Editor’s note: see yesterday’s post for Ephraim Radner’s initial discussion of the unique character of our current age: “The Anthropocene epoch.”
We are told in Scripture of a time of judgment, not in order to despair, but in order to be true. This epoch has not given rise to a new human being: That is precisely this epoch’s false claim. We remain exactly who we have always been, the created “children of Adam.” Nonetheless, to be true to who we are in fact, we must be alert to false promises and mistaken paths. While we muck about — as we should — with this or that issue, like same-sex marriage, we must understand that “winning” or losing on such an issue is only a small plank in a larger structure of witness. The carrying beams of this structure are the ones we should at least make our priorities, not because they are newly discovered, but because they have been recently forgotten. The old must appear new in order for the one truth to be spoken.
I offer a few of the more basic orientations that our witness demands. They are ones that properly inform the individual issues over which we expend our efforts; but they also inform the spirit in which these efforts should be expended.
One thing that talk of an Anthropocene epoch properly implies is that our human lives are limited, vulnerable, and ultimately finite: the world as we know it may be coming to an end, our species itself vulnerable to unimagined assaults and perhaps imminent disappearance.
Here Christians must agree and take up this claim with articulate fervor and theocentric focus: everything created ends, including the earth and its inhabitants. The “form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), and there will come a time when the elements and the earth and all its works will be “dissolved” (2 Pet. 3:10). This is a figure of our own individual demise when, without warning on any given night our “soul is required” of us (Luke 12:20). It is no surprise that the Anthropocene epoch has spawned its own empty apocalyptic fantasies, bound to dystopian anxieties and threats: post-nuclear holocaust, untamed viruses, agricultural disaster. These fantasies are not empty because they are implausible, but because they exist in a completely godless context. The rise of Christian apocalypticism since the 19th century moves in tandem with these fantasies.
Rather than dismissing them as fundamentalist raving, however, we should reassert the basic Christian claim, continuous from Scripture through the early Church, the Middle Ages, and beyond: that our world and the human race that dwells upon it exist by God’s good pleasure, and only on that basis; and that, embedded in our existence as individuals and as social groups, including churches in their human forms, is a radical contingency whose end is final dissolution. From this, and in response to this, is a promised new creation from God, as the Scriptures insist. But such a hope is molded by the reality of our endings.
Our calling in the face of such asserted finitude is not quiescence and passivity. As Peter writes, the Christian response is a “zealous” pursuit of godliness, holiness, purity, and peace (2 Pet. 3:11-14), as well as thirsting orientation to God’s promised world of righteousness. These priorities derive from knowing our certain and immovable limits. Their apprehension cannot be had in a world governed by steady-state expectations of whatever kind. The latter is nothing but an illusion that has ended in nostalgia, anger, and bitter retreat, for Christians and for all in positions of power, vanity, and overweening pride. All Christian patience and hope is founded on an apprehension of our finitude and God’s creative grace. Winning and losing has nothing to do with this.
The endings at the center of our lives have to do with the fact that we are no more than creatures who exist solely at behest of God, who created us and sustains us. Creatureliness, however, is about more than finitude. It is about an order proper to our limits and to the fact that they are God-given. We call this ordered finitude “godly worship.” Much of the confusion over sexuality in our era is the result of having such an order obscured by promethean hopes of individual independence, unbound by procreative responsibility and grace or by diaconal celibacy, its twin. Our confusions extend further than the issue of sexual coupling, however, comprehending also human genealogy, child-bearing, and formation.
Human beings in the Anthropocene epoch have lost all sense of generation, both in terms of conception and in the obligation for and interaction with those who come before and after us in lines of ordered relationship. Worries about ecological disaster that are not informed by generation and its responsibilities are morally stunted, and it is no surprise that, devoid of their creaturely and hence genealogical context, they serve mostly to paralyze. There is a deep contradiction at work among those who decry environmental degradation even while they pursue the destruction of ordered human creatureliness.
Christians, more than anybody else, have been gifted with the knowledge of what it means to be a creature and live faithfully as creatures. From Genesis to Revelation, we have been given a picture — complex and sometimes uncertain to our logical minds — of how the human creature is set to live. We have also been shown the precincts of life in which we fail in our creaturely integrity. Male-female marriage, procreation, singleness, barrenness, child-rearing, learning, toil, poverty and wealth, friendship, suffering, self-giving, sacrifice, difficult love, disappointed illness and death, as well many of the social elements that grow up around this responsibly — all these are laid out in the face of God’s grace and calling. Yet even Christians have preferred to deconstruct this picture, to pick on bits and pieces while ignoring others, to dwell in the individual, to avoid the difficult: in brief, to cut creatureliness short. It is easy to note the compromises to which this has given rise: divorce, betrayals, closed homes, abandonment of children to cultural drift, isolated narcissism, materialism. The truth here awaits a renewed and integrated witness.
