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Miroslav Volf on the eschatological significance of human work

I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.

One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.

In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.

The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)

Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.

Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.

Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)

Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.

To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.

Sustainable stewardship (Acton 6)

The discussions surrounding ecology and economy at the Acton conference raised two sets of questions: (1) the relationship between creation and human flourishing; and (2) the relationship between free markets economics and the growing ecological crisis. I talked about the first of those questions yesterday, so today we’ll move on to the second question.

Unfortunately, the sessions that I attended did not really address this question directly. The best that I got from most seminars were various comments leading me to believe that most thought that market forces themselves would eventually address the ecological concerns. For example, one person argued that market forces would never allow us to exhaust completely a natural resource because it would eventually become too scarce, and consequently too expensive, to continue pursuing. Others seemed to think that the market would eventually come to see environmentalism as good business and develop adaptive technologies that would address ongoing environmental concerns. And, most seemed to think that the real solution was to develop more virtuous societies who would not pursue market economics in such abusive ways. Overall though, very few people offered a cohesive argument for how free market economics could be expanded globally, along with the corresponding rise in the consumption of natural resources, without have a correspondingly deleterious effect on creation.  (Did you like my use of “deleterious”? I thought it made this paragraph sound much more intellectual.)

One exception to that was a seminar I attended on the last day arguing that consumption was not the problem at all. This lecture specifically criticized any “stewardship” model for creation ethics because such models are unable to provide specific direction for concrete action (precisely the problem we discussed in yesterday’s post). According to this lecturer, stewardship models can give us the environmental “why” (it’s God’s creation), and the environmental “what” (take care of it), but they are fundamental incapable of providing any concrete “how” (how exactly do you do this?). In its place, he offered the principle of “environmental sustainability.” Throughout the lecture, he argued that the ecological problem does not result from over-consumption, but from faulty design. The production and consumption of products harmful to the environment, he argued, is necessarily wrong-headed. And, it doesn’t help for us to do less of it (reduce consumption and/or recycle), because that just succeeds in destroying the environment more slowly. As he commented frequently, “Being less bad is not good.” (His biggest target here was the idea that we can save the world through recycling. He pointed to recent research suggesting that the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment and, thus, can’t be part of the solution).

Instead, he argued that we need to look more closely at how we are designing the products that we use. Rather than creating cradle-to-grave products that are designed to end up in a landfill some day (he pointed out that very few things are 100% recyclable), we should design cradle-to-cradle products that are fully recyclable and, thus, fully sustainable. And, he argued that the best way to find ideas for such products is to look at creation itself. He claimed that the natural world is replete with products that could be used for industrial purposes, but are not harmful to the natural world itself (e.g. the protein-based adhesives produced by mussels). (Interestingly, he did not consider the harmful consequences that could result if we began replicating such “natural” products on a scale never seen before in nature.)

Unfortunately, this approach also remained almost entirely theoretical. Very little of this is actually being done today and it seem highly questionable that such products and processes could be done on the scale necessary to sustain modern markets and industry. (Since he suggested throughout that cutting consumption was not necessary, he presumably believed that his proposals could at least sustain current levels of consumption.) To believe that we should just sustain current levels of consumption in the hope that someday we will have a solution to the problem, given the widespread destruction we’ve already caused and the potential for future destruction caused by growing majority world economies, is simply inadequate.

Creation theology and human flourishing (Acton 5)

As I mentioned in my last post, an emphasis on free market economies as a key to human flourishing raises at least four questions: sin, power, the nature of human flourishing, and the impact of all this on the environment. I’ve already tried to explain some of the questions that I have about the first three, so in this post, I’m going to talk about ecological issues.

In the context of these discussions, questions of ecology actually arise from two directions: (1) How does ecology relate to human flourishing? And (2) how does this emphasis on free market economics relate to concerns about the growing ecological “crisis”? (Most of the Acton material that I saw placed the word “crisis” in scare quotes when talking about ecology, so I thought I’d do that too. They look nice.)  We’ll deal with the first question in this post.

My primary concern with respect to the first question was with the rather pronounced anthropocentrism involved in the emphasis on human flourishing. Most of the lectures assumed that creation exists for the sole purpose of facilitating the well-being of humans, and apparently it has no intrinsic value/purpose of its own. (I did attend one lecture that presented a different approach, but this seemed to be the creation theology lying behind many of the other proposals I heard.) But, such an exclusively anthropocentric understanding of creation’s purpose seems entirely inadequate for a robust theology of creation.

As far as I could tell, the primary concern seemed to be that if we view creation as having an intrinsic value of its own, quite independent of its facility for producing human flourishing, we would no longer be able to see humans as unique within in creation. Instead, we would have to view humans as just another part of creation. And, lurking in the background, was the concern that we would no longer be able to affirm a unique dignity and value for the human person. And, consequently, we would come to place the needs of animals and the rest of creation above the needs of humans. But, none of this seems to follow. It’s quite possible to see creation has having an intrinsic value and purpose of its own (e.g. to manifest God’s glory), while still seeing human person’s having a unique purpose and role within that broader plan (e.g., image-bearers in the creational theater of God’s glory). Indeed, I think recognizing the intrinsic value of creation is fundamental to an adequate ecological ethic, because it is this intrinsic value that provides direction for understanding what human ecological action should look like (i.e. facilitating creation’s purpose of manifesting God’s glory).

This idea that creation has intrinsic value hat should guide our understanding of ecological “stewardship,” came out in one of the lectures that I attended. This speaker contended that we should understand the “dominion mandate” in terms of “productive stewardship.” In other words, God filled creation with tremendous potential, all of which can and should serve to display his glory in and through creation. That is its intrinsic value. And, we have been gifted with the task of creatively cultivating that potential (as Adam and Eve cultivated the Garden) and expanding Eden until we have brought all of creation under our productive stewardship. In many ways, then, ours is a servant stewardship as we seek to unlock creation’s intrinsic potential. And, because of how God designed things, we will serve the purposes of human flourishing at the same time.

Unfortunately, his presentation also came with one notable flaw—the lack of any clear proposal for human action. It’s all well and good to say that we should “unlock creation’s potential,” but what does this mean in practice? For example, consider the process of drilling for oil. In doing so, we are tapping the potential of creation for the production of energy. That can be seen as a prime example of productive stewardship. But, at the same time we might be destroying natural environments, introducing pollutants into the world, and running the risk of significant environmental disaster (in case anyone’s not watching the news). At the very beginning of the process, though, how do you know? Given the finitude and fallenness of human persons, how can we ever actually know if a given action is productive stewardship or destructive evil? When pressed on this very point, the lecturer had no constructive proposals to offer. So, it’s hard not to see this is yet another example of find-sounding rhetoric that is difficult, if not impossible, to turn into practical action.

At the end of the conference, then, I’m confident that any adequate creation theology needs to be able to hold together the intrinsic value and purpose of creation, the need to foster human flourishing, and the ability to turn these principles into proposals for concrete action. It’s this third step that I found somewhat lacking in most of the presentations.