Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Human Creativity As a Reflection of the Creator

Many of us remember occasions when we’ve been enthralled by the beauty of forest, meadow, seaside, or desert.  For me, it’s the more “natural” or “wild places” of God’s creation that thrill the most; and generally not the urban environment.  However, this past weekend, I was enveloped in a literal sea of human creativity in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, Ann Arbor, MI
The 2014 Ann Arbor Street Art Fair occupied numerous streets in downtown Ann Arbor and extended onto the beautiful campus of the University of Michigan.   What a feast for the eyes as my wife Abby and I, and our son Brad and his wife Raquel walked the tree-shaded streets, each lined on both sides with the booths for artists from all around the country to display their creativity.  Paintings and photographs framed in all sizes and shapes; and in all manner of style and coloration.  Wood, delicate plant stems, and metal of all kinds were carved, shaved, pressed, twisted or imprinted into lifelike forms or intriguing abstractions.  Clay pottery was displayed in a rich variety of shapes and sizes, frequently glazed to produce inviting colors and patterns.  A memorable booth looked like a garden of colorful flowers and foliage fashioned in the finest detail-- out of clay!

Landscape necklace pendant, L & M Arts
Leather products and different fabrics were fashioned into garments, shoes, and hats.  I was intrigued by what appeared to be oil paintings on canvas that were actually collages of carefully chosen, dyed fabrics pieced together to represent portraits and beautiful landscapes.  Dean Myton’s booth from his Ironwood & Vine Studio in Akron, OH displayed lamps and other “functional art from found objects, unique recycled materials, and fabricated steel.”  Dean’s aim is to apply his creativity to give new beauty and functionality to materials otherwise destined to the scrap heap.  His slogan:  “Recycle, Rethink, Reuse, Rejoice.”

Many booths featured fine jewelry fashioned from metal and/or mineral components.  Abby and I were particularly drawn to a booth provided by Laurel and Michael Davern, owners of L & M Arts, in Lancaster, NY.  Abby chose a landscape necklace of Argentium sterling silver, hand-pierced to form wind-swept trees with a bird in flight, accented with copper and brass plating.  Of course, with such subject matter, friendly artisans, and the sweet smile of my lovely wife, how could I resist buying the necklace for her?

Larry and Elaine Schneider, Naturewood Art
Larry Schneider from Pittsburgh, and his wife Elaine, greeted us with warm enthusiasm as we admired their Naturewood Art featuring “paintings of nature on nature’s canvases.”   Larry paints birds and other wildlife on tree trunk cross sections.  Then, he produces a 3-D effect by adding appropriate objects from the landscape—driftwood, barbed wire, dried bones, etc.  My favorite was his Meadowlark painted as if singing while perched on a weathered fence post.

As we walked from booth to booth along the shady streets filled with art admirers, three things stirred my heart in praise to God, the Eternal Artist.  First, I began to realize that the amazing creativity on display here was an expression of the image of God Who created and endowed humankind with many of His personal traits.  These God-given traits include our creativity—and to our ability to admire the creativity of others.  Our admiration of the creative arts reaches deep within us.  Much deeper than the cognitive level, artistic expression can reach into our wellspring of joy and satisfaction, or it may stir up sadness or compassion.  I wonder if any other creatures can “enjoy” the wonders of creation like we can; I doubt it.

Meadowlark, by Naturewood Art
Second, I was reminded of the lavishness God has displayed in His creation.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  Both God and humankind in His image are “creators” but only God created matter ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”  And, from that original formless and void state of creation (Genesis 1: 2), the Master Artisan and Engineer shaped the landscape of Earth and populated it biologically.  Every element of creation is designed like a deep treasure chest from which humans as stewards can draw out a seemingly endless variety of forms.  Among animals, God created basic kinds (canine, feline, bovine, etc.), each rich in genetic potential from which both natural selection and human artificial selection have produced widely divergent forms.   Likewise, humans have developed plant varieties through horticultural and genetic procedures.  The rich variety of biological, mineral, and metallic resources of God’s creation provides a marvelous “palette” to supply both the substance and the inspiration for the artisan.

Finally, I was most inspired by a sort of “one-act drama” performed at each booth we visited along the streets of Ann Arbor.  Each artisan that participates at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair first displays his or her creative work within their booth—work that represents tireless hours of creative effort.  Then, the artisan sits and waits for people to come by the booth, admire their work, and perhaps purchase a piece or two as we did. 

As visitors to many booths at the fair, we were participants in the “drama” with the artisans, and we observed how they responded to our appreciation of their work.  They know that most visitors will stop to admire but few will buy.  Yet beyond the monetary gain, they surely must enjoy the satisfaction of seeing many admiring faces and hearing words of praise for work well done.   I realized two things:  that, the artisans are creative and industrious like their Creator God Whose image they bear; and, like their Creator God, artisans gain a sense of joy when they receive praise for the work of their hands.

