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 God & Creation at Quaker YM 2000


God, Creation and Yearly Meeting 2000

Alastair McIntosh

First published in The Friends Quarterly, 32:2, April 2000, 49-58 as a background paper in preparation for my introduction to Britain Yearly Meeting's agenda item, God in All Creation, 26-29 May 2000.



I have been asked to introduce the theme of “God in all Creation” at this year’s Yearly Meeting. One of the Agenda Committee’s documents said that the objective was “to challenge people to look at things afresh, to open up the topic in a lively but non-threatening way.” I suggested that they maybe had the wrong person there! How could we explore the state of the planet and its relationship to how we live our lives in a way that wasn’t deeply threatening, especially to the relatively rich? But the threatening side of it - the species extinction, the possible climate change, the horses of the apocalypse - are only one side of this agenda. If we can face these harsh realities and own our complicity in the death of nature, another reality starts to shine through. We notice that the spring bulbs are coming up. Buds are swelling. The birds are singing. Whatever humankind might be doing, nature clearly views herself as a “going concern.” That spells hope.


I was asked by the Agenda Committee sub-group to help Friends to reflect on the theology necessary to incorporate not just “God in everyone,” but “God in all Creation.” In other words, a linkage was to be made between social justice and ecological justice - justice being understood, for my purposes here, as the articulation of love out into the world.


However, there was a perceived problem in this. Ecotheologies may excite some of us, but for others they appear dangerously close to idolatry and can seem at first sight to have little to do with our Society’s Christian roots. This view would probably be held particularly by some older Friends; indeed, there is something of a generation gap on the matter of orthodoxy, if I may call it that in Quaker circles.


In the process of discernment with Agenda Committee and in the month that has followed, I have decided to tackle this concern head on. I am not going to say too much about the content of my draft YM text here since it is still being collectively discerned over, and I don’t want to pre-empt the probable business of YM. However, what I’ve basically done is to address the idolatry of not understanding the full significance of God’s Creation. I therefore acknowledge warmly the profound insights into that significance gained from other faiths, but suggest that, as Friends, our distinctive contribution is a sacramental theology of everyday life that has been, and still can be, derived from a broadened and deepened understanding of the world as the “Body of Christ.” In other words, I have decided to approach the subject from a deeply orthodox position ... but it is a radical orthodoxy! It bridges, I hope, Christian insight certainly with Universalist, and even with “neopagan” or “nature religion” leanings in our Society. Attempting this is a concern that I believe it to be the work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit being concerned more with the unity of God than with humankind’s rigid doctrinal consistencies which, given the strictures of the human mind and its social structures, often fails to allow God sufficient space in which to be fully God.


What I would like to do in this paper, then, is to explore more deeply the Biblical basis of such a Christian syncretist position. I want to see, specifically, why it is that if we fully “own” our Christian heritage we become necessarily drawn into a Creation-centred theology: one that draws deeply on the femininity of God; on God as depicted, for instance, even as having a womb from which nature pours forth and travails in Job 38:29 and Romans 8:22.


It might be helpful at this stage to distinguish between the terms theology, religion and spirituality. A theological viewpoint is grounded in a body of learning, or presumed learning, concerning the nature of God. Religion is the social expression of this.


The word, spirituality, has much less specific meanings. Spirituality informs both theology and religion. Some people use “spirituality” to mean our “utmost concerns.” Others, like Walter Wink, see the spiritual as being the interior reality of outward forms.  I shall use the word to mean that which relates to the experience of God. As God is life as love, spirituality is about coming to know the meanings of love in all its passions.


