What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘spirituality’? In connection with church we often picture Sunday services, prayers and sermons about how to get to Heaven. In bookstores the spirituality section will typically have numerous books on meditation, world religions or the afterlife.
But there’s a spirituality which is about getting your fingers into the dirt of the earth, loving the varied forms of life on earth, and walking more lightly on this planet. It’s this-worldly, rather than other-worldly. It sees the earth as sacred – an ever-evolving divine creation in which humans are a recent arrival.
More and more churches are beginning to recognize that our Christian faith speaks to the present environmental crisis. We’re rediscovering the wisdom of Francis of Assisi, or Hildegard of Bingen, who saw the imprint of God in the humblest creatures, and taught a deep reverence for the Earth. The destructive theology of domination of nature and the hope for an eventual escape to Heaven is being seen for what it is: dualistic, anti-life, and deeply un-Christian.
At St Aidan’s Anglican Church in the Beach, recently a small group of parishioners have been active: tending and planting the grounds for Earth Day; viewing and discussing the BBC documentary Earth – The Biography; considering ways to include environmental concerns in our Sunday prayers; preparing to plant earth boxes with vegetables; and looking at how to make our buildings more green. These are baby steps, but they’re indicative of a growing desire to have an active, holistic faith that has something to say and do about the destructive results of human activity on the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.
We know the facts: too many carbon emissions; polluted waters and air; low-lying areas threatened with rising sea levels; species losing their habitats and becoming extinct; impoverished peoples suffering from the lifestyle of the rich. The list can be overwhelming, and our coping mechanism is often to simply turn away and carry on with life as usual, so long as we ourselves are not affected. But that is not an option for Christians. We believe we are called to care for the Earth and for our neighbours – humans and other species. That means examining our behaviour and repenting of what is destructive – our addiction to fossil fuels, our cruel treatment of animals, our lack of concern for those who suffer the effects of climate-change.
A spirituality of the Earth is redefining ancient religious concepts such as sin and repentance, no longer focusing on individual morality but on global citizenship, environmental practices and corporate behaviours.
It is also redefining our images of Heaven, salvation and God. Theologian Sallie McFague says that the Earth is the body of God, here, all around us, not in a distant heaven. Don’t we glimpse that, when we see great natural beauty and feel moved to awe and gratitude?
In 2009 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all people of faith to work to protect and respect our planet. This, he said, is an ethical, moral and scientific imperative, and he asked all faiths and religions to work and pray for a fair, balanced and effective way forward. It is a huge and long-term undertaking, but developing a practical spirituality of the Earth is a good place to begin.
Rev. Lucy Reid is the Priest-in-charge at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church