Keith Hunt - Divine Rest - Page Twenty   Restitution of All Things

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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #20

Sabbath keeping and Creation care


Continued from previous page:

     Secular ideologies can only motivate people to respect
nature and its resources out of fear: fear of punishment or of
annihilation, if environmental laws are disregarded. Fear of
consequences, however, can at best restrain some from exploiting,
polluting or destroying the environment, but it cannot induce a
genuine love and respect for all forms of life. Fear can compel
but does not convince.
     The fear of lung cancer has led some to quit smoking
cigarettes but it has hardly shaken the determination of millions
of smokers to continue smoking their health away. This illus-
trates that the solution to environmental pollution is related to
the solution of spiritual pollution. A person who does not
respect his or her own life can hardly be expected to esteem that
of subhuman species. Laws per se cannot solve this problem
because they clash against selfish interests. Ultimately, the
solution to the ecological crisis is to be found in the recovery
of those spiritual values that must guide every human act.
Religious convictions and ultimate concerns provide strong
motivation for human behavior. Henlee H. Barnette rightly notes
that "what people do to, for, and with others and their
environment depends largely upon what they think of God, nature,
themselves and their destiny." It is only when a person
understands himself and the world as the object of God's creation
and redemption, that he will be both convinced and compelled to
act as God's steward of his body as well as of the created order.
     The Sabbath can play a vital role to help in recovering
these spiritual values needed to solve the ecological crisis,
since the day does provide the basis for both theological
convictions and practical actions. These we must now consider.

2. The Goodness of God's Creation

The value of nature

     The commission appointed in 1971 by the Archbishop of
Canterbury "to investigate the relevance of Christian doctrine to
the problems of man and his environment" concludes its findings
saying: "In the report it has been argued that the recovery of
belief in God the Creator is the key to mankind's future
well-being." It is noteworthy that leading religious thinkers
regard "the recovery of belief in God the Creator" as the "key"
to the solution of the environmental crisis. Science and
technology, by undermining the belief in God the Creator, have
reduced the desire to rejoice over the goodness of God's
creation. By substituting the belief in a personal divine
creation with the notion of an impersonal spontaneous generation,
scientists have reduced nature and all its constituent forms to
be objects that technology can use and control. Nature has been
pared from being a mediator of divine revelation (a "thou"), to
serving as a means of economic exploitation (an "it").
     The Sabbath provides an effective institution to help in
recovering the "sacramental" value of nature, that is, its
function as mediator or revelator of God's presence and beauty.
In what way? By reminding the believer of the value and role of
nature in God's creation, redemption and ultimate restoration. As
the memorial of an originally perfect creation, the Sabbath
reassures the Christian that despite the aberrations caused by
sin, this world, both in its human and subhuman forms, still has
value because God created it "very good" (Gen.1:31). By pointing
to the original goodness and perfection of this world, the
Sabbath challenges the Christian to exercise a world-affirming
faith, that is, a faith in God's plan for the whole natural
order. As the symbol of God's blessing and sanctification of this
world (Gen.2:3), the Sabbath serves as a constant reminder that
God is distinct but not separated from His world. Thus in and
through nature, the Sabbath invites the Christian to experience
the presence of His Creator. Offering the anticipation and
foretaste of the new heaven and new earth (Is.66:22-23), the
Sabbath challenges the Christian to respect and admire this
world, since God will restore it to its pristine perfection for
the eternal delight of His creatures. These theological values of
nature expressed by the Sabbath offer the deepest motivation for
the Christian's concern for the natural world. The Christian who
views himself and the world as being part and parcel of a single
divine creative and redemptive purpose will be kept from
exploiting or destroying the very earth with which he shares the
same origin and destiny.

