On June 21st I am due to give a sermon on the environment at Mickleton in the South Warwickshire Circuit. This probably wont happen but I’ve written the sermon and here it is-the first of my Covid-19 sermons. I am offering it you sisters and brothers for critical comment and reflection.
It’s not what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a series of extreme weather events, floods and rising concern about carbon in the atmosphere. All these things may yet happen but perhaps the most important message for these times is expect the unexpected.
But let’s be honest, it should not have been unexpected. There have been many warnings-the government even ran a simulation exercise in 2016. Looking back further I can remember having my temperature checked while passing through Hong Kong airport few years ago. But my diary with all its crossings out reminds me that this was not part of my expectations for 2020.
So for me to attempt any sort of theological reflection on where we are now might be thought in me to be a presumptuous task. That phrase “a presumptuous task” comes from a very famous old book-one from my lockdown reading list. On this list are books that I’ve always meant to read but somehow I’ve never got round to including translations of the pre-Christian Latin and Greek classics. The poems that Boris Johnson likes to quote.
Take Vergil’s famous poem-the Aeneid-an account of how the hero Aeneas flees from Troy when it falls to the Greeks and gathering a band of refugees sets out to found a new empire in Italy-this is Rome’s foundation myth. They have many adventures and fight many battles. These battles are described in extraordinarily bloodthirsty detail. The gods watch over all this intervening from time to time on side or another, changing the weather on a whim and receiving the sacrifices of the warriors. Bulls, birds and lambs are slain on blood soaked altars on almost every page. Wine is poured out; trophies are laid on altars and as for the gods they look on smiling when they are not at war with each other. This is a religious world dedicated to power and victory in which courage is the highest virtue and in which nature and the power of the gods are easily confused.
How different is Christianity’s take on the world! Central to our ideas about the world is that God is loving and that creation is an expression of that love. To live wisely and well within our world is to live lovingly-to go with the grain of the universe as has been recently said. To live well is to live a life of service to others in humility, freedom and joy. Contrast that with the world of pagan Greece and Rome as described by Vergil and Homer. Christianity as St Maximus the Confessor said is an entirely new way of being human.
The atheist philosopher Nietzsche who began his scholarly career with these classics described Christianity as a religion for slaves. He had a point-a good point. When preachers suggest to you that living in a Christian manner is plain common sense be very wary. Similarly there is a tendency sometimes to suggest that all faiths unite around common values. Again be wary!
No Christianity and its older brother Judaism represents a revolution in human affairs-the oldest and the best. –from a religion which honours power and violence to one that affirms self-giving love. Jesus said: I am among you as one who serves. That was and is a counter-cultural thought. But that’s why Christianity represents a revolution in human affairs. And as Christian consciousness fades in our culture as part of the process of secularisation we do well to affirm our credentials as a counter-cultural revolutionary movement. We should affirm our calling to be part of an entirely new way of being human and not relapse into being pagans-especially not pagans supercharged with sophisticated technology and engineering skills.
But what is all this to us? And in particular what is all this to us when we think about the environment. I see our needful response under three headings:
To acknowledge God’s love and his gift to us of creation.
To make a humble and grateful response to that love
To receive all this in joy and share that joy with others.
Just a few words about each
God’s love. And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good. Of course to write in this way is to take a religious standpoint rather than a scientific one but without a spiritual or ethical outlook we’d be lost if we tried to make sense of the world. Listen to Thomas Trehearne:
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world…till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and Kings in sceptres you never enjoy the world. Or I could have quoted Wordsworth or Gerard Manley Hopkins or any number of Psalms.
Humility-Humility doesn’t get a very good press these days. It’s dismissed as a virtue for monks. Modern people obsessed with consumerism and individualism prefer to imagine anything good as “all about me”. Christianity is quite different. It’s about love but not self-love instead it’s all about love of the others.
The implications for the environment are important. We should live within nature, of which we ourselves are a part, as if we are its servants rather than its masters.
Most of our environmental problems arise from seeing nature as our tool-a source of items to be extracted and put to use for the sake of our comfort and pleasure. You and I and all our fellow humans have got ourselves into a bad place because we see ourselves as somehow like gods-super humans. Everything that exists doesn’t exist in its own right but for ourselves alone. This persuasive way of thinking can be seen in the media every day in the form of a narcissistic obsession with my rights, my property, and my pleasures. This is no way to be happy in Jesus.
Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit as Paul reminds us-an occasion for happiness and delight when we conform to the order of God in the world-when we turn away from our self-centred concerns and consider the lilies, the birds of the air and the fullness of God’s work in creation.
Such joy is not limited tour own experiences of happiness and delight but extends to the whole creation as it looks forward to freedom from its bondage to decay. Again this is Paul’s vision. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As I said at the outset it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had fondly imagined that infectious diseases were nothing to do with me-that’s all about history. But I was wrong. This is about me and it is about the environment. The warnings were there-Ebola, Marburg, SARs. We’ve been creating the conditions for this: frenetic urbanisation, destruction of natural habitats, mass air travel.
This has been a warning but it’s also been a source of unexpected joy. Bird song, clear air, the chance to really feel and smell the new springtime all around us. We have accustomed ourselves to eco-alienated habitats but all is not lost when we find ourselves beginning to notice and feel a real kinship with the world of nature.
Let’s be realistic but also hopeful. We’ve had no end of a lesson. It could do us no end of good.