1 Peter 2. 1-10; Matthew 5. 14-16
A leading Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli has written this – words that hit home after the UN’s recent follow-up report to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years; longer than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For the Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed – especially since public and political opinion prefers to ignore the dangers which we are running, hiding our heads in the sand. We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization. (Seven Brief Lessions on Physics, 2016, p. 76)
Rovelli turns to the ancient poet Lucretius to describe how we are at home in nature around us; in what he calls ‘This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere, and where we are made of the same stardust of which all things are made.’ His atheist turn is towards a sense of our deep entanglement with the stuff of the universe; where, ultimately, we don’t really matter in the great scheme of things.
Stardust to stardust.
That won’t work for Christians, though, will it? with our belief in a personal God who has created the universe and all that is in it, who gives us life in Christ that is stronger than death.
I want to share with you my struggles with the impact of climate change – not just on the environment, which is catastrophic enough – but also on my faith. I wonder if, like me, you struggle to articulate what Christianity can offer as a narrative of hope to the world.
For, as the Gospel reading reminds us, We are the light of the world. We must let our light shine before others, so they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. As we hear increasingly dire warnings of global warming above sustainable levels, and the increasingly urgent message that we need to change, how are we witnessing to God as a light in the world? What are our good works? How do we give glory to our Father in heaven?
As Christians, as a Church, do we provide a faith story big enough to embrace the catastrophe that seems imminent?
Some Christians will say that it’s all within the will of God. God has planned this Apocalypse: we don’t need to worry, as the more dire things are, the more likely it is that Jesus’ second coming is just around the corner. It’s a narrative that takes seriously that things are bad; that takes the Bible’s apocalyptic passages seriously too. I just don’t believe that God works like that.
Or there’s the Steven Pinker option, where Christians join forces with the humanists who assert that progress will win out. Ecological problems will be solved by the application of new technology, without any need for deep change. I wish I could be that optimistic.
Or we might go with Christian Platonists – like C S Lewis at the end of The Last Battle, where Narnia is transcended into a yet more beautiful world. This universe, and all there is, is but a shadow of the reality that is to come, as God offers us the truth of the resurrection of creation itself. This philosophy has many attractions. God has a comprehensive and comprehensible plan, in which all is regenerated in love, in ways unimaginable to our limited understanding. But, oh, how I grieve and lament for what we humans have done to this beautiful, complex, intricate, fragile gift and expression of God’s gloriously creative love.
There’s hope as we read Christian physicists today – Tom McGleish is a good place to begin – and attend with them to the depth of God’s life and desire in the awe-inspiring nature of matter, where electrons entangle, and behave in ways we can’t comprehend. Professors Briggs and Steane, working in quantum physics at Oxford, describe God’s presence, alive in the vibrant cloud of sub-atomic particles, and speak of the regenerating power of God at every level of life. Perhaps St Peter, in his letter, anticipated the insights of quantum physics with his intriguing metaphor. All matter – including stones – are made of atoms that fly and swirl and vibrate with God’s life.
So we can bring a deep spirituality to our current predicament – one born of the faith that God’s agency is there, as all things, all life desires to align with the truth of the laws of the universe. We are living stones, in a universe where all matter is alive with God’s generating energy.
As Christians, too, we have things to say about mortality. That death is not the final word; that there is a love that is stronger than death. That’s well and good for individuals, but what about the destruction of our civilisation? Our very species? You can hear the youngsters you know saying ‘so what’s the point in your God if we’re all doomed?’
The C S Lewis, neo-platonic option is attractive, as I say. Somehow, though, I’m not there. I can’t let go, so easily, of this present world. I belong here, and I want my grandchildren to belong here too. To flourish, to know joy and suffering, to grow to love God in Christ Jesus in a world that is a beautiful gift. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by anxiety, so anxious they become mentally ill, as they are reminded of catastrophe by devastating storm or wild fire, by the plight of creatures that rely upon polar ice that is now too thin, or starve on a diet of plastic. Such anxieties are real.
They call for an honest response. It’s easy to fall into despair. Better, I’d say, to be driven to lament. I cannot read psalm 104, now, without deep melancholy at what we have done to the rich gifts of creation, given by the God who is wrapped in light as in a garment; riding on the wings of the wind, who offers a myriad diversity: the leviathan, playing in the deep; the coneys, the animals of the forest, the birds of the air. Meat, vegetables, wine, oil, bread. What more could humanity need?
When we read the psalms and other Wisdom literature in the light of the reality of global warming, we hear the lament of the people. Often, also, judgement ringing in our ears, with the sound of God’s moral purpose, not only for humanity, but for the whole of creation. Jeremiah chapter 9, for instance:
Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains,
And a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness,
Because they are laid waste so that no one passes through,
And the lowing of cattle is not heard;
Both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and gone.
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals;
And I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.
Of course, it’s important to read this poetically, metaphorically. There isn’t a direct, literal connection between God’s wrath and each tsunami, or hurricane, such that God is visiting vengeance on the people who suffer. Rather, when the deep order and pattern of the natural world is thrown out of kilter, when the earth is no longer securely founded and becomes shaky, then there are consequences. God’s engagement with creation is characterised by sustaining love, and the order and pattern of the natural world is a direct expression of that love. When humanity disrupts that divine order, we need to hear God’s wrath, today, and respond in lament and repentance for the judgement upon us.
A gospel of wrath is not enough, though. For God inspires with wonders of creation that stir joy and hope. There’s a wonderful passage by the naturalist Michael McCarthy in his book The Moth Snowstorm that stirs a deep attentiveness.
For one late April the blackcap was singing unseen, deep in a hedge, and it was joy-inspiring; and across the garden was the most gloriously flowering of the cherry trees, and that was joy-inspiring too. Then on a Sunday morning – I remember it precisely – the bird moved into the tree and began its song. I was struck dumb in amazement.
Here was this God-given, blossoming snow-white tree, which was breathtaking in its beauty; and here was this God-given, breathtaking sound coming out of it. This tree, this tree of trees, was not just an astonishing apotheosis of floral beauty. It now appeared to be singing. The rational part of me couldn’t cope. It was all too much, and it fell to bits. I had gone way past simple admiration into some unknown part of the spectrum of the senses, and there was only one possible response: I burst out laughing. And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it. (p. 153/4)
Today’s Christian has to be honest about climate change, in lament and repentance. We can also speak of God’s wrath at the breaking of the covenant of creation. The positive message of the Gospel must be there, too. We are immersed in the very stuff of the world, and can declare how God permeates the universe, from the finest dust to the farthest star, with living presence and glorious regeneration. We are entangled within the mystery of matter, just as God was incarnate in the humanity in Christ Jesus, who brought a new covenant of hope and joy.
Pope Francis calls us, in his encyclical Laudato Si, to approach life with serene attentiveness; as Jesus contemplated the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and looked on the rich young man with eyes of love. ‘Jesus was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome the unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers’. Pope Francis commends gratitude, saying grace. For that moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life and strengthens our gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who have provided, and affirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.
Gratitude undoes the despair which poisons the soul. When we give thanks, and attend to God’s presence in the natural world around; when we remember that on God we depend ultimately and intimately, it becomes second nature to develop the habits of good stewardship required to stabilise global warming. Let’s preach a gospel of God’s love and rage, that equips us by grace to lament and change. Then we may witness to God as lights in the world, and by our good works, give glory to our Father in heaven.