Enlarging Our Love:
Or How to Become Christians Who Truly Belong to the Earth
by John J. Thatamanil (posted with his permission)

St. Philip Anglican Church November 10, 2019

I am immensely grateful to be with the St. Philip community. My thanks to Christopher for the invitation, and Dan Aire for instigating it. Some of you may know that I am a theologian who lives most of the year in NYC and am only slowly learning to be Canadian. This is my first year in Canada during Remembrance Day, and I can say that I am moved by how earnestly Canadians commemorate this day. The omnipresence of poppies is just one of many signs of the significance this day holds in the hearts of Canadians. Remembering and mourning the honored dead keeps us bound to each other across generations; it reminds us that we live not for ourselves alone. Remembering is not only about the past, but it also a commitment to the future. We affirm that we mean to keep faith with the values cherished by our revered ancestors and that our own lives too will leave a worthy testament well into the far-off future. But in this historical moment, the human community now finds itself facing a dire and unprecedented threat: that there may be no far off future for us to live into. Entire worlds have ended before but never before the entire world.

Two weeks ago, my wife, Kate and I had a conversation that every parent in this church has had or will have at some point. You know how it goes: “Is our child ready for movie X?” For us, it was one of the Matrix movies. Our concern was predictable, “The movie is so bleak with its post-apocalyptic future in which human beings serve as batteries for machines.” As we were having that conversation, I realized that the question has now become moot, perhaps even absurd. The very real world in which my son Mo and all our children are living into threatens to be far bleaker than any of the Matrix movies, and they know it already. The movies are fictional, but they know that the threats they face are all too real. I need not rehearse in this well-educated congregation the litany of climate terrors that they face. I will just name one finding that came out at the end of October, days before Halloween. As the NY Times put it, “The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.” Many of the world’s most important cities including Bangkok and Mumbai will be underwater. Just this single threat threatens global disruption as at least 150 million people will be compelled to look for other homes. The refugee crises we face now will seem trivial in the coming light.

This is the world we are bequeathing to our children. There’s a reason why Greta Thunberg has captured our imagination. She speaks for her generation and generations to come in ways that we, the supposedly responsible adults, have failed to do. She gives voice to the grief, terror, betrayal, and anger that our children are feeling. As for the adults in the room, few among us know how to parent in a time of climate crisis. We’ve never been here before. What does our faith have to say about how address the climate crisis? Does Christian faith have resources that can mobilize us for action, console us in our grief, and fire our imaginations to build resilient and caring communities for such times as these times? On that front, I have both good news and bad news.

I’ll start with the bad news: some of the leading thinkers of the past five decades have argued that Christianity is the root cause of the ecological crisis. 52 years ago, the UCLA historian, Lynn White, published a groundbreaking and still influential essay called, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” in the journal Science. In that paper, Dr. White argued as follows:

…In sharp contrast [to Greek thought] Christianity inherited from Judaism…a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image. Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen…. Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

Exploitation and violence against nature is written into our creation story—or so White argued. Now, before we strive to refute Dr. White’s charge, it would be worthwhile to hear him out patiently. Don’t we Christians have much to answer for? Isn’t it true that the ravages of industrialization emerged in the Christian west, particularly beginning in Christian England? Don’t Christians routinely build our religious lives around escape from this material world and longing for another immaterial heaven to come?

White plainly has one verse in mind, a verse that continues to exercise enormous and toxic influence on Christian thinking, Genesis 1:28:

28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The legacy of this verse has been unfortunate indeed. White continues levelling his charges,

In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit…. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects…. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.

Here, White adds another element to the charge sheet against Christianity: unlike ancient and Eastern religions—and we here in BC could also add the wisdom of First Nations’ traditions—Christians have desacralized nature. For Christians, nature is not in any sense sacred because God is transcendent and so stands outside creation. Nature has no spirit in it; spirit is found in human beings alone. Hence, we can do whatever we want to material world as it is dead and inert, merely atoms in motion; it exists solely for our use.

If Dr. White’s accusations aren’t enough, let me add one more, this charge coming not from the Hebrew Bible but the New Testament. In the way Christians have long told the story of the coming of Jesus, we have made it entirely about human beings alone. Who does Jesus come to save? Just us. Only human beings have sinned so only we need salvation. So, what about nature? The natural world is merely the stage, the setting for the really interesting human-divine drama of history. We find God not in nature but in history. In its most troubling forms, some Christian communities imagine salvation as an evacuation operation leaving all who are unsaved and the world itself to burn in a final fiery apocalypse.