And so, our visit to the art fair with our son and daughter-in-law was both very enjoyable and inspiring to me.  I left with great respect for the creative ability and skills of the artisans, and also a great appreciation of God our Creator for providing the richness of the material world as a “palette” for His creative image-bearers. 

The psalmist in Psalm 104 recognizes the awesomeness of God and the grandeur of His creation. Then, he marvels that his God Who lacks nothing should find joy and gladness when He looks upon His creation—just as an artisan finds joy in looking over his own finished work:

O LORD, how many are Thy works!
In wisdom Thou hast made them all;
The earth is full of Thy possessions.

Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.
- Psalm 104: 24, 31-32

A few verses later in Psalm 104, the psalmist displays the kind of awe and praise that comes spontaneously from one who bears God’s image and can appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation in some imperfect way like our Creator.  But, the psalmist also understands that his heart of praise is both a fitting response to God’s greatness and a “pleasing gift” to his Creator and the Redeemer of his soul as compared to the response of those who deny God and abuse His creation for selfish gain. 

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
Let my meditation be pleasing to Him;
As for me, I shall be glad in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
And let the wicked be no more.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!
- Psalm 104: 33-35

Monday, July 7, 2014

Top Ten 'Good Countries'—But What is "Good"?

Mr. Anholt,
I was intrigued by your online TED lecture on the subject of “Which country does the most good for the world?  I will begin my response here by quoting from your intriguing lecture in which you challenged your audience to consider that a “good country” is not necessarily the richest or fastest growing country. Then, you concluded, “I want to live in a ‘good country, and I certainly hope that you do, too.” 

I’m sure you would join me in agreement that there are people all over the Earth who yearn for their country to be “good” or “better.”  We might also agree that this same yearning is strong in America, not just for economic recovery and more individual income, but that “goodness” would replace the current divisions and ranker that are all around us.  Like you, I believe that indices such as your “Good Country Index” (GCI) can stimulate more objective thinking about a subject that has many components. I also appreciated your emphasis that the greater value of the GCI is to serve as a framework to stimulate discussion rather than a product of a finished work.  In that spirit please permit me to share a few points for you to consider.

First, although one may draw upon an extensive database to develop a index as you have done, I believe indices are like computer models in general.  They are only as good as the presuppositions and inferences built into them.  In particular, you presuppose that “good” can be objectified in the GCI without an objective foundation for defining “good.”  Instead, you attempt to define “good” as “the opposite of selfish.”  But isn’t “selfishness” also subjective?   For example, a father can appear selfish by prohibiting his son from drinking his beer when in fact the father doesn’t want his son “drinking and driving” for safety reasons.  Or, consider that some would judge the USA as being a selfish warmonger for stationing defensive missiles in Europe and occupying Germany and Japan for decades after World War II.  But, others argue that American “policing presence” has deterred Russian aggression into Western Europe.  In support of my argument, in recent weeks we are witnessing Russian aggression on the rise in Crimea and Ukraine.  Many analysts believe the heightened aggression stems from the current administration's "please be 'good'" policy which has convinced Premier Putin that America is weak and has lost the will to oppose.

“Good” can also result in evil when “good intentions” are extended with limited knowledge.  Western attempts to teach primitive cultures in tropical regions to “wear clothes like us” have resulted in more fungal infections and other diseases new to these cultures.  Banning DDT has led to an upsurge in malaria.  The one-child policy in China and stringent human reproductive control in Russia and other Eastern European countries has led to sharp population declines and demographic challenges such as providing for the needs of the elderly.  Therefore, given the subjectivity and limited knowledge we constantly face, it would seem necessary to provide an objective foundation for defining “good.”

My second point follows upon the first. You have chosen not to include moral components in your Good Country Index because you believe there are plenty of other indices that address the moral component.  However, in my humble opinion, your exclusion of moral considerations seems unwise and shortsighted.  As you know, any consideration of "good" and "evil" has major moral and ethical considerations.  One might argue that “evil” doesn’t exist or that it is not a practical notion in our pursuit of “good” in the world today.  However, as an example, Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and his subsequent effort to develop “peace through strength” with the Soviet Union was, to me, an important step in bringing more peaceful relations with the Soviets.  In telling Premier Gorbachev truthfully on objective moral grounds that he viewed the accumulation of nuclear stockpiles at the expense of humanitarian aid as “evil" policy, Reagan was also able to develop a relationship of trust with his Russian counterpart that led to an important defense treaty and reforms leading to the fall of the “iron curtain.”  I would argue that without such American presence and policy toward Europe and the Soviets during World War II and the “Cold War,” none of your “Top Ten Good Countries” would be “free," or perhaps even in existence today.