Ecological spirituality is presently a reforming voice within many churches at this time in history. Scripture reminds us that our present predicaments are not new. It suggests, moreover, that human life does not necessarily have to lead to destruction. The “healing of the Nations” is our vocation and destination (Ezekiel 47 & Revelation 22). There are guidlines for both social justice and for right relationship to the land - for example the “Jubilee” or “acceptable year of the Lord” land ethic of Leviticus 25 etc. - the spirit of which Jesus endorses by his reference in Luke 4:19. Jesus was, of course, selective in his use of Scripture. He quotes the right-on parts of Isaiah in Luke 4 but not the bits about domination. We too owe it to God to apply discernment. That is why we are provided with the Holy Spirit and why Quakerism revolves around it as the tool of our business method. We must remember too that the Bible is substantially a mythopoetic text. Poetic ways of thinking and feeling feel strange to modern minds schooled in Greek dualistic reason predicated on linear logic. Some of Scripture’s most poetic insights suggest that our lives can be enriched by understanding the Creation to reveal the majesty of God. Such is, arguably, the poetic structure underlying a physics and biology that was set in place by God making the “Word” incarnate.


When Jesus says that he comes in order that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10), part of that abundance entails seeing God through all created things. Jesus’ parable of the vine (John 15:1-17) illustrates a deep interconnectedness of all life. And in identifying the pre-existence of Christ with the primordial incarnation of God, John’s gospel endorses an underlying unity (1:1-4). Indeed, we are told that not one thing was made without God, and this light of life “was the true light which enlightens every person coming into the world” (1:9).


John 1:3 also suggests that the deep unity of life even includes inanimate objects. The idea that these are in some sense “alive” is not alien to Scripture, as some critics who are wary of appearing “pagan” or “New Age” make out. Joshua, like some of the pre-Reformation inhabitants of Iona, considered that a stone could serve as a witness (24:27); and the Authorised translation gives us to understand that he placed the stone in a sanctuary to God under an oak tree. This sounds positively Druidic. Isaiah 55:12-13 speaks of trees that clap and mountains bursting into song. Whilst this may be poetic metaphor, we must remember that poetry communicates deep reality in a mythopoetic culture. It is more true than literal truth. Those cultures, like ours, that mainly deny the poetic basis of reality are precisely those plagued by meaninglessness.


Scripturally speaking then, there is no reason to consider caring for a mountain, forest or endangered species to be “unchristian,” unless, of course, the natural object is taken out of divine context and set up as an idol in its own right. Indeed, there is every reason to suggest not just that God expects us to be ecologists (Genesis 2:15) but that God too is “personally” concerned with ecological restoration work (Ezekiel 36:33-36). Such “re-setting the seeds of Eden,” as an Irish treeplanter friend of mine calls it, is integral to the realisation of heaven on Earth.


Interestingly, John Calvin was very open to what he called the “beautiful theatre” of the created world in which we might do well “to take pious delight” (Institutes, I: xiv:20). That said, most post-Reformation Presbyterian and Puritan opinion has often portrayed nature, like humankind, as being profoundly fallen. This has driven out the immanence of God’s presence in nature. In its place came God as a transcendent entity. God is both immanent and transcendent, but whereas an unbalanced emphasis on the immanent can lead to idolatry, so too much of the transcendent disconnects us from reality and places all hope in  “pie in the sky when you die.” That too is idolatrous.


It is my view that this tendency to deny the immanent must be carefully understood historically in the context of  those exoduses - both actual and psychological - that resulted from land enclosure and consequent population shifts off the land throughout Britain in the early modern era.


Social historian Christopher Hill has shown how widespread was the theological angst caused by land enclosure in England. In an appendix to his book, The English Bible and the 17th Century Revolution (Penguin), he points to similarities between what the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, early Quakers and others were saying and 20th century Latin American liberation theology. We see this given ecological expression, of course, in passages like that where John Woolman said, “to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age”; or in William Penn’s musings that we would be happier “if we studied nature more in natural things; and acted according to nature.”


