visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)The Theme of Humanity and Creation in the Ecumenical Movement
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Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) Background dot.gif (101 bytes) II.C The Canberra Assembly (1991)
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.A. The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Three Open Questions
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.B The Commission on Church and Society in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.A Sighting the end of human existence
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.C The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1980s & 90s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.B. The meaning of human freedom in the context of faith, service to community, and responsibility for the gift of creation
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.A 1980s Conciliar process of commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation dot.gif (101 bytes) III.C Breaking limits in striving after life causes death -- first of our environment, and ultimately of ourselves.
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.B Feminist Theology in the 1980s


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I.B.2.The ideological aspects of science and technology played an important part in the study. There are frequent references to the fact that scientific research -- often unwittingly -- rests on ideological presuppositions. The claim that scientific research is "value-free" and "objective" cannot be sustained. "Modern Western science itself developed in association with a number of ideological presuppositions. Part of the ideology of science was the belief in the inherent unity of truth and goodness, knowledge and happiness: it is good to know and knowledge contributes to the happiness of mankind... Today however, this ideology is severely questioned. The relationship between science and war, science and the control of behaviour, technology and the ecological crisis, are facts which every scientist should take into consideration... In the midst of our present crisis it is urgent that the social sciences devote part of their interest to the analysis of problems which are related to the human-social consequences of science such as:

a)   What is the economic basis of science?
b)   What is the political basis of science?

These two questions help to answer the next one, of vital importance:

c)  If knowledge entails power, to whom is scientific knowledge, and thus economic and political power being given?
d)  What have been the real results (as against the ideology) of science in society?" [Anticipation no. 25, p. 7.]

The debate about the essential nature of science was particularly impassioned at the Boston conference. R. Hanbury Brown's statement that science had to try to pursue the truth independently of direct interests was described by Rubem S. Alves, a delegate from the Third World, as self-deception. In fact, he said, scientific research was based on ideological presuppositions and intimately bound up with the control of power. To discover its true nature one had to start with the experience of those who suffer its effects, namely, the "under-developed" nations of the Third World. The nature of the wolf only becomes fully apparent when the lamb and not just the wolf itself is given the chance to define it. Science has to accept responsibility for the consequences unleashed by its discoveries.

Another question raised in this connection concerned how far there are given limits to scientific research, on ethical grounds. The dilemma comes up again and again. On the one hand it is recognized that: "We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dream of un-knowing. We shall open the last door in the castle, even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control." [George Steiner, T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture, quoted in Anticipation no. 22, p. 36.] Yet on the other hand it is said: "If the church is to understand science in the light of the Incarnation then it must infer the role of science as a servant. The opening of doors is to be commended not as an act of Hubris but as an act which offers liberation." [G. Ronald Williams, An Epistle to Judith, in Anticipation no. 22, p. 38. ] But how do we go about realizing this role for science? It will come as no surprise that this question remained unanswered -- the study got no further than describing the dilemma.

I.B.3. The recurring insight throughout the study is that in view of present developments the emphasis has to be on God's presence in creation rather than on God's sovereignty over all created things. The World Conference in Boston says, for example: "The cultural context has radically changed since biblical times. In the Biblical period humanity was confronted with an overpowering nature. The command to rule the animals and to subdue the earth delivered people from fear and from the temptation to divinize or demonize nature... The power relations have since been reversed by science and technology. What needs to be emphasized today, therefore, is the relatedness between God and his creation rather than their separatedness. The dignity of nature as creation needs to be stressed and humanity's dominium must be bound up with our responsibility for the preservation of life."  [Report of the World Conference in Boston 1979, vol. II, p. 33.]

Aspects of Process Theology became increasingly important. "In this view God participates in the world as it evolves and as the possibilities for the world become concretely realized from the organisation of the electrons and the like into atoms and that of atoms and cells into living organisms. The process of that which is possible becoming concrete is called 'concretion.' It is the creativity of God in the world as it responds to the divine activity. In his primordial nature, God is not before but with all creation. God is both the sustainer of existence and the lure of existence." [Charles Birch, What does God do in the World?, in Anticipation, no. 22, p. 43. ]

I.B.4. The concept of the "sacramental" played an important role here. To do justice to God's presence in creation it was said that nature was sacramental in character. Pointers in this direction first surfaced at the Bucharest conference (1974). "We are also helped in our approach to creation by a sacramental understanding of the world. We use the word sacramental with a precise meaning. The world is not sacred, not divine in itself. In the beginning of creation the world received its good worldliness. But the free action of God takes elements and things of this world and makes them signs, sacraments of God's presence and of his coming. Through the sacramental view we apprehend, in the peril and vulnerability common to man and earth, a new sense of awe towards the universe." [Bucharest 1974, mimeographed edition, p. 78.]

