Labor pains of creation (Romans 8:18-23)
Feminist theologian Sheila McGinn concludes her article “All Creation Groans in Labor: Paul’s Theology of Creation” with an outline of a Pauline theology of creation and how it relates to feminist theology:
From this examination of Romans 8:18-23 we can glean an outline of a Pauline theology of creation: (1) The universe is a creature of God. (2) As a creature, it has a purpose and a goal. (3) Creation is not a static entity, but a dynamic reality still in the process of fulfillment. (4) Creation works with God and humanity to attain its purpose. (5) Creation and humanity are intimately bound with each other. Creation is eager for human salvation, i.e., adoption as God’s children and heirs to God’s freedom and glory. (6) Human fulfillment and the fulfillment of creation are mutually contingent. (7) The fulfillment of the creation will reveal a nature organically connected to what presently exists, but also qualitatively different (“new”). (8) The fundamental feature of this difference is freedom/liberation characterized by clarity of purpose ((liberation from futility) and endurance (freedom from decay).
Many features of a feminist creation-theology come to the fore in this outline of Paul’s theology of creation. As Paul did, we will start with the assumption that there is a loving Deity who generated this universe (1). The earth and its creatures have a right to exist and to endure, quite apart from the benefits human beings can gain from this (2). Indeed, the creation is a dynamic reality, growing and changing all the time (3). The role of the human animal in this matrix of life is to preserve, protect and foster not only humanity but also all the other forms of life on earth, and indeed the earth itself. (6).
Human liberation, including the liberation of women and other marginalized persons from structures of domination, is the under-girding principle and goal of feminist theology (8). This requires a model of power that is reciprocal rather than unilateral. Hence humans must live with each other – and with the earth and other creatures – rather than dominating them. Living out this reciprocity is the key way to become fully human. In this process of living with the creation, human beings may make claims on the earth and its creatures, but the earth and its creatures may make claims on humanity (7). Central among these is self-preservation.
Among the feminist critiques of traditional theologies of creation is the “species-centrism” imbedded in them. The preceding outline of a feminist theology of creation illustrates several of the ways in which this human elitism is undercut. These also are features that a feminist theology of creation shares with the Pauline view.
What is interesting about Paul’s brief encomium on creation is that it goes two steps further than the feminist model outlined above. Romans 8:18-23 depicts creation as alive, active, striving for a goal it shares with humanity. Both of these points—the active role and the goal orientation (4 and 6) – are significant features of Paul’s view. Markedly different from many feminist views, Paul’s theology of creation is intricately intertwined with eschatology: creation is an active being precisely because it has a goal to reach.
Within Unitarian Universalism there is a strong tradition of attempting to build the Kingdom of God in the present world. Unitarians and Universalists are especially known for their involvement in abolition, suffrage and the social gospel. The most recent change to the principles and purposes that the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to promote and affirm was to add “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The official denominational study action issue for this year is the role of human activity in global climate change. Sadly, however, in its own liberal post-Christianity, I believe contemporary Unitarian Universalism sometimes loses the sense of serious purposefulness that McGinn argues is where Paul goes further than a typical feminist theology of creation. There is a tension in our tradition (which is not always dynamic) between freedom of conscience and unity of purpose. It is encouraging to see, however, that others are looking at this passage of Romans and using it to build a stronger sense of purpose of the human relationship to the created world.
McGinn, Sheila E. “All Creation Groans in Labor: Paul’s Theology of Creation in Romans 8:18-23.” Earth, Wind, & Fire: Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Creation. Ed. Carol J. Dempsey and Mary Margaret Pazdan. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical P/Michael Glazier, 2004. 114-23.