientific method, and it insists that as creation is good, and as it is the work of divine Wisdom, then it is intelligible. Again, the medieval mind interprets it for us moderns – Bonaventure describes creation as a Word of God which, if only our minds were unkinked from their self-obsession, we would be able to read.

Not everyone was keen on this sort of stuff. For example, the Yahwist account of the trouble in Eden, a tale of talking snakes that create mischief, is seen by some as a not-so-subtle put-down to the sages. Remember that the Hebrew Bible is not a single story but many stories, and as a result of the history of textual editing, contradictory voices often compete even within the same book. Also, Wisdom writing develops, and along the way comes into contact with Greek philosophy and gets changed by it. The later Wisdom writings, inter-testamental books like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, equate Wisdom with the Greek Logos, the intermediary of nexus between God and creation which is linguistically and philosophically masculine. Also where Wisdom is fluid and un-pin-downable, the Logos is most definitely an entity of some sort – what early theologians called a hypostasis, kind of more solid. The later Wisdom writings also get a lot more interested in religion, unfortunately, and draw a tight connection between Wisdom and Torah, the divine Law. So later Wisdom writings lose some of their wild edge, they get just a bit institutionalised and girl-power gets taken over by the patriarchy but you might be able to see where this is heading? Later Judaism was very very interested in working out a way of talking about how God gets into the world. Sirach for example describes the desire of divine Wisdom to make a home among human beings, journeying to and fro on Earth until the Creator finds a place for her to pitch her tent, where she then invites humans to partake of her goodness (Sir 24.1–20)[6].

Jesus as a Wisdom Sage

The Gospels give us examples of Jesus talking and acting like a Wisdom teacher, and even self-identifying as a Wisdom sage – ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her children!’ he exclaims. (Lk 7.35) Jesus’ stories and his actions demonstrate that he considered the whole created world to be alive and in relationship with him. He teaches from a close observation of the natural world including lilies and weeds and the birds of the air, he ‘locates schools of fish and donkeys when needed; he borrows a coin from the mouth of a fish; he speaks to storms; he walks on water; he curses trees’[7]. Jesus’ attitude to the natural world shows that he considered it sacred, in the same way that the Wisdom writings reveal an understanding of the natural world as disclosing God’s beauty and care[8]. Jesus speaks as Wisdom herself, for example his offer of instruction (Mtt 11.28–30) that is tantamount to rest[9] echoes Wisdom’s invitation to enter her house of instruction (Sir 51.53), to take up her yoke (Sir 51.26), to receive her gift of easy labour and rest (Sir 51.27)[10]. As Wisdom invites passers-by to her banquet of bread and wine (Prov 1.24–25, Sir 6.27, Wis Sol 6.12), so Jesus cries out ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (Jn 6.34, 51)[11].

However, John and Paul go further than having Jesus speak and act like a Wisdom teacher. Each of them develops what we would call a ‘Wisdom Christology’ – or an understanding of Jesus as the Wisdom of God personified. For example the Pauline declaration that all things are created in and through Christ echoes the idea of Wisdom as the divine co-worker. Even some of the Greek words in the Wisdom writings are recycled, for example the exclamation in Col 1.17 that all things hold together in Christ borrows not just the idea from Sirach that God’s Word holds all things together, and in Wis Sol that Wisdom pervades and penetrates and renews all things – but the precise phrases as well ( Sir 43.26, Wis Sol 7.24, 27). Some commentators think the early Christian writers were building a sort of bridge of ideas to enable early Christians to see Jesus as a divine, pre-existent figure. Or perhaps the experience came first and all Paul and John were trying to do was find the words to adequately describe it – but the important point is this: that if Jesus is the embodied Wisdom of God, then the divine outpouring of suffering love must be understood as solidarity with all creation. If we also think of Jesus as a Wisdom sage or prophet, then his words take on a new meaning in the light of Hebrew Wisdom teachings.

