Christianity, One World; One Love. A Christian voice


  1. Preface
  2. Does Christianity speak with one voice?
  3. The coat of many colours.
  4. From where we stand.
  5. What does Creation say?
  6. The Earth is the Lord's.
  7. Dominium.
  8. Choosing.
  9. Stewardship and spirituality.
  10. Joined up Thinking.
  11. The Harmony of the Celestial Spheres.
  12. The Manifesto for the Earth.
  13. References and further reading.

Preface; an encounter with reality.


In 2007 I was privileged to meet the Christian Aid Cut the Carbon marchers as they passed through Bournemouth on their 1000 mile trek from Belfast to London via Edinburgh and Cardiff. Among them was Dwijren Mallick from Burkino Faso, a West African country already severely affected by climate changes. In Burkino Faso the long dry season means that normally there is only a 3 or 4 month growing season for crops. The people have learnt to manage that. But in recent year the rains have either failed to come, so there are no crops, or came in deluges and floods that destroyed the crops. Dwijren Mallick did not need to be convinced by Al Gore or anyone else of the reality of climate change. When we met again in St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the end of their long march I was humbled by the refusal of those who had come from such climate-affected and impoverished countries to blame us for their troubles. But I am in no doubt that our behaviour over the past decades has contributed to the climatic changes that have brought increased poverty, hunger, starvation and death to their countries.

Does Christianity speak with one voice?


No. Neither Christianity, the Church, or the Church of England are homogenous. I am only someone who happens to be an Anglican Priest. There are many other Christians whose views I agree with, but that does not make these views authoritative. There are many voices that would disagree with us. Christian history shows this to have been the case from the beginning. That is why many of us see theology as exploration rather than dogma, as a journey, not a destination. Even the Bible does not 'answer all our questions, but questions all our answers'. There are many Christians who take the Bible as literally factual. Others see many of its truths couched in poetic and metaphorical language. I believe that both hold a 'high doctrine' of scripture; both give it authority and bow before its truth. It is simply that we see truth expressed in different ways.

The coat of many colours.


Some Christian believers debate hotly with non-believers about the 'facts'. Ironically this may because both sides share 'fact-seeking' and 'fact trusting' personalities. Some believers and non-believers get upset with those who love science and the bible and refuse to let them contradict each other claiming, with the great Stephen Jay Gould, that faith and science inhabit complementary magesteria; they have different kinds of authority. For us it is as useless to conflict them as it would be to criticise the truth and beauty of poetry because it is not carpentry. 'Factual nature cannot, in principle, answer the deep questions about ethics and meaning that all people of substance and valor must resolve for themselves. When we stop demanding more than nature can logically provide (thereby freeing ourselves for genuine dialogue with the outside world, rather than clothing nature with false projection of our needs), we liberate ourselves to look within. Science can then forge true partnerships with philosophy, religion, and the arts and humanities, for each must supply a patch in that ultimate coat of many colors, the garment called wisdom.' (Gould)

I give thanks that the tools of science and the dedication of scientists have alerted us to the reality of climate change and offered us dire, if necessarily tentative predictions, along with possible solutions. This is what only science can do. My own response to this crisis is informed and motivate by my faith-based morality and ethical stance. Religions may never be wholly good, but they can produce moral and ethical critiques that are more reliable - and more challenging - than simply doing what I think is good.

As the Revd Doctor Giles Fraser wrote in his column in 'My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence; i.e. do unto others as you would have done unto you. … This seems so naive, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing that what they are doing is the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.' (Fraser) He goes on to suggest that those who do not have a moral vision can end up knowing what they are against, rather than what they are for.
Dr Fraser is a liberal; Michael Lloyd is an Evangelical, but still he writes; 'The Big Bang Theory may be true - I believe it is - but, by itself it does not tell you how to live. It may well tell you the origin of all things, but not their purpose of their value. (Lloyd. 1) Was it Cardinal Bellarmine who pointed out during the trials of Galileo that the Bible shows us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go?

For many Christians faith and science make an indispensable combination. When facing the challenge of climate change I know I need both.

And I also share Carl Sagan's understanding that 'Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognise our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of the ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jn. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does disservice to both' (Sagan 1)

From where we stand


'For the most part, empty space is so cold that all life in it would be frozen; most of the matter of space is so hot as to make life in it impossible; space is traversed, and astronomical bodies continually bombarded, by radiation of a variety of kinds, much of which is probably inimical to, or even destructive of, life. Into such a universe we have stumbled, if not by mistake, at last as a result of what may properly be described as an accident' (Jeans.)

