Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Global Warming?


Spiritual Formation
Global Warming? How do we care for our environment as stewards of God’s creation?
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, September 13, 2015 9am
Theological reflections on the spiritual context for environmental action

There was a landowner who put his top employees in charge of his holdings. He said to them, “Take charge of it – and take care of the place. Bring your families to live on the land, and enjoy its produce. Serve it faithfully, and from its care you will live abundantly.”

So the servants came on board. They lived on the land, and raised families there. They were as fertile as the land itself and they grew in numbers. And it was theirs for the taking – to take charge of, to take care of, or to take advantage of – and with the land they served as their home they would live in hope and abundance, or in fear and scarcity – it was up to them.

What will they say when the landlord comes? How will they be with him? As servants entering into joy, or as sad stewards with empty fields, exhausted resources, and mistreated fellow creatures, to show for their stewardship?

We are familiar now with the data and analysis that have exposed to our concern the phenomenon of climate change. It is a transnational challenge that faces us on a global front. Many of the crises and problems facing humanity on occasional or local bases connect to this root phenomenon: we live in the Age of the Anthropocene.

Human activity shapes geography, climate, biosphere – and even geology. We are making, through our collected and cumulative activities, a permanent impact on the landscape of our world: its ice and free water, its air and clouds, its land and growing things (including food for ourselves and all other animal creatures), and hence the sustainability of life for ourselves and our fellow beings.

A Turkish seminarian from Istanbul, an exchange student in the United States, told me he’d polled his fellow students: If you saw a cricket in your room what would you do? Ninety percent said, I’d kill it. And these were seminarians! He exclaimed. What became of compassion for all creatures?

Let us not make the Anthropocene the anthropocentric. Let us remember our special mandate as human creatures to care for the earth: not just to multiply and fill it – but to tend it. We are the stewards, the workers in the garden, of this green and gold, and glorious, blue white planet. It is our home, but not as owners – not as exploiters – but as chief tenants. We are the manager of the apartment house, so to speak, not the landlord.

In our Christian hope we turn to that landlord and yearn for his presence. We look forward to the return of our Lord, with joyful expectation but also some anxiety. Our anticipation is mixed with feelings of loss and grief – and even guilt.

As preparatory work for the hope that is born in us through faith, we must acknowledge our failures – perhaps irrecoverable, some of them – as stewards, even brothers and sisters, to earth and our fellow created beings.

But our Christian perspective, even in the kingdom of anxiety that is this world, is that we can do something still worthwhile, small and large, in our collective identity and our solitary pursuits, to move toward the day of his coming with rejoicing – a welcome made possible only because we do not stand alone.

God is indeed already with us – in our suffering and elation, our watchfulness and neglect.

What we face now with environmental catastrophe is unprecedented in scale, possibly, but not in moral quality or human impact. A famine up close is a hungry village, a starving face, and a child with no solace. A forest fire or a drought is in aggregate a great disaster.

But, again, up close it is the tragedy of each creature swept up and away by destructive forces. Each of us has stories to tell, and promises to keep, on the human level – efforts token or tiny that help us forward as we confront the common foe. Together – as we band together – there are large things we can do even yet to make the world a better place.

Maybe the time of changing light bulbs is over, as enough. But the time of the Anthropocene, the human-fashioned epoch, has just begun. A couple of speakers at the American Academy of Religion convention in San Diego this past Thanksgiving – including Bill – had some things to say that are useful to us all, to guide our deliberations, and set a spiritual context for our focus on climate change: sustainable living.

Bill McKibben talked about the comforting whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job. We could distinguish two calls in that voice: One is the call to humility – we are nowhere when it comes to the vast majesty of creation.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
   and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
   on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
   and to make the ground put forth grass?
(Job 38:4-7, 25-27. NRSV)

The other is the call to joy: we are uniquely able to perceive God’s delight in this world. What we can see and touch invites us into a joy just of being – not us exploiting or using – just being.

We need that good-news reminder at times of distress. There is too much goodness to give up now.


Our keynote speaker in San Diego was Jimmy Carter, the former president. Jimmy Carter was there to talk about the plight of women and children around the world. In getting there he had some things to say about religious attitudes that shape our responses and he had some things to say about the effect of climate change on women and children.

That effect, I can tell you first, is that the women and the children are in so many places and cultures and traditions the last in line – when food is scarce, medicine is absent, and there is no roof, or a lack of clothing, they are the ones who go with the least, the last, and sometimes completely without.

That is only made worse by climate change – as resources become scarce these the least able to cope, the most vulnerable – are first to suffer and last to share in what’s left. Women feel the pain first: climate change will exacerbate their plight in the future.

Cultural attitudes persist that somehow some group of people are not as well beloved as all God’s children are – and we are all God’s children – these attitude have played their part in more than one story of human deprivation and prejudice.

The president’s example was from his own childhood. He grew up in a small town in Georgia, playing with other kids, working with them on the farm, and going to school together. That his was the only white family did not seem to matter.

Except when experts came to town, to the church, and sought to prove from the Bible that blacks were inferior to whites and deserved a status of servitude. Folks, it’s just not there. It’s not in the book.

That teaching was a willful self-delusion on the part of people who benefited, holding positions of power and privilege on the basis of that notorious falsehood.

Likewise, then, women and children, treated as less than equal, as subservient, inferior or less deserving, as if that was what God mandates in Scripture. Again, folks, it’s just not there. It’s not in the book. It’s self-delusion, a prop for power – power over one’s true equals in the sight of God. The truth is, we are equal before God and equally beloved. To quote the president, “We are all created and loved by God equally.”

Finally, a third self-delusion – is this is my own addition to the mix: we are deluding ourselves if we think our self-assumed pose of superiority to creation is something mandated in the Bible. We are chosen, yes, and special, because we are called to self-understanding, to knowledge (as partial as it may be) of our place in the cosmos, and our role as stewards of the earth.

As the passages from Job remind us, there is much to be humbled by when we turn our eyes to the stars – or to the smallest element of creation. And in what those same eyes see there is much to respond to with joy – the majesty of the infinite and the delight of the minute. That humility and that joy are part of what make us human, make us special, and give us a unique purpose in the plan of God.

Genesis 2:15 (CEB): The Lord God took the human being and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.

In other words, we are both to cultivate the land and to take custody of it as servants of the Lord. We are stewards of the earth, caretakers and custodians.

In Genesis 1:26-28, God says, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.

As the notes to the Common English Bible inform us, to take charge – to rule as a master over servants, or a king over subjects – is a way of characterizing human power and authority over the rest of the animal world. But that in itself does not say anything one way or another about how that power is exercised, whether in caring for creation or ruling harshly over it.

We are God’s representatives, or images, in creation, so exercising that authority of “taking charge” is a servant role, subservient to the true Lord of the universe. We have power to alter the world but we depend on the earth and its life for survival.

Our “rule” is subordinate – submissive to God and God’s will for creation – God’s will, not our own.

Take care, take charge. Fill the earth, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. And delight in it.

No comments: