Creation, Exile, and the Pandemic

Inspired by our chapel series last fall called “Hope of All Creation,” I have been increasingly interested in how the creation itself reflects the actions of God and the relationship between humanity and God in the Bible.

One idea I wanted to explore is the way in which the good news of Jesus is not just about redeeming human souls, but all of creation. The entire cosmos will be restored to right relationship with God. Paul beautifully describes this cosmic hope found in Christ:

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 labor 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

With any eye towards the “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21) promised in the gospel, I am curious how creation imagery in the Bible reveals a broader picture of God’s creative actions. Our theology often emphasizes the relationship between God and humanity to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with creation and God’s relationship with creation. In an age of unprecedented climate change that threatens the well-being of the vulnerable throughout the world, I believe it is crucially important to highlight these relationships in our faith communities, drawing from a deep well of biblical ideas about creation.

The book of Isaiah is filled with creation imagery that reflects God’s intentions and the people of Israel. The prophet sings a love song depicting the nation of Israel as a vineyard that produced the wild grapes of injustice and bloodshed (5:1-7), but will one day make peace together with God (27:2-6) and “fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). God’s salvation will be known in all the earth (11:9, 12:5; c.f. Hab 2:14) by way of a Messianic seed: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1).

One key text that discusses the state of creation in response to social injustice is the so-called “apocalypse of Isaiah” (ch. 24), in which the economic and social upheaval present in Israel (24:1-3) associated with the destruction of the environment:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”

Isaiah 24:4-5

I’d argue that, in most of the Old Testament prophets, the state of creation seems to reflect the relationship between God and God’s people. In our time, human-made climate change, brought about by needless consumption (and made possible by exploiting the poor), has ravaged the environment. In this way our world is experiencing “ecological consequences” of injustice, which are found throughout the book of Isaiah.

Without downplaying the devasting human impact of Covid-19, I believe that the pandemic can lead us to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Recently scientists have noticed an unprecedented drop in C02 emissions as much of the industrialized world “shelters in place” to control the spread of the pandemic. According to the historian of 2Chronicles, one purpose of the exile was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (20:31) In other words, while the people are not presents (and are away in exile), the land itself is finally able to rest after Israel had neglected the commandment to care for the land (observing a weekly Sabbath rest).  I am struck by the parallel.

As we come to terms with the destruction of the environment, we lament. We might be inspired by the language of the prophets, who personify land that “mourns” the exile (Hosea 4:3, Jer 12:4) In the NRSV Bible, Joel 1 has the header “Lament over the Ruin of the Country” and plainly observes that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails”(Joel 1:10). In my estimation, all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (save, perhaps, Obadiah and Daniel) describe the destruction of the earth. If the exile (the subject of the prophets) is about a fall from grace due to social injustice, then injustice and the destruction of the earth are deeply intertwined.

Through sharing the gospel, Christians see themselves as being agents in God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. But I wonder how much “building the kingdom” also involves caring for creation.  I am currently reading The Green Gospel which seeks to provide an agricultural context to the time of Jesus and how this might prompt us to redesign food systems to be more sustainable and equitable.  

Despite the destruction evident from exile, the hope of the gospel spreads further, to the far reaches of the cosmos:

  • “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)
  • “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20)
  • Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, in which creation is animated by love and mutuality, we long for the day when “the flower appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Perhaps one of the most poignant messages of hope for our time is expressed in Habakkuk 3. Despite destruction during the Bible and destruction now, God’s saving work continues:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Hab 3:17-19

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”