You might well be wondering why I have gone on so long in drawing up these charges against Christianity. Why? Because I believe that before Christians can offer solutions to the climate crisis, we must first listen honestly, openheartedly, and nondefensively to our most serious critics. Christians have some explaining and repenting to do before we turn to the work not just of healing the planet but healing the theologies that have played a role degrading the planet. Every Sunday Christians collectively practice confessing our sins so this ought not to be difficult work for us. Today, we are called to admit that we may have been incomplete in our confession because we have failed to recognize our ecological and theological sins. Perhaps we would do well to pray this prayer:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you and your creation in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our human neighbors as ourselves and we have thoughtlessly neglected and ravaged our animal and plant kin. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in earth friendly ways, to the glory of your Name.

If we were try to add up all the charges that have been leveled against Christian faith, that summary might read, “Christian love has been too anthropocentric, too disembodied, and too otherworldly—Christian love is just too small!” So, if that’s the charge, then our calling must be to deepen and expand our love. Christian love must include not just human beings, but all creatures great and small. Christian love needs to remember that we are not just souls but we are bodies that cannot flourish so long as our soil, air, and water are poisoned. Above all, Christian love must become an earthy and earthily love that remembers that God’s love extends to the whole of creation and not just us!

This work of deepening our love is too important to be left to the theologians. That is the shared work of the entire church. Moreover, many of you already practice this deeper love. By caring for your gardens, tenderly growing vegetables for your families, staying connected to the soil, and cherishing the natural beauty of Vancouver Island, many of you love the earth more tenderly than most theologians. You who practice this deeper love, you are the ones best positioned to tutor the hearts and minds of the church as a whole. Transformed living will not just come from renewing our ideas but from changing our practices. And that work falls to all of us. (I know this is an Anglican church, but can I get an Amen?!)

But what then about theology? Surely the church must also learn to think differently about the life of faith, no? Well, I won’t argue that. That’s my day job after all. If we in the church continue to think poorly about faith—if we live as though the goal of Christian life is shuffle off this mortal coil and fly off into the sweet by and by—it will be hard to rectify our lives. So, then, what are we called to do theologically? There are entire libraries of Christian books on this issue, but if I were to suggest just one thing, I would say that it’s important for us to reconnect ourselves to the natural world. In centuries past, even in the early church, Christians knew that they were all called to read two books not just one—the Book of Scripture, by all means—but also “The Book of Nature.” And when the book of nature is read with loving attention, we can see that it is shot through with the sacred power and presence of God. Reading the book of nature also teaches us that we belong to a vast ecological family, the community of all creatures.

No one in Christian history has done a better job in communicating this sacred sense of shared belonging to nature than beloved St. Francis. Recall his lovely and majestic “Canticle of Creatures.”

“Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

There is so much here to be pondered, praised, and prayed. Note that St. Francis praises God with and through God’s creatures. Francis does not need to look away from creation to some more holy elsewhere to praise God. On the contrary, these creatures themselves stir his heart to praise God. Their radiance, playfulness, power, and beauty point to the God who made them. They bear God’s likeness. God’s fingerprints are to be found in God’s handiwork.

And how does St. Francis speak of these creatures? Are they mere things to him? Not at all. In the words of the great contemporary ecotheologian, Thomas Berry, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, and Sister Mother Earth! Here then is an immense gift that Christians must learn again before we offer it to the world. There is nothing Christian whatsoever in thinking of the world as a collection of things, mere objects. Thinking of our fellow creatures in that way is handy only if you want to exploit them, but that reductive way of relating to the world has impoverished and saddened us. It has brought us to the brink of self-destruction.

We human beings even suffer from species loneliness because we have lost track of our created place in community of creatures. We feel tremendous ecogrief for the planetary destruction that we see all around us, for all the millions of species that are now going extinct. Why? We feel that grief because these creatures belong to us and we to them. We cannot mourn what we do not love. We mourn now because in our loss we are waking up! We are waking up to our divinely created earthliness.

Come now, dear friends, we have work to do! We have battles to fight and new more tender ways of inhabiting the world to find together. But this work and these battles—they need not be taken up in a grim and tedious spirit. We fight for new ways of being in the world because we have snapped out of the foolish illusion of endless economic growth on the back of violated creatures. In the words of Pope Francis, we have heard the cries of Sister Mother Earth:

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irre­sponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we re­ceive life and refreshment from her waters.

But because we have heard her cry, yes, her not it, we have been restored to our right minds and our right senses. We have discovered a renewed love for the earth and all her creatures.

We are learning once again that we receive our lives from both God and from Sister Mother Earth. Yes, our grief and our love are entangled, but it is Love that shall have the final word. It is Love that will permit us to bear and sustain grief rather than look away in hard-heartedness. With the soft tissues of our heart now fully reanimated, we will find new and joyful courage—couer-age—to work for a “new democracy of all God’s creatures” rather than perpetuate the “monarchy of man” over creation. This will be the new way in which we shall love and serve the Lord. Amen!