Gerard Winstanley, the Leveller who probably died a Quaker, points towards a taproot of English social and ecological values that might again be drawn upon today to rebuild a damaged sense of national identity. Indeed, it is important that the work of 17th century radical thinkers become better known by English people who want to disassociate from their country’s colonial history and re-establish some very wonderful qualities of the English spirit. As Christopher Hill shows in The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin), these reformers used the newly translated Bible to advance a liberation theology of the right to land, freedom from oppression, and a “levelling” of differences in rank. They stood up against the landlords’ “wage slavery” on grounds of being no man’s Lord and no man’s servant. For Winstanley, Christ was the “Head Leveller.” In a trance-like vision he had been given the divine command to, “Work together; eat bread together.” Addressing the holders of landed power who, to this day, retain much of England’s green and pleasant land through control structures that have their origin in the Norman conquest, he said:


The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land... True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the Earth.


England’s radical movements were brutally suppressed. Quakerism was there sole institutional survivor, and that gives Friends a special responsibility in honouring this heritage. In Scotland, the relative recency of fragmentation between people and the land in the Highlands allows particularly close scrutiny of the role of theology, both in causing and in healing our alienation from the Creation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the prophetic voice of God’s socio-ecological theology became profoundly distorted by the Established Church. But as Professor Donald Meek has shown (Scottish Geographical Magazine, 103, 84-89), it was to resurge as an indigenous liberation theology of the land, culminating in the 1886 Crofting Act.


But this was not before the seeds of a theology had been laid which diminished the implications of God's immanence. Significant numbers of pre-Disruption (i.e. pre-1843) Established churchmen had preached, with respect to land Clearances and famine, "that the Lord had a controversy with the land for the people's wickedness; and that in his providence, and even in his mercy, he had sent this scourge to bring them to repentance” (Donald MacLeod’s Gloomy Memories, 1892). The geologist Hugh Miller cited people of Sutherland responding that, "We were ruined and reduced to beggary before, and now the gospel is taken from us." Sadly, the post-Disruption Free Church of Scotland internalised many of the mindsets it might have challenged. This was almost inevitable because a predestinarian theology of the elect cannot but have fear at its heart. We should remember that this was not unique to Calvinism. Many early Friends shared the pernicious interpretation of Scripture that divided humankind into the “elect” who went to Heaven and the “damned” who went downstairs. Indeed, this belief in election was the 17th century origin of Friends calling themselves the “peculiar people,” peculiar here meaning “chosen” by God.


Theologies of fear invariably drive folks towards dour conservatism. They account for the massive self-obsession of much religious concern. Such obsession is not with right relationship with nature and others, but with personal salvation. It is a problem that will not be redressed until mainstream theology addresses some of the problems of God being understood as a fearful God.  One of the few places this problem is explored is in Carl Jung’s Answer to Job (Routledge) - I’d recommend the first rather than the second half of it.


The legacy of this obsession with personal salvation has until recently been a deficiency of theologies willing to explore the implications of God’s social and ecological justice. We need look only at the construct of the British state to see how deeply rooted this is. Our fundamental constitutional instrument, the 1707 Treaty of Union, declares in Article 2 that Britain will forever be a Protestant nation. The sovereign may not marry “a Papist or person married to a Papist.” The 1953 Royal Titles Act carries this right through to modern times, designating that the Queen, representing sovereign power, is “Defender of the Faith” by “Divine Grace.” This accounts for the letters FD and DG on all British coins of the realm. However, the Defender’s Bishops are appointed through a nomination process that requires Prime Ministerial sanction. For some present incumbents that meant the Iron Lady. Accordingly, it does not surprise church leaders in Scotland when Church of England counterparts fail to raise their voices very much at times like the Gulf War. The established church’s concern is with charity more than with God’s structural social and ecological justice; it is with helping people to believe that their insurance premiums will cover them as effectively in the next life as they did in this one.


Of course, I have a cheek coming from Scotland and saying this, in Quaker circles, about English society and its established church. But those structures affect the spiritual life of Britain as a whole. And we know, don’t we, that many, many, within the Church of England wish that such criticisms were voice all the more loudly so that they might be encouraged in their efforts to awaken a more radical English spirituality.