A dualistic misconception

     The value of nature can best be seen in the light of the
Biblical teaching on its redemption. It is regrettable that both
Catholicism and Protestantism have emphasized to a large extent
the salvation of individual souls at the expense of a cosmic
dimension of redemption. The saints are often portrayed as
pilgrims who live on earth detached from the world, and whose
souls at death leave their material bodies to make their
pilgrimage to an abstract place called "heaven." This dualism
between the material and the spiritual world, between the body
and the soul reflects the influence of Platonic thought upon
Christianity, but it fails to represent the holistic Biblical
view of man and of the world. The influence of the Platonic
cosmological and anthropological dualism has produced an attitude
of contempt toward the natural world.
     This other-worldly attitude is exemplified in such Christian
hymns as "This world is not my home;" "I'm but a stranger here,
Heaven is my home; Earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home;"
"Weary of the earth ... I look to heaven." Such an attitude of
disdain toward the earth is absent in the Psalms, the Hebrew
hymnal, where the central theme is the praise of God for His
wonderful works. For example, in Psalm 92, which is "A Song for
the Sabbath," the psalmist urges to praise the Lord with musical
instruments, because, as he says, "Thou, O Lord, hast made me
glad by thy work; at the works of thy hands I sing for joy. How
great are thy works, O Lord!" (vv.4,5).
     The Psalmist's rejoicing over nature is based upon his
conception of the created world as being not a backdrop for the
drama of God's creation and redemption, but rather an integral
part of the whole drama. The Scriptures picture God as creating
man to live in a garden happily, acting responsibly toward his
environment (Gen.2:15; 1:29-30). When the crisis in Eden occurs,
the garden gives place to the wilderness (Gen.3:17-19), and the
harmony between mankind and nature is disrupted. Nature was not
involved in Adam's fall, but it does share in its consequences.
The crisis in the natural order is further precipitated by the
ensuing human disobedience. Human estrangement from God brings
alienation from nature. Cain slays Abel (Gen.4:8) and mankind as
a whole becomes so corrupt that God finds it necessary to restore
some order by means of a cataclysmic Flood (Gen.6-8). It is
noteworthy that when the human race starts anew, God establishes
a covenant not only with mankind, but also "with every living
creature ... the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth"
(Gen.9:10; cf. vv.12,15,16,17). By means of this covenant God
promises to preserve the regularity of nature. Despite human
rebellion God promises that the chaos caused to nature by the
Flood will never occur again. This divine covenant with the
natural order is later presented by Jeremiah as the assurance of
God's covenant with people (Jer.33:25,26).

Cosmic redemption 

     After the Flood the relationship between man and nature
experiences a marked decline from God's original intention (Gen.
1:28-30). Trust gives way to fear: "The fear of you and the dread
of you shall be upon every beast of the earth" (Gen.9:2). This
does not mean that human beings can no longer be trusted with the
stewardship of the worlds. It means that the natural order will
now suffer from irresponsible human conduct toward God. Examples
of such occurrences abound in the OT. Isaiah, for instance,
writes: "The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they
have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the
everlasting covenant.... Therefore the inhabitants of the earth
are scorched, and few men are left" (24:5-6). But as nature
suffers the consequences of human rebellion, it also shares in
mankind's reconciliation and ultimate restoration. God's
redeeming purpose is cosmic, encompassing the whole of creation,
both human and subhuman.

     The vision of restored harmony between mankind and nature is
present in the OT as well as in the NT. In the OT the end-time
restoration of the earth is associated with the hope of the
Messianic age, hope which, as noted in chapter 5, was nourished
by the message and experience of the Sabbath. A most beautiful
description of the end-time restoration to the primeval paradise
is found in Isaiah 11: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and
the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the
lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead
them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down
together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.... They shall
not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain" (vv.6,7,9).  
     A similar vision is found in the NT, in which not only human
beings but the whole creation share in Christ's redemption and
ultimate restoration. Paul sees that God in and through Christ is
bringing all things in heaven and on earth to the point where
they will ultimately experience unity, harmony and reconciliation
(Eph.1:10; Col.1:20). Thus, the apostle explains, "We know that
the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until
now waiting with eager longing for the time when it "will be set
free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of
the children of God" (Rom.8:22,21). The Seer of Revelation sees a
similar vision of the redeemed enjoying the peace and harmony of
"a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev.21:1-4; cf. 2 Peter 3:11-13).

3. The Sabbath and the Ecological Crisis

     The Biblical vision of a cosmic restoration of human, animal
and plant life has vital implications now for the Christian
responsibility toward nature and the environment in general. To
accept God as the Creator and Restorer of the whole created order
means to be responsive to God's goals and intentions, by
participating in His cosmic restoration program. To motivate and
actualize such a program, the Church needs symbols and
institutions that adequately interpret the human role within
God's created order. The Sabbath provides the Church with such a
needed symbol and institution, since the day offers both
theological incentives and practical opportunities to develop
what may be called "an ecological conscience." Theologically, the
Sabbath inspires and encourages respect and appreciation for all
of God's creation, by reminding the believer that he shares with
nature in God's creation, sanctification, redemption and ultimate
restoration; nature thus becomes a worthy partner. The role of
scientific knowledge and technology is not to destroy but to
preserve nature's balance. The Sabbath assists, in a sense, to
extend to the natural world the restoration of Christ's image
which is being accomplished in human life. Practically, the
Sabbath provides valuable opportunities to translate into action
these theological values of nature which the seventh day
expresses. These practical opportunities will now be considered
under the headings of stewardship, limitation and admiration.


