Christian faith and teaching enables reflection on the current climate and environmental challenges. Scientists and campaigners, even those who do not profess a faith, have commented that we need a new sense of spirituality to reform our relationship with our planet’s ecosystem. The climate crisis is multi-dimensional and consequently we will find a range of themes in biblical teaching that appear pertinent to our time. Christians have not always been alert to the ecological crisis but as we look on God’s creation today, its beauty and its damage, we find the bible speaking to us in fresh and different ways.
As Christians, the creation story is often our first point of contact with environment and climate change. This story at the beginning of Genesis speaks to us of the beauty of our planet. God saw all that he had made and it was very good, and on a bright summer’s day we can easily agree.
If you ask Christians which verse of the bible most speaks to them of our relationship to creation, you are likely to find that verse 28 of Genesis Chapter 1 comes up more frequently than any other. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” It is often pointed out that the phrase ‘rule over’ refers to the relationship of a sovereign to their kingdom and those living within it. The purpose of their ‘rule’ is to provide order, protection and preservation. However that may not be immediately obvious to many readers, and over the years these verses may well have influenced an approach to creation that is supportive of (or at least does not challenge) the exploitation of God’s creation for our use.
The purpose of their ‘rule’ is to provide order, protection and preservation.
A different understanding is apparent once we get beyond the first three chapters of Genesis. After the flood, God’s promise, marked by the sign of the rainbow, is made not only with Noah but “with all life on earth” (Gen 9: v 12 & v 17). Psalm 104 is a wonderful account of God’s continued presence in creation. It places human beings alongside lions, birds and wild goats in the created order. Even the fearsome sea creature, the leviathan, was formed by God to frolic in the depths. There are many places in the bible that give us a sense that certain aspects of God’s creation will stretch our limited human understanding.
Once we arrive at the New Testament we read that there is a plan. God’s promise of salvation applies not only to each of us but by extension to all of creation, which we can hope will be liberated from bondage and decay (Romans 8).
The suffering of creation is all too evident today as we reflect on climate change. While the cause is clear, the solutions are difficult to achieve. We have been consuming beyond our means, extracting fossil fuels at a rate that the planet’s eco system cannot sustain. We now need a global effort to pull together to create a future using quite different industrial and economic models to those that we have relied upon previously. Governments, including our own, describe the climate situation as an ‘emergency’.
The ‘pulling together’ will require a high level of global cooperation. The economics and politics are complicated but the central message is not. Wherever we live, we have an understanding that every individual is valued and loved equally by God. Christians, alongside followers of other faiths, have made a vital contribution to the ‘pulling together’. Pope Benedict for example caught the attention of world leaders before the important Paris summit in 2015 when he published his statement Laudato Si. In this statement he said that the ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion. We cannot attend to the environmental degradation unless we also attend to the human and social degradation.
This then becomes the challenge for the church and every individual Christian, and we have many resources on which we can draw. At a practical level many local churches have links with churches in far flung parts of our world. We hear their stories first-hand through our partnership links. We may be conscious that when we are meeting and praying on a Sunday, so are they. God invites us to reflect on the big questions together. When Jesus commanded ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ he is surely including those whose homes have been flooded in Bangladesh or blown away on the island of Dominica.
A knowledge of God’s forgiveness enables us to more readily explore what this justice looks like in relation to our relationship to the rest of creation and to the well-being of future generations.
Historically much of the over exploitation of the planet has been carried out by the industrialised world; the comparatively rich minority whose wealth has been supported by the unsustainable utilisation of reserves of coal, oil and gas. With the benefit of hindsight we are bound to ask ourselves whether this behaviour counts as ‘sin’ and, if so, who is it that has sinned exactly? The Christian theme of repentance is helpful here. Repentance is about saying sorry and doing things differently. With acknowledgment of wrongdoing comes the liberation of freedom from guilt. We begin to become that much more attuned to verses in the bible that speak of God’s justice. A knowledge of God’s forgiveness enables us to more readily explore what this justice looks like in relation to our relationship to the rest of creation and to the well-being of future generations. In response, in the UK, most Christian denominations have withdrawn all investments from oil, gas and coal companies. Our churches join with other faith communities in demanding stronger action by governments, especially at the critical COP26 Summit in Glasgow in November 2021 with the campaign Make COP Count.
Many local churches are turning their prayerful reflection into action through the Eco Church programme run by A Rocha. It has become much more common today to pray in church for God’s creation and our own part in addressing climate change. We have more opportunities in the annual church calendar to reflect on creation such as World Environment Day in June. Some churches have begun to mark the period of ‘Creationtide’ in September, originally a festival of the Orthodox Christian church. Harvest Sunday falls during this period.
Ultimately we recognise that change is needed on many levels. A growing environmental awareness supported by our knowledge of God’s love for the whole of his creation enables us to engage with the difficult challenge of lifestyles. The path may be long but we each know that we are not in this alone.