Instead of excluding morality from your index, why not make the Good Country Index more complete and comprehensive by including a “morality component?”  For example, such an inclusion might incorporate “human rights”, abortion rate, percentage of children living in a home with two parents, and whether or not the country is on the list of state sponsors of terror.  Each of these parameters is a major determiner of “moral good” in a country.  They might even determine whether you and I would want to live there.  But even beyond the parameters within the index, without an objective reference, who can define “good?” 

One objective standard of moral good is found within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which teach that our freedom comes from God, not from government.  The Bible also provides standards for "good laws" and their enforcement by “good leaders."  These in turn depend upon strong families and communities of virtuous people that are “good” to the extent that their children are taught such timeless truths as, “Honor your father and your mother;” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  What person or country would reject either of these moral teachings if they truly desire to be “good?”

Thank you for considering my recommendations.  I look forward to your response.

John Silvius
Wooster, OH

Saturday, July 5, 2014

High Court Defines & Defends Free Expression

The Supreme Court ruled this week that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, two for-profit corporations, do not have to provide certain contraceptives to their employees pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if such provision is deemed in violation of the employer’s faith convictions.  Less widely reported by the media was the fact that the two “closely held corporations” had already included sixteen other contraceptives in their employee health coverage.  In addition, the wages provided by these corporations are so generous (Hobby Lobby employees start at $14/hr and $9.50/hr, respectively, for full-time and part-time employees) that even a part-time employee could purchase a month’s supply of contraceptives (estimated, $9.00) on their own for approximately one hour’s work.
Supreme Court case was about more than "women's rights."
Nevertheless, the respective corporate owners, the Green Family and the Hahn family, were taken to court for refusing to include four additional contraceptives as mandated under the ACA.  Why?  These four products are known to destroy the human embryo.  Thus, including them along with the 16 products they had approved would compromise their faith position which holds that each human life begins at conception.

In the 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court held that the ACA contraceptive mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy.   Monday’s close decision is now highly contested in the court of public opinion.  Opponents of the decision argue along the lines of Justice Ginsburg’s opposing decision.  Ginsburg claimed that the Court was wrong in denying free access to contraceptives to thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ...who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith.  Thus, the case is being targeted by opponents as a “women’s rights” violation. 

Defenders of the Court’s decision do not see their victory as imposing unnecessarily on the rights of women. First, the two corporations had already been providing insurance coverage for all approved non-abortificient products.  Second, as noted above, both corporations are very generous with their hourly wage schedule.  Therefore, defenders of the court decision have honest reason for celebration which defends their deeply held conviction about the rights of the unborn.  More broadly, the decision affirms the right of people of faith to act upon their belief system outside church doors and in their workplaces.

Along with the Supreme Court Ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion which is a valuable reminder of the constitutional nature and intent of the founding fathers regarding religious expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Justice Kennedy wrote (emphasis mine):
Justice Anthony Kennedy
In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief. It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.

Secularists applaud “tolerance” of differing views as a virtue.  However, the rules of tolerance do not apply to folks with “religious views” because they "force their views on others.”  This week the Supreme Court affirmed
the right of all Americans, whether “religious” or “non-religious,” to hold to a world-and-life view, or worldview.  Furthermore, the Court held that regardless of their worldview, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts as relates to their daily participation in our larger community.

When I read Justice Kennedy’s concurring decision affirming my right to express and practice my Christian faith in public, I said, “YES!”  But then it struck me.  The Constitution also guarantees free expression to those who hold very different beliefs from mine or who are enemies of America.  Then, I realized that “free expression” in this great “land of the free” will only be possible if we are willing to take individual responsibility to be respectful of differing views.  As the Apostle James writes, we must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (James 1: 19-20).   

In a world that is increasingly divided over issues and resentful of Christians attempting to apply the salt and light of the Gospel to these issues, we will need to exercise gentleness and mercy.  As Os Guinness wrote in A Free People’s Suicide (emphasis mine),

It is possible to be free at the constitutional level in terms of the structures of liberty, but to lose freedom and become servile or anarchic at the citizens’ level in terms of the spirit of liberty.

When asked by Marvin Olasky (WORLD Magazine, June 29, 2013) if this is already happening in America, Guinness responded (emphasis mine):

It is happening.  Freedom is the greatest enemy of freedom.  We’ve got a permissiveness in almost every area, and Americans have lost the capacity to say “no” to things that are wrong.  A general ungluing, unraveling, permissive license leads to chaos.  Freedom requires and assumes you know who you are and who you’re to be.  It’s not just a formlessness; it’s the power to do what you ought, as Lord Acton used to put it.

