Tag Archives: ecospirituality

Why the Church must learn to speak about the ecological crisis

P1000370I have just returned as the Scottish Episcopal Church representative at the Anglo-Scandinavian Pastoral Conference, hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, in the town of Seltjarnarnes close to the City of Reykjavík. The theme of this year´s conference was ‘Theology and the Environment’.

We heard from a meteorological scientist who made it clear from his scientific record that the enormity of the evidence leaves no room for the unsubstantiated opinion of those who deny the existence of global warming, so we must accept that accelerating climate change is in the main caused by human activity and that its effect will not be universal or linear.

The response by the theologians put into context the physicality of Iceland, an island with wild landscapes geologically still in formation (the Barthabunga volcano was rumbling to the east). Also one of the main livelihoods is fishing and the sea is evidence of the indifference of nature to human life. This physicality and its inhabitants’ way of life, with the sea as symbolic of ambivalence of nature, makes Iceland a place of radical uncertainty but also provides relevant connections. What is interesting about Lutheran ecological spirituality is that it is averse to seeing nature, objectifying it in other words, and consequently devaluing creation. The prayers, psalms and hymns sensitively hear the Word of God, giving a rich perception of communication from God, revealing that God is in, with and under all things. Lutherans therefore hear the sighs and groans that St Paul speaks of in Romans 8, renewing their hunger to do what is right and good.

Some of us were not convinced by the ecofeminist arguments put forward in one of the papers. The core concept of women being identified with nature and suffering the same devaluation, risks essentialising women and creating the same dualism that women seek to overcome. This said, the second paper which focused on the influential work of Sallie McFague, a mainstream Protestant, helped to restore some balance.

P1000402I was asked to preach at Áskirkja and this is a part of what I said [the readings were Isaiah 29: 17-24, 2nd Letter to the Corinthians 3: 4-9, Gospel of Mark 7: 31-37]

We are at the mid-point of our conference considering ‘Theology and the Environment’ and I have been reflecting on the Christian view of humankind’s role in nature. Creation is not solely for the benefit of humankind. Its value is in relation to God directly, to glorify God and to bring our Creator delight. We are at the centre of God’s creative purpose and we have been assigned a specific role of steward.

If then I am a steward of nature, whilst I see nature from a human perspective, I am unlike those who wish to dominate nature. I recognise definite limits. I am entrusted with the use of nature, not with its entire consumption. And this stewardship role has a servant dimension because I have a duty of care for organisms other than humans, so I set limits on my use. Unfortunately there has developed a perspective within the Christian tradition that has encouraged some to adopt a more human-centred view that has led them to abuse the environment.

Is this human-centred view a true representation of God’s commission? Does it not ignore the earth’s essential interrelatedness? Are not animals sentient creatures, conscious, aware, capable of feeling? Nature is an complex interplay of life forms, having its own expressiveness and intrinsic value. Although I am separate from nature and free to have a conscious relationship and ethical attitude towards it, if my view is a partial one, being human-centred, am I competent to deal with all the different life forms interacting at different levels of complexity?

Take for example the issue of climate change. There is a significant, though diminishing body of public opinion, that is in literal denial. They ignore the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change is happening. Others, shifting a little from this position, now accept that climate change is happening but utterly reject the idea that that it is being caused by the activities of humankind; while others say, “There’s nothing that can be done.”

Perhaps even more alarming, in my view, are those who advocate global geo-engineering projects to resolve the crisis. This alarms me because it suggests that they are still locked in a culture that taught them to believe they are almost godlike, blessed with all the answers to our planet’s problems. The earth is not a scientific or technological problem to be solved; it is a living being and if it has become damaged because of our exploitation, if it is wounded because we have failed to respect its sacredness, then we must go back to the root of our relationship with the earth.

I am an integral part of nature. I respect other organisms, not only because of their intrinsic value but because of the countless relationships and balances that exist between them that have a value greater than their use to me. I recognise that God is revealed in creation, clearly seen and understood because, as the lesson from Isaiah reveals, God does not dwell in splendid isolation but is the Holy One of Israel, active and with us.