Wisdom spirituality as subversive praxis

So Wisdom gives us a language to talk about God’s delight in creation, and God’s desire that human beings should be patient observers and learners, and follow Wisdom’s ways of caring for the Earth. But is there such a thing as Wisdom spirituality? There is, and the Franciscans get there ahead of us.
St Bonaventure was an academic theologian who became Minister-General of the Franciscan Order 33 years after the death of St Francis. Lucky for him, because during Francis’s lifetime he forbade his friars from studying because it took them away from the ideals of simplicity and poverty. Francis had the only book he needed, which was the Book of Creation. Bonaventure, when he became Minister-General, spent some time meditating on Mt Alverna, where Francis received his vision of the Crucified Christ, and the gift of the stigmata, two years before he died – and there Bonaventure wrote his most famous book – ‘The Soul’s Journey into God’, as a handbook for spirituality based on Francis’s life[12]. A lot of contradictory things have been written about Bonaventure’s spiritual theology, but I think this is the key – the centrality of Christ in creation, and the model of Francis’s life which actually was a lived sermon – Francis intentionally lived the Sermon on the Mount[13].

As might be expected, he begins with creation. For Francis, every created thing was a sign that leads back to God, and a little Word, or self-expression that reflected the beauty of God. Bonaventure recommends the way of meditating on creation, and the importance of this for a wisdom spirituality is huge. The way to God depends on first falling in love with the Earth. How different that is to some Christian traditions of spirituality that seem to think the world is bad, or a distraction to real holiness. Bonaventure says every created thing is either an image – or a likeness or a similitude – of God. And every created thing shines at its core with God’s beauty. Wisdom spirituality depends on a new appreciation of the physical. We are materialists in the true sense. Holiness depends not on resisting the world, the flesh and the devil but on loving what God loves – and first and foremost that means loving the world, the cosmos that God has made. We need to love and to take delight in created things, in the beauty of creation – in rocks, as Teilhard de Chardin taught us, that are diaphanous with Spirit[14].

But there are three Franciscan teachings that inform our delight in creation. The virtues Francis insisted on among his friars, poverty and chastity and humility. These don’t get such a wide following, unfortunately, and it seems to me a good idea to widen our understanding of them. Francis took the ideal of poverty so rigidly and seriously that it it probably hastened his death. If your own body is part of God’s creation, and your own mind is created and delighted in by God, then you might want to love and delight in yourself just a bit also. But poverty as a virtue really means leaving some for other people, doesn’t it? Not taking what isn’t really yours, remembering that the things of creation belong only to God and to themselves. Poverty means balancing your needs with the needs of others, remembering the claim that others have on even the money and the time that you think are yours. Poverty means not puffing yourself up with an exaggerated sense of importance. Sallie McFague develops this idea very well when she talks about an ecological sense of self – the self that is necessarily held in a web of sustaining relationships with others – other people, other species, with the living systems of the Earth[15]. Living the ideal of poverty means making room for other people, making room for other species, not plundering the goodness of the Earth. Putting ourselves into the perspective that God has when God looks at the whole of creation. And God, of course, puts human beings into the garden of creation to ebed – to serve and to nurture (Gen 2.15).

Then there’s chastity. Francis had a hard time with this one, also. But again we need a wider view. Sex, after all, is holy and beautiful, and we shouldn’t give God’s gifts a bad rap. But chastity means not treating other people as objects to be used, but as beloved sons and daughters of God. Chastity means respecting the integrity and the value of others, and recognising that our treatment of others carries moral agency and purpose. Above all it means recognising others as persons – as bearers of dignity and as bearers of the imprint of God’s Spirit. Just as we no longer recognise the possibility of enslaving another human being who bears God’s image, so we take the attitude that God’s creation has integrity and value in and of itself. So although we live within and are dependent on the resources of creation, we recognise that it is not ours to colonise or possess. My dog is not my possession, but she graciously consents to be my companion, and she takes her responsibilities to me seriously in protecting our home. At the same time she has a sense of reciprocity, and tactfully informs me if I am not living up to my side of the bargain, for example by taking her for her evening walk. Chastity is respect and non-exploitation between sentient creatures[16].

