Cracks in the pavement: an emerging story of new creation
This essay was originally written for Restoring Eden, a Christian environmental network, as an attempt to ‘outline a narrative eschatology… that would validate a positive creational theology’. In the interests of cross-pollination they have kindly allowed me to post it here in advance of its publication on www.restoringeden.org. So please buzz over there and sprinkle the pollen of Open Source Theology on the sexy anthers of Restoring Eden. And vice versa.
The essay is written from inside the emerging church conversation. It does not presume to represent an emerging church consensus, but it shares two key concerns: that the ‘mission’ of the church should in some way embrace the whole of creation, and that our theology should be constructed in the first place as narrative. It attempts, therefore, to explain the relation between the church and creation simply by means of a retelling of the biblical story.
The call of Abram was a call to restart creation. Humanity was not working properly. When people first began to multiply on the face of the land (so the story goes), God saw the extent of human wickedness and the violence that filled the earth and decided to sweep away in a cataclysmic flood the life that had been created. After the flood people began again to multiply and spread across the earth, but when they came to a plain in the land of Shinar, they settled and began to build a city for themselves and a tower that would reach the heavens. Fearing that humanity would over-reach itself, the Lord again acted in judgment, scattering the people across the face of the earth and confusing their speech.
So we have a humanity with a strong propensity for violence, with ambitions to make a name for itself by means of its technological ingenuity, dispersed throughout the world in isolated linguistic groups. At this point God intervenes again, not to judge this time but to initiate something new. He promises Abram that he will make him a great nation. He will bless him and make his name great; he will make him fruitful, he will multiply his descendants so that they will be like the dust of the earth, as the stars of heaven; and most importantly he will give to those descendants the land of Canaan, in which they will prosper.
The language is, of course, familiar. The promise that they will be blessed, that they will be fruitful and be multiplied and fill the land clearly invokes the creational paradigm of Genesis 1:28: ‘And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth….”’ With one significant difference this is a renewal of humanity – the difference being that the whole earth has been replaced by the small but fecund land of Canaan.
Humanity has failed to carry out the original mandate on a global scale, so a people is brought into existence to be that creation in microcosm, in the midst of the nations of the earth. When Israel eventually gains possession of the land, the covenant with Moses sets out the conditions under which they will enjoy the goodness of their creation-within-a-creation, their Eden in the world. Deuteronomy 28 is especially important here. If they obey the voice of the Lord their God and keep his commandments and statutes, all will be well; they will be blessed and will be a blessing to others. If they fail to obey the voice of God, both they and their environment will be cursed, just as creation was originally cursed by Adam’s disobedience. They will suffer sickness and drought; their livestock will be barren; their crops will fail; they will be defeated and killed by their enemies; ultimately, they will be driven from the land and exiled among the nations.
The call to be an authentic creation in microcosm, humanity in prosperous harmony with its environment, almost gets drowned out in the noisy progress of Israel’s history. But not quite. The psalmists never forget that the earth and its fulness belong to the Lord, that the created order declares the glory of God, that the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord when he comes to judge the earth. This is undoubtedly poetic language but it at least reminds the worshipping community that we approach the Lord of heaven and earth as creatures in an ecosystem.
Spinning into night
The prophets also understand that Israel’s story is mirrored in its environment. When Israel sins, the earth suffers with it: ‘The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers…. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt… (Isaiah 24:3-6). And when the hope of forgiveness and restoration breaks through the clouds, creation rejoices and will be renewed: ‘For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off’ (Isaiah 55:13).
But now we come to an important question. What happens to this hope? For we are at a point in the story when the lights are beginning to go out. Israel’s small, troubled world-within-a-world is spinning into night. The people are torn apart by injustice and sectarianism, misruled by their kings and priests, bullied by their various pagan overlords; the sanctity of the temple and Jerusalem is repeatedly threatened by the presence of Gentiles. It’s all moving towards a dramatic, indeed horrifying, climax.
The final collapse of the microcosm is announced emphatically by Jesus. Invading armies will devastate the land; the city of the great king, the house of the living God, will be destroyed; the people will be slaughtered or once again scattered in confusion across the earth. It has all become a house built on sand that will not escape being swept away when the floods come.
In the beginning was the word
But there would not be nothing left. A new creational microcosm would emerge from the ruins of the old, a new world-within-a-world would be born. This, I would argue, is fundamentally what is saved by Jesus – to cut a long story much too short. He is the Word that brings a new creation into existence; he is the life of this new world; he is the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance and folly; he is the tabernacle, the place of God’s dwelling in its midst; he is Jacob, the beginning of a new people, called to demonstrate to the world what it means to be authentic humanity.
How that renewal comes about takes us to the heart of the New Testament story. Jesus gathers a community around himself that must survive the violent disintegration of the old age and the traumatic birth of the new. It is a community that will have to share his trust in the Father, that will have to walk the same narrow path that he walked, carrying the cross that he carried – rejection, humiliation, harrassment, ill-treatment, and quite possibly death. It is a community that must be prepared to suffer the birthpains of the coming age for the sake of God’s reign over this emerging humanity, for the sake of God’s presence in the midst of this world-within-a-world.
My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man is that what made sense of these circumstances and gave hope to the church as it faced the hostility of Roman imperialism was the story that Jesus and others told about one like a son of man who would be seen – just as Daniel ‘saw’ him – coming on the clouds of heaven to the throne of the Ancient of Days to receive ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’. This human figure is not simply an individual. He is also the suffering community of the righteous, the saints of the Most High, against whom an arrogant and blasphemous pagan power makes war. It is a frightening vision, but it carries the profound assurance that God will defeat his enemies and vindicate those who trust in him.
The vindication of the persecuted church, both the living and the dead, marks the end of the long eschatological night. The microcosm is spinning into the light again, but with a new king, a new lord, and the Spirit of God possessing the hearts of its people.
The perennial hope of a renewed humanity is not to be with God in heaven – that is at most an anomaly, a digression, a subplot in the story of God’s world-within-a-world. The hope is that God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). There will be a new heaven and a new earth, in which there will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more injustice and violence, no more decay and death; and the dwelling of God will be with humanity. That is the vision that defines the scope of our vocation.
If at first you don’t succeed…
When the early church eventually emerged battered but vindicated from its long struggle with Rome, it set about the task of being new humanity. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the model of human society it adopted was the imperial one: a highly structured, hierarchically governed polity that aspired to bring the whole earth under its control. The creational microcosm of Christendom lasted in one form or another for 1500 years – a mixed blessing to the world. But the paradigm has now collapsed under the weight of history, and we are again having to ask what it means to be an authentic humanity on display in the world.
The challenge that we face, then, is both practical and prophetic. We always have to be the new creation, which means three things: that we make the creative God central to our life as community; that we demonstrate a commitment to justice and love amongst ourselves that heals the deep divisions and hurts of the old world; and that we respect the ‘land’ that has been given to us – we cannot be a world-within-the-world without taking the created environment into account.
But in pursuing this agenda we should also be a sign to the world that things could be different; we make an alternative way of being human visible. That is a prophetic function, and it calls for a collective imagination that will dramatize, publicize, inflate, amplify the story of a God who makes all things new – just as the prophet from Nazareth transformed a simple journey into Jerusalem into a powerful and subversive story about the coming of God as king to defeat his enemies and deliver his people from oppression. In this post-modern, post-Christendom age the world-within-a-world that we are called to be is bound to exist marginally, in the cracks in our societies – like grass and weeds growing through cracks in the pavement. But we exist prophetically – and that is a powerful way to be.