The upcoming UN conference on climate change has me thinking about the conflicted environmental legacy of Christianity. The Christian Scriptures are full of admiration for the natural world. In the Bible’s early chapters creation is deemed “very good.” In the Psalms the world’s beauty prompts worship and praise. There too we are told that the earth belongs to God, the implication being that it isn’t up to us to dispose of it in whatever fashion we like. On the other hand, there are Christians who take the stewarding and gardening mandates from Genesis as license for abuse.
In this vein I’m reminded of a line of thinking from Irenaeus, a second-century theologian from Lyons. Here, in an excerpt from his Against Heresies, he makes the case for the Eucharist. More specifically, he is pointing out the implications of the belief that we somehow encounter God through bread and wine, the elements of this ancient rite.
[T]he Lord could have provided the wedding guests with wine and filled the hungry with food without using any pre-existing created thing. But that is not what He did. He took loaves which the earth had given and gave thanks. It was the same when he changed the water into wine, satisfying those reclining at table and quenching the thirst of those invited to the wedding. By so doing, he showed that the God who made the earth and commanded it to bear fruit, who established the waters and brought forth the fountains, has in these last times granted [human]kind, through His Son, the blessing of food and the grace of drink, the incomprehensible through the comprehensible, the invisible through the visible.
They are totally foolish, these people who despise the whole saving plan of God, who deny the salvation of the flesh, and scorn its regeneration, claiming it is not capable of incorruptibility. . . . And because we are his members, we are nourished by means of creation, the creation which he himself gives us by making his sun to rise and sending the rain as he pleases (90).
The understanding that God wills to be present to creatures through creation demonstrates the enduring worth of the material world. The Christian faith is not a flight from stuff or from the influence of the senses, for through the senses we (shockingly enough) encounter the transcendent God. Irenaeus goes on to argue that God’s gift of superabundant life is granted, not to spirits or invisible beings but to real humans with flesh and bones. I can’t but imagine that Irenaeus would have something to contribute in Paris.