One difference between unbelievers and believers may be that unbelievers thinks that Life, the Universe and Everything is just an accident that was waiting to happen, and, luckily for us, it did eventually happen. Believers see Life, the Universe and Everything as a gift, an inheritance, to be treated with gratitude and to be passed on. The Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote , 'To learn to be God's creatures means we must learn to recognise that our existence and the existence of the universe itself is a gift.' (Hauerwas) This attitude was also expressed by William Tyndale, the 16th century Biblical translator, who saw all Christian life as based on gratitude. Lucky or grateful? It depends on where we stand.

The difference in attitude could be similar to that between a lucky recipient of a new car in a lottery draw and the beneficiary of a car given to them by their parents on the day they passed their driving test. The first would, we hope, be delighted to receive the car and take great care of it. But their attitude to it would be different to that of the receiver of the gift. They too would, we hope, be delighted and treat the car with care. But they would also know it was a gift given in love. They might well 'hold it dear and treat it dear', which is Webster's description of 'cherishing' , and although the outwards acts of care would be the same there would surely be a inward qualitative distinction in their attitude to it, prompted by their understanding that it was given in love by the parents they love. The care they took of this present would reciprocate the care their parents had shown to them in giving it. This different attitude does not, however, in any way have to alter their beliefs about how the car was manufactured!

What does Creation say?


The Biblical story says that creation is God's, and not our, possession. Genesis Ch. 1 verse 28 says that we have dominion over it, and this has too often been used to justify claims of ownership and the right to exploit our planet. But this verse can also be interpreted as a charge to be responsible for every living thing. Genesis Chapter 2. Verse 15 says that we are to work it and take care of it, to be good stewards.

'At the heart of the theological debate is the question of how Western Christians have understood the Genesis account of creation, and especially the crucial verse 1. 28. .. Augustine Aquinas and Luther provide a fascinating contrast in their interpretations of 'dominion'. … When compared they do not support any simplistic notion that 'dominion' is to be treated as a synonym for 'exploitation'. (Gill 1)

I believe that to assume dominion' is to adopt bad theology, using the name of God to support our own greed and desire for power. As the contemporary prophet Jim Wallis puts it ' getting our theology wrong has put our natural environment and our children's future in real jeopardy. Our private religion has fostered an individualism that has not only diminished our social conscience for the poor but also separated us from the earth itself. Our cultural conformity and personal subservience to “market values” and our spiritual addiction to consumerism have wreaked havoc on the created order and devastated the environment we depend on for our life and sustenance.' (Wallis 1)

But there are other theological routes to encourage dominion. One of them is the Christian doctrine of Incarnation, of God made flesh in Jesus.

'In an article published in Science in 1967 Lynn White wrote that 'especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. …Reinforced by the doctrine of the Incarnation, Western Christianity has as a result tended to believe that humanity shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature.' (Gill 2)

But St Thomas Aquinas knew better when he wrote of the Great Chain of Being that links the Divine Creator, the heavenly hosts, all human, animal and vegetal life, the minerals and water we need to live, and the planet Earth itself. We are not above it all, we are integral to it all, and all is sacred.

Jesus, the Word made flesh, provided us with the best example of how to respond to God's sacred creation. 'The sort of rule we are to exercise over creation is to be the sort of rule that God exercises over us, and that is servant leadership. How did Jesus exercise leadership over his disciples? By calling them not servants, but friends, by being their servant and washing their feet, by dying for them. How did he exercise dominion over nature? By bringing it back into order, caring for it, healing the sick, raising the dead, undoing all that mars creation and prevents it from being itself.' (Lloyd 2)

And Rowan Williams points us to Aquinas' startling denial that 'we ought to love things or persons as a means of loving God or as leading us to God; we should love them for their 'autonomy and consistency', for what the free love of God has made them. 'God is the reason for loving, he is not the sole object of love' (Williams) Incarnation ought not to separate us from creation and other creatures, but bind us to them in love, for their own sake.

