Jamie Skillen on Creation Care and Sabbath Rest
Christians often talk about the doctrine of creation as mainly about origins and God’s glory. Jamie Skillen goes deeper by looking at God’s purpose in creation and how that applies to creation care.
Jamie Skillen teaches geography and environmental studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has an MA in theology and leads a campus project to tap maple trees for syrup. In this edited conversation, Skillen explains the importance of Sabbath rest in a full-orbed doctrine of creation.
How do your students typically understand the doctrine of creation?
They think it’s a core doctrine that’s primarily about what creation reveals to us about God. Many students come to environmental studies with an interest to care for and protect the non-human world. Some have experienced the beauty of creation. Others care because of what they see as injustice, the way environmental degradation harms the poor and the marginalized. They are looking for theological support or permission to care. Many say, “Clearly, the Bible tells us that creation is good and reflects God’s glory. So that is justification to care for it.”
Does the doctrine of creation apply to creation care?
In my environmental studies capstone seminar and when I teach Developing a Christian Mind, a required core course, we trace God’s ongoing care for creation throughout the Bible. We start with Genesis 1, which covers God’s work of creation in establishing authority over the realms of light and darkness, sky and earth, waters and land, and all living creatures, human and non-human. Genesis 2 opens with the seventh day, where God rests. God didn’t rest because God was tired. Instead we get a picture of God finishing creation with a Sabbath that never ends. The doctrine of creation does more than simply affirm the goodness of God’s creation. It shows that the goodness has a purpose.
Can you say more about God’s purpose for the whole creation?
I want students to see the centrality of Sabbath rest in the doctrine of creation. Genesis 1:27 says that humans are created in God’s image and therefore set apart. We are called to image God to the rest of creation. Yet, lest we get too hung up on ourselves, the Genesis 2 account says that we also share a lot with the rest of creation. God formed us from the same substances as the rest of creation. In fact, the Hebrew word adam means “human,” and adamah means “dust of the ground.” The same breath of life from God sustains us all.
From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible gives us pictures of the whole creation, human and nonhuman, resting in and enjoying God’s presence and provision. The Sabbath might be the most important concept for Christian environmentalists because of how it combines belief and practice, which is the enactment of the belief.
You recently took students backpacking in Yosemite National Park. What do they say they learn about God from creation?
Yosemite is so striking, particularly to students from east of the Mississippi River. Engaging with natural beauty draws us out of ourselves and makes us open to talking about how landscapes reveal God’s glory and grandeur. Theologians talk about the two books of revelation—creation and Scripture. For most people, creation reveals much about God the Father and God the Spirit but doesn’t necessarily lead to encounters with Jesus. We need to bring in the second book of revelation, the Bible, to talk about how, despite how small we are in the vastness of creation, Jesus knows us each by name.
How does your environmental studies capstone seminar help students apply theology and ethics to environmental issues?
Many students at first tend to read theology with a problem-solving mentality that comes out of science. They want theology that says, “If you’re a Christian, then you should recycle” or “Based on the doctrine of creation, here’s how the government should handle a specific problem.” Theology and ethics can help us develop normative principles, but they have limitations. The fields of environmental ethics and biomedical ethics are vast because it’s hard to move from basic norms to specific practices.
What role does sin play in your discussions of environmental ethics and creation care?
I use the explanation of sin by Reinhold Niebuhr, an early twentieth-century theologian. He starts with a basic reality of our human condition, which is that we are mortal, live in a contingent world, and are aware that at any moment our lives and loved ones could be destroyed. Contingency makes us anxious—not that anxiety is all bad. If my students weren’t at least a little anxious about grades, they wouldn’t study for exams. But existential anxiety leads to the sin of pride when we seek to eliminate all causes of anxiety. Very often, we seek a level of control that exceeds our human capacities. An environmental example of pride might be building channels, levees, and dams to completely control the Mississippi River.
Niebuhr said that another sinful response to knowledge of our mortality—sensuality—flows from seeking distraction and relief from the anxiety of existence. We buy more and more to exert our power over nonhuman creation and other humans. This highly consumptive lifestyle can be destructive to the environment, the poor, and those not yet born. It’s not as if we wake up with a malicious desire to destroy habitats, but our sensuality can run counter to God’s Sabbath purposes of providing enough so all can rest in God’s presence.
