Earth is Just Our Temporary Home
It’s Plato’s Fault
If you think that earth is just our temporary home and we have something better, much better, awaiting us with God in heaven, well . . . whether you know it or not you have Plato to thank for it. Yes, Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher. He’s the one that taught us to divide the world into two realms. A material one, inferior, constraining and keeping us from realizing our true selves. Those true selves are spiritual and really belong to a spiritual realm which, inward and immaterial, is superior to the material realm and to be preferred in every way. He envisioned the body as the prison of the soul which our true selves can finally flee at death and return to their true home.
This idea of the two realms, the material and the spiritual, called dualism, has become so ingrained in our cultural tradition that we seldom think about it. We just assume it and act as if it is true. We believe we have an inner spiritual self, a soul, that is separable from our bodies and is the part of us we believe connects with the real or higher spiritual source of the universe. We too believe this soul leaves our bodies at death and “goes to heaven.” And we believe we will spend eternity there with God.
A counterpart to this view is a diminishment of our life on earth. It is merely a prelude to the real thing, that “better place” we hope to go to after our time here is over. And we believe that God is going to judge this earth and burn it up and throw it away when the day of judgment comes. We don’t harbor any hope that this world, this earth, will be our home beyond our “threescore years and ten.”
This kind of thinking interpreted in light of the mechanistic view of the universe that arose through Isaac Newton’s work turned creation into nature. Now seen as a huge machine working according to its own laws, God was distanced from creation, not needed for more than the initial construction and start-up of this vast machinery. Creation morphed into nature, a rich quarry of resources from which humans, who saw themselves as not really belonging to this nature, could use (and abuse) as much as it suited them. Thus was birthed the Industrial and Technological revolutions of 19th and 20th centuries.
Even Christians bought into this dualistic view of things. They were enthusiastic supporters of this mechanistic view of nature and joined in the raiding of its resources with as much gusto as everyone else. In fact, in 1967, historian Lynn White, Jr. published a landmark article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” in which he blamed the “Christian” understanding of creation for giving humanity the permission to plunder the earth. Christians had made it all too easy for observers like White to think this way. Lacking a robust and authentic understanding of creation as God’s handiwork with a life and integrity its own and our home and the habitat whose ecology we depend on for our lives, we are culpable in its present distress.
Matter Matters (1)
An authentic Christian view of creation never lapses into mere nature. Creation is always God’s handiwork, divine artistry, bearing the order and potency of God’s own life-giving Spirit, a beloved by its Creator. It is the habitation God prepared for his children to live and flourish in. And for God himself to call home when he became one of us as Jesus of Nazareth and throughout eternity with all his creatures. You see, simply put and in contrast to the dualistic view we have grown up with, matter matters!
And it matters eternally. Yes, God gives us the vision in Revelation 21-22 of the new creation and of his people, the bride of Christ, coming down out of heaven to the new earth to live with God forever. Hear that? Not in heaven instead of earth but from heaven to earth. This planet renewed and restored to be as God intended it, a temple fit for the Holy One and his beloved family throughout the ages. God is not going to trash his creation, even though his creatures have faithlessly damaged and diminished it as we try to live out our own agendas and plans on our own apart from. He will be faithful to his promises to it to fulfill them and bring it to full flourishing. As the saying goes, “God don’t make no junk and he don’t throw away what he has made!”
Creation care, or Earth-keeping, then, ought to mark the lives of those who claim allegiance to the Creator. To share God’s heart for his own handiwork, as well as the ecology we depend on to keep breathing, is a mark of our love for him. That’s why he put us here, to “till and keep” the garden in Eden (Genesis 2:15). Our vocation is to be stewards of this wondrous creation in anticipation of our life with God here in the age to come. God asks us to join him (for God never ceases his creative work) in sustaining and nurturing his good earth. That’s why we’re here. Not to wait for the next life but to start living out that life here and now. And among other things that means creation care.
Matter Matters (2)
John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” The metaphor of drama is a good one, I think. God has given us all roles to play in his drama of redemption. And just as a play’s sets are necessary and vital to a theater production, so is creation vital to God’s drama. How we live here on and as part of this matter matters!
You see, we don’t have a soul. That’s right, hard though that might be to accept. Better to say we are a soul. And our bodies are the face of our soul that the world can see. Or we can say we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies. All these are ways to say and insist that God did not make us of separable parts. We are integrated wholes. Body/souls rather than body and soul.
Even in death we remain whole beings. Either we “sleep” in death till Christ raises us and gives us new resurrection “bodies.” And like his own resurrection body, these will apparently be continuous with the bodies we now have but “glorified” (and we can scarcely imagine what that will be like!) Or some part of us will be kept in fellowship with God after death till we are raised and given our new bodies. Either way, full embodiment is our final destiny. No immaterial, angel-like eternity for us. Rather, new creation and new bodies for an eternity of life on this earth with God as it should always have been!
But back to life now and the matters we deal with in dealing with matter. If we can’t split the world or ourselves into two separable parts, the material and spiritual, and treat one as more important than the other, then, well . . . then we can experience God and share in his work through the material order. And the way we treat matter matters!
That’s why God’s seems so obsessed with justice! How we order our lives together and allocate necessary goods and services, establish and protect rights, enforce accountability, and care above all for the poor and needy, in short, politics, is about how closely our communities reflect God’s design for human life. That’s justice. And it’s one of God’s great passions!
So matter matters. It matters eternally. What we do with matter matters. Matter matters to God. And that should be what matters to us!