One of the common questions asked in my area of work is why Christians and other religious people ought to be concerned about the environment. So here are a few reflections on this.
Why should people of faith be engaged with the Earth and ecological matters? For those who believe this physical existence is merely a step towards an after-life unlocked by religious conviction, the answer may well be that this world is not important – and the most extreme conclusions reached by this thinking is that we can trash the planet as we will. In the Early Church such views were criticised as forms of ‘gnosticism’.
But for those of us who believe that the Holy is to be found in the here and now – is somehow embedded in the laws of nature and the physicality of life (some call this ‘incarnational theology’), the conclusions are very different.
In Christian doctrinal thinking there is a deep assumption that God is the instigator or creator of life and that all life on Earth is involved in a process of continuing evolution. The Church conventionally calls this a ‘creatio continua’. Furthermore humanity is interwoven into a vast relational web of life – just as the Godhead is seen as a community of relationships in Itself (known as the Trinity). In biblical terms, the relationship between humanity, the Earth and the divine is seen as a covenant or partnership, in which there is continual interaction between all three partners (this is unpacked in Hebrew and Christian writings in the narrative of Creation-Redemption, and in the tension held between the stories of the beginning of history [Genesis] and its conclusion [Revelation]).
The presence of God is expressed in scriptures in physical terms, albeit metaphorically. God is to be found in the column of fire or pillar of cloud. God is known as rocks, water, animals, people. The Earth and the Spirit (both female nouns in Hebrew and Greek) are the sources of vitality, nurture, sustenance and love.
This approach to theology naturally affirms the importance of ecology and the inter-connectedness of all living things – elements, creatures, time and place.
So if the Holy is embodied and known through the natural world – its purpose, its beauty and its glory – then to irreparably damage this world intentionally or unintentionally is to desecrate it or to de-sacralise it (that is to remove God from it) and this is fundamental to our understanding of sin and alienation.
As Wendell Berry said, “there are only sacred places and desecrated places”. Contrast ecosystems – forests, seas, cities or landscapes – that offer life and hope, and with contaminated or sterile spaces – those wildernesses (often human-made) which support little or no natural fabric. The former are rich in wholeness and holiness, the latter practically devoid of it.
Taking God seriously is to take the environment seriously. To live in sustainable harmony and in just relationships with the created order is at the heart of a Gospel which affirms abundant life for all. If there is no world there is no place for God, it is as simple as that! Those who think the environment is not to be taken seriously, might be invited to hold their breath for 5 minutes, or go without water for a day…
Then there are more specified duties for people who adhere to beliefs within the three principal Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam (although similar sensitivities and values are to be found in other faiths). These include sustainable practices of leaving land unused on a regular basis, growing crops in rotation and harvesting in ways which offer sustenance for the vulnerable and habitat for wildlife (e.g. Exodus 23:11). There is a strong emphasis on the equal re-distribution of land and other resources, an emphasis on the common good and our common home, caring for the excluded, managing disputes without resorting to hostility and conflict (e.g. Leviticus 25, Psalm 34, Acts 20:35, Matthew 5).
There are calls to live simply (Luke 12), share resources (Matthew 6, Acts 2) and rest regularly (Genesis 2, Hebrews 4) and a command to leave a positive legacy for our children’s children – for generations to come (Proverbs 13). The liturgical expression ‘world without end’ is not to do with the hereafter!
These insights unpack short phrases such as ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ (The Golden Rule), ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘replenish the earth’, and ‘love compassion, seek justice and walk humbly with your God’.
All these equate to creating a just future for humanity and the whole inhabited Earth.
Air pollution, impoverished water sources, greenhouse gases, species loss, diminished biodiversity and soil erosion are not acceptable to people of faith because they are causes of death and destruction. They undermine the respect and resilience required to sustain life into the future. They cause inequalities, poverties and wrongs – all unacceptable in eyes of God – and are to be condemned as environmental injustices.
‘Eco-logy’ can mean the study of the household or habitat. But OIKO-LOGOS also incorporates the divine Word alongside the created Earth. Incarnation and Creation are brought together in a shared expression.
So let’s love ecological action and environmental reflection as key aspects of the life of faith – and see faith as something which promotes wholeness of life…
All best wishes for a sustainable summer
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction” — Rachel Carson