How should God’s people function in a culture where the moral compass is being abandoned and where self-definition is lacking?  Guinness is critical of the Christian right for, in his words,
trusting politics to do more than politics can do.  He elaborates in the same interview:

To put it in the language of William Wilberforce, they did the Lord’s work, but in the world’s way.  Wilberforce had an incredible love for the people who hated him, mugged him, and attacked him physically twice—but he prevailed through love, and he wasn’t gushy in any sentimental way.  The Christian right often shamelessly demonized and stereotyped, and we’re paying for the bad ways they fought it.  But on the issues, I’m with them.

In response to Justice Kennedy’s decision, Jennifer Raught Brock, a Cedarville University graduate, expressed to me some of the hard challenges of true servants of Christ who exercise the right of free expression of their Christian faith in their public life for the glory of God and for the service to their neighbor.  Jennifer wrote:

For Christians, kingdom work includes redeeming culture. Loving one's neighbor involves promoting justice and freedom. It's not an earthly, political kingdom we seek; God never promised us religious freedom. Nor did God promise freedom from pain. Yet that shouldn't stop us from trying to alleviate suffering.  He never said we should expect financial stability, but that doesn't mean we don't work hard or give to those who are poor.  He informed us that we're all going to die someday, but that doesn't mean that we refuse medicine when we're sick or that we fail to care about the overall quality of medical care in our society.

Supporting free expression of faith in the "larger community."
Our “free expression” comes at a great price through the sacrifice of Christ Who laid the foundation for our spiritual freedom; and later, the sacrifices of American men and women who have fought and died to give birth and then defend this nation during more than two centuries.  Many did so because they believed
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  May God help us to exercise our freedom in a Christ-like manner with firmness and boldness, yet with gentleness and reverence.

If we are in Christ, the Apostle Paul states, we are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5: 17), no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12: 2).  Of all people, being set free from sin and self, now free in Christ and free under the Constitution, we ought to know who we are, who we’re to be, and have the power to do what we ought.  We ought to be “about” self-definition, but more basically, “all about” Christ-definition as we give witness to the fruit of His Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control as we participate in the broken and divided political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation - Part 1 (Continued): Serving with Our Creator in Truth

Our recent Oikonomia entries on “Fundamentals of Conservation” have emphasized that biblical environmental stewardship, or “biblical conservation” is truly “con-service” or serving with creation. But to serve with creation requires a knowledge of and obedience to what matters to God based upon knowledge of His Holy Scriptures.  In our May Oikonomia, we emphasized that those who would practice biblical conservation must share a child’s eagerness to learn about the world and to submit eagerly to God’s plans for creation as revealed in Scripture.  But, how can we develop and apply child-like faith in God’s Truth in a world that seems increasingly antagonistic, particularly toward Judeo-Christian truth claims?   The answer lies in Christ’s instruction to His disciples and to us.

Before His death and resurrection, Christ prayed for His disciples and all of us who would follow Him later:  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth (John 17: 16-17).  Although we are in the world, we can pursue God’s truth through prayer and meditation in His Word.  Without it, our thinking and our actions toward creation are distorted and limited in ultimate value.   Unfortunately, increasing numbers of people deny that the Bible has anything to say about the origin, purpose, and destiny of creation.  Therefore, it is important that we emphasize in this entry that conservers of creation must ultimately be “obedient conservers of Truth.”

Jesus Christ, the Creator, has already come into His creation full of grace and truth (John 1: 14b) to bring us Eternal Life through faith both here on Earth and in our Life to come on the New Earth.  Therefore, would-be steward conservationists should recognize that every act that is intended to do good toward the Earth should be done with the reality that unless the contributor has individually reconciled with God and accepted His atonement for sin, he or she is on a path to eternal Hell.  Such a path is quite divergent from the path of the Earth which has a much brighter future.  Therefore, it stands to reason that God-pleasing stewards of creation must know something of God’s heart for the creation and be able to express His will in words and in acts of conservation.
Smokey Bear poster (1944):  We are beginning to
recover from this false view of land stewardship.

Today as a case in point, many are wondering about the “State of the Earth” and what actions we should take as stewards to conserve the life support system of Earth.  But the more we study the biosphere the more complex we realize it is.  Conservation efforts once thought to be wise—e.g. saving forests by preventing forest fires, saving wildlife populations by restricting hunting in the absence of natural predators, or saving wildlife populations by importing alien species to control them—all have produced some unintended consequences.   One would think such consequences would be cause for humility in our science.