The Earth is the Lord's


At a Christian Aid conference I heard that during the Marcos reign in the Philippines huge areas of land were sold to the fruit growing corporation Del Monte by President Marcos. None of the money was given to the people who already farmed that land. It ended up in the Marcos' Swiss accounts. The farmers did not want the money; they wanted to continue to live on and work the land. This was not Marcos's possession. It was not any one's possession; it was simple there, the farmers believed, for everyone to live off. One day an old man came to church and said to the priest 'On Sunday I come to Church and listen to the Word of God and speak to God in my prayers. On Monday through Saturday I stand on the land, working it. What has the church got to say about the land being sold from under my feet? If the church has got nothing to say about the land, where I spend my life working, I have nothing to say to God. And the priest hung his head in shame, because the Church did not want a row with the President, or with the rich people who supported him - and supported the church as long as the church did not rock the boat. Didn't some-one say that the Church was here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

The Biblical assertion that the Earth is the Lord's is expressed through the Jubilee Code in the book Leviticus. During every seventh year the land is to lie fallow. On every seventh Jubilee all land must be returned to its original users, freedom must be restored to all indentured workers and all debts must be forgiven. We do not own the land, and we cannot and should not own people. There is little evidence that this code was ever kept, but that does not destroy is authenticity of wisdom. In a conversation with Jim Wallis, Gordon Brown once said “The most important social movement in Britain since Wilberforce was Jubilee 2000. Without that campaign, led by your church people, our government simply would not have cancelled the debts of the poorest countries” ( Wallis 2) Imagine the impact it would make on our world if it was rigorously applied.

Dominium?


Many Christians believe that the original power deal made between the Church and the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century was fatal to the integrity of the church and utterly compromised the gospel of Christ. The long history of Holy Emperors and divinely appointed monarchs, the Ceasaro-papism exemplified by the Byzantine church towards the end of the first millennium, the Roman Catholic Concordat, the mis-named Erastianism, granting the State the right to punish blasphemy, and the Anglican Establishment based on the Act of Supremacy naming King Henry VIII and his successors as the Church of England's 'only supreme head on earth' , demonstrate the abiding tendency of churches to be more interested in their own survival than in following the Cross. (see Bowden, for definitions, not my opinions!). Many Christians, myself included, see the Crusades as the greatest misuse of the power awarded by such deals, and the recent Gulf Wars as direct descendants of those medieval disasters.

The Church has also struggled with the tensions created by its own wealth. The Franciscan Wars of the 14th century were predicated on the question of the poverty of Jesus. If he owned nothing how could the church and its leaders be so rich? The church leaders claimed that they owned nothing, all the wealth accumulated by the church being simply there for the glory of God and to support the church's mission. The followers of Francis thought otherwise.

Its seems that our hunger for wealth and power inevitably become insatiable.Power defends itself by acquiring more power. During the Cold War how many nuclear weapons were enough to make our leaders feel safe? Only more. Always more, or more powerful ones. We soon moved from deterrence to massive overkill. When does an Empire become large and wealthy enough? Never. The borders are always a threat, so we try to annex the neighbouring territory. The Project for the New American Century, a group of conservative political figures 'lays out in their papers a vision of an “American Peace” based on “unquestioned U.S. military pre-eminence” (Wallis 3) There will be peace, it seems, but only as long as they are in charge.

How many billionaires acquire enough money to stop acquiring more? How many manufacturers or retailers sell enough product to stop them seeking a greater share of the market? When is enough enough?

Power and dominium, wealth and compromise, corruption and exploitation; these are too often the corporate sins not only of the world but of the church and its members. None of these appetites can be separated from our attitude and behaviour towards our planet, its eco-sphere and our brothers and sisters throughout it.

As a church and as individuals we tend to admire examples of voluntary poverty, but not to follow them, to denounce power, but not to renounce it. In all this we deny our teacher and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, and try to assume the power and dominium of Almighty God. We cannot love God and mammon, and the predicament of the victims of poverty and climate related disasters is surely the result of our sinful behaviour. The problem of climate change is that of our lack of spiritual discipline and obedience.

Christians kneel at the feet of Jesus, who, we are told by St Paul, 'did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -even death on a cross' (Philippians Ch 2 verse 7and 8.) This 'self-emptying', or kenosis in the biblical Greek, seems to be a crucial -and unpopular - aspect of Jesus' meaning for us. This text 'exhorting Christians to adopt the self-emptying life of service witnessed in Christ' (Alan Torrance) confronts our pride. And pride is so often rooted in fear and anxiety. How can we let go of power and wealth if we are frightened and full of angst?