Or, as Charles Birch put it in his speech at the Nairobi Assembly: "The world is not as tame as our sluggish convention-ridden minds tend to suppose. There is another view, which for want of a better term I shall call a sacramental view, which emphasizes the tender elements of the world... Science has laid bare the amazing interdependence and physical unity of the world. But the churches have, for the most part, left hidden the spiritual unity that alone gives the physical its meaning. I cannot think on this personalistic and unitary image of the creation without a humbling sense that all creatures are fellow creatures and that human responsibility extends infinitely to the whole of creation." [Creation, Technology and Human Survival, Ecumenical Review, vol. XXVIII 1976, pp. 77 and 79.]

I.B.5. This sacramental view of nature led inevitably to questions concerning the place of humanity within the natural world. There is no doubt that human beings are part of nature. And no doubt, either, that this aspect has not been given enough emphasis in the history of modern times. But how are we to understand the biblical description of humanity as the "image" of God? In how far are human beings different from all other creatures? The report of the Consultation in Mexico has this to say: "Both humankind and non-human nature are together God's creation. We must preserve the precision of the biblical vocabulary in expressing these two different relations -- between God and the human and between God and non-human nature. Metaphorically it is said that humankind is 'called' to salvation... Non-human nature is promised instead to be 'delivered' after praise and groanings and after 'waiting' on God. In both cases there is life... But in the Biblical view it is also clear that men and women are the speaking, answering, refusing and accepting partners of God. We do not find in the Bible any kind of monistic confusion between anthropology and cosmology... The Biblical background without any pretentious claim to fixing the place of science, may help scientists in proposing to them a view of the similarities and distinctions between human and non-human creation and of the distinctive responsibility of human beings in and for the cosmos." [Anticipation no. 22, p. 21.]

I.B.6. There was an increasing emphasis in the course of the study on the "intrinsic value" of all created things -- animals, plants and all that exists on earth. The value of created things cannot be measured purely in terms of their usefulness to humanity. Every creature has its own intrinsic value before God. "We catch glimpses of it in the Book of Job, for example, in the questions in the 38th chapter: Why have flowers in the desert after rain where no man is? Have they no value when there is no-one to use or admire them? or in the Psalm 104, where God made things for their own sake. Man is only one of a number of pebbles on the cosmic beach."  [Charles Birch. Creation, Technology and Survival, Ecumenical Review, vol. XXVIII 1976, p. 77.]

This emphasis led immediately to a further question. How can the intrinsic value of each creature be recognized and respected? It would be pointless to talk about the intrinsic value of all created entities unless at the same time it is recognized that those entities thus have a right to exist. "In an ecological universe every created entity has intrinsic value because all are subjects as well as objects. And whatever has intrinsic value has some right to exist and to prosper." [Charles Birch. Faith, Science and an Unjust World. Report of the WCC Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, vol. 1, Geneva 1980, p. 71.]

This raises the question of the rights of nature. How can human rights and the rights of nature be reconciled? "There must be a hierarchy of intrinsic value from lesser creatures through mammals to the human. 'Are you not worth more than many sparrows?' asked Jesus. A complete life-ethic would take into account the hierarchy of intrinsic value and instrumental value. No one has yet attempted to do that systematically. But the immediate point of importance for us is that in the ecological view of nature, when the interests of people and elephants and kangaroos come into conflict, the non-humans count for more than zero in the equation."  [Ibid. p. 72.]

I.B.7. The study gave rise to some fresh thinking on biblical witness. What does Scripture actually say about creation? The constant reproach is that Jewish-Christian tradition is responsible for contemporary humanity's "grace-less attitude" to creation. How far does this accusation actually stand up? How far is the idea of human dominion over nature really anchored in biblical witness? Is there not a distinction to be made between biblical witness and the understanding of biblical witness which prevailed for so long in the church?

In the report of the World Conference in Boston we read: "Western theology has introduced the opposition (of subject and object) even into the interpretation of the Bible: creation and salvation have been separated; either the theology of salvation swallowed up the theology of creation, or creation was treated in isolation from it. Today by contrast, we need to point out the numerous ways in which the Bible connects creation and salvation in Christ, eschatological hope and obedience, and justice and sustainability." [Boston, vol. II, p. 31.] The report then gives an overview of biblical statements pointing in this direction.

An important aspect in this connection is the image of the "covenant," which gained in importance as the study progressed because in the Old Testament the concept of the "covenant" is used both for God's relationship with people and for relationship to creation. "The covenant is the master image for the relation of God to humankind. But the Bible does not speak of humankind alone. In both the Genesis creation stories, in the psalms of praise and distress, in both the Pauline and Johannine Christologies, in the recapitulation prophecy of Revelation -- everywhere the cosmos is also present, associated to the God-human covenant story." [Anticipation no. 22, p. 21; see also Boston vol. II, p. 31.] The covenant is the metaphor to express the fact that humanity and the whole creation belong together.

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