I am concerned that the increasingly politically driven efforts to thwart the alleged human-caused climate change may end up as yet another set of unintended consequences.  Most scientists would agree that “there is no such thing as ‘settled science’.”  Yet today, in spite of scientific evidence on both sides of the question of human-caused climate change, each side of the argument seeks to silence or ignore the other.  Many scientists find it difficult to resist the strong and tempting offers of large research grants which lead to more publications and professional advancement.  A scriptural approach to this temptation is to insist on open dialog among those whose data contradict, perhaps because they have taken different research or because they use different assumptions in their climate models.  A true scientific understanding of creation requires open, honest dialog, rigorous hypothesis testing, skepticism, peer review, and avoidance of overstating conclusions.  We have called this good science.”

The scientist Johannes Kepler described science as "thinking God's thoughts after Him."  It ought to follow that obedient conservers of creation use “good science” as a means to accurately “speak” on behalf of their Creator about His creation.  We might liken this relationship based on truth to a good speechwriter who seeks to capture a sense of the values and passion of the one he or she serves.  For example, Peggy Noonan was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, the “great communicator” in the early 1980’s.  In her 2001 NY Times bestseller, When Character Was King, Noonan attributes Reagan’s commitment to truth and truth-telling as the basis for his effectiveness as the world leader credited with the eventual fall of Soviet communism.   She writes:

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

Ronald Reagan loved the truth.   We all do or say we do, but for Reagan it was like fresh water, something he needed and wanted.  He loved the truth for a number of reasons, a primary one of which is that he thought it…uniquely constructive.  He thought that by voicing it you were beginning to make things better.  He thought the truth is the only foundation on which can be built something strong and good and lasting—because only truth endures.  Lies die.  (When Character Was King, p. 200)

Peggy Noonan illustrates how the power of spoken truth through President Reagan brought change to people, governments, and the world.   Unlike many American leaders during the era of Soviet domination of much of Asia and Eastern Europe, Reagan spoke the truth about Soviet totalitarianism without apology.  His message reached the Soviet prisons where Russian dissidents began to hear it whispered by their guards, or through radio broadcasts.  Noonan shares the testimony of one Russian dissident, Anatoly Shchransky:

Sometimes he and other men would empty out the toilets and the sinks and whisper to each other through the pipes.  Sometimes they used code, from cell to cell.  And there were other ways he didn’t want to talk about.  But he wanted me to know that there were times when Ronald Reagan spoke that the gulag would explode with a great racket of taps, knocks and whispers as they heard what he said and passed it on.

Some of Reagan’s words of truth that were whispered and tapped through Soviet prisons were probably ones he spoke to the British Parliament, on June 8 1982:   Here is the enduring greatness of the British contribution to mankind, the great civilized ideas:  individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law under God.

Eventually, the iron curtain was torn open, the wall came down, and cell doors holding political dissidents swung open to provide freedom from the oppression of Soviet communism because of the words and the actions of Ronald Reagan and others who spoke the truth.  Although today the scourge of totalitarian governments under communism and Islamic extremists threaten and destroy individual freedom and plunge civil societies back into darkness, there still exists within the hearts of many who have not been broken and discouraged the desire to be free and to participate in a society of the self-governed. 

And mankind can no more create and maintain responsible government by the people than he can function effectively in the larger sphere of trying to practice conservation of the planet.  At least, not unless he understands the truth that our rights and privileges come from above, from Almighty God, Who has made us stewards, serving at His behest. 

And how can we serve God, and keep (serve with) creation without walking in close obedience to God through His Word?  Just as a speechwriter must know the mainspring of truth that drives her boss in order to help him communicate his or her convictions, so we must know the heart of God through His Scriptures if we are to do anything worthwhile and lasting toward our neighbor and the Earth.  Out of this intimacy of relationship through the Word of Truth, we can both serve God and serve with creation—and do so with the right motives, passion, and purpose whispered and tapped into our souls by our Heavenly Father.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation - Part 1 Serving with Our Creator (Continued)

I’m amazed at what I can learn from our grandchildren.  This week, our daughter saw her daughter, Della, walking barefoot in the backyard.  Della had fashioned a broken branch into what she later termed her “hiking stick.” As you can imagine, this was impressive to her grandpa.  Within 24 hours, six-year-old Della, and her twice-as-old sister, Kiara, had joined me to hike in a nearby state nature preserve, Johnson Woods.  Of course, we each had to bring along our trusty hiking sticks just like Della.

Granddaughter, Della, leading our hike at Johnson Woods
I’ve relished the opportunity over the years to point others to the wisdom and workings of God’s creation, but this day was one of two days in May of this year that was exceptional. Earlier this month, Kiara had invited me to help her study for her 6th grade science test.  But instead of sitting down at her desk or kitchen table, she insisted that we drive to a woodland near her school.  Turns out her science teacher had introduced her class to this woodland on a recent science field trip.  Bravo to her teacher!

