Holism, not dualism, should underpin our Christian faith, including in our relationships with nature.
Zombies stalk our churches. They shuffle down the aisles, present in body, absent in spirit. They have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. These zombie Christians sniff out any scent of abundant life in the church and devour it, intent on reducing the earthly kingdom of God to just a waiting room for eternity. Tackling poverty and injustice leaves a bitter taste in their mouth, caring for creation makes them choke.
Admittedly, there is such a thing as murdering a metaphor, even an undead one. But the purpose of this caricature is to point out the negative dualism that is at the root of some Christians’ engagement with the world around them, including hostile or ambivalent attitudes towards the environment, poverty alleviation and other aspects of our physical existence. This article will argue that not only is this zombie theology damaging and inconsistent in numerous ways, but that it is actually heavily influenced by ideas outside of the Christian worldview. It will also suggest that the positive biblical alternative is to look at life holistically, accepting and marveling at the interconnection and interdependence of all God’s created order.
Dualism involves a two-fold division of life into the spiritual, which is deemed to be superior, and the inferior physical. It has its origins in Greek philosophy, particularly the teachings of Plato. Given the ubiquity and significance of Classical thought in the early Christian era, it was no surprise that it seeped into the church, including in the form of a heresy called Gnosticism. More subtlety, dualism also entered over the centuries via Christian scholars, who, attracted to the intellectual legacy of the Graeco-Roman world, tried to reconcile the work of its leading thinkers with biblical theology. This was especially the case in the medieval period. These Neoplatonists included the likes of John Scottus Eriugena, an Irish scholar active at the court of a ninth century Germanic king, Charles the Bald. Later on, during the Renaissance era, the flowering of humanist thought meant such pre-Christian ideas were again in vogue.
Such developments may seem far removed in time and space from the globalised church of today. But the central dualist theme of physical equals inferior and spiritual equals superior lives on, influencing Christian thinking on the environment specifically, as well as on many other aspects of our physical existence. It comes across in a narrow obsession with the afterlife and end times at the expense of the abundant life and kingdom of God that are to be passionately pursued here and now. In a narrative of negativity, the intricate splendour of God’s creation becomes merely a makeshift backdrop against which human history plays itself out.
This zombie theology also comes across in attitudes to work and vocation. Spiritually oriented-roles, especially those of pastor or missionary, are preferred, while others are deemed second-rate. After all, these other roles are merely rearranging the deck chairs on spaceship Earth before it goes down in flames at the end of time. Yet the logical conclusion of this dualist thinking invalidates not only medicine, pharmacy, conservation and engineering but almost every other form of work that God calls His children to. The third area where such dualism is manifest in the church is, paradoxically, materialism. The focus on the application of biblical principles to the spiritual dimensions of life can result in the neglect of their application to the physical, including, for example, our economic relationships. In this vacuum, the cancer of consumerism flourishes.
To refute this zombie theology and find a positive alternative, we must ask fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life itself. True meaning is found in right relationships within and between a triune God, people and nature. All of these are God-given and, with the exception of those within the Trinity, all are affected by sin. Dualist Christianity focuses, to the exclusion of most other relational forms, on the interaction between God and the individual, without doubt the most important form of relationship that people can enter into. But if all other relationship types are God-given, surely all must also have meaning and purpose? If all other relationship types are affected by sin, then surely all must also find hope in Jesus Christ and therefore be of relevance to His followers as they seek to fulfill His Great Commission?
Jesus said in John 10:10, ‘I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.’ This is the joyful scope of holistic biblical Christianity, lived out by a God made physically incarnate: everything has meaning; everything has hope. The wonders of the universe become an integral and essential part of existence, and have a future in God’s salvation plan. In fact, if history can be defined as the process of societies transforming, and being transformed by, their environments, then all history is environmental history of sorts.
It also follows that all work and vocations find purpose here too, as they contribute to the Divine masterplan of righting all wrongs, be that hunger, sickness, lust or greed. Our humblest efforts, in whatever field of endeavour we apply them, become the building blocks of an enterprise that will outlast the sun. Finally, attitudes to consumption are transformed by this living theology. The people, places, processes and creatures that produce the goods and services we depend upon are seen to represent relationships founded on values, not just prices founded on value. In doing so the economy, and the consumption that underpins it, is kept in its rightful place as a means to a social and environmental end, instead of the reverse.
As with each of these areas, we need to be sure that our attitudes to life generally, and to the environment specifically, are shaped by truth and not tradition, by holism and not dualism. We can all be prone to some form of zombie theology at one time or another. It is especially easy to hide behind the excuse of a transient, throwaway planet when it comes to thinking about how we use and share its God-given resources fairly, sustainably and humanely. Thank the Lord, then, for Jesus Christ, the ultimate zombie-vanquishing superhero, who transforms such negative dualism into abundant life.
‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree’, remarked Martin Luther King. Whether time comes to an end in 2013 or 3013, there are still many apple trees for each of us to plant, until the Garden of Earth becomes, again, like the Garden of Eden. Zombies, after all, don’t eat apples.
Gloria in excelcis Deo.