Endangered Creation

The text of Dave Thompson’s talk Endangered Creation at our fringe event at the SNP Conference, 15th. October 2019:

Good afternoon. In putting this talk together I have to acknowledge the ecocongregationscotland.org website which is full of great information.

As a Christian, I believe that God created the earth and that it belongs to him, as it says in Psalm 24:-

 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.”

I also believe that such a wonderful and complex planet could not have been created by chance and that God’s creation speaks for itself and evangelises all who will listen to it, as it says in Psalm 19:-

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Who can stand atop a Highland mountain or on a pristine west coast beach and not be in awe? Who cannot wonder how and why this earth of ours was created and who the creator was?

There must be many who first believed in a power greater than themselves in such a setting and went on to accept God as a reality and Jesus Christ as their saviour following such an experience.

There is no doubt in my mind that creation was God’s first Cathedral, a place where God can be found and worshipped and, as evangelists ourselves of God’s good news, we should care for God’s Cathedral of Creation. For, to despoil it is akin to placing a barrier between people and their awareness of God’s presence.

However, Calvin, the great 16th century Protestant reformer, said:-

“the end for which all things were created was that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to humankind”.

This endorsed an emerging view within Protestant Europe that the wilderness should be tamed and made more productive. When coupled with Church of England Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ claim that God made man to labour and not to be idle, this readily became a focus for the emergent Protestant work ethic.

A natural order, or creation, untouched by human endeavour was seen as a standing rebuke to human sin and idleness. This approach led to the early Puritan settlers in New England seeing it as their Christian duty to turn what they saw as a poor and barren wilderness into a fruitful Land.

This increasing commodification of nature coincided with the rise of capitalism. Feudal society, although ordered in a rigid hierarchy, had managed large tracts of the rural landscape wisely, often holding land, woods and water to be used for the common good, a biblical principle which is highlighted in Jeremiah 29:-

“Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you will prosper.”

However, with the rise of capitalism, land held in common became enclosed, peasants were disenfranchised and the emerging mercantile economy enshrined the right to private property.

During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, landowners well-versed in the latest advances in agronomy and engineering viewed the untilled moors and mountains as a standing reproach and something which needed to be dealt with.

During these times, the balance between the domination of nature and good stewardship for future generations shifted profoundly towards the former.

By the 19th century, and to this day, entrepreneurs were using even newer technologies to extract ever more additional value from the former common goods, but now for individual benefit, with little regard for that common good or for environmental damage.

However, whilst most were for taming the wilderness and exploiting the earth’s resources for material gain there were others who had an alternative understanding of God’s creation.

Stimulated by an awareness of the sublimity of mountain scenery and sense of awe in wild places, the poets and painters of the Romantic movement of the early 19th century captured a heightened sense of communion with nature in new ways.

William Wordsworth epitomised this change in sensibility, finding that humanity was united with the cosmos via, as he put it:-

a sense sublime and a presence that disturbs”.

This sense of beauty and of awe also strongly influenced writers such as American essayist Henry Thoreau and our own John Muir who underwent similar epiphanies in the surroundings of Walden Pond in Massachusetts and the Yosemite Valley in California.

For all three writers, God became fused with his creation, and the natural world a Sacred Other. Their writings, often couched in a pantheistic mysticism, provide a telling critique of a society in which individuals appeared as cogs in a machine inexorably driven by the demands of late 19th century capitalism.

Their spirituality, however, sat ill-at-ease with orthodox Christianity’s reluctance to critique a social order dependant on the labour of a rapidly expanding urban proletariat.

But such a critique was gaining momentum elsewhere as National Parks were set aside for “spiritual refreshment”, initially in the USA and subsequently across the world.

In the 1900s American conservationist, Aldo Leopold’s concept of the land ethic, which changed humankind from conqueror of the earth to mere citizen of it, inspired a new generation of green activists from the 1960s onwards. And, in 1962, fellow American conservationist, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to the banning of the infamous insecticide, DDT.

Since then, increasingly effective green NGOs and political parties have questioned the technological hubris and growth imperative of modern capitalism. It is now also clear that many so-called natural disasters involving floods or drought have been caused, in no small part, by climate change.

This is leading to some of the world’s poorest losing their livelihoods, land and life because of global warming.

As caring for the poor and outcasts is a Christian tradition and, in practice, is aimed both at providing relief from poverty and also tackling the roots of that poverty, then we are duty bound as Christians to tackle one such root, which is the condition of the environment.

We are far more likely to succeed in this task If we understand and accept that the Earth belongs to the Lord and that our relationship to God is more akin to a tenant occupying God’s property, which we must hand back to him in good condition when we are finished.

To do this we must change the nature of the relationship between humanity, land and God, reclaim the earth as the Lord’s, treat it with the respect that it deserves and re-assert the right of all to benefit from the bounty of the earth for the common good.

It is clear to me that we must go back to the beginning and re-assert our position of stewardship which is clearly laid out in Genesis 2:15:-

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

Of course, the man, Adam, was not to care for the garden on his own as his partner, Eve, was soon to join him and I would ask all of you to join me in ensuring that God’s creation is nurtured and protected for the good of all, now and forever more!