This article was originally published in the November, 2009 edition of The Christian Teachers' Journal.
Many older readers would remember going to the petrol station and filling their car with a fuel we used to call petrol. Once, as I sat recharging my batteries at my local BP (with coffee), I found myself staring at the company’s logo and realised that it had changed. Some might have a vague recollection of the grand oil company’s logo resembling a shield with the letters ‘BP’ in gold. Today, this same company’s logo resembles a flower in full bloom.
Big deal. The changing of a company’s logo should not hold any great significance. Companies change logos through market research regularly. In this case, however, the shift from shield to flower, sometime around the turn of the twenty-first century underlines a significant change in Western culture’s concept of the environment and the role that humans play in it. Despite the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, the environment still remains one of the significant domestic and international issues of our time. Observe the coming together in late 2009 of the world’s leaders in Copenhagen in a failed attempt to develop a credible response to climate change. Consequently, as Christians, especially as educators working in Christian contexts, it is important that we understand some of the roots of modern environmental perspectives and develop a credible response that allows us to adhere to the important aspects of our faith and connect with our culture around us.
Christianity as it is understood in its traditional Western historical construct of human salvation-redemption, has failed to provide a moral and ethical framework for the environment. Thomas Berry, one of the great modern Catholic thinkers on faith and the environment, argued that religion was meant to provide an interpretative pattern, a way of making sense of ourselves and the cosmos. Christians, according to Berry, are sensitive to the great murderous acts of suicide, homicide and genocide but have ‘no morality to deal with’ the acts of biocide (the killing of the life systems of the planet) and geocide (the killing of the planet itself)’. Using Berry, Paul Collins argues that our theological understanding of God is incomplete if we do not include the environment into our spiritual understandings and that the ‘only solution is to shift Christian faith out of its sin-redemption myopia into a whole new ecological context’. Likewise, as long ago as 1967, Lyn White Jnr was arguing that ‘ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is by religion.’ Our response to climate change, to how we manage the environment and related issues, is shaped by how we understand of kingdom theology.
Christianity’s expansion in its early centuries replaced the pagan view of the landscape that previously existed. Previously, offerings had to be given to placate the guardian spirits of nature before using the resources that existed in these natural features. Christianity ‘made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects’. Exploitation of the environment was not Jesus’ intent in bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. The fruit of this misconception came in the period of industrialisation that began in the United Kingdom from around the 1750s. The environmental issues that have emerged in our own time are the evidence of a world that is not 'good' (more on that later). In the course of the industrial and scientific revolutions, the intellectuals of Europe gradually came to see progress and history as being inextricably linked. It became ‘normal’ to see history as a story of a ‘series of irreversible changes in only one direction – continual improvement’. This was a change from the previous view of medieval Christianity that saw the history of the world as one of decline, of innocence lost in the Garden of Eden, never to be regained on earth. It became ‘normal’ to see the world as continued growth of the economy and productivity, including intellectual and social, divorced from any role in the natural world. Global warming and climate change has refocused our perspectives on the intersecting roles that politics, society, economics and the environment all play. Environmental changes have now, according to Berry, forced humanity to feel beset by a sense of confusion and alienation ... Contemporary men have no spiritual vision adequate for these new magnitudes of existence ... To create such a skill, to teach such a discipline, are the primary tasks of contemporary spirituality. Into this vacuum has emerged the environmental movement as a spiritual rationale.
The modern environmental movement is often thought to have originated with the writings and research of Aldo Leopold in the early years of the twentieth century but gained a philosophical and scientific understanding in the 1960s through the work of James Lovelock, a former scientist for NASA. Whilst doing research on the atmosphere of Mars in the 1960s, Lovelock came to the realisation that the Earth’s atmosphere was able to maintain life through a process of self-regulation. This discovery was dubbed ‘Gaia’ by Lovelock’s friend, William Golding , after the Greek goddess of the Earth. The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil are a linked system with its own feedback or control mechanisms. This total, single system is ‘seeking’ the best physical and chemical conditions for life. According to Lovelock the ‘rules of Gaia are very simple: any species that fouls its environment lessens the chance of its progeny flourishing and will become extinct’ or as John Butler would sing in ‘Treat Yo Mama’:
I got a couple of friends up in a tree in North-Cliff,
You know they're doing their part,
You know they're doing their bit.
Trying to save our Mother from all this greed,
You know they know what she wants,
You know they know what she needs.
Treat yo mama with respect,
Ya better treat yo mama with respect,
Slap you upside-down yo head,
Ya don't treat yo mama with respect
(Captured image from the final scene of John Butler Trio's video clip to 'Treat Yo Mama' - the slogan merely serves to emphasise the Gaiaistic relationship the humans are meant to have with the earth)
In Australia, however, the modern political movement began in Tasmania through the damming of Lake Pedder in the 1970s and the attempt to dam the Gordon-below-Franklin in the 1980s. Lake Pedder as seen before its submergence
The world’s first Green political party emerged in the conflict over Lake Pedder and evidence given at the Burton Inquiry into its submergence indicates how the environment was now perceived as containing a spiritual essence:
awe-inspiring, in the presence of something beyond [ourselves], some essential quality of tranquillity, the enormous dynamic of the place, the combination of grandeur and intimacy, the white-man’s dreamtime, a resting place, a healing place, a sanctuary, a holy grail feeling, a place of profound beauty, a brilliant rich-blue magnet, of very deep spiritual significance.