How come that if ecotheology is that important, the mainstream churches could have largely ignored it until recently?  The issue centres partly round our shift from a rural to an industrial economy, and partly around beliefs about the fallen-ness or otherwise of nature. Is nature accursed, or is it essentially blessed and to be honoured as such? This question matters because, if the Creation is viewed as being hopelessly fallen, then the extent to which it is violated by humankind may not matter to some. But if it is blessed, or merely temporarily fallen, then we should treat it with a reverence not unlike that accorded to another salvable human being.


Calvin de Witt in The Environment and the Christian (Baker Book House) discusses Biblical images of the Earth passing away such as that of Romans 8:19-23. He would probably enjoy broad ecumenical consensus in concluding that:


            ... the problem is not with the creation itself, but with sin. Earth is being crushed under the weight of human sin and evil powers. Thus the images of the earth's passing are those more of refinement and purification - to rid creation of evil - than of outright destruction and replacement. Moreover, God's interest in creation is evident in the promise that those who destroy the earth will themselves be destroyed (Rev. 11:18, etc.).


Over the past decade, spurred partly by work of the World Council of Churches on "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation," we have seen a massive growth in scholarship demonstrating the potential "greenness" of the Christian faith. Scholars remind us that the Noahic covenant is "for as long as the Earth endures (Gen. 8:22)," for "endless generations (Gen. 9:12)," and that this suggests that God is concerned with the ongoing conservation of nature. The Psalms praise nature's nature-conserving Creator who "sendeth forth" his spirit and "renewest the face of the earth.... who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.... the high hills ... a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the badgers (Psalms: 104:30,5,18)." And Isaiah has this to say to nature's desecrators:


The earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick; the earth's high places sicken, and earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it, because they have broken the laws, disobeyed the statutes and violated the eternal covenant (24:4-5).

This is all very poetic, but can you eat poetry? Does spirituality nourish body as well as soul? Is destruction of nature not a necessary price of progress and so we must knock down the mountain to build motorways; we must clear the forest to renew our fitted kitchen ever five years ... and thereby make jobs and thereby boost the steeple of Gross National Product!


Perhaps. This is certainly what the latter-day voices of Moloch and Mammon would have us believe, and idolatry is the issue at stake here. But actually, Christian Scripture holds out a very different basis of values.  In common with other faiths, it says that God offers us not riches in the first instance, but simple livelihood of right relationship (Isaiah 11:9) with ourselves, community and nature. And the courage to advocate justice (Amos 5:24) to make this possible now and for our children's children's children. And the possibility of coming to know the deep truth of eternal life through that theology of forgiveness taught by Christ, which unlocks the infinite vastness of love: a love to be found beyond the "eye of a needle (Mat. 19:24);" to be found in an economics of considering the lilies and not doubting "wherewithal shall we be clothed (Mat. 6:19-34);" to be found in seeking no more security than our "daily bread (Mat: 6:11);" to be found in that “Kingdom” of Luke 17:21 which is "within" or "among " us.


Going even deeper into Christian understanding of the Person of Christ, Jesus is understood to replace a static notion of “holy places” or “holy land” with an understanding of incarnation. Here concepts of space are incorporated into the “Body of Christ.” In John’s gospel, for example, it is He, not Jacob’s well, that is the source of life-giving water (4:7-15); He, not the Pool of Bethesda, that offers healing (5:2-9). The whole of the creation is thereby rendered holy on account of the synonymy of life and incarnation (John 1:1-9, cf. Proverbs 8:22-36). The Creation then becomes nothing less than the context in which we find “life abundant.” And as for any idea that this is about an imposing Christendom, that it reinforces Christian exclusivism, let us remember that wonderful passage about which not many sermons are preached - John 10:34. Here Jesus draws upon Psalms 82:6 to suggest that it is not blasphemous to think of oneself as a son of God because we’re all daughters and sons of God. Indeed, as 2 Peter 1 surmises, our true vocation is to “become participants of the divine nature” - a passage which so astonished Calvin that he wrote, “it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.”