The true anthropocentrism
Christians in our era have become averse to holding together such connections of human responsibility. For some, focus on finite creatureliness and endings seems to mitigate a proper sense of God’s special concern for human beings; that is, it is not “anthropocentric” enough. For others, placing an eternal value on the ordered choices that human creatures make before God puts too much emphasis on human life; that is, it is too anthropocentric.
The Anthropocene epoch is unveiling the connection between human destruction and human self-centeredness. A proper understanding of humanity goes further than this insight, however, because it apprehends the fact of God’s assumption of human nature as an act of grace for this bereft and fallen creature. A true anthropocentrism, then, measures our lives by the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, no more and no less. This must take stock of the breadth of our finitude, our failure, and our frailty, which stands before God in the form of a creature showered by grace. Every moral responsibility and possibility flows from God’s assumption of this creature and this flesh as a sign of God’s sovereign over all creation. Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato sí (2015) has pointed to aspects of a proper Christian anthropocentrism. We should take up this vision with a refreshed vigor in our witness.
The Book of Nature
Christian anthropocentrism draws us into the life and gifts of our Creator, and so resettles us in God’s greater creative terrain. Yet the Anthropocene involves the occlusion, even denial, of the Book of Nature as a source of divine revelation, and thus of nature and the breadth of creation as something intrinsically gracious and necessary to our understanding of God’s truth. Skies are clouded, human noise and lights veil the world, food is detached from its origins, bodies are snatched from their forms and biological interactions, animals are thrown away and forgotten, plants are disrespected, death is a hollow image of loneliness. At every turn, and before every decision, the Christian is called by contrast to turn to the Book of Nature, with its landscapes, spaces, populous creatures, violent comings and goings, inexplicable beauties and fearful displays; we must open it, consult it, revel in its pages, and, drawn away from our consuming self-love, join in its praise of God.
A return to the Book of Nature will necessarily involve a recovery of concern with natural law as essential to Christian understanding and decision-making. The category has made the rounds of backroom philosophy and theology of late, but only timidly, after having claimed a central position in Christian thinking for centuries. One symptom of the shift in epochs was the way that natural law, prominent in the 18th century, had turned into a steady-state code, parallel to the emergence of scientific “laws,” like the laws of motion. But natural laws, in Christian terms, are nothing like the laws of physics: they refer to the clear witness of creation to God’s character and will, and to creation’s own relationship to its Creator. This witness is apprehended through the long stream of disciplined scrutiny of the world and of life by our ancestors. It is conveyed in the wisdom of elders and traditions — almost all of which has been swept aside as irrelevant to the current epoch.
We see Christians groping at recovering bits and pieces: Protestants reading the Fathers, Catholics now dipping into Protestant hymnody, some Christians more generally recognizing that non-Christian indigenous cultural traditions have elements of acute vision. But it is still a mishmash, with little trust in the past, and hence in the world that has lived from and before God for millennia before our epoch’s vaunted discoveries. We must reengage with the traces of God’s dealings with humankind, because they are there as gifts far more powerful than the insights of the moment. Perhaps most relevant to today’s need, our ancestors too faced into the threat of their own disappearance, over and over; yet they held on to a vision of God. It is likely that they can point us to a good path.
The man Jesus Christ
Only within the context of this renewed richness of witness will we grasp, and therefore be able to communicate, the astounding power of Jesus Christ. In our era, he has been reduced to a small medicine for floating moments of individual interest and need. Demoted to pragmatic usefulness, his image has been made subject to the consuming self-regard of the Anthropocene present, the voracious “now.” In fact, however, Jesus Christ is the God-Man for all humankind and for all history. As he is the Second and New Adam, all of human nature, life, and history has been assumed in his person, to be carried to the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Because he is at once divine Creator of the universe, yet also incarnate Son of Man, we are related one to another in a destiny that is tied to the truth of God and demands we accede to the wisdom of the past, the gifts of the distant, the cries of “universal” history, and the voices of creation, since it all belongs to Jesus.
In the face of Jesus Christ, the Anthropocene epoch shrinks into almost squeaking irrelevance in its claims. The gospel is universal, and touches even the stars of heaven. This witness, which does indeed embrace our politics and economics, needs to be given once again before the eyes of the world, freed from the false modesty of the present that is really only an excuse for self-concern.
The scriptural world of Christ
A focus on the God-Man leads the Christian back to the only stable realm of knowledge and understanding given in our radically contingent world, the Word of God written. In this word, we know the Son of Man who is Son of God; in it, we hear his speech and see his acts; in it, the shape of created life is given its ordered form from his hands. Far from being a sign of its irrelevance, the deep congruity of scriptural revelation (in all its breadth) with the universal shape of nature marks out its plausibility, its power, and its divine purposefulness. From Genesis to Israel, from Law to Gospel, from Prophet to Apostle, from the songs of the Temple to the Song of Lamb, the whole of nature is given its proper voice here in Scripture, because it is the voice of the Word of God who has assumed the ends of his own creation. Christian witness today must include and return to nothing less than the whole of the Scriptures.
The featured image is retouched version of copy K of William Blake’s “Ancient of Days.” It is held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.