And humility. Remembering that we are dust, that we are humus, and placing our own lives into the cosmic perspective of all that is and all that will be.

So that’s the spirituality of creation, the love of the Earth, and then Bonaventure balances that with the journey within. The mind and soul formed in the image of God, and formed by the revelation of scripture. I’m cutting corners, but in the language of old-time Christian spirituality the journey within is sometimes called apophasis, or the way of negation. It is held to be the opposite of the way of the senses, or of immersion in creation that is called cataphasis. But the key to Bonaventure’s logic and his system of theology is what he calls the coincidence of opposites – the Incarnation of divine love, the crucifixion by which holiness is extinguished by hatred and the resurrection which is the dawning of a new creation all demonstrate the divine habit of joining together or reconciling opposites – so Bonaventure is more of a both-and man than an either-or. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God traces the opposites of creation and uncreation – apophasis or the sleep of the soul in the tomb of the crucified Christ on Holy Saturday – only to reconcile what seem to be opposites with the new logic and the new creation of Easter Day. We will talk more about this on week three, but for now the point is this – that where the love of nature without the love of Spirit degenerates into sentimentality, and the love of God without the love of creation collapses into alienation, then the love of creation as the art of God and the body of God retraces the journey of divine Wisdom by imagining the world as it appears to its creator.


Bonaventure. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Edited by Stephen Brown. Translated by Philotheus Boehner. Vol. 2. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998. http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/opera/bon05295.html.
Bonaventure, Saint Cardinal. On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Translated by Zachary Hayes. Vol. 1. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1996.
Brahic, Catherine. “We’ll Have a Global Climate Treaty in 2015.” New Scientist, March 22, 2014.
Edwards, Denis. Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology. New York: Orbis Books, 1995.
Hobgood-Oster, Laura. The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. Kindle. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010.
Maloney, George A. The Cosmic Christ: From Paul to Teilhard. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.
Maslin, Mark. Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008.
McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Ratzinger, Joseph. The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Translated by Zachary Hayes. Chicago, Ill. Franciscan Herald Press 1971, 1971.
Stocker, T. F., D. Qin, G. K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, and J. Boschung. IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014.
Woodley, Randy. Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. Kindle Edition. Prophetic Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012.
Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Edited by Linda Starke, Erik Assadourian, and Thomas Prugh. Kindle Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013.


  1. T. F. Stocker et al., IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014 See Fig. SPM7(a), page 21.
  2. Mark Maslin, Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  3. Interview with Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Catherine Brahic, “We’ll Have a Global Climate Treaty in 2015,” New Scientist, March 22, 2014.
  4. Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. Linda Starke, Erik Assadourian, and Thomas Prugh, Kindle Edition (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013).
  5. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, trans. Zachary Hayes, vol. 1, Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1996).
  6. Denis Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1995), 69.
  7. Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Kindle Edition, Prophetic Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012), loc. 761 of 2513.
  8. Ibid., loc. 767–790 of 2513.
  9. ’Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and to learn from me; for I am gentle and humble and heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (NRSV)
  10. Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God, 40, 41, citing Sirach 51.26, 27, 53.
  11. Ibid., 42.
  12. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, ed. Stephen Brown, trans. Philotheus Boehner, vol. 2, Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. (Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998), http://www.franciscan-archive.org/bonaventura/opera/bon05295.html See the Preface, and Bonaventure’s dedication to Francis.
  13. Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Translated by Zachary Hayes (Chicago, Ill. Franciscan Herald Press 1971, 1971), 71ff.
  14. George A. Maloney, The Cosmic Christ: From Paul to Teilhard (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 185.
  15. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
  16. Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, Kindle (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010).