© Rex A E Hunt
3 June 2012. Environment Day
Preached at Pitt St. Uniting Church, Sydney, NSW, Australia on Sunday 10 June 2012
‘ENVIRONMENT’ AS MORE THAN SUN, SAND, AND SURF
It was Christmas Eve in December 1968.
Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon,
the American astronauts busy photographing possible landing sites
for the missions that would follow.
“On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to roll the craft away from the moon and tilt its windows toward the horizon... What he got was a sudden view of the earth, rising. “Oh my God,” he said. “Here’s the earth coming up.” Crew member Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took the photograph that became the iconic image perhaps of all time” (McKibben 2010:2)
The space agency NASA gave the image the code name AS8-14-2383
But we now know it as “Earthrise”.
As the other Apollo 8 Crew member, Jim Lovell, put it:
“the earth… suddenly appeared as ‘a grand oasis’” (McKibben 2010:2).
But author and environmental activist Bill McKibben has since pointed out:
“…we no longer live on that planet” (McKibben 2010:2).
Not that the world has ended.
Earth is still a fragile web of interconnected and
interdependent forces and domains of existence.
It is still the third rock out from the sun,
located in a galaxy called the ‘Milky Way’.
What has ended is the world as we thought we knew it.
That ‘grand oasis’ has changed in profound ways.
“We imagine we still live back on that old planet”, says McKibben, “that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they are not. It’s a different place. A different planet” (McKibben 2010:2).
That ‘different planet’ as McKibben describes it,
has been brought about by global warming.
The sudden surge in both greenhouse gases and global temperatures.
And “a series of ominous feedback effects” (McKibben 2010:20).
While this concern for the natural environment may sound ‘recent’
it does have a heritage of expressed concern of 50+ years.
It was back in 1967, in the year before Apollo 8,
that American author Lynn White published his now famous article,
‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’.
White suggested that Christianity's attack on so-called pagan religion
effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning.
Indeed, Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees,
with the doctrine that the god God is a disembodied spirit
whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.
That is, the impact of this religious teachings has tended to empty
the biosphere of any sense of God's presence in natural things. White writes:
“By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White 1967).
White goes on to suggest, in this sense the ecological crisis:
what we know as global warming,
irreversible ozone depletion,
higher than acceptable methane gas concentrations,
is fundamentally a spiritual crisis.
Because... certain religious teachings have blunted our ability
to experience co-belonging with other life forms.
So I reckon any day, but especially today, is a good day to remind ourselves, that:
• Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old;
• The universe - that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting...
matter-energy in space-time” (Gillett 2006) is approximately 14 billion years old;
• Our bodies are ‘star stuff’ containing the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, iron, and
other elements from earlier exploding stars.
Now for some of you, I imagine, not much of this is new, generally speaking.
Likewise, it is not sufficient for us to just uncover the demons in our past,
as highlighted in White’s article.
We also need to ‘re-imagine’ much of our theological thinking, not just
“protect the core narrative of our faith” (Vosper 2012:34).
As one whose working life for the past 40+ years has been shaped
by both progressive theology and social ecology,
today I want to use some of the resources from both those disciplines
to widen our thinking on ‘environment’.
I want to go beyond sun, sand, and surf – important as they are – to include
some ideas from a couple of people who have pushed the boundaries
on how we talk – or could talk - about the environments
called ‘church’ and ‘God’.
The Revd Dr Charles Strong (1844-1942) is regarded by many
as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia.
Before Spong there was Strong!
Before Angus there was Strong!
Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland, he came to Australia
and became minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875.
For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy
and is acknowledged as one of the most controversial clergymen
in the history of the Victorian Presbyterian Church.
Strong described his theology as “broad or liberal” (Badger 1971: 51) which, he said, was
“absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life” (Badger 1971:51).
Such a theology had several characteristics:
(i) it was fluid;
(ii) thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;
(iii) God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’;
(iv) love and justice were always working together;
(v) it allied itself with science, and
(vi) is based on human experience rather than an infallible book (Badger 1971:285).
Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church,
and with the threat of a charge of heresy for
“promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine” (McEachran)
hanging over his head, Strong resigned
and returned for a time to his native Scotland.
On his return to Australia in 1884, he was approached by a group of lay-people
and invited to assist them in founding the Australian Church,
a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship.
For 70 years the Australian Church was part of the Victorian church landscape.