When the disciples brought the deaf man with the speech impediment to Jesus, he “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue”. Then Jesus spoke to the man saying in Aramaic, “Ephphatha!” which means ‘be opened’. Jesus is opening all the senses of the man. He can now hear and ‘speak plainly’ so that all can understand him. Once again, Jesus is being revealed as the sign of God’s love breaking into the world, breaking down barriers and conventions. The Word is out and 1st century Palestine is astonished.

God is a creator of unlimited love and compassion. The destiny of humans, as of all intelligent creatures, is to ‘be opened’, liberated in other words, to share in the divine nature. Science tells us that we live in the midst of a new consciousness that the microcosm and the macrocosm are one. We are becoming aware of life’s interrelatedness. What we do to nature, we do not do in part. We do it to the whole. We are joined together in a common purpose.

Mark’s Gospel is about the kingdom of God coming on earth through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a political Gospel. Jesus wanted to keep the healing of the deaf man secret because he did not want the news to leak out just yet. He wanted to wait until the right moment.

The Christian faith offers a distinctive perspective on political issues and the Church has every right to articulate such reflection on matters concerning care for creation, economic justice and world peace. But the secular world does not want to hear us. They would prefer that we retreat into our private devotions. However, the earth is in distress and is calling to us to respond, as individuals and communities with ideas and action. And we can do this with confidence, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, because our qualification to speak comes from God, and God alone.

But it is not all about politics. There is the spiritual dimension of life, knowing that we are all part of one spiritual being. It seems to me that the new spiritualities focusing on stewardship, justice and ecology, all help us to repair our broken relationship with nature. This is a universal spirituality. It is shared by other religions and with larger social and environmental movements and science. We need to be in conversation with all of them.

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God unmasked ‘the powers that be’ that would conquer and ultimately destroy us. Peace and wholeness in creation is has been embodied in Jesus Christ. The biblical witness to Jesus the Christ reveals the true extent of our human potential. It is Jesus who calls us to this radical discipleship. In Him is life.

The sacrificial generosity of self-emptying, the death of the ego-self, and the regenerative possibilities of the incarnational story, nourished through liturgy and worship, allow us to make connections with structures of meaning and value in the universe. Our imaginations have been captured by the story of Jesus and through our imagination and reason, informed by biblical wisdom, we can learn to reverence one another and reverence creation. Jesus lifts the veil of dominance from our eyes, gives us ears to listen and unstops our mouths. We are called from a place of sacred wholeness and reverence to take up again our ancient and sacred duty of guardianship of the physical world.


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September 10, 2014 · 17:26
Magi detail

Magi detail (Photo credit: JoetheLion)

It is now the Eve of Epiphany. The Magi have travelled by camel in a starlit night. As many Christmas cards depict, they arrive on the crest of a hill overlooking Bethlehem and one star dominates the sky. They link the star to where its light tells them they will find the new-born King of the Jews. They wait, they see and they wonder.

The popular astronomer Heather Couper had a series of programmes on BBC Radio about the ancient associations of stars and planets with astrological predictions of the future and has written extensively on her subject [co-author of A History of Astronomy]. She has some speculative comments on the story of the wise men, about the identity of the star and the date it appeared. It’s a fascinating subject and it’s very helpful when experts explain things in a way that laypeople can understand. But despite all we have learned about the origin of the universe, there is still a great deal more we have to find out.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...

An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot of Big Bang Theory lately, and I don’t mean the festival of the American comedy series lately on E4. The Nobel Prize has been awarded to the English physicist Peter Higgs with the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs’ boson. According to The Guardian (see below), the cosmologist Stephen Hawking made the cryptic comment that physics would have been “far more interesting” if scientists had been unable to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern. This may have been just a piece of Hawking whimsy and while we admire the elegance of Stephen Hawking’s mathematical language, even this wise man cannot explain why we are here at all.

But Hawking said something else that was interesting. He said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that child-like wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

The Prologue of the Gospel of John tries to take us beyond ‘a history of time’ to the mystery of ‘in the beginning’. The Prologue echoes and continues the Genesis story of creation, and is written in beautiful and puzzling language. It attempts to describe the shattering, time breaking moment in the history of the world when the God of all creation became a human being.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1.14]

The Redeemer of the earth entered the world of darkness and became the Light and eventually, in humility, was baptised in the River Jordan.