I must admit to being skeptical of Kiara’s motives in inviting me to help her study in this way.  I have many memories of being invited to assist young scholars with their science projects only to find them playing me for quick and easy answers to avoid the focus necessary for real learning and appreciation of the creation.  But, my granddaughter was serious about this trip because she had already decided during her first experience in the woods with her science class that grandpa would enjoy it, too.  Furthermore, her focus upon learning ecological principles was unwavering as she led me along the forest trails with her review sheet in hand.  This experience was such a blessing, I was inspired to reflect as follows:

Hiking in a Spring Forest--
with My Granddaughter Kiara

Grandpa, you must see it, she said.
My teacher took us
into the woods near our school.
You’d really like it; let’s go.

But for awhile, I was too busy.
“I’m helping your dad
with some important things,” I said.
Maybe tomorrow we can go.

“But Grandpa, my science test,
It’s tomorrow,” she pleaded.
“You can help me—it’s about plants,
and soil and water.  See my notes?”

Later, I consented to go,
And I’m so thankful I did.
We drove to the school.
The woodland welcomed us.

She pointed to an opening
in the forest edge.
“Here’s the trail,” she said.
“This looks wonderful,” I replied.

Surrounded by the beauty
of Mayapple and Violets,
we had science to learn.
We blended the two quite well.

“Plants are producers,” she said.
Using sunlight and carbon dioxide,
they make food for herbivores,
and they, in turn, for carnivores.

“Look, the trail’s flooded,” she points.
“This water will evaporate,
and condense again as rain.
Then, runoff or go to groundwater.”

Granddaughter, Kiara, during our science hike.
I marveled at Granddaughter Kiara’s attentiveness toward the creation around her—wildflowers soaking in rays of sunlight filtering through the Spring tree canopy, fallen logs in the midst of decay which replenishes the soil, and standing water finding its way to points deep within and beneath the root zone.  Each component of this woodland ecosystem became a placeholder for Kiara’s growing understanding of this corner of God’s creation.  We connected clouds and vernal pools to the hydrologic cycle; green leaves, photosynthesis, and fallen logs and leaves to the carbon cycle; and clover and lawn fertilizer to the nitrogen cycle.  I sensed that she was gaining in understanding of the “bigger picture” while at the same time experiencing an awareness of being in the presence of something much bigger than she could fully comprehend.  Indeed, Kiara’s measured words and long pauses to look around her made me realize that, although I may have a more extensive knowledge of the workings of the creation, there is much about it that I also do not understand.

Could it be that many of us who profess to have an adult understanding of ecology and related sciences would do well to reflect on our own scientific and faith journeys since grade school science classes.  Jesus said, Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18: 3-4).  Jesus taught the disciples to pray along the lines of, Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6: 10).   Christ is teaching that spiritual conversion and a humble disposition are essential to citizens of God’s kingdom including all who wish to be God-honoring stewards of creation? 

In Part 1 of our “Fundamentals of Conservation” series (See Oikonomia, April 30), we emphasized the importance of first being reconciled with God so that enmity can be exchanged for intimacy.  This is not to say we should ignore our responsibility as stewards of the Earth,  Instead, as we walk closely with God and “abide in the vine” without which we can do nothing (John 15: 5), we begin to acquire God’s great heart for both lost mankind and for His groaning creation (Rom. 8: 19-22). 

What better disposition to walk intimately with God than that of a child full of awe and wonder at creation, motivated to learn more about its workings, and receptive to the notion of conservation-- “serving creation” as stewards by “serving with” God.  For this reminder, I thank my granddaughter to whom I dedicate this blog entry.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation -- Part I "Serving With" Our Creator

Spring is here and with it, green grass, colorful flowers, and joyful people breaking forth from the confinement and discomfort of a long winter.  Our thoughts turn to breaking out the rakes, mowers, and other implements to spruce up the grounds.  Some of us have only a tiny lawn and perhaps a flower bed along a foundation or sidewalk.  Others have an extensive lawn and maybe a “back forty” that requires hours to manage each week.   Regardless of the acreage, our work takes on a rich meaning when we recognize the biblical responsibility of being stewards of the land entrusted to our care.

This blog entry is the first of three parts on the subject of conservation, or as some call it, land (or Earth) stewardship.  Both conservation and stewardship carry the notion of serving with or for the benefit of another as opposed to serving oneself.  The word conservation is derived from the Latin, con- (with) + servitium (service).  Therefore, as explained by Dr. Calvin DeWitt a highly respected leader in Christian environmental stewardship, a conservationist is one who serves with the household of life.  That is, as humankind acts responsibly in service toward the Earth, the Earth will continue in its service toward humans and all life—hence, a con-service.