Its minister and members challenged war, conscription,
issues of injustice, the lack of child care, and supernatural Christianity with its interventionist God,
taking these concerns into the arenas of both politicians and the media.
Strong’s passion was to enlarge the environment called 'church'.
He rejected the idea that religion had nothing to do with
the affairs of this life, with social welfare and economics.
The underlying idea of the Australian Church was that it should
“attempt to provide a favourable climate and a home for those who were convinced of the significance and importance of religion, but who were unable to accept the traditional formulae of the churches and a theology derived from the past” (Badger 1971:106).
“A comprehensive Church”, one of their pamphlets said, “whose bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather than creeds or ecclesiastical forms” (Badger 1971:104).
The ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former
Harvard University theologian, Gordon Kaufman, for instance,
presents G-o-d as non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’
“manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person. We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth (Kaufman 2004:58).
Kaufman clearly names the problem with
traditional theological or church language and thinking.
His alternative thinking and language embraces both our
scientific knowledge and the reality
beyond the symbols of a literalist biblical faith.
And… the notion of creativity carries with it a strong note of mystery.
“Creativity happens: this is an absolutely amazing mystery – even though we may in certain cases, for example with the evolution of life, be able to specify some of the conditions without which it could not happen” (Kaufman 2004:56).
This close connection with the idea of ‘mystery’,
makes ‘creativity’ a good metaphor for thinking about G-o-d.
Because it preserves the ultimacy of the mystery of God,
while connecting God with the coming into being – in time – of the new and the novel.
And the selection of some of these possibilities to continue.
Kaufman's naturalistic theology enlarges the environment called 'God'.
Today we share in the celebration of Environment Day.
Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us.
Activist Bill McKibben says it is a different Earth now in 2012,
and needs a different name. Perhaps Eaarth!
And being ‘different’ means reshaping our society:
from big to smaller, from growth to maintenance,
from expansion to scale down, from global to neighbourhood.
Theologian Gordon Kaufman could conclude that the
traditional anthropomorphic god called God has long since died.
The role of theology, he claimed, was to seek to
“reimagine, reconceive, reconstruct the symbol ‘God’ with metaphors drawn from the ways in which we now understand ourselves and our world” (Kaufman 2004:126).
Churchman Charles Strong never wavered in the belief that their movement
“was a movement in the direction of the future and that the ideas they taught and proclaimed would prevail in the end” (Badger 1971:156).
However, it is still the tendency of institutions, the church included,
to dilute the power of spiritual experience,
honour the past above the present, and restrain
progressive tendencies out of fear and in favour of suppressive controls!
What is now needed is a theology that helps people realise and feel
the immense creativity that flows through them.
And for that to happen, as Bishop Jack Spong has argued for years,
more than a cosmetic updating of theological language is required
in order for Christianity to become relevant in our time.
Thus progressive religion’s broad contributions to Environment Day
are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things.
• A recipe for dancing with and living in harmony with,
our world and the various environments that help shape us.
• A call to live humanly and humanely.
• An invitation to hope. Not hope for any time other than this time.
But hope for the fullest and the best that human beings
together in concert can achieve.
The universe is not a-part from us.
We are the evolving self-conscious wisdom bit.
The Sacred is fully present, hidden in the ordinary details of a life, any life, your life.
Especially with your own irrepressible urge to be more,
to realise the fullness of your potential,
or to fashion the best life possible from
your precious years on Earth (Sanguin 2012:138).
“It is no longer healthy or safe for us to keep our eyes focused on anything but the realities of the world in which we live”
writes Gretta Vosper in her new book on prayer, called Amen,
echoing the passion of Charles Strong.
She goes on, and it's a longish quote so I ask that you listen carefully:
“A supernatural worldview, no matter how beautiful some may consider it, and the practices that reinforce it, anaesthetizes us to things we need to do if we are to create sustainability for our planet, our children, and their children. Stripped of a divine plan, we are challenged to be active participants who can mould the world around us rather than simply passive recipients who engage, now and again, in acts of devotion with the hope of altering the course of events” (Vosper 2012:197-98).
The miracle of life is not to walk on water.
The miracle of life is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment
“in this our ecologically-ordered cosmos, pervaded as it is by glorious creativity” (Kaufman 2004:127).
May it be so.
May it ever be so with us.
Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press, 1971.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for religious naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6, 2006.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
McKibben, B. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002.
Sanguin, B. The Advance of Love. Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart. Vancouver: Evans & Sanguin Publishing, Forthcoming 2012.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishing, 2012.