What are the practical implications of this for our lifestyles and politics? I believe it calls for an extension of the feminist dictum that “the personal is the political,” to include nature: “The personal is the political is the ecological.” Attention to the immanence of God in creation, to eternity in the grain of sand, calls us to a profound reverence for the world we walk in. It means seeing each bite of food as nourishment not just for body but for soul too. It invites us to a fully sacramental approach to life that is, simply, an acknowledgement of being surrounded by Providence. It calls us to take from nature, to consume, but with thanksgiving - with grace - always striving to minimise the suffering we cause by seeking sufficiency rather than surplus.


These considerations reinforce and help to connect together the diverse concerns that Friends hold. For example, unfair or environmentally destructive trade can be understood, with an eye of interconnection, not as “getting a bargain” or “putting cheap food on the shelves” but as exploitation of our own extended spiritual selves. Food produced without compassion in farming chokes us because it is spiritually poisoned, irrespective of whether there is firm scientific evidence that residual biocides are present in toxic quantities.


Another example is that revenues drawn purely from land ownership are a tax on God’s creation, violating the spiritual principle that “The profit of the earth is for all” (Ecclesiastes 5:9, KJV). The Judeo-Christian God repeatedly insists that land must firstly serve the poor and provide the foundation for three-way community with nature, one another and God. Accordingly, we should open our ears to certain Friends’ passion for the benefits of land value taxation even where, out of a stridency born from not being heard, other Friends have sometimes dismissed this as a peculiar and irritating concern. Indeed, let us not remember how peculiar a figure John the Baptist must have appeared, dipping his meal of locusts into a pot of honey whilst uncomfortably insisting that any person with two coats should give to whoever had none. Jesus came, sussed out the situation, and humbled himself before John. Let us then remember the dictum, “Who will be the troubler of my peace?” and in our comfortable complacency, including that of property ownership, not behead the prophets that God sends to us.


All these things, Freinds, are about following through an embodied salvation. We must not be put off because we know the demands are too hard. God “accommodates,” as Calvin said, our weaknesses. It is better to take half a step than no step at all because we fear being exposed by the dazzle of our own hypocricy. Our minds can be freed up only if we presume the forgiveness that we might extend to others equally for ourselves. Remember the Buddhist “middle way” - and that once you adjust to the middle position you can then, incrementally, redefine where the middle of the road is located.


It is in such human-scale ways we build the “realised eschatology” for which Friends are recognised; an understanding of the purpose and end of all things in which, progressively with the growth of human consciousness as we evolve, the realm of God, “comes on Earth as it is in Heaven.”



Some Recommended Reading



Ian Bradley, God is Green, DLT, 1990 (Green theology from a Protestant minister).


Roger Gottlieb (ed.), This Sacred Earth, Routledge, 1996 (an outstanding collection - read this if nothing else).


Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth, Bear & Co., USA, 1986  (Green theology from a Catholic priest).


Michael Northcott, The Environment & Christian Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (Green theology from an Episcopalian priest (i.e. Anglican Communion).


Caroline Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, HarperSanFransisco, USA, 1983 (Critique of socio-ecological consequences of science and capitalism in history).


Joanna Macey, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, New Society, USA, 1993 (about working through the despair to epowerement).


Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, Intervarsity Press, 1998 (Brilliant exposition of the strictly orthodox (Calvinist) position - but a radical orthodoxy).


Judith Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds: the Promise of Ecofeminism, Greenprint, 1989 (Wonderful essays showing the importance of the spiritual feminine to healing the earth - for men and women alike).


Theodore Roszak et. al. (eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth; Healing the Mind, Sierra Club, USA, 1995 (Restoring psychology to what it claims to be - the study of the human “psyche” or soul.)


Starhawk, Truth or Dare, HarperCollins, USA, 1990 (A book about power, empowerment, and how it relates to relationship with one another and the earth.)

Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and of the Schumacher Society. He is an invited BBC Millennium Lecturer, a founding trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust,  and is currently advising the Economics Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences with the Russian Orthodox Church on the Biblical position on community, ecology and land ownership.



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