Choosing.


To try to live in the light of faith is a choice. We can choose to regard life as a gift and accept the responsibility concomitant with that choice. I believe that the universe has, at least in this one small corner (of a cornerless universe) produced something that we call love. I choose to believe that this is an imperfect and local manifestation of something much more profound and universal than we (can?) know. I choose to regard this love as the purpose of the evolution of the universe and of life itself. I choose to put my faith in it, which means that I try to live my life and shape my relationships and make my choices in its light. I choose this is the foundation of my morality and ethics. I join others in calling the source and nature of that love God. I see it manifested most fully in the life and death and teaching of Jesus. I belong to a church that seeks to find communion with that universal love in companionship with, and in the spirit of, Jesus, our Lord. All of these choices are, for me, based on evidence that is not quantitative and scientific, but qualitative, experiential, intuitive, emotional, spiritual - and purpose full. Here I stand; so help me God.

Stewardship and spirituality.


David Adam's life and work and prayers in Yorkshire and on the Holy Island of Lindesfarne suggest that even though we can never recapture an authentic Celtic Christian spirituality the surviving Celtic prayers (which are works of art) and the surviving works of Celtic art (which are prayers) can still speak to us, and we can delight in their intricate weaving of natural shapes and forms, patterns best grasped intuitively; in their passionate love for the mundane, their eyes ever open for the revelation of the love of God through creation and all its mystery and plainness, power and its vulnerability, repetitiveness and its unceasing newness; its offering of unexceptional experiences.

Be blessing, O God, my little cow,
and be blessing, O God, my intent;
O God, my partnership blessing thou,
and my hands that to milking are sent.

There is here a profound and unromantic sense of the limitless, unquantifiable, indefinable, ineffable co-creative love of God forged out of lives lived subject to the harsh disciplines of rural life. This was not the macho spirituality that competes and strives and dominates, that launches Crusades and tortures people for their salvation. This was not the philosophical spirituality that seeks to escape into 'heavenly' unworldly Platonic spheres. This was not the reasonable spirituality that analyses and isolates, that divides and conquers nature, knowledge and the world. This spirituality did not delight in the theology that balances clean logical propositions, creating a dogmatic schema of geometric exactitude. This was, perhaps, more akin to a spirituality that plaits hair and blood and mud, decorates it with petals and pebbles and fantastical forms. This was, perhaps, an all-embracing Trinitarian spirituality that saw theology as art, art as life, life as work, work as prayer, prayer as theology; and all as unity. The Celtic saints recognised that God speaks to us through nature.

'St Francis called all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of brother and sister, because he knew they had the same source as himself' . Richard Rohr's book Hope Against Darkness (quoting St Bonaventure above) reminds us of St Francis' prayed through and thought out response to God's creation. The psalms tell us that all creation proclaims the glory of God and the Genesis story tells us that we have a God-given responsibility to manage the earth, and do it well. The Christian mystic Master Eickhart said that 'If humankind could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world'. (Rohr)

Surely here are spiritual perceptions and attitudes that can help us in present strife?

Joined up thinking.


Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring, knew that we are not simply members of the human family, but are also made of the same stuff as the trees and birds and insects and oceans and air and soil. We are all part of one single creation and what we do to any part of that creation we do to ourselves. This a literal understanding of John Dunne's metaphor; no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were.

As Carl Sagan wrote; 'The Earth is the only world know to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand…. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've known' (Sagan.2) Many Christians believe that our material survival, our essential need to care for every link in the Chain of Being, our understanding of God and our relationship to God and to creation as stewards of this planet, all require of us the deepest possible response. Christians, recognising the divine nature of God in Jesus, the human being, ought not to dismiss or devalue the earth or humankind or anything else that lives upon it. All are sacred, part of God's gift.

The Hebrew Prophets say that without vision the people shall die, and we are beginning to see the truth and dreadful urgency of this need for a spiritual vision and a thought-out science-based response to our looming catastrophe. It is a commonplace that spirituality unites us, religion divides us. Spirituality is so much deeper than religion. That is why I see hope in a common spiritual response to creation that reaches across and beyond all our religions. In it is the possibility that we can work together.

The Harmony of the Spheres.


