Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 1 Comment
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The following is a revised version of a review that appeared in a recent issue of The Irish Edition, a publication based in Philadelphia, and in the newsletters of several groups I belong to. I seem to have forgotten to post it here.

Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.

In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes Pope Francis’smessage a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic container and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.

 

 

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Plastic, Plastic Everywhere and…?

January 5, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, world water crisis | 3 Comments
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The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life without Disposable Plastic. By Bryant Holsenbeck. Durham, North Carolina: The Resource Center for Woman and Ministry in the South, 2018. Paper. 169 pp. $25 (includes tax and shipping). https://rcwms.org/product/the-last-straw-a-continuing-quest-for-life-without-disposable-plastic/

The Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965, had been involved in the back to the land movement since the 1940s, so I had long been aware of the importance of the land, and of sustainable agriculture. But I began reading, writing and teaching intensively about the planet’s dire environmental situation after attending a week-long program on the world water crisis with Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist, at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York in 2001. Barlow basically scared the bejesus out of me.

Recently, however, I have also become aware that the strategy Barlow used, and that had such a  big impact on me—laying out the horrifying facts about the situation—for many, or even most people, simply doesn’t work. For example, there was my attempt to get the new pastor at my parish here in Brooklyn to place more emphasis on climate change in sermons and religious education. When I told him that scientists are predicting that if the temperatures continue to go up at the current rate, we face the end of civilization by 2100, he told me I was the kind of crazy person who believes the end times are coming.

Then there was my article in the September 2018 issue of the Grail’s national publication about how flying is unethical because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted by airplanes. Two Grail members, whose different projects I cited as examples of how much we in the Grail fly, wrote to accuse me of being against their particular effort. Then two weeks later a very dear Grail friend, whose work for the Grail in Tanzania I admire enormously, sent out an invitation for US members to travel to East Africa to learn more about the Grail there. I was fairly certain she wasn’t proposing that they travel there by boat.

Basically, almost everyone with whom I share the increasingly dire information about climate change and environmental degradation tells me that my critique can’t apply to them because what they’re involved in is too important.

I have concluded that I need to find another approach, and that that approach needs to have two characteristics: it must involve storytelling, and the stories need to be beautiful or seriously creative in some other way.

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Given this evolution in my thinking, to say that I was thrilled by Bryant Holsenbeck’s new book, The Last Straw, is to vastly understate the case. Holsenbeck is an environmental artist who became curious about where all the plastic we throw away actually goes. She discovered that there is no “away”—it’s ending up in landfills and clogging our streams and oceans.

She decided, as a result, to give up single use plastics for a year, hard as doing that might be. Then she blogged about the experience. Now the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South has published those blog posts in a splendid, beautiful volume, The Last Straw.

Bryant Holsenbeck is by no means the only, or even the first person to write a book about giving up single-use plastic. Already in 2012 Beth Terry, a Bay Area accountant, published Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and blogs to keep people up to date. But Terry pretty much belongs to the strategy school that I have resigned from: telling readers everything there is to know about the plastics crisis and trusting that that info will motivate them—us—to follow her in giving up plastic.

Bryant Holsenbeck, however, is an artist, so her strategy is quite different. To begin with, the book is illustrated with pictures of the gorgeous art that Holsenbeck has been making out of discarded trash, and now especially discarded plastic, over the years.

Furthermore, instead of primarily confronting us with the statistics that activists like Beth Terry and I favor, Holsenbeck tells wonderful, engaging stories of her year of giving up plastic, and her visits to schools in North Carolina and neighboring states where she teaches students how to make the discarded plastic they have been gathering into works of art. In the course of telling these stories, she offers tidbits of encouragement—a recipe for how to make your own yogurt, for example, or a poem about a red wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams as she recalls her wonderful experiences of composting. And underpinning it all, again and again, is Holsenbeck’s philosophy that it’s the things we can do that are important, not achieving perfection. Such a philosophy is unbelievably encouraging. Even the fact that Holsenbeck undertakes living without disposable plastics for just a year will be encouraging for some of us—though in the end, she decides she can never go back.

Of course, some of us may be ready to plunge right in, in which case, Plastic Free, with its trove of information on the evils of plastic and alternatives to it may be what just what’s needed. But if you would prefer to wade gradually into warmer water and to view a gorgeous landscape on the way, The Last Straw is definitely the book for you.

 

This review is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the January 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Redemption of All Creation

March 28, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, constructive theology, Environment | 3 Comments
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In her new book, ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues compellingly that Christ is the redeemer of all creation, not only of human beings. What could be more timely, as the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection approaches?

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. 256 pages. Published by Orbis Books. $28.

