Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tomorrow's Earth Day. And the Iconoclastic controversy makes a comeback!

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the church struggled through the Iconoclastic controversy. Could material things point us toward God, or were they idols in place of God that needed smashing? In the end, St. John of Damascus and other defenders of the icons ("Iconodules") prevailed: because Christ had come in the flesh, material things were redeemed as means to worship God. But material things were not to be worshipped in and of themselves.

Earth Day, from an orthodox Christian perspective, can be a means to worship the Creator, give thanks for the creation we enjoy, and even to confess and repent of our misuses of it.

But we have to be careful about sloppy thinking and language, because when the creation receives the worship that is due the Creator, we are way into idolatry.

An April 15th news release from the Episcopal Church gets sloppy:

“Our role here on God’s good earth is to be servants of creation,” offers Michael Schut, Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer of The Episcopal Church, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.

We are caretakers of the creation, not its servants. The Biblical message is that God has ordered things to take care of us, and we are to use (yes, use) them responsibly, generously and thankfully.

This is not a small matter, as the Iconoclasts and Iconodules understood. And even the first generation of Christian teachers recognized this, as the Apostle Paul warned the churches in Galatia:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. (4:8-11)

Sloppy gushing about nature flows in and out of the Western mind, notably in Romanticism. A number of historical observers have pointed out German Romanticism's role in enabling the mythic and emotional appeal of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Sloppy thinking has consequences.

The Biblical view asserts a Creator with final authority over the creation, sees the creation as initially good until corrupted by human rebellion against the Creator, and announces a new creation begun in Christ. Humans are not the final authority over the Earth, nor is the Earth a law unto itself. In Christ, humanity and Earth both find hope:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-25

Very simply put, the Christian view of the environment is:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving... I Timothy 4:4


Anonymous said...

Well spoken. That fresh Plains air must clear the head and brace the mind. These issues my seem trivial.... but they become HUGE in a post-modern world.

- Captain

Scott said...

So TEC has an "Environmental Affairs Officer"? How long before TEC figures out how to sue parishes for not recycling or for leaving their parking lot lights on? Coming to a parish near you...obligatory LED sanctuary candles....

David Handy+ said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure how logical the analogy is here, Tim+. In the 8th-9th centuries the iconoclasts were the bad guys, and St. John of Damascus, whom you aptly cited, is the Doctor of the Church who gave the definitive refutation of that well-intentioned heresy.

Maybe I've missed something (could easily be), but it seems like TEC and its supposed green gospel (that is no gospel at all) is the side guilty of idolatry here, pushing a false god of their own imagining that is no God. And if so, a certain iconoclasm is actually appropriate in this case.

I just saw a thread today on Kendall Harmon's TitusOneNine blog where the Episcopal Bp of Maine, Stephen Lane, has the gall to claim that climate change is "the biggest issue of our time."

Idolatry takes many forms. But in our time, one of those forms is elevating environmental concern to be highest of all possible values. and thus letting a legitimate (when limited) concern for God's creation eclipse the pre-eminent place of the Creator.