Trees are Trees – Thoughts on the Goodness of Creation
I am taking a break in my series on Global Voices to share two short articles I wrote for the Evangelical Environmental Network.
An intersection in north Spokane was once surrounded by tall Ponderosa pines. I always loved arriving at this intersection. It gave me the feel of being on a forest service road deep in the woods. One day several large, yellow pieces of earth moving equipment arrived and over the following weeks diesel-belching machines managed to bulldoze and dispose of acres of forest. Not one tree was left. This once pine-laden piece of nature became the new home of yet another strip mall.
I shared my disappointment and frustration with a fellow brother in Christ who shrugged off my concerns with the flippant comment, “those are just scrap pines anyway.” I had never heard that term before – scrap pines. It was clear to me however that by giving them this label my friend was able to excuse their destruction.
The idea that we can devalue an item in nature in order to justify our actions brings into question the biblical understanding of the goodness of creation. There are three views that are commonly offered as ways of understanding what God meant when he pronounced all of creation as “very good.”
The first, “human–centered” view states that because humanity is the crown of creation, the goodness of the created world lies solely in its usefulness for our happiness. This view is usually supported by three legs. The first is an interpretation of God’s command to the first couple to “rule over and subdue” as a license to exploit and dominate an earth whose sole purpose is to supply us with all of our needs and wants. The second is an eschatology that holds that the entire earth will ultimately be destroyed. Why then would we work to conserve and preserve that which God will burn up in his wrath at the second coming? The third is a Platonic view that believes that material things are inherently evil, and so our focus should be only on the individual, ‘spiritual’ soul. These three legs have provided a stool that has propped up a broad section of conservative Christianity with a justification to ignore the responsibility to care for creation.
The second view takes us to the opposite extreme. Liberal theology and neo-paganist thought weakens (or obliterates) the distinction between God’s being and God’s creation, thereby blurring the distinctiveness between Creator and creation. What results is the idea of an inherent goodness in creation that borders on a pseudo-divinity. This “divine in creation” view results in either a process theology where God’s fate is wholly tied to the world’s fate; a new form of panentheism, where God’s divinity indwells all creation; or a return to an ecological deism, where God is so transcendent that all we can ever have of God is the creation itself.
These two views force us to either find creation’s goodness only in its usefulness to humans, or believe that creation carries its own divinity that should inspire our adoration and worship. We would offer a third view. The “pronouncement” view holds that all of creation is good because God declared it as such. Creation does not need to be a part of God in order to carry the seal of God’s divine approval and good pleasure. Neither does its distinction from God necessarily relegate it to a human-centered utilitarianism. After each episode of creating, God considered what he had done and pronounced it ‘good’. His creating action brought him great pleasure and profound joy.
God’s pronouncement of goodness on his creation is of extreme importance. God is creating something completely distinct from himself, and as such it carries no inherent goodness of its own. The value of what God created lay in the balance until God, who in his very nature is pure goodness, bestowed that goodness on it. Nature stands in need of the once and ongoing pronouncement of goodness by the God who created it, sustains it, and continues to take delight in it.
The very fact that the goodness of creation is continually bestowed upon it by its Creator places upon us a huge responsibility. When we look on nature we look on that which delights the heart of God to such an extent that it dwells under his unceasing decree of goodness. And in response, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1)
We can conclude that my north Spokane trees are neither disposable resources to be used for our pleasure, nor are they dwelling places of the divine. Trees are trees, and, like all of creation, their goodness comes from God alone. We are creation’s stewards, its caretakers, and we must therefore also be its humble and grateful users. The pronouncement view has substantial implications for both our use of creation and our responsibility to care for it. For it reminds us that every atom and molecule bears witness to the sustaining grace and continuing delight of the God who originally pronounced all creation good and daily reminds us that it will always be so in his eyes.