Scientists and theologians are in awe of the way the Universe works, has continued to work for 14 billion years, and shows every sign of carrying on working for at least another 14 billion years. The ancient philosophers perceived this when they spoke of the harmonic crystal spheres that upheld and ordered the universe. Modern science speaks of the super-string theory, suggesting that all subatomic particles are is made up of 'strings' of energy, each vibrating at its own frequency, so that the Universe is like a vast symphony - a symphony in harmony.

We admire lives lived harmoniously, people 'in tune' with themselves, with other human beings, and with the created order. Harmony speaks of peace; discord of conflict. Believers seek to live lives in harmony with their God. One ancient word for all this is Shalom.

Living in discord may be the nature of what we call sin. The prophet Jeremiah saw that sin did not need to be punished by some outside monitoring agency. Sin does its own damage, brings about is own punishing repercussions, like bad diet or additive or abusive behaviour. In a universe that is ordered and harmonious, rather than disordered and chaotic, actions inevitably have consequences. These may be personal, relational, social, economic, or climatic. The evidence strongly suggests that our actions, as individuals, as societies and as economic consumers are wreaking devastating climatic consequences. We are out of harmony with each other, with the created order, with the will of God. We need to restore the balance, to get in tune, to live in peace; Shalom.

The Manifesto for the Earth


In the preamble to The Earth Charter, as stated in Mikhail Gorbachev's book Manifesto for the Earth, there are these references to our spirituality and its challenge.

The protection of earth's vitality, diversity and beauty is a sacred task. (p.112).

Our environmental, economic, political, social and spiritual challenges are interconnected and together can forge inclusive solutions. (p.113)

The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude foe the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature, (p. 113)

Its first principle urges us to affirm faith in the inherent dignity of all human beings in the intellectual, artistic, ethical, and spiritual potential of humanity. (p. 114)

Section two states that we need to; recognise and preserve the traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom of all cultures that contribute to environmental protection and human well being. (p. 118)

Section three says that we need to uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well being. (p. 120)

Among the many pragmatic assertions and principles, these references to our spirituality seem to be integral and essential, and are I hope acceptable to people of faith through out the world.

This page was written by Bob Vernon.



References


For this article I have drawn on many sources, it is a joining together of some themes from my Christian tradition and contemporary thought that connect with my experience and make some kind of sense to me. I hope I have acknowledged my sources, but if someone else's felicitous idea or phrase has lodged in my mind and been reproduced here without such acknowledgement I apologise. I am not an academic, but a preacher, and preachers do not steal, but collect and spread good pollen generously.

Bowden J. (ed.) Christianity, the Complete Guide 2005 Continuum London p. 954

Dawkins. R. (ed) The Oxford Book of Science Writing 2008 OUP. Oxford

Fraser. G. The Church Times 13th June 2008 London.

Gill R. 1. A Textbook of Christian Ethics. 2006. T & T Clark London p. 272.
2 ibid. p. 271

Gorbachev, M. Manifesto for the Earth, Clairview, East Sussex 206.

Gould. S. J. I have Landed p 217f. Cape, London 2002 p. 217f.

Jeans. J. quoted in Dawkins 2008

Lloyd. M. (1) CafÈ Theology 2005 Alpha London p30.
2) ibid. p 50.

Rohr R. Hope Against Darkness 2001 St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati. P 135.

Sagan. C. (1) quoted in Dawkins 2008 p243.
(2) ibid p 243
Wallis . J. 1) Seven Ways to Change the World, 2008, Lion, London p112)
. (2) God's Politics 2005. Lion London p.272
(3) ibid. p 272.

Williams R. On Christian Theology 2000 Blackwell, Oxford p74.

...and further readings
Adams, David. see various publication by the Triangle Press.

Barton, John. The Nature of Biblical Criticism. 2007. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville.

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth, 2006. Bloomsbury London, and DVD

Greene, Brian, The Fabric of the Cosmos 2004 Allan Lane. London

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine. 2007, Alan Lane. London

McGrath, Alister. The Twilight of Atheism 2004. Doubleday, London

Moltmann, Jurgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. 1981 SCM, London.

Sachs, Jeffrey. The End of Poverty. 2005 Penguin Press, London.

Stiglitz, Joseph. Globalisation and its discontents. 2002 Penguin Press London.

James, Oliver The Selfish Capitalist 2008 Vermilion, London.