This fusion of light and water is essential for life on earth. Water interacts with the entire cycle of nature to help things grow and light is essential to photosynthesis, the process behind every growing plant.  We are complex human beings created in the image of God to ‘till and keep’ [Genesis 2.15] the earth, but if God commissioned us to serve nature as God’s qualified and able stewards, then we have failed to live up to our job specification. The problem for us is that some of our Christian forebears developed a train of thought that saw this world as simply instrumental to humankind’s needs and it became the dominant narrative.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes,” said Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century statesman, philosopher and scientist. As humankind imposed its rational standards our rebelliousness grew. At the heart of our self-awareness we love ourselves more than we love God and others, or conversely we think too poorly of ourselves, or we are many shades of grey in between, all the time making ourselves vulnerable, and distancing ourselves from our Creator.

If we loved creation enough to notice the needs of the planet itself, to be aware of its rhythm of life, we would be more likely to live in harmony with God’s gift of creation than try to dominate it. Of course we need an earthly dwelling place, but if we try to geo-engineer the world, we should not be surprised if the world reminds us how elusive and complex the physical world is collectively. Our world is not static, but moves and changes, because otherwise it would not sustain life.

But humankind is overriding the natural rhythm of life. Whilst extreme weather events are, at least in part, a result of climate change, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that human activity is magnifying the effects of climate change. To date the average rise in global temperature has only been 0.8 degrees C above pre-industrial times. Imagine how things might be if average global temperature rose more than 2 degrees C, which is the complacent view about where we are heading in the next few decades.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change warns that keeping global warming below 2 degrees C is beyond our grasp and 4 degrees C is challenging. Latest scientific evidence (see below) suggests that by 2100 that figure may be reached and life on earth will indeed be challenging. Unless we understand the size of the problem, it will be too late to develop avoiding action.

What will 2014 hold? If forecasts are correct, then we’ll see more hurricanes, droughts, floods, crop failures, diminished biodiversity, and further drift into our overcrowded cities where desperate people are attempting to escape poverty. Are we heading for a perfect storm where ecological and economic factors collide? As our resource depletion accelerates, perhaps the scarcest commodity of all is hope. What hope can we have for the future of the earth, and in particular our own species?

For there is yet hope. The ethics of hope that will drive the kind of co-operation we need to conserve our world for future generations. But it will be costly. As Chris Polhill of the Iona Community says, [The Heart of Creation: Worship Resources and Reflections on the Environment] “it will require us to grow as disciples, to struggle both within and without, and to seek that transformation that God alone can bring.”

So at this Eve of Epiphany, to celebrate the gift of creation, we need to begin our journey out of the wilderness. And like the journey of the

Scapegoat Wilderness

Scapegoat Wilderness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

wise men following the Bethlehem star it will not be easy. We shall have to contend with ‘the powers that be’ as the wise men did with King Herod. We will be confronted by authoritative structures that will seek to bend our will, and will be subverted by our natural instincts for affection and esteem making obeisance to the providers of security and survival who will try to enslave us.

But the overarching problem, as the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch writes [Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature],  “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” So the spiritual journey will be quite challenging, but eventually we will come to a fuller understanding and acceptance of our belovedness by God.

When we encounter the presence of God, our lives become en-livened, and I mean this in its original 17th century sense of ‘restored to life’and ‘give life to’. The outward expression of this new life will be the way we will live in the world, through acts of voluntary service to each other and to all living creatures. In this way we become co-creators with God. As Chris Polhill says, “Together we celebrate, and together we become a force for change.”

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January 5, 2014 · 12:01


A pebble offers a narrative framework when we start to think about its story. Having emerged from deep within the earth, where rocks run fluid in conditions of very high temperature or else formed in sedimentary deposits of ancient rivers, lakes and seas, the pebble will have undergone many processes on its way to the object we turn in our hand.

It is humbling to know that it will have been around for aeons before we were born, and will continue in existence for long after we have turned to dust. We bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it: rocks may be worn away as we walk our earthly pilgrimage but their endurance is immeasurable greater.

