We need a church that is ‘down to earth’, and has the courage to take up the theological responsibilities of exploring who we are as human beings - earth creatures - in a time of ecological crisis.
In a way this is the standalone part-two in considering the issues of ‘creation’, and the implications of our inherited theology, that we began last week. It seems to me that the church is need of another Reformation. This time an ecological Reformation, one that will bring into focus our earth-home this time not just human persons.
For too long the church has be overly concerned with getting the God-stuff ‘right’, and policing the boundaries of ‘church and faith’ to make sure the rest of us stay within those boundaries of agreed ‘rightness’. There is an old saying that seems to me to contains a wise challenge for our time, it declared; 'the church is so heavenly bound that it is no earthly use'.
I’ve been thinking about this, and what that saying opens up for us. Many of us have, ourselves, fought the church’s 'heavenly-attachment’, whether that be in demanding recognition and place as women, seeking acknowledgement and acceptance as people who are gay and lesbian, or for simple acceptance because we are different from the narrowly drawn norm of western traditions. We would like the church to be more focused on what is good for people, and their lives of mutual care and concern, rather than on being ‘right’ so we can please a God up in heaven and get to heaven eventually ourselves. If we, the church, can shift our gaze, and the focus of our minds, from the concerns of heaven and the God who inhabits that place up there, then we will see the whole earth here that needs our loving attention and concern.
Church leaders and theologians can take a lead in this, and all of us can do our part. All it requires is for us to remember who we are - earth-creatures - and to live with dignity and graciousness, and with gentleness toward the earth because we belong here. This is our place and no other. In other words, live holding in focus the integrity and interdependence of the earth and all its creatures of which we are one. We can make the Isaiah dream our dream and choose to ‘live it into being’, making choices that will shape our lives and communities to make this possible.
Last week we focused on the idea of ‘creation’, and recognised that it is we human beings that have shaped our understanding of the earth and its becoming; we are the ones that have chosen how we live in the earth; we have set the boundaries to our reality and our dreams. What's more, we thought we had it all under control because of this, and that our inventiveness and capacity to manage things, and to solve problems, would see everything would be alright! Based on this sense of our own importance and management skills, I don’t think it is too much of a leap to use the challenging and provocative term coined for humans by Yuval Noah Harai, that is to recognise we think of ourselves as ‘homo deus’ (human gods).
While we might like that sound of that, it is not good enough in this time of climate change and ecological challenge. The earth in all its parts is not manageable or controllable by our human endeavors, though we have tried very hard as ‘homo deus’ to do just that. Imagining ourselves to be over and apart from the earth, to be transcendent to it, and with sufficient controlling and managing powers to fix anything that gets out of kilter. The earth, however, in its fullness and unpredictability, is still surprising us with her responses to our human growth, our development and our excesses.
It is clear today that our scientists and theologians and intellectuals of every shade, have their work cut out to enable us simply to make good the impact of our excesses and our carelessness, and our Christian 'other world' fixation. The new reformation that I am seeking for the church is one that prioritises the whole 'household of God', the oikos - the ecology. This time embracing the earth and all sentient creatures and vegetation, rivers and seas and mountains along with human persons. This ecological reformation includes the systems we humans have shaped to enable us to live together - our economic structures for the distribution of wealth as well as how we provide for access to education, healthcare and participation in decision making.
Theologian Sally McFague wrote a book many years ago in which she explored ways of thinking about God. (I mentioned it last week) It was called ‘Models of God’[i]and was used in theological colleges around the world as a bold new offering back in the late 80s. In it she made the shocking (at the time) suggestion that we think about the whole earth, from its most minute quarks and nano-particles to the swirling gases of its atmosphere, as the 'body of God'. And this God was still in the act of creation, this God was still becoming - with us humans in on the act.
So we are not breaking new ground when we talk about all this! Work on a radical rethink of our theology has been going on a long time.
I love this way of thinking about God: God fully immersed in Earth as we are. It is so hopeful and creative: I am part of it, nothing of me will ever be lost or beyond the love of this God this actively creating-God. But, and here is the rub: will I choose to be open to and positive about this ongoing creating activity, about the earth’s surprising capacities as it shifts and changes, or will I try to hold it to the status quo, try to contain and manage things so as to maintain what we have come to know as normal and desirable? Will I choose to protect me and mine by accumulating goods and wealth? Will I hold to my personal security and lifestyle and disregard the rest of you?
These are important questions for me to ask myself, because how I choose to live has implications for you as well as me, for our neighbours at the Mission as well as those who occupy the Beehive. My faith insists that the choices I make about by own life should be available for you too. So, how I choose to live makes plain what I value and what I desire, and what I want for your life too.
I can be limited by what I have been taught, by the boundaries set out for my by the church and society in the past, or I can dare to look beyond this boundary toward a different way of being, of living. And, it seems to me, some of that different way can be found in the stories of the First Testament, and the stories about Jesus and his teachings.
I’m wanting to suggest that a different way can be found in the wisdom available to us in the stories and myths of our past, stories such as in the vision in the Isaiah reading we heard this morning, coming to us from 2500 years ago, and even from the ‘myths’ of Ancient Greece with warnings of human self-aggrandisement, and the importance of knowing ourselves and our place so the balance can be kept between life and death, work and leisure, enough and too little, between humans and the gods.
When we forget we are humans emerging from the substances of the earth, when we forget that we are part of it all - the molecules, the minerals, and the energies - and instead desire for ourselves the immortality of the gods in heavenly places beyond the confines of earth, then everything gets out of balance and 'salvation' retreats.
Remembering, however, that we are created by the substances of our earth, and that in our Christian tradition the earth is infused with ‘godness’, in which we ‘live and move and have our being’ (to quote a great theologian (Paul) as recorded in our scriptures) is to know that God is intimately engaged with our being, our living and our becoming. Remembering and retelling this wisdom helps us to respect our earth home: to acknowledge the mutuality of our creative capacities and the need for ongoing mutuality of care between humans and the earth; it is to know the life of our Creating-God still walking the earth and proclaiming 'it is good'.
[i] McFague, Sally. Models of God; Theology for an ecological nuclear age. Great Britain, SCM Press. 1987.
Bouma-Prediger, Steven. The Greening of Theology:The ecological models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sitter and Jurgen Moltmann. The American Academy of Religion. Atlanta Georgia. Scholars Press. 1995.
Hoggard Creegan, Nicola & Andrew Shepherd. (edt) Creation and Hope: Reflections on Ecological Anticipation and Action from Aotearoa New Zealand. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Eugene, OR. 2018.