Acknowledging the significance of the climate change crisis, Celine Mangan OP explores the right Christian response through the words of the gospel and the teaching of the magisterium.
We are more aware today of the effects of climate change in our world and the impact we are having on the environment. But has this anything to say to us as Christians?
As long ago as 1990 the then Pope, John Paul II, implied that it certainly has, when he said in his address for World Peace Day that year: ‘In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustice among people and nations but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life.’
More and more we see land devasted by floods and landslides because of deforestation or unsuitable building, pollution of water supplies and the extinction of many species of plants and animals.
There have been those who have said that we as Christians are not only not innocent of blame in relation to the pollution of the earth but that we are part of the problem. They say this particularly because of the way the story of the creation of the world in the first chapter of Genesis has been interpreted.
The usual translation given in our Bibles for a command of God to humans at the end of the chapter is that they are to dominate over the other creatures who were created, ‘the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field’. The word ‘dominate’ is an unfortunate translation from the original Hebrew of the Bible. It would be better translated as ‘shepherding’ or ‘having a care for’ the other species that inhabit this world with us.
When you look closely at that first chapter of Genesis, you get a wonderful picture image of the world being birthed out of darkness, ‘midwifed’ as it were, by the Spirit:
‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep. Then God said: Let there be light…’
The story goes on to outline in days one-to-three, the places which would be inhabited, while the occupants of those places emerge in days four-to-six:
Day 1: Creation of light;
Day 4: ‘Peoplings’ of light: sun etc;
Day 2: Heavens and waters;
Day 5: Birds of air, fish of sea;
Day 3: Dry land, vegetation;
Day 6: Animals, humans;
Day 7: Day of Rest.
Humans take their place in the sequence after the animals on day six; in the story we are firmly within the circle of creation rather than being at the apex of it. But of course, human beings have always had a tendency to make themselves special.
It is not only in the last few centuries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that we have felt free to dominate and exploit the earth. In a book from just before the time of Jesus, a Jewish writer, in retelling the story of creation in Genesis, pushed the animals up to day five so that humans could have day six all to themselves!
Other Jewish writers down the centuries have taken the opposite stance. One liturgical text, for instance, goes so far as to say: ‘For the sake of the cattle you created humans, O God.’
The creation stories of the Bible – and there are many of them, not just the one we have been talking about from Genesis chapter one – are not in conflict with the scientific accounts of how the world came into being. St. Augustine long ago said that the Bible does not teach us ‘how the heavens go’ but ‘how to get to heaven’.
The Bible is concerned to teach us spiritual truth: how to live spiritually in our world, with God and with other beings in creation. Maybe in the past we took the notion of living spiritually to mean getting out of the world to be with God, and this led us not to respect the other creatures that God has made.
Passionist priest and ecological writer, Thomas Berry, says that we need to change our emphasis in spirituality from a spirituality of alienation from the world around us to a spirituality of intimacy with the natural world. We should have a spirituality concerned not only with justice to humans but with justice for all the other creatures that make up the earth community.
At the end of the Book of Job, there is a telling antidote to humans thinking that they dominate the world. Job had been pestering God to appear to him so that he could tell God a thing or two about the way he was ruling the world, in particular how God was treating Job himself. But when God does appear in the story, he talks not about Job and other humans but about the mighty animals that he has created and delights in, animals which would have been considered inimical to humans in Job’s time.
The great medieval writers spoke of two books that revealed God: the book of the scriptures and the book of nature. Maybe we need to read more of God in the book of nature today but also to read the book of the scriptures, our Bible, in a way which helps us to respect the wonderful world God has created. Future articles in this series will try and do just that.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.