Does Niebuhr suggest a better approach to dealing with our limitations?
He holds out the alternative of trusting in a sovereign God. It’s not that we always have a conscious choice between sin and trust. As societies and civilizations, we acknowledge reasons for anxiety. Yet Christians can trust that God will remain faithful in making all things new. Understanding the nature of sin helps us see how sin causes environmental degradation. This works best when we think more broadly than individual practices. We can ask what societal practices might not have malicious intent but still become expressions of collective sin.
Another way to practice trust is to practice Sabbath rest. Six days a week we worry and work very hard at curing diseases and controlling floods. One day a week, we give up control and rest in God’s grace and provision. I’m not saying that buying things is a sin, but if we all gave up buying anything on Sunday, we’d reduce our consumption by one-seventh.
Do most of your students come from backgrounds that value creation care?
When I ask students if they’ve ever heard a sermon on creation care or environmental stewardship, many look at me blankly. I think that’s partly because environmental stewardship has become one of those pressing issues that don’t seem safe to talk about from the pulpit. Many students interested in environmental studies struggle to talk about these issues with their families.
Why is that?
Part of the difference depends on what you as a Christian hope for. Maybe you hope for an end to creation and an individual escape to heaven while everything else burns up. Your church may sing about creation’s beauty but only spend money on evangelism, so it doesn’t form you in some of what you profess, such as the goodness of creation.
Maybe you hope for a new heaven and new earth in which God will be all in all. Even though it’s a mystery how this second type of hope will happen, you trust that God will bless all efforts to join in the redemptive work of making all things new. So your church sees feeding the hungry or doing environmental church audits as ways to affirm the goodness of the physical life that God created.
There’s a general tendency in evangelical Christianity to elevate the spiritual, disparage the physical, separate the sacred and profane, and focus on the individual rather than the whole. The Reformed tradition has worked very hard to avoid those dualisms. So when students focus too much on individual solutions, I go back to the purpose of creation that holds all things together in Christ. Jesus Christ is both Creator and Redeemer. He calls us to participate in God’s redemptive work—both in the here and now and for the eternal.
How do faith and politics interact in talking about creation care?
Creation care and environmental stewardship have been separated from their biblical framework by politically freighted partisanship. Christianity in North America has become highly individual. We want to think about creation care in almost exclusively individual decisions, like buying LED lightbulbs. But when we begin to talk about government or collective action, the conversation shuts down.
Plenty of people equate unfettered markets with Christianity and say that environmentalists are “liberal” and “non-Christian.” We as Christians need to return again and again to a basic affirmation of God’s good creation and God’s creative purposes to provide so that all creation, human and non-human, can rest in God’s presence. I’ve read lots of survey research that suggests a general consensus among Christians that we ought to care for creation. No one thinks we should destroy creation. Christian opposition to environmentalism is opposition to something else. I wish we could start with where we all agree and discuss until we discover the points at which we disagree.
What’s an example of how Christians can agree that God calls us to care about creation yet disagree about environmental policies?
Finding any kind of solution is a challenge in this political moment. But, let’s assume we could agree that the science is clear that climate change is human caused and its impacts will be destructive. Then our general Christian commitment to God’s good creation means we would have to do something. I find it fundamentally un-Christian to say we shouldn’t do anything. But there are a range of approaches about which reasonable Christians can disagree. We face a lot of uncertainty and don’t actually know which mix of government regulations and market forces will work most effectively.
It’s crucial to talk with each other rather than retreat into sides defined by political frameworks. The American West has a good example of how true dialogue helped opposing sides reach a solution. Environmentalists were thrilled that government regulations protected gray wolves as an endangered species. As wolf populations grew, Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem diversified. It was another story for ranchers, who lost cattle and sheep to hungry wolves. Free-market environmentalists recognized that if they really cared about wolves, they should also be willing to compensate ranchers who were affected by government regulations that protect predators. Nonprofits such as Defenders of Wildlife and People and Carnivores have created compensation funds and pilot projects that are good for both wolves and ranchers.
Jamie Skillen’s essay in The Cresset looks at what it means to be made in the image of both God and the earth. Read more about creation and Sabbath rest in the book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann.