visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)The Theme of Humanity and Creation in the Ecumenical Movement
Vischer Page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6
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


home.gif (503 bytes) index.gif (483 bytes) feedback.gif (656 bytes) glossary.gif (710 bytes) links.gif (499 bytes)


Clarification of the relation between humanity and creation will continue to be one of the tasks for the ecumenical movement in future. Indeed, the Canberra Assembly actually expressed the wish that work on the theology of creation should become one of the main thematic concerns of the WCC. Any study on this subject will have to be wide-ranging and take into consideration a variety of approaches and viewpoints.

In my view, three issues cannot be ignored.

III.A. I think first of the fact that the end of human existence seems to be in sight in a tangible way. Günter Anders put forward the thesis as long ago as 1959. "Even if it were to endure for ever, the age in which we live is the last age of humankind.... We are living in the time of the end -- the age whose end we can actually bring about any day now." [Günter Anders. Atomarer Tod - kein Selbstmord (1959), in Die atomare Drohung. Radical Überlegungen. By the same author. Fourth edition with introduction of "Endzeit und Zeitende", Munich 1983, p 55 ff.]  Jürgen Moltmann recently described the same state of affairs as follows: "It is a permanent battle for survival, a battle in which there is no victory -- at best a battle with no end. We can prolong our "end of time," but we and all the generations which come after us will have to "husband" life in this end of time. It will be life constantly concerned with postponing the end. Humanity's lifetime is no longer guaranteed by nature but has to be kept open by human beings themselves. Until now nature has been able to regenerate the human race after each human act of mass destruction. Until now nature has protected humankind from annihilation by human beings. Henceforth this is no longer the case. With Hiroshima humanity lost its atomic innocence." [Jürgen Moltmann. Die atomare Katastrophe: wo bleibt Gott? in Evangelische Theologie 47, 1987, pp. 50-60]

Anders and Moltmann base this interpretation of our times on the nuclear threat. But is it not equally present in other threats to the created earth? At least two of the threats regularly enumerated in ecumenical texts are basically of a similar nature in that they can within the foreseeable future end in the annihilation of the human race. Pollution of the air and the contamination of soil and water are endangering human survival. The nuclear threat catches the attention to such an extent because it evokes the idea of sudden suicide by the human race. But are the factors which are causing gradual destruction any less dangerous? The process which appears to have started will continue relentlessly unless there is a completely unexpected turn of events.

The earlier ecumenical discussion could still view the future with more confidence. Joseph Sittler, for instance, in his speech in New Delhi said: "It is the thesis of this address that our moment in history is heavy with the imperative that faith proposes for the madly malleable and grandly possible potencies of nature, that holiest, vastest confession: that by him, and through him all things subsist in God, and therefore are to be used in joy and sanity for his human family." [Ecumenical Review XIV, 1962, p. 185 f.] Or the study on God in Nature and History: "Consummation is a far higher work than creation...far more than only the restoration of an original situation.... Christ is the new man who leads the process of history to its ultimate goal. Genesis 2 does not picture a perfect state but a point of departure. Revelation 20 and 21 do not present a repetition of the Garden of Eden, but a city, symbol of culture." [Cf. note 3, p. 13.] And a little later: "The process of God's creative work has not yet come to an end. New developments are still to be expected. Living in a great historical process means looking constantly forward, believing in an open future." [Ibid. p. 15.]

All these texts certainly do show an awareness that human history is caught up in far-reaching upheavals, even that by its overweening arrogance the human race could bring itself to the edge of doom. And yet a note of confidence prevails. Joseph Sittler ends his address with these words: "This radio-active earth, so fecund and so fragile, is his creation, our sister, and the material place where we meet the brother in Christ's light. Ever since Hiroshima the very term light has ghastly meanings. But ever since creation it has many meanings glorious; and ever since Bethlehem meanings concrete and beckoning." [Ecumenical Review XIV, 1962, p. 185 f.]

Can we still have this confidence? Or do all the signs indicate that a qualitatively new age has begun? If the latter is the case, many theological questions will have to be asked in a new perspective. What does it mean to confess God, the Creator, in this day and age? Until now God has largely been understood as the guarantor of a natural order that sustained the human race despite all its sinfulness and foolishness. Who is God if this certainty begins to crumble? Are we then obliged to say that God's covenant with creation can be undermined and cancelled from the human side? What does that then have to say for our understanding of God, humanity and creation as a whole?

III.B. A second aspect which must be included in any further reflection on the relation of humankind and nature concerns the understanding of human freedom. We first have to ask what constitutes genuine freedom. In Christian tradition it has been clear from time immemorial that genuine freedom includes service of our neighbour and of the community. Christians are Lord over all things only to the extent that no-one and nothing can separate them from the love of God. Their freedom lies precisely in their being ready to serve their neighbour. They are called not to dominion but to service. Statements of this kind were concerned with relations between human beings. Genuine freedom then seemed entirely compatible with dominion over nature. Indeed it could even be extolled as one of the advantages of the Christian message that it liberated human beings from the constraints of nature and thus equipped them for a life of greater freedom. But can this view of freedom be maintained? Does the fulfilment of genuine Christian freedom not lie equally in communion with all creatures? Must Christian freedom not respect the right of fellow creatures just as it respects the rights of human beings?

This line of thinking must be taken a step further. How are we to understand the fact that God grants human beings room for freedom? What does it mean that human beings can decide against God and bring about their own destruction? As a rule the church has interpreted this fact as a call for human responsibility. In the freedom granted to them human beings can find fulfilment in God but they can also forfeit their freedom. They can turn against God and bring about their own ruin. The freedom given to them is God's gift. The resources they wrest from nature are not evil as such; they can be used to God's glory. Technology is not evil as such -- it only becomes an instrument of destruction when it is misused by human beings.

In the study on "God in Nature and History" for example, we read: "History is the work of the sovereign God. He is never a helpless spectator of man's autonomy. Nor does he use men as passive instruments. The divine character of his omnipotent grace is seen in the fact that it admits and presupposes the highest measure of human liberty. God's freedom does not jeopardize nor even limit man's.... These insights are particularly relevant since, through the knowledge of nuclear fission, the power fell to humankind to destroy itself and its world. From now on, we have to live with this terrifying possibility. This situation makes an appeal to our responsibility as never before. For Christians who know about the depth of sin in man, this implies a constant struggle to bring and to keep the powers of destruction under a strict control. We are challenged to pray and to work afresh for the renewal of the world through the powers of the Spirit. At the same time we will do so in a deep confidence, knowing that our concern is far more God's own concern, and that his sovereign love for his sinful creatures will prove itself stronger than all our resistance." And of the technology created by human beings in their freedom it says: "Christendom should not have hesitated, therefore, to welcome the immense progress in controlling and using nature which gave relief to innumerable riches for a deeper humanization of mankind.... Technics are not sinful in themselves; on the contrary, they are a means towards fulfilling God's commandment. The means are in the hands of sinful man, and are therefore never free from the possibility of misuse for selfish ends. Here the Christian Church has to exercise a critical function." [Cf. note 3, pp. 27 and 23.]

But can human freedom be described in such a general way? Can we say that the human person enjoys this freedom equally and endlessly renewed at all times? Does there not come a point when this freedom is already forfeited? The passages just quoted were based on the assumption that the destruction brought about by the misuse of human freedom could always be put right again and the original situation restored. But what if the destruction already in progress were irreversible? We then have a situation where individuals, perhaps even groups know that this course of events could in principle have been avoided but that in fact it cannot now be halted.

What does it mean then to speak of God, the Creator, in this situation? What does it mean to wait for the coming of God's Kingdom? What does it mean to be a free human being? Of course, we must never tire of opposing the destruction of nature by human beings in their freedom, which continues unabated. But is it not in itself proof of freedom that, even when human freedom has so obviously failed, trusting in God's grace, we continue to wait for the coming of The Kingdom and to praise God in our hearts?

III.C. The third aspect I should like to mention is our relation to death -- the death of each individual human being, but also the death of creation as such. The realization that we have entered a qualitatively new age also brings a change in our attitude to death. It creates a deeper awareness that not only our lives but also all created things are in thrall to death. The Christian message has never left any doubt about this. "Heaven and earth shall pass away." What God has created is not eternal: it will pass away and will only be called to new life by a new act of creation by God. This new creation will no longer be subject to change because it rests wholly in God: in the midst of the new Jerusalem humanity will rejoice eternally in communion with God.

Just as a person's death reminds us that every one of us must die, the dying in creation reminds us of the transience of created things. The fact that in the space of a few decades many animal and plant species have been wiped out for ever is a Memento mori which we cannot overlook. For what does it mean that animals which, to use a biblical image, survived the flood in the ark, have now disappeared from the face of the earth as a result of humankind's aggressive expansionism?

Every living thing in creation and the creation as a whole has its allotted span. Is not humanity's deepest desire however to extend that span? Human beings experience death as their enemy. They try to protect themselves from it and to fend it off. The achievements of science and technology can be interpreted as an attempt by humankind to stand up to this enemy and place itself beyond the reach of its power. It is certainly no coincidence that the achievements of science and technology which are most acclaimed as progress are those in particular which seem to contribute to the further development of life. At the same time, the subject of death is largely excluded from our thinking and, above all, from our action. The fact of dying is felt as an embarrassment because it reminds us of our own mortality and so fixes the limits of our calling to live. The situation today seems to confront us with a novel and paradoxical state of affairs: it is our very striving after life which is the cause of death. As human beings try to break through their allotted limits they are causing death -- first of their environment, but ultimately also of themselves.

The resurrection of Christ is often interpreted as God's denial of death. Easter is celebrated as the festival of life. But is the resurrection also God's denial of mortality and the limits that are set to human life? Certainly not. The resurrection is the anticipation of God's new creation. It makes death no longer an enemy. It gives human beings the freedom to look death in the face. It is not an invitation to resist death but the fundamental reason which enables us to live life to the full even in face of death.

Death as such does mean the defeat of humanity. The fact of dying does not in itself deprive life of its meaning. The real question is how far we have lived the life given to us, in love of God and our neighbour and the whole created world. That is where it finds its fulfilment.

Vischer Page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6  index.gif (483 bytes)

home.gif (503 bytes) feedback.gif (656 bytes) glossary.gif (710 bytes) links.gif (499 bytes)