     Sabbathkeeping is an exercise in responsible stewardship of
the whole earth. It means to acknowledge God's ownership of the
"heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them" (Ex.20:11;
31:17) by relinquishing for one day the lucrative use of land and
people. This involves granting freedom on the Sabbath not only to
all dependent workers but also to "your ox, or your ass, or any
of your cattle" (Deut.5:14; cf. Ex.23:12; 20:10). As aptly
expressed by Samuel Raphael Hirsch, "The bird, the fish, the
animal that we refrain from seizing on the Sabbath, the plant
that we refrain from tearing up, the material that we refrain
from fashioning or chiselling, cutting or mixing, moulding or
preparing, all of this inaction is but a demonstration of homage
to God, proclaiming Him Creator and Master and Lord of the
     The acknowledgement of God's ownership, expressed on the
Sabbath by surrendering the right to use gainfully human and
natural resources, affects the Christian's general attitude
toward God and the world. It teaches a person to view himself not
as a predator but as a curator of God's creation. This lesson was
taught in OT times particularly through the legislation relating
to the sabbatical and jubilee years. These two sister
institutions of the seventh-day Sabbath were designed to teach
every member of the Hebrew society to regard both land and people
as God's possssion ("The land is mine and you are but aliens and
my tenants" - Lev.25:23, NIV; cf. 25:42,55). At these annual
institutions, to acknowledge God's ownership the slaves were
emancipated, debts were remitted and the land which had been sold
on account of financial distress was returned to the original
owner (Lev.25; Deut.15:1-18). Moreover, to protect the land from
impoverishment caused by excessive use and to enable it to be
renewed with nutrients, during the Sabbath years the land was to
lie fallow ("in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of
solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not
sow your field or prune your vineyard" - Lev. 25:4). These
Sabbath norms attribute to the land almost a conscious
personality, granting to it a similar right ordained for human
beings to rest and to be free from exploitation. Thus in its own
unique way the Sabbath provided in OT times concrete instruments
to deal with what today is called the "ecological problem."
     Obviously, it is not possible nor necessary to apply to our
modern social economic situation all of the norms of the
sabbatical legislation. Slavery, for example, is no longer a
major social problem. Similarly, loans generally are no longer
granted by private persons but rather by public financial
institutions. Yet a careful observer can hardly fail to recognize
the relevance to the present ecological crisis of the principle
of stewardship of God's creation implied in both the weekly and
annual Sabbaths. Suppose we were to ask modern science, What
benefits would accrue to human beings and their environment from
observing the Sabbath according to traditional biblical
guidelines? Such observance would involve shutting down for the
duration of the Sabbath factories, shops and places of
entertainment. It would mean stopping industrial machines as well
as the millions of automobiles on the highways with the exception
of those needed for social services. The result would be a
cessation on the Sabbath in the flow of pollution into our
atmosphere which in some of our metropolises has become a toxic
smog. A scientific report on New York City's atmosphere indicates
that the average person on the street of that city inhales toxic
fumes equivalent to 38 cigarettes per day.
     For the land it would mean a complete rest for the duration
of one year every seven years. Obviously rational plans would
have to be developed to implement such programs; economic factors
could not be ignored. At a more personal level it would mean
spending the day not competing but communing with nature; not
stressing the body with exciting entertainments but stretching
the body and the spirit within the atmosphere of peace and
pleasure of the Sabbath. What would the answer of modern science
be to such a sabbatical lifestyle? We believe that it would be
definitively positive. Perhaps our medical and ecological
scientists might even recommend the implementation of such a
program to restore and safeguard the precarious balance of our
personal lives and environment.