Our relationship to stone emerges in multidimensional readings. Habitation, artefact, sculpture, jewellery. And these in turn break out into a network of relationships to people, to things, and to our natural environment. But we have also learned to apply our technology to crush stone for large scale projects, thus separating us from the natural world in which we live. We need a dialogue with modern science and technology, if we are to have a proper faithful response to the potential harm destructive living brings; and to relearn how to understand and to appreciate our surroundings – to enjoy them, and take simple pleasure in them.

A pebble should indicate something to us about its creator. In its shape, colour, texture and hue we may see something of the beauty of God; unselfconsciously in its tactile nature, we should sense the intimacy of God; perceive by its endurance something of the faithfulness of God; and in its longevity a sense of the eternity of God shining through.

In the first of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, Professor Alister E. McGrath considered Newton’s attention to nature and how it signposted something deeper, lying beyond it. Newton said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

He was reflecting that if we just concentrate on the geological features of a pebble or observe the skin of a shell, we may lose sight of the deeper structures and meanings of the world that lie beyond. McGrath said that the pebble and the shell are images of liminality – the awareness of standing on a threshold.

At the Gathering Event, beginning of our Lent Course ‘Driven into the Wilderness, on Sunday 6th March at St Mary’s Carden Place, Aberdeen, we each chose a pebble, which had been gathered with loving care from the River Dee and one of its tributary streams Neil Burn. This will be carried with us as we journey through Lent. It will become a symbol of those important things we discover, or rediscover, about our relationship with all of creation during our Lenten pilgrimage. When we meet again for the Sending Out service at St Ninian’s, Mar Lodge, by Braemar our pebble will be returned to the River Dee as a signal of our intentionality to live more lightly on the earth.

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Where I stand

I believe that all creation has intrinsic value as God is the creator and lover of all that is.  We have become lured away from this central truth in our lives and as a consequence we are facing a growing ecological crisis.  But the threat to our wellbeing is not only external.  The ecology of our souls has been pillaged, raped, defiled, plundered and exploited by the materialistic powers of this world.  Like the physical ecosystem, our souls need to be restored (Michael Leunig, quoted in David Tacey, The Spirituality Revolution, p.220).

How we approach these interconnected crises  should be an expression of our spirituality because it is spiritual impoverishment that brought us to this wilderness place where we have become disconnected from the enduring values of the sacredness of life, our responsibility for the care of creation and a right relationship with our Creator.  We have become attached to things, not just for perfectly good reasons of utility, but as a means of defining our identity.  Materialism has become a condition of the mind.

We are aware that undesirable changes are taking place to our environment but we are too ready to seek out technological solutions to this crisis because our materialist mindset hustles us along this path, whilst ignoring the intensifying  detriment to our spiritual lives.  Our sense of foreboding has been muffled by well meaning but minor lifestyle changes.  We proclaim a ‘green gospel’ of tree planting and recycling, incanting the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra but this environmental ethics is founded on utility, whereas it is a change of heart that is required; a conversion that will free us from the regressive cycle of over-consumption and the destructive patterns of behaviour that imprison us.

As a member of a liturgical church, it should come as no surprise that I place particular emphasis on liturgy and sacrament, as well as pastoral care.  But I am also called to social justice activism because the poor communities who contribute least to the causes of environmental and climate change are currently the most affected.  And I am seeking a balance in our economics for economic life has to be situated within the broader framework of the needs of the earth as well as humanity.

The direction of travel should start with a spiritually enriched society because when we meet others possessing an inner peace and a more holistic vision we too will want to journey with them.   Evelyn Underhill emphasises that we need to find “the centre of the circle first” because “it is at the centre that the real life of the Spirit aims first; thence flowing out to the circumference (The Life of the Spirit and the Life Today, p.227).  In other words, the spiritual and religious flows out into moral practice because within this vital energy we find inspiration in the the laments of the Psalmist to respect the earth, the dreams of Isaiah, and the visions of Jesus for the poor and the marginalised, urging us on the path that will lead us out of the wilderness.

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