A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Dr. Lynn Arnold, on the 7th August 2022, The Feast of Transfiguration.
God’s Creation – Gen 1:28 – ‘What were you thinking, God?’
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
This is the fourth and final in a sermon series on Christian Ethics versus the World’s. Tonight, the theme is the Ethics of Creation in context both of the environment and of relationships between all living things, as these were topics raised by a number of people responding to the question about ethical issues which represent faith challenges. As in previous weeks, those who are interested are invited to join a time of discussion after the service.
Psalm 8, sung so beautifully by our choir this evening, has these wonderful words about how we see God’s hand in creating all that is around us:
For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.
Later in that psalm, we hear these words about humanity’s role in that Creation:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him …
Thou makest him to have dominion of the work of thy hands:
And thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.
In our contemporary situation, therein lies a question to which, at the risk of sounding a little blasphemous, I will give voice: ‘God, what were you thinking? You created a thing of beauty and made humanity giving it a pre-eminent role in dominion over that creation. Yet that same humanity has seemed set on exploiting that beauty of your Creation to the point of destruction. What were you thinking?’ Listen to some facts which can be found at the Earth.org website:
- In 1950, 2m tons of plastic were produced, by 2015 that figure had grown to 419m tons, 91% of which is not being recycled; and that which isn’t, will take hundreds of years to breakdown.
- 300 football fields of forest are cut down every hour; at that rate by 2030, the planet will have only 10% of its forests, and they would all be gone within a hundred years.
- The global fashion and clothing industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions; producing more than aviation and shipping combined. It also creates 20% of global waste-water – 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing along with 92 m tonnes of textile waste.
These are just three disturbing facts about the environmental health of our planet – there are many more; most significantly they are all human-made. Such facts force us to ask ourselves just what benefit has humanity brought to the planet. Indeed, a similar question was asked in the Forum section of the New Scientist of 9.06.2021. The magazine questioned: ‘Do humans provide any benefit to planet Earth except for ourselves?’; to which one respondent replied:
Our species has done nothing for the benefit of life on Earth. On the contrary, our activities have damaged the environment and made it less hospitable for other species. We are responsible for the sixth mass extinction … and it is estimated that we are now responsible for increasing the normal rate of extinction by a factor of at least 100. Unless we modify our collective behaviour and reduce our ecological footprint, it is possible that our activities will also lead to our own extinction. However, life on Earth would continue without us and biodiversity would return.
How would you answer the magazine’s question? We believe God had a plan when he breathed life into the first humans – that there was a purpose to his creation of humanity. So how do we understand that purpose and how can we communicate that to an increasingly non-believing world?
There are some who deflect the question by quoting Genesis 9:15:
I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
In other words, God is not going to permit the environmental destruction of the planet – the implication being that as Christians we should just have faith that everything is going to be fine – fine, that is, until the prophesied apocalyptic event foretold in Revelation of which John wrote:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [Rev 21:1]
To seek shelter as Christians behind such an argument is justifiably mocked in the public square by a world desperately working to find effective human responses to mitigate the environmental crises we face. For my part, I believe that the start to finding the Christian answer to the ethical challenges of the environment can be found in our reading tonight from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Listen to verse 16:
In (Jesus) all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … all things have been created through him and for him.
While later in the reading, we also hear verse 20:
God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Here, the incarnation – God made human through Jesus – becomes the key to understanding his Creation and the task ahead. ‘God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things … by making peace through the blood of (the) cross’ – the crucifixion and the Resurrection both represent an ever-present moment in our lives to which an ongoing response is expected of us. For our purposes tonight, in the context of ‘Your kingdom come’ that means we are to respond to the environmental crises we face in ways more profound than any secular response would be capable of proposing. By the divine reaching out to us, engaging with us, we can seek answers to our dilemmas in that meeting point of the divine with the human by making peace ‘through the blood of the cross’, by being reconciled with both God and the world which he created and which is our home.
The atheist, Peter Singer, acknowledges the struggle of the non-believer in finding similar purpose to the wonder of creation but argues a compromise of meaning:
When we reject belief in God we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life … evolved through random mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose. Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others … it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful. In this sense some atheists can find meaning in life.
The term ‘particular lives’ is a serious point of differentiation between his atheistic take and that which we derive from our faith, because he also said:
Given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack (the) capacity (to think of existing over time), or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist [his perjorative for what he would term humanity’s hubris of superiority] to claim that it always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal
For our part, we know that Jesus never differentiated between human lives by deeming some more valuable than others – his words in John’s gospel made that abundantly clear:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16]
Peter Singer, notwithstanding diminishing the significance of humanity in the biosphere and the worth of some in particular, has nevertheless gone on to articulate a very strong voice in favour of animal rights. Where does our thinking sit in regard to animals with which we share God’s Creation? Our psalm this evening spoke of ‘dominion’ – that humanity would have dominion over all other life. The practice of humanity has been very poor, just consider the example of the industrialisation of livestock husbandry including battery production of animals, and the maceration of new-born male chicks fed into grinders along conveyor belts; all to get cheaper protein onto our tables.
How very different that is to the Inuit approach expressed in these words from one:
The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely in souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body …
Our own Scriptures too speak of a different relationship we are to have with animals in God’s creation other than their just being mere fodder for us. Listen to these verses:
Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast. [Prov. 12:10]
Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds. [Prov 27:23]
And not one of [the five sparrows] is forgotten before God. [Luke 12:6]
Our ethical task then should be to reinterpret our relationship with the rest of God’s creation, including listening to it. Our Hebrew Bible reading this evening from Job highlighted this point:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds, of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
Isaiah then gives us, metaphorically rather than realistically, the goal for which we may strive:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them. [Is 11:6]
This is a place of reconciled relationship; a relationship evidenced through the cross and the Resurrection, where the divine offers us a harmony of living together, not a relationship of abuse with the planet and all that live within it.
Shortly, we will sing the beautiful hymn – Lord of beauty, thine the splendour –the hymn opens with this declaration:
Lord of beauty, thine the splendour shown in earth and sky and sea.
But then the last line of each of the first three verses becomes salutary instructions for us to consider the ethical challenges of how we should respond to God’s creation of that ‘splendour shown in earth and sky and sea’. Listen to these words:
Touch our eyes that they may see … teach our minds thyself to know … lift our hearts that we may love …
Touch our eyes that we may see what we are doing to your Creation. Teach our minds to understand what we should do to help your Creation. Lift our hearts that we may love that which you created.