As humans obey God and "keep" creation, God and His
creation will "keep" mankind--the essence of "con-service"
The Bible teaches in Genesis 2:15 and elsewhere that God appointed Adam and his descendants as stewards of creation. A steward is one who is appointed by his or her superior to manage a household or property to which the superior holds title.  DeWitt asserts that conservation and stewardship are both empowered by a commitment to serve with creation.  Furthermore, the steward of God’s creation recognizes that he or she is not only called to serve with creation but to do so out of a commitment to serve with the Creator God Himself.

Our three-part series in Oikonomia will consider conservation and creation stewardship from the perspective of Judeo-Christian teaching in Scripture.  Specifically, we will consider what it means (a) to serve with God, the Creator and Sustainer of Earth, (b) to serve with creation out of a knowledge of the ecological relationships we understand from science, and (c) to serve with our neighbor, given that our stewardship of God’s creation will always impact not only creation but also our neighbor.   

My thesis for Part 1 is that while many today have a deep sense of caring for the Earth in the face of possible human destruction, God’s plan is moving toward a second judgment, one that will lead eventually to a New Earth as part of His plan to bring reconciliation and resurrection to all who have accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin.  As Randy Alcorn teaches, Jesus Christ died to secure for us a resurrected life on a resurrected Earth (Heaven, p 131; Tyndall House, 2004).   Those who accept this claim about the future of Earth and mankind should view conservation in a different light.  That is, we should recognize that every act that is intended to do good toward the Earth should be done with the reality that unless the contributor has individually reconciled with God and accepted His atonement for sin, he or she is on a path to eternal Hell.  Meanwhile, the Earth has a much brighter future in spite of its current groaning under the weight of sin (Rom. 8: 19-22).  But how do we balance or reconcile these two legitimate priorities—concern for individuals needing reconciliation with God; and, exercise of our responsibility to be stewards of Earth as part of our dominion mandate from God?

The Bible teaches us that God created the universe (Gen. 1:1) and granted to humans alone the privilege of exercising dominion over creation to serve Him in part through serving and keeping creation (Genesis 1: 28; 2: 15).  The great theme of Scripture is the unfailing love of God for His creation and for all of mankind.  God’s desire for fellowship with mankind is expressed in the creation of Adam and Eve whom He invited into perfect communion with Him in the Garden of Eden.  We understand that Adam and Eve did walk with and serve with God for a period of time (Gen. 2: 28: 3: 8-9).

The metaphor of walking with God is presented throughout Scripture to describe the intimate communion God desires with anyone who will return His love in obedient submission.  Enoch (Gen. 5: 22, 24), Noah (Gen. 6:9), and Abraham as well as other patriarchs (Gen. 48:15) walked with God.  Their faith and obedience faltered at times but was hinged upon God’s revelation of His covenant plan to them—a plan that would ultimately result in descendents as many as “the sand of the sea” (Gen. 32: 12).

When I think of the Enoch, Noah, and the patriarchs, I think of the list of giants of the faith in Hebrews 11.  My reaction:  Who am I to compare with these giants?  Yet, the Apostle James challenges us to walk with God as the giants like Elijah did, saying, Elijah was a man with a nature [just] like ours… (James 5: 17).  Each of the “heroes of faith” is just like us.  And, just like them, when God calls us to a life of obedience, He expects us to respond by understanding and following His leading.  Thus, Noah was warned of coming judgment and he constructed the ark (Heb. 11: 7).  And Abraham was called to go out to a land God would provide for him and his descendants (Heb. 11: 8).  

God has done more than call us to walk with Him.  He even puts within our hearts the capacity to know and believe in Him-- because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them (Rom. 1: 19-20).   While all living cells, microbes, and plants can respond in predictable ways to God’s provision of warmth, water, nutrients, and light, these forms of life are incapable of higher level thinking that shows an ability to take responsibility for their survival through complex behavior that anticipates future challenges.  Only certain animals including humans can build safe shelters to protect them and their young against predators or other danger; or, store food during the favorable seasons so that they have a supply during the unfavorable season.  But mankind is the only creature of God capable of abstract reasoning.  Humans can imagine events thousands of miles away or build mathematical models that enable them to travel or send spacecraft to the moon or other planets.  Above all, God has given humans the capacity through faith to believe in Him, to understand His redemptive plan for mankind and His creation, and to walk in obedience to that plan.

Genesis 3 records how Satan deceived Adam and Eve by successfully tempting them to believe that their  walk with God would be more intimate if they would eat of the forbidden fruit and thus obtain a fuller (or “higher”) knowledge of God (Gen. 3: 5).  But instead, when they ate from the tree, they wanted to hide their nakedness and hide from God because of sin, guilt, and shame.  For the first time, their obedient walk with God was broken and they sensed that something was deeply wrong as they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8).  And, for the first time, the great God-given capacity of humans to walk with God and serve with God was turned to walk away from God, hide from Him, and to serve human interests. 