The submergence of Lake Pedder can be seen as one of the first significant battles of traditional industrial constructs against emerging environmental and more holistic concerns:
The Hydro-Electric Commission regularly described the south-west as useless and unused and the first Lake Pedder as ‘modified, disappeared or enlarged’, conservationists articulated ‘intrusion, destruction, snuffed out, drowned, crucified, tortured, doomed, a national or environmental tragedy, drowned flowers, country that we have ravaged so terribly, short-sighted vandalistic progress’ and a ‘detestable crime’.
This event marked how, at least in Australian society, a revision of attitudes towards nature and the acceptance of the role of steward and a departure from the role of conqueror, as argued by Olegas Truchanas, was underway. Witness the ongoing rise of the Greens and the demise of the Democrats in Australian politics since this time. The political heirs of John Locke attempted to keep the bastards honest. It was a political catchcry that no longer holds resonance. Rather, a call to defend Mother Earth for the good of mankind holds more democratic appeal. It is something in which we can all participate. As if to emphasise the shift taking place in Australian spirituality and politics, the Australia public, in the 2007 Federal election, voted to remove the Democrats as Australia’s third political party and replace them with the Greens.
Given that everyone perspectives on the environment are inextricably linked to spiritual values, either stated or unstated, it leads one to ask if extreme environmentalism is a form of modern paganism in disguise. Certainly the Pan Pacific Pagan Alliance of Australia had no problem with being a member of the Wilderness Society. This does not mean, however, that a modern Christian could not be an environmentalist. Questions on the environment address our perspectives on kingdom theology or the ‘ultimate Christian hope’.
Tom Wright argues that if the hope of a Christian remains a perspective focussed on ‘salvation’ or ‘heaven’, concepts that are primarily away from this world, then issues surrounding contemporary social concern, arguments for social justice, notions that focus on the here and now, essentially have no meaning. As Wright argues, if the hope of being a new creation and the ‘new heavens and new earth’ have already come in the form of Jesus then our understanding of kingdom theology shape our response(s) to environmental concerns. For a Christian, our response hinges on our understanding of Genesis 1.
One's perspective on climate change becomes a meta-narrative for viewing God’s creation as outlined in this opening chapter. Throughout Genesis 1 God describes his creation as ‘good’. Nowhere, however, does he say it was ‘perfect’. This is an important point. If something is ‘perfect’, it has reached its ultimate state of being; there is no further need to change or develop further. Yet a closer reading of the Genesis account shows that this is not the case at all. God’s creation is blessed and commanded to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’. This statement emphasises the inbuilt energy that God empowered his creation ‘in the beginning’. God never intended his creation to be static and unchanging. It is dynamic, alive and humanity was placed in the middle of that which is constantly growing and given a divine responsibility to do something with it. This is what to ‘have dominion’ means – to work in harmony with God to rule over His magnificent creation. So when Adam and Eve first eat the fruit they are saying that they do not wish to work with God in His creation. Jesus’ death and resurrection does not simply focus on salvation for the next life by removing the consequences of Adam and Eve’s actions. The crucifixion should cause us to better establish Jesus' authority in how we understand his redemptive intention - over all of creation: his death and resurrection as a redemptive act is for the trees and bees, lion and lamb, just as much as it is for humanity. Our response to climate change is not to argue the science as Family First Senator, Steven Fielding, did recently on ABC-TV’s Insiders . Instead, we are to act in a redemptive fashion, as Christians in the world, and work to ensure that the changes and energy that God built into his creation from the start have the consequences that God intended from the start. Good.
We cannot live independently of God’s world and expect ‘Good’ results. When we ‘get’ this, it means we also understand that care for the environment is intimately linked to our actions for social justice and the so called ''Micah Challenge'. Likewise, The prophet Zechariah links care for the environment with care for our fellow man:
Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.' But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears .... This is how they made the pleasant land desolate. (7: 8 – 13 NIV)
A ‘good’ environment is a blessing that comes when we as Christians care for the widowed, the poor, the orphaned and the outsider. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981 that Christianity ‘has always understood ... the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone’. The loss of the commons is one of the great travesties of industrialisation, one that modern environmental movements have sought to redress.
David Suzuki points to the cod crisis in the North Atlantic fisheries in the 1970s: ‘When cod, forest, water, and soil flourish, so too will human beings’. This not a wishy-washy hope that maybe it will come, it is a concept that is grounded in scientific concepts of sustainable ecosystems and biodiversity. Yet, despite the obvious roots of the Gaia hypothesis in Suzuki’s writings, these words reflect beautifully the divine command to work with God in his creation as outlined in Genesis. In the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and when refugees are again knocking on our borders perhaps we would be wise to consider how God commands us to live in peace and harmony with his creation and not just one section of it.
so, as I finished navel-gazing, I stood up, collected my fair-trade organic coffee in its recycled cardboard cup and went out to my car with my batteries recharged. Good.
Bibliography (for those who are interested)
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United Nations Climate Change Conference at http://en.cop15.dk/ , accessed 30 June, 2009.
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