Earth and spirit: A Spirituality For Our Times
FACTS ‘SPEAK’ to us in many ways, sometimes telling us what we do not want to hear. Especially disconcerting are those facts that hold a mirror up before us showing us what we are really like. The following facts, I believe, confront us with the need to rethink the way we as Australians live in this land:
• Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emission rate in the world—27 tonnes per person per year;
• each of us, on average, produces 700kg of waste per year, not far behind the US at 730kg per person per year;
• we have the highest rate of land-clearing in the western world, the fifth highest overall, after Brazil, Indonesia, The Congo and Bolivia;
• to date, nineteen mammals, twenty-one birds, and seventy-nine plants have been made extinct since white settlement—forty-three mammals, fifty birds, 1009 plants, seventeen fish, twenty-nine amphibians, fifty-one reptiles, and 118 insects, are threatened;
• only five of our eighty biosystems are not at risk;
• five million hectares (and the number is growing) are so far affected by salination.
At base, the problem can be sheeted home to the ways we as Australians think and act. Material growth is the engine room of our society. This creates a mindset that tends to see everything, and even everyone, as a resource or commodity, that is, in terms of their usefulness to ourselves. ‘Profit’ and ‘income’ become the overriding motives and goals of our thinking and acting, thus privileging values such as efficiency, productivity, competitiveness, and self-sufficiency, to the serious detriment of the world around us.
The majority of Australians live comfortably in urban centres along the coast which are, for the most part, quarantined against the destructive effects of their affluent lifestyle. As a result, forests are felled, rivers are despoiled, air is polluted, habitat is destroyed, and so forth, without regard to the nature of the land, the needs of other species, or the integrity of the environment, and, by and large, we do not notice that it is happening.
It does matter, however, that our land is being emptied of its mystique, its rich diversity, and its ability to sustain life. It matters vitally to other species. It matters also to ourselves because our identity and real quality of life depend upon the kind of relationships we have with the world around us. We ourselves are the poorer to the extent that our world is reduced to ‘cash’ value only. As the philosopher, Frank Farrell observes:
The modern thinning out of the world thins out the self as well, making it more abstract and emptier as it loses the rich set of worldly involvements in which it could see itself mirrored.1
A Question of Spirituality
It is the lack of or the impoverished nature of our spirituality that is largely responsible for the manipulative and colonizing ways we relate to our world. As Peter Conrad notes in his survey of twentieth century western culture, the ‘game’ is how westerners regard life and the way they spend time.2 Like any ‘game’, then, if that is true, it is played only for its own ends with no thought to anything outside the field of play.
A spirituality should be able to sustain vision, value and purpose so as to enrich our lives. It tells a story that weaves the events, people, actions and goals of our personal lives into a larger value framework that is able to give meaning and direction to who and what we are, to the relationships we form, and to the wants and desires we pursue.
Christian spirituality, in particular, places our story within the greater story of God’s action in the world. In the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the face of God and discover the mystery and purpose of God in creation and in our own lives. Like every spirituality, the Christian story must be continually retold to meet new challenges and circumstances, otherwise it loses its ability to shed light on and give direction to the way we live. To do this it must constantly return to the richness of its tradition to discover or rediscover what has been neglected or overlooked in the past.
Such a re-examination is crucial for Catholic spirituality today. For many centuries its devotional practice has been too exclusively interior and private, too focused on Church life, to the detriment of a truly Christian involvement in the world. While charity has always been a concern, and, in recent decades, social justice brought more and more to the fore, there is an increasing need to widen our field of vision to encompass our place and role in creation for two reasons: first, modern science recounts the unimaginable fifteen billion year time span of an expanding and cooling universe, within which everything is interdependent, increasingly differentiated, complexified, and interrelated, evolving according to its own laws, yet seemingly ‘fine-tuned for life’—this demands a retelling of our Christian story of creation within this new context;3 secondly, modern technology has so enhanced our human powers that we are now harming our planet—this demands a new sense of moral responsibility which should be incorporated into our Christian way of life. Both these reasons require us to return to our Christian sources in order to discover a way forward.
