What are we to make of the world we live in? What is our relationship to the created order? Many Christians in recent years have reevaluated the significance of the material world in light of the biblical narrative. Recovery of eschatological and teleological frameworks has become central to this renewed interest.
Until very recently, most mainline groups had all but abandon consideration of eschatology. Reflection on creation in light of eschatology had disappeared as well. Leaders had instead focused on achieving justice in the here and know.
For many fundamentalists and conservative Christians, Dispensationalist teaching and pessimistic attitudes in the wake of major changes during the twentieth century led to eschatologies where the material world is annihilated in a fiery apocalypse and “the elect” are raptured into an ethereal heaven. Personal salvation became everything and the material world was of little consequence.
The prosperity gospel has also emerged in many charismatic streams of the church. Wealth and possessions are viewed as indicators of someone’s spirituality. Prosperity is a reward for good behavior and trusting God, but the material world in itself is considered of little importance.
Each of these three twentieth century responses reflects a duality of spirit (or mind) versus material world. Concern about ecology has been one of the driving forces in recovering a theology that helps us interpret our relationship to the material world. Many prominent theologians are now emphasizing that the scriptural narrative presents a radical transformation and renewal of the old creation instead of replacement of an annihilated old creation with a wholly new one. Therefore, what we do with the material world in the present has bearing on the new creation that is to come. While I welcome the attempt to rectify dualism that deprecates creation, I’ve generally found that many champions of this less dualistic perspective on nature are leaving a substantial dualism in place with regard to human anthropology. To see how this happens, let us ask what it means to be the imago Dei, the image of God.
I recently read Darrell Cosden’s A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation. He discusses substantive, functional, and relational views of what it means to bear God’s image. The substantive view interprets the image of God in a couple of ways: ontological and comparative. Ontologically we are a spirit and therefore of the same substance as God. Comparatively, we are like God and unlike nature in some ways, but unlike God and like nature in other ways. Where we are like God and unlike nature we exhibit the image of God. That tends to come down primarily to matters of the mind like reason and volition.
These are the predominant views of imago Dei in Western Christianity. They have led to damaging dualisms of spirit vs. body and mind vs. body. Personhood becomes understood as one’s spirit/mind. The body and material issues, including work and economic action, are merely instrumental to the spirit/mind half of the dualism.
The functional view observes that we were created as material beings for a material world. We were placed in the world to be co-regents and stewards over it. We are here to “work the garden” and bring creation to completion. There is eschatological importance to this. We will be raised at the last day with new bodies to work a new creation with Christ. Christ is the firstborn of all creation and is bringing all creation to its fullness. As his body in the world, we are participants in that work. As restored eikons we will be co-regents and stewards of creation once again. Work and economic activity related to the material world is not incidental or instrumental. It is central to our anthropology and teleology.
But the danger with the functional view alone is that it does not sufficiently locate us within the cosmos. It can lead to a low view of nature. The relational view maintains that we exist only in relationship to others. “Others” includes God, fellow human beings, and the material world. We have a dual relationship to the material world. The material world is both the object of our work and the habitat in which we live. It was created good but it is not complete. It is owned by God yet we are stewards of it. (The very word “economics” comes from the Greek work oikonomos meaning “household manager,” the one who looks after an estate in the absence of the head of the household.) Thus, while we have a functional mission, we have that mission within the context of right relationships.
While many who advocate concerns about ecology rightly seek to eliminate the dualities concerning nature, there is a large blind spot with regard to dualities concerning human action. Human action in the material world and economic activity are not merely instrumental. The human mandate is to fill the world and to make it fruitful and productive. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a city. The city symbolizes human creativity, commerce, government, and human habitat. As Miroslav Volf, Darrell Cosden, and others have pointed out, there is something of fallen human creation that is redeemed and passes forward into the New Creation.
There is a strong strand of thought among those reflecting on faith and ecology that takes a "Matrix anthropology" view of human action in the world. The Matrix movie trilogy featured artificial intelligence that viewed human beings as a destructive planetary virus. This thinking tends to cast economic activity, beyond certain basic levels of subsistence, as idolatrous. Nature takes on a deeply “spiritual” quality as opposed to the “profane” quality of that which is manmade. Economic activity is purely utilitarian. It is what sustains us in a romantically pristine and spiritual natural order so we may engage the higher pursuits of spirit/mind. In other words, there is a continuation of the spirit/mind versus matter duality in how we understand human existence.