In spite of the infinite gulf which sin and the fall of mankind created between a holy God and sinful man, all humans still have the capacity for intellectual reasoning, a universal sense of what is right and wrong, and a tendency to react when moral standards have been violated.  C.S. Lewis has explained in Mere Christianity that there exists a common or universal morality known throughout all of humanity.  This “Universal Morality” or “Law of Nature” is expressed as a standard for behavior to which each person expects others to adhere.

In spite of the effects of sin and its curse on mankind and the whole creation, we have retained our reasoning ability but it is often distorted.  Romans 1: 21-22 states that we have become futile in our speculations and our foolish heart is darkened.    When we profess to be wise but we are actually fools.  Adam and Eve reasoned that they could use green fig leaves to make clothing to cover their nakedness and shame (Gen. 3: 7).   When Abel sought to walk with God and express his obedience through a better sacrifice, his brother Cain turned from God in anger and killed Abel (Gen. 4: 8; Heb. 11: 4).

Individual sin against God had brought grief to Adam’s family and, within several generations. Genesis 6: 5 records that every intent of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continually.  God used the obedience of Noah and his family to spare the human race and the land-dwelling creatures from judgment. 

After the flood, God renewed His charge to humankind to exercise dominion and stewardship over the Earth, and He offered His covenant that He would not again judge the Earth with water (Gen. 9: 11).  The Book of Revelation describes the next worldwide judgment on God’s calendar which will also lead to a New Heaven and a New Earth.  We learn from the account of Noah that that (a) God is serious about judging sin,  (b) has a great love for humankind and His other creatures, and (c) is capable of altering planet Earth in a major way and yet is able to restore in modified form the Earth’s biosphere.  Yet within a few generations, sin had infected the institution of government as we read of the attempt to construct a tower to reach heaven in defiance of God because they sought to make for [themselves] a name (Gen. 11: 4).

And so, reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation will reveal two opposing themes. God’s faithful love, justice, and mercy in the face of human rebellion versus the human attempt to build a society that glorifies mankind without God.   Although human reason remains intact, it is corrupted by sin.  Therefore, unless we apply a biblical worldview (filter) to our current sin-cursed state and the cursed state of creation, we cannot walk with our Creator.  Amos 3:3 rightly asks, Can two walk together, except they be agreed?  Anyone who wants their lifestyle of stewardship of the Earth to be a part of their walk with their Creator will be missing God’s mark if they do not understand from Scripture that God’s heart is broken over sinful man and the effects of sin on His creation.  There are several reasons why our walk would not be in step with God . 

First, epistemologically, we err and do not walk with God when we refuse to build our basis for knowing and judging truth claims on a biblical foundation.  For example, we err ontologically when we deny God’s special creation of a literal Adam and Eve.  Such denial would undermine belief in the uniqueness of humankind.  Some who view humans as just another evolved creature would solve Earth’s environmental problems by denying mankind dominion over creation and giving nonhuman creatures “equal rights” with humans; or viewing humankind as a blight or plague on the Earth as several Hollywood productions such as the movie Noah recently teach.

Theologically, we do not walk with God if we deny individual accountability for sin which Scripture teaches began with the “first Adam” and is atoned for by the “Second Adam”, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:45; 1 Tim. 2:13).  It is possible to be active in conservation or “creation care” and do some good for the Earth.  But unless we walk with God in agreement, we will not understand that we are individually accountable to Him and responsible for the curse of sin and resultant groaning of creation that He now hears (Rom. 8: 19-22).

Failure to walk with God in agreement with His Word can lead to a failure to distinguish actions we should take as stewards out of an individual accountability to God as opposed to our giving unwise support to national or multinational bodies that claim to have the best interest of the Earth in mind but who are simply playing politics for gain of power and wealth.  For example, the wise steward who walks with God and abides in the Truth of His Word will be a diligent student of the current climate change debate—asking telling questions.  How valid are the scientific data?  What are objective, qualified scientists now concluding about climate change?  What are causes of ambiguity in the debate?  How practical are proposed solutions?  Who stands to gain or lose? 

In conclusion Christians in conservation are called to be stewards of God’s creation by wisely applying the gifts, talents, and opportunities available to them.  Actions must be based on good theology, good science, and a commitment to do what will provide the most good for both creation and the most people.  Above all, we should not forget the urgent need to present the Gospel to our fallen neighbors who are in far more immediate danger than the Earth if they have not heard of the coming judgment for their sin. 

In Part 2, we will consider Serving With Creation  where my thesis is that an intimate walk with God gives us a disposition that submits to God’s natural revelation in such a way that we can both learn from creation and work with it – i.e. to serve with creation.