Reclaiming The Tradition
The Pauline writings present a vision of Christ as the ‘image’ of God, but to understand what this means we need first to explore the background use of this expression in the Book of Genesis.4 The first step is to put behind us the false interpretation of ‘image’ as consisting solely in human beings possessing ‘reason’. Rather, ‘image’ in the first chapter of Genesis, what is called the ‘Priestly’ account of creation, has many facets: it is a relational term, emphasizing humanity’s relationship to God, to other creatures, and to the earth as a whole; ‘image’, most importantly, is male and female—‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (1:27); it entails a sharing in God’s creative power, a ‘dominion’, which is, however, to be grounded in the blessing of God’s ordering of creation—‘God saw everything he had made, and indeed it was very good’ (1:31); finally, ‘image’ consists essentially in the role of being faithful to God as creator, rejoicing in God’s bounty, of ‘dominion’, in the sense of continuing to convey God’s blessing to the rest of creation.
Genesis chapter two begins the Yahwist account of creation which emphasises humanity’s feet of clay, ‘the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground’ (2:7). Although placed in a ‘garden’ and given the role of its carer, the text observes that everywhere in the world human beings are rather seen to be unfaithful to what is entrusted to them. The unfolding story of human history is, then, one of pain, unremitting toil on ground that is cursed, subjection, especially of female to male, mistrust, fratricide, enmity, and violence, as the world appears to be returning to chaos.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the prophet Hosea graphically describes the destructive ramifications of this unfaithfulness for human and non-human alike throughout the land:
Hear the word of the Lord,
God’s promised salvation, on the other hand, will bring peace and harmony not just to human beings, but also to all creation:
The wilderness and the dry
(Is 35-1-4; also 65:17ff)
It is clear that the natural world, in particular, the land of Israel and all within it, were an essential aspect of Old Testament religious life. Justice, temple worship, the household and the law, were also crucial, as these were necessary to maintain the peace within which the land would flourish. All Israel’s hopes, then, look forward to the restoration of harmony between God, people, the land and all its creatures.
We will now look at two New Testament texts where this ‘image of God’ theme is taken up and reflected on in the light of the early Christian community’s newfound faith in Christ. The first text we will examine is Colossians 1:15-20, an early Christian hymn, which is taken up and adapted in the epistle to the author’s theological purposes.5
The immediate context of the hymn (1:9-14) is important as it portrays the Christian community as already definitively, although not finally, released from the power of all the dark forces that threaten life on earth. Paul’s point is that they now have the real possibility of living a totally different kind of life: the Father ‘has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins’ (v.13).
The Colossians are reminded that in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection they have been offered an ‘inheritance’, the promise and expectation of which stretches back in time through the whole history of salvation, through Israel to Adam and Eve (v.12). This new existence will involve ‘patience’, that is, steadfast resistance and courage in the face of all forms of evil, but essentially it is a way of living in wisdom, spiritual understanding, thanksgiving, fruitfulness, and growth in the knowledge of God (v.9-11).
Turning now to the human itself, Christian vision widens to take in the whole of creation:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (1:15-19).
Christ’s relationship to all creation begins and ends the hymn. What shines through the whole passage is that God’s ultimate purpose in creation is the salvation offered in Christ. Christ is the image of God—the image, originally created in Adam and Eve, is now, in confrontation with all the intervening violence, greed and destructiveness, embodied fully in the person of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Salvation is the salvation of all creation.
The later commentary, in the verses following the hymn, emphasises both Christ’s embodiment as a human individual in the fabric of the world and his total identification with the material substance of the universe in his flesh, even to his death on the cross: ‘he has now reconciled in his fleshy body through death, so as to present you whole and blameless and irreproachable before him’ (v.22).
In principle, the hymn declares, Christ’s death and resurrection have overcome all the hostile forces at work in creation. Resurrection is a new beginning for the whole of creation, accomplishing the original plan for God’s image on earth. What is revealed in Christ is the ultimate significance of God’s creation: those who believe are now able to understand and relate to all creation in a new way because they are his body, that is, they are now identified with his way of relating to all creation as God’s fulfilled ‘image’ (v.18).
In Christ, then, the Christian community finds a new relationship with God, with each other, and with all other creatures. They now belong within the realm of Christ’s ‘peace’ with all creation, a new state, which, in the Hebrew sense of ‘peace’, implies individual and communal wellbeing and harmony. Reconciliation means that an old state of disharmony and alienation has been ended, and that a new way of relating peaceably, a new set of attitudes, and new ways of acting, have begun.
The second passage, Rom 8:18-30, also shows the non-human world to be included in the broad sweep of God’s plan of salvation.6 It too refers back to the Genesis story: creation has been prevented by Adam and Eve’s unfaithfulness from flourishing as God had meant it to; instead, it has been condemned to ‘futility’ against its will (v.20). When humanity plays god, the rest of creation is ravaged and despoiled—it is depicted as ‘groaning’ in its devastation (v.22); and it will remain in that state until humanity is restored to God’s true image in relation to the earth and other creatures:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (v.19-23)
Paul’s principal purpose in this whole section of the epistle is to describe the effects in believers of the restoration and fulfilment of that ‘image’ in the death and resurrection of Christ: the Christian community has been ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family’ (v.29). They now have the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ (v.23). They already enjoy the ‘election’, the ‘calling’, the ‘justification’, and the ‘salvation’ of God (v.24, 29-30). This itself, is the grounds for the community’s hope that God’s original plan for the whole of creation will be fulfilled in the ‘glory’ of humanity’s relationship with God, with each other, and with all of God’s creatures.
The point of the text, however, is not so much to emphasise the promised ‘glory’, as rather to show that the tension they now experience between their present, far from perfect, in fact, painful, circumstances and the future fulfilment of God’s plan, is itself an essential part of the process of God accomplishing the original purpose of creation.
To live according to the ‘flesh’, Paul had earlier noted, is to feel none of this tension (v.13). It is, in reality, the gift itself of the Spirit that provides the vision and the freedom which reveals the contradiction and shortcoming of present to future, and creates the subsequent frustration and uncertainty about what can’t be immediately achieved (v.23).
This situation is so painful and confused that we, like non-human creatures, become inarticulate, and in our ‘weakness’ do not know what to do: ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (v.26). What we do know is that we are already sharers in the fulfilled ‘image of God’ and that the power of Christ’s resurrection enables the real possibility of a new relationship with God, with each other and with all other creatures, not withstanding the very real obstacles encountered.
Towards A New Christian Spirituality of Creation
The early Christian community, as we have seen in the two texts studied, expanded its spiritual vision beyond Israel, back to God’s original purpose in creation. The Son of God manifested in body, in the flesh even to death on the cross, was perceived as God’s identification with all that is. Christ is the true visible image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, the first born from the dead. The community’s faith in this event now constitutes them as God’s faithful image in the world, reconciled to one another and to the whole of creation. In any authentic Christian Spirituality, therefore, ‘creation’ should be a basic theme, albeit one that has been too long overlooked.
In any full presentation of Christian Spirituality we need, then, to note that there is no offer of salvation without reference to the ‘body’ and to the human role in creation, just as there is no offer of salvation without engagement with other people, without love and justice, without community—each of these aspects must find its proper place in our spiritual awareness as Christians.
We are part of God’s creation. The universe is not the hostile indifferent place that so many western writers over recent centuries have presented it to be. The story that modern science tells need not be interpreted in that way: rather, we know that stellar processes over billions of years have manufactured the basic elements that have made our life on earth possible.
Our most serious mistake in recent centuries has been to put ourselves at the very centre of that creation as if it belonged totally to us, to do whatever we liked with it—the very ‘sin’ that the Genesis story recounts. The very first step, then, in a renewed Christian spirituality, is to remove ourselves from this central position, to understand that it is God’s creation, not ours, and that we and other creatures are all part of that creation.
While it is proper to recognise humanity’s unique capacities of reason and will, it is dangerous to do so without qualifying such qualities with the obligations that inhere in them – it is truly dangerous to other human beings, to other creatures, and to the earth itself, as the events of the last century warn us.
We need to realise that while we have special endowment as human beings, other creatures also have capacities and properties that we do not have—they have their place and role in creation, just as we have ours.
Unless we change our basic attitudes, we shall continue to isolate ourselves from the rest of creation, thus reducing ourselves as God’s image, impoverishing our own identity, as well as endangering the planet we live on. Today by making present the power of Christ’s resurrection, which is the quality of the unfolding destiny of the world in God’s plan.7 Here the Spirit of God, who bears the historical shape and memory of Christ, offers the possibility of freedom and love, of faithful relatedness to God, to others and to creation, in a new way. We are enabled to embody in our daily flesh, feeling, thinking and acting a way of living, that truly expresses our faith in Christ, the true image of God.
One of the infinitely rich aspects of the Eucharist that is of