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A Christian Perspective on Care of the Earth

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On 7 December 1972 the Apollo 8 mission was on its way to the moon. As it sped towards its destination, a photograph of the fast-retreating earth was taken by the crew. The picture would become one of the most looked-at pictures in history. There it was, in all its isolated glory, our tiny home, planet earth. Some say this photograph kick-started the modern environmental movement. Why? Perhaps it was something to do with how the earth looked – vulnerable and fragile. So, if this little planet is our only home in a very large and otherwise empty universe, shouldn't we do everything we can to look after it?

 

The eco-congregation

 

At the present time, when issues of climate change and global warming are front-page stories, Christianity is very much ‘on message’. A church I used to work at recently won a much sought-after eco-congregation award for its work in turning the church green. The eco-parishioners who won the award on behalf of the church set about increasing the church’s use of safer chemicals and detergents; they installed energy-saving light bulbs and developed the churchyard as an urban wilderness. But Christians haven't always been this switched-on to the care of the planet. In the book of Genesis (1:26) we read:

 

And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’

 

Taken the wrong way this might appear to suggest that the planet, and all creeping and flying and running things on it, are the playthings of us god-like humans. Much later on in history, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, the moment when things started to get a bit rough for Mother Earth, some Christians were more keen on making money (which they thought was a sign of God’s blessing) than on protecting the planet’s fragile balance of life. But like the rest of the world’s human communities, Christians worldwide are now waking up from this industrial sleep. Christians – along with Muslims and Sikhs and members of many other faiths – can now be found at the forefront of the environmental movement.

 

Is the Christian approach any different?

 

Thus, the banner which says ‘Save the Earth’ is one that – I hope – unites everyone. For until science-fiction becomes science-fact – when we jump into our spacecrafts and fly off to our hotels in the sky – we're all stuck together on this great lump of rock. But is there a specifically Christian understanding about the greening of the world? If there is, it has something to do with looking after the gift God has given. God made the world for us to delight in, so why abuse a gift so generously given? And in opposition to the ideas we once read into the book of Genesis, didn’t God also give the planet as a gift to the rest of creation? We may think that we humans have a special place in God’s heart but perhaps the aardvark does too.

 

For a moment, let’s think the worst: we keep on flying to Belgium for the weekend, we continue to leave the kitchen light on day and night, and we go on chucking lots of polluting and damaging smoke into the atmosphere. Will God save us from ourselves? The philosopher John Gray thinks in just this bleak way (I don't mean the bit about God saving us). He doesn’t believe that we ever-so-smart-creatures have the wisdom to save the planet. At the end of one of his books he looks forward to a time when Nature – minus human beings – reclaims whatever planet we’ve disappeared from. It may be little more than a desert.

 

Living with nature

 

At university, I remember reading an interesting article written by a Christian environmentalist. The article was a long explanation of a tiny verse in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:13): ‘And He was in the wilderness forty days ... and He was with the wild beasts.’ The challenge for Christians – the challenge for all of us – is to see whether or not we can be with the rest of the planet (wild and tame) in such a way that all living things are able to flourish. If we love life, and the planet which sustains it, then we’ll want to do all we can not to throw the gift back in the face of the giver.

 

Within Christian theology there is a little dark corner called apocalypticism (see Death/afterlife). The word refers to the End, and I mean the End. To put it in a more fancy way, it is that moment of transition between human time and eternity, or God’s time. Much of this apocalyptic thinking takes its cue from the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. In this work we see the earth and skies in literal meltdown:

 

The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire … and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up … a third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.

 

You get the idea. I, for one, hope that we humans don’t beat God to the apocalypse. If there is to be an End, I would rather it was God’s end than ours.

 

 

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