In January, Scientific American shared some disturbing news: researchers had determined that between 1990 and 2015, concern about the environment and climate change had declined among U.S. Christians. * Since the study didn’t distinguish between denominations, and since Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical was published in 2015, you may find yourself hoping, as I did, that U.S. Catholics don’t share this declining concern.

Unfortunately, certain powerful theological paradigms going back well before the Reformation make such a distinction unlikely. In her splendid new book, Creation and the Cross, theologian Elizabeth Johnson takes on one of them:  the notion that salvation is an exclusively human matter, having nothing to do with the rest of creation. “What would it mean,” she asks, “to rediscover the biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation?”

Johnson traces this dualism between redemption and creation back to the work of the eleventh-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, and, in particular, to his “satisfaction theory” of salvation, as formulated in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Anselm’s answer to the question, Johnson explains, is that Jesus had to become human and die on the cross to pay back what was due to God for human sin.  This theory, we learn, has played a pivotal role in Christian theology and practice ever since. But Anselm’s satisfaction theory is an interpretation of the cross, not its only possible meaning. And like all interpretations, it is shaped by the social context from which it emerged, in this case, feudalism, where local rulers required subjects to make satisfaction—to pay—for breaking the law.

In contrast, Johnson proposes an accompaniment theology of salvation, in which Jesus’ brutal death “enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God” with all those who suffer, including the poor, species that undergo extinction, and all the rest of creation. She traces this redemption back to the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible, the Holy One of Israel who promises liberation to the Israelites in Egypt and later in Babylon. But this redemption is not some trade-off, as the satisfaction theory implies, but a redemption poured out by a God whose compassion for us is that of a mother for her child, a redemption that causes streams to flow in dry land and wilderness to bloom.

And it is this liberating and merciful God who sends Jesus, not to pay for our sins, but to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom constituted a serious challenge to the Romans who ruled Israel during his lifetime. The cheering crowds who greeted him, especially during his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his confrontation with the money changers in the Temple, constituted such a threat to the unjust power of empire that the rulers crucified Jesus in order to silence him. Yet instead of death silencing him, the resurrection made Jesus present to the disciples in an entirely new way, enabling them to take the liberating message of the compassionate God to the ends of the earth and to all of creation. And through the early church’s recorded memories of the crucified and risen Christ, this understanding of the cross as an expression of the compassion and mercy of God spread throughout the world.

The culmination of this accompaniment theology is something Johnson calls “deep incarnation.”  The creator God Jesus Christ is, she explains, the God of all flesh, with flesh not signifying only sin, as the dualism between spirit and matter suggests, but the finitude and death suffered by all creation, including God’s own son. But with the resurrection, this “flesh was called to life again in transformed glory.” And, as St. Paul writes, the hope promised to all in this transformation “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

Creation and the Cross concludes with a call to us all to a conversion, in our actions as well as our beliefs, to love of the Creator/Redeemer of the whole world and the entire cosmos. Within this conversion, mistreatment of the earth is as much a sin as mistreatment of other humans. In order to repent we must understand ourselves as members of the whole “community of creation,” whose suffering is our suffering. The cross, then, is the icon of God’s compassionate love for everyone and everything.

For all Johnson’s disagreement with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, she does show her appreciation for another aspect of Cur Deus Homo, and to such an extent that she actually imitates it: the question and answer format Anselm uses to make his theology accessible. Of course, no book is perfect, and in the case of Creation and the Cross, Johnson’s interlocutor, “Clara,” sounds, from time to time, suspiciously like a theology professor. That limitation notwithstanding, the Q&A format, combined with Johnson’s gift for clarity and strategic summarizing, makes this book an ideal tool for helping us all expand our understanding of redemption to include all of God’s beloved creation.

In a review of this length, it is not possible to do justice to the range of biblical and theological sources Johnson draws upon to lay out her deep incarnation theology. The depth and accessibility of such material throughout the book makes Creation and the Cross an ideal resource for RCIA participants seeking to achieve an understanding of the faith. But really, given the feeble concern so many US Christians feel for God’s creation even in the face of increasing numbers of massive fires, extreme weather events, droughts and flooded cities, Creation and the Cross is a book we all need to read, and we need to read it soon.

 

This review appeared in the March 22-April 5 2018 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

 

 

 

Immigration Impasse? We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

February 16, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, U.S. Politics, world water crisis | 1 Comment
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I don’t need to tell you that we are in a serious political and cultural mess regarding the question of immigration, not only here in the United States, but in Europe, Australia, and in many other countries. A million eight-hundred-thousand people brought to the US  as children risk deportation, the time-honored practice of legal immigrants bringing family members to the US is in danger of being abandoned, as is the visa lottery. And right-wing groups are gaining increasing political power by means of the immigration question .