     The rest which the Sabbath is designed to provide to both
people and land has been called "restitutio ad integrum," which
means a restoration to wholeness. This principle implies that
when God "blessed" His creation and declared it "very good," He
endowed it with the potential for regenerating its lost energies.
Rest is an important factor to ensure this process of energy
renewal, and time is an essential ingredient of rest. If the air
and water were given time every seven days (one seventh of the
year) to recover from the toxic effects of human pollution, and
if the land were left fallow for one year every seven years to
regain lost nutrients, would not these measures contribute to
solving the ecological crisis?
     What our society needs today is a "Sabbath consciousness,"
namely, a consciousness of responsible stewardship of the world,
human stewardship which aims not at devouring space and primary
sources continuously in order to increase production but rather
at limiting human greediness. The Sabbath commandment is designed
to teach such a responsible stewardship. By enjoining to rest, it
teaches human beings to place a limit on productivity and profit,
to silence the insatiable human greediness. This important
function of the Sabbath is recognized even by those who do not
view themselves as Sabbathkeepers. For example, A. Martin, a
Catholic scholar, affirms "The Sabbath means to become conscious
of duration. It means to become conscious of a limit.... To
reflect upon the Sabbath means to address ourselves to the
question of happiness. It means to remember that man must not
turn upon himself, viewing himself as the center of the universe
to the risk of suffocating himself. It means to denounce the myth
of efficiency, profit and productivity. For a Christian to
observe the Sabbath means to say no to that stupidity that
prevents us from seeing further than the end of an immediate
profit. To respect the Sabbath means to know that man has a
limit: if he steps over it, he dies."


     The limitation which the Sabbath places upon constructive or
destructive uses of the physical world makes possible the
admiration of nature. It is scarcely possible to appreciate the
beauty of a forest while engaged in cutting down its trees or of
a garden while laboring to pull up all its plants. True
admiration and appreciation of nature requires, a measure of
detachment. The Sabbath offers this needed detachment. On this
day the Christian must leave nature untouched. To change it by
building on it or by destroying it would be a violation of
"rest." The Sabbath is a day not to alter nature but to admire it
as an expression of the beauty and glory of God's handiwork (Ps.
19:1). The recovery of an ethic of admiration of nature is
indispensable to develop an ecological conscience. "When nature
ceases to be an object of contemplation and admiration," notes
Albert Camus, "it can then be nothing more than material for an
action that aims at transforming it."  The loss of an ethic of
admiration of nature which has been encouraged by a prevailing
secular-scientific view of this world, has resulted in an ethic
of exploitation of nature, so that human beings have become
aliens to their habitat.

     The solution to this conflict between mankind and nature
will not be found in denouncing or renouncing technological
progress, but rather, as wisely stated by Abraham Joshua Heschel,
"in attaining some degree of independence of it."  "On the
Sabbath we live, as it were," writes the same author,
"independent of technical civilization: we abstain primarily from
any activity that aims at remaking or reshaping the things of
space." This movement away from the exploitation of nature to its
admiration represents in one sense a consecration or offering of
this creation back to God. The believer ceases from the use of
things to offer them to their Creator, and in so doing receives
them back from Him blessed and sanctified. The recovery of this
consciousness of the holiness of the world, that is, of God's
presence in the world, is essential for the development of a
genuine concern for nature. In Albert Schweitzer's words, "A man
is ethical only when life, as such, is holy to him, that is, the
lives of plants and animals as well as the lives of men.
Moreover, he is ethical also only when he extends help to all
life that is in need of it."  
     The celebration on the Sabbath of God's sanctification of
this world (Gen.2:2-3; Ex.20:11) promotes this needed
consciousness of the holiness of life and thus encourages the
development of a much needed ecological conscience.

     This study of the Sabbath as service to our habitat has
shown how the day offers valuable theological incentives and
practical opportunities for the development of a responsible
stewardship of God's creation. The joyful celebration on the
Sabbath of God's creation, sanctification, redemption and
restoration of all the natural order teaches the Christian to act
not as a predator but as a curator of the world. The distinctive
Sabbath lifestyle, characterized not by the exploitation but by
the admiration of the earth, not by the devastation of nature but
by the exaltation of its Creator, provides a valuable model of
responsible stewardship in an otherwise irresponsible society.
     We asked at the outset of this chapter, What contribution
can the Sabbath make toward solving pressing human problems such
as the sense of God's absence, the feeling of loneliness, the
neglect of the needy and the ecological crisis? 
     Our study has shown that a rcovery of the Biblical values of
the Sabbath contributes significantly to the solution of these
problems. The Sabbath and its valaes offer to the believer an
experience of the presence of God, a fresh revelation of His
grace, a needed time for reflection and inner renewal, an
opportunity to come close to loved ones and needy persons, and an
exercise in responsible stewardship of God's creation. The
celebration of the Sabbath represents indeed the Good News of
Service to God, to oneself, to others and to our habitat.


To be continued

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