Driven From Paradise


Revd. Tom Stuckey is a Past-President of the Methodist Conference and was one time Canon of Salisbury Cathedral. His last appointment was as Chair of the Southampton Methodist District. Although now retired and living in Dorset with his wife Christine, he continues to travel widely, preaching, teaching and lecturing. He is currently working on a book, ‘On the Edge of Pentecost’ to be published in December 07.

The following is a shortened version of his address

It has been calculated that if everyone in the world were to consume natural resources and generate carbon dioxide at the rate we do in the UK we would need three planets to support us. The Pope on 1st January this year said, ‘Humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human co-existence and vice versa.’ I want to look at the theology of the relationship between human beings and the planet.

What is our place in the world?

Psalm 8 gives us a picture of the hierarchy of creation. We human beings are higher than the earth and the animals, but lower than the heavens and the angels. God says, ‘Let us make Man in our own image’ (Gen 1:26). The prologue of John’s Gospel introduces the idea of logos, the Word, who is both God and with God. All things come into existence through him (the logos). Men and women together in partnership constitute true humanity made in the image of God. We are called to be partners and co-creators with God, who wants to share his glory with us. Yet God graciously gives us ‘dominion’ suggesting that human beings are God’s representatives on earth. ‘Dominion’ has nothing to do with exploitation but rather with leadership in caring.

Since creation comes out of the mind and heart of a Trinitarian God all existence is relational, interconnected and symbiotic. Human beings are made for communion with each other, with the angels, with the earth and with God.

The Hebrews believed the earth stood on the two pillars of justice and righteousness (Ps.97: 2). If a crack appeared in either due to human violation, the ecological system would become unbalanced (Ps.82). This is what happened in the flood.

More recently James Lovelock has introduced the idea of Gaia, the thin spherical shell of land and water between the incandescent interior of the Earth and the upper atmosphere surrounding it, – a conditioning system which regulates the climate and the chemistry of the planet. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock dares to suggest that if we fail to take care of the earth, the earth will surely take care of itself by making us no longer welcome. Our position is priestly but precarious.

Paradise lost

The traditional doctrine of the fall runs like this. Humankind – male and female, in eating from the tree of knowledge changed the dynamics of their relationship with the planet. They ceased to be priests of creation in their desire to become like God and the angels. They are driven from paradise. A ‘blame culture’ is created as Adam accuses Eve who in turn blames the serpent. The partnership of equals between women and men becomes distorted. Like the earth, women are henceforth subdued, exploited and raped. Woman becomes the symbolic terrain on which the struggle for resources is acted out. The pilgrimage to end the subjection and exploitation of women, the liberation of the female within men and women and the healing of the planet, are all part of the same agenda.

The disturbed balance between humanity and the earth is further violated in the story of Cain and Abel. We now find ourselves in a world of inequalities. Cain had everything; Abel had nothing and was forced to become a wandering nomad. When they brought their gifts God took Abel’s side. This provoked explosive anger in Cain who attacked and killed his brother. Blood now stains the earth so that Cain is driven from the land to become a fugitive. Cain, the first murderer; launches a culture of destruction, a thread of murder and violence which keeps imitating itself, polluting the earth. God looks upon the earth and is overcome with grief (Gen. 6:6). As justice and righteousness crack, the primal tsunami waters of chaos pour in.

Apocalypse then and now

In a life-boat operation God saves a remnant giving humanity a second chance. However there is pessimism now. ‘Fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, on every bird of the air…every moving thing that lives shall be food for you’ (Gen.9: 2f)

This ‘fear and dread’ extends to the realms of human affairs. Noah becomes blind drunk and lies exposing himself. When his youngest son, Ham, covers him he is cursed by his father. Humanity, driven from Paradise, continues the process of killing and abusing the earth so much so that we may eventually be driven from the planet.

Since 9/11 we have entered a new age of violence. The four horseman of the apocalypse are galloping across our planet leaving trails of destruction in their wake. The white horse of imperialism; the fiery red horse of military invasion and terrorist atrocity; the black horse of plague, famine and natural disaster and finally the pale horse of death –death from the carbon emissions which blot out the sun.

From Apocalypse to Genesis

Those who visit the Sistine chapel see two visions of the future. Over the altar is Michelangelo’s terrifying apocalyptic picture of the last judgment. Above on the ceiling are nine great panels depicting the Genesis story from the creator God to the drunkenness of Noah. It was a moment of illumination when I learnt that Michelangelo started with Noah’s drunkenness and worked backwards. His was not a story of a fall downwards but of a fall upwards into God.

Matthew Fox gives us the paradigm of ‘Original Blessing’ to set alongside of the doctrine of fall. Human beings are sinful and violent but flashes of our original innocence can break out and surprise us. The original image of God in us has not been entirely obliterated and can sometimes blossom and flourish when God touches a life.

Joy Cowley reflects: Suppose we’re not fallen people at all But people on the way up; Not caterpillars that once were butterflies, But actually the other way round.

Is Genesis 3 an allegory of the maturing of human beings? Of course there are consequences; as we grow and mature we learn of our mortality. This shadow dimension, however, gets woven into the process of human growth and evolution.

We therefore have a number of futures.

First, the very pessimistic one of the four horsemen pouring out destruction and death.

Second, the determinist view of Thomas Hardy who sees nature as blind yet having a life purpose of its own which uses and by-passes human beings.

Third, the future offered by Lovelock, that human beings have become a planetary disease so Gaia will destroy us like an invading infection.

Fourth, there is the optimistic caterpillar to butterfly picture of human beings on the way up, of the survival of original blessing. This may be an optimistic dream.

What about God?

In one of his hopeful passages (Isaiah 35), Isaiah argues that disaster came because the people of God made a covenant with death (Isaiah 28:15). God nevertheless remembers his covenant and, like a woman in childbirth, will deliver a new creation.

Noah, seeing a rainbow sign above the desolate landscape, had a glimpse into the heart of God. The sign suggests that God will never again loose his bow against the world and reduce it to chaos. But the war bow now points upwards, into the being of God. The cross of Christ existed in the heart of God long before it was planted on Golgotha’s hill. Jesus Christ is the new Adam and we, like him, have to pass through death to enter life.

His blindness and loneliness forced the hymn writer, George Matheson (1842-1906) to meditate on the sufferings of Christ. In the storm clouds of wind and rain he saw the rainbow glories of grace displayed and believed the universe to be impregnated with hope.

Paul speaks of the planet groaning in labour pains waiting to be set free. We, as God’s partners in and with creation, are also waiting for our own redemption and transformation. The planet is bound to us as we are to the planet because both are held together in the arms of God.

Whale watching in New Zealand I was awestruck when I saw my first sperm whale surface, basking, breathing, spurting jets of water and air. I had not realised how long a whale lies on the surface, so vulnerable and exposed. These distant cousins from the deep care for their young, talk with each other and may somehow enshrine within themselves the self consciousness of the planet. Do they reflect the divine image more than we human beings who hunt and kill them to extinction?

It is not that God is in all things but that all things are in God. Although shaped from the earth, in Christ we have the potential to become true priests and partners with the planet. ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3.2f).



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