But all of this conflict is, in effect, nothing more than the calm before the storm, the storm of climate refugees who will be surging across borders in coming decades. Indeed, many more of the current large numbers of immigrants are actually climate refugees than most of us realize. As Jeff Goodell reports in his new book, The Water Will Come, every year three times more people are made homeless by floods, storms and other “natural” disasters than are displaced by wars and other conflicts. And according to the International Organization for Migration, there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050 (though some researchers predict as many as a billion). Yet, interestingly enough, climate refugees have no legal status in international law; to be a legitimate refugee, a person must have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or political position. For this and other reasons, many countries basically ignore climate refugees.

In light of all this, Goodell raises an interesting question. What do the nations who give off the largest percentages of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change owe to climate refugees, people driven out of their countries by climate-related sea-level-rise, drought, famine, etc.? He notes that at the various UN conferences on climate change and the environment over the past twenty-five years, the nations most responsible for climate change have fought tooth and nail against the inclusion in any UN agreement of taking financial responsibility for “claims and damages” against them by the most harmed nations.

Goodell suggests that a way to pay off such a debt is for the countries involved to take in the same percentage of climate refugees as they have emitted greenhouse gases in the industrial era. For the United States, that percentage is 27%–the most of any nation on earth, though the European Union comes pretty close, with 25%. Assuming that 100 million people will need new homes by 2050, Goodell’s proposal means that the US would take in twenty-seven million people over the next thirty-two years, more or less.

But Trump and his supporters are determined to exclude virtually all immigrants now, even those that can claim refugee status under international law. So how on earth –no pun intended–are we going to respond  to the millions of climate refugees coming north in the decades to come?

 

 

WWJD?

November 27, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Aging, Climate Change, Environment, women, world water crisis | 2 Comments
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No, not what would Jesus do. What would Jane O’Donnell do?

Jane O’Donnell was part of the generation ahead of mine in the Grail, the international women’s movement I’ve been active in since my senior year in high school. Many of the women in that earlier  generation were utterly amazing. I would not be who I am without the example they set for me.

Jane O’Donnell was a native Philadelphian (as I am), and came to the Grail through the Catholic Worker. There was a close connection between the US Grail and the Catholic Worker from the outset; the Grail founders corresponded with Dorothy Day before they came to the US in 1940, and Day later made several  retreats at the Grail’s house near Cincinnati. And from time to time over the years, Day sent women to the Grail who seemed more suited to us than to the CW. Jane was , I believe, one of these.

Jane lived most of her adult life in Grail communities, and did amazing work with the poor. One story I heard involved her leaving a Grail Christmas celebration to take food to a family that was without any.

I knew Jane mostly from Grail meetings, but perhaps we lived together at Grailville, the Grail’s southern Ohio farm and conference center, in the 1970s. In any case, I have to confess, I mostly found Jane baffling. Eventually I read in an introduction to the Myers-Briggs test that extroverts are people who determine what they think by talking about it, and this helped me understand Jane a bit better. Suffice to say that in my family of origin, editing before you talk was a highly valued, not to say required, practice.  So I often had a hard time understanding what Jane was taking about.

I am thinking about this now because once, toward the end of her life, when we were both at the Grail Center at Cronwall on Hudson, Jane said to me that she had decided that it doesn’t really matter whether there are dirty spots on your clothes; you should just wear them that way. Striving as I was then to move from my working class background into the professional-managerial class as a professor, I thought once again: What is this woman talking about?

In recent years, however, I have been using my professorial skills to research the impending climate catastrophe. In a review of a book on the gargantuan increase in consumption since World War II, I read that after the war something like 70% of Europeans wore their socks two days in a row before washing them , but today, virtually nobody does. Since then, at the end of the day, I have been hanging my socks over the edge of my sock drawer and wearing them again– though my post-working class try-not-to-smell-like-a poor-person tendencies make it hard for me to admit this.

I am also trying to get myself to wear clothes that have spots on them. It would save water, because I would wash them less, and put fewer soap chemicals into the water system. Doing this is made easier by the fact that our fist-floor west-Flatbush apartment is a bit dark; sometimes I go out and see spots that I had missed when I got dressed (or see that I am wearing clothes a different color from what I had intended!)

In any case, there’s one thing I am fairly sure of: I know what Jane O’Donnell would do.

 

The Ecofeminist Theology of Elizabeth Johnson: A Review

April 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?

In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.

Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.

In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.

No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)

Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.

Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.

Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.

Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.

Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”

Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.

The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.

But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.

This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”

 

Bibliography 

Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95

Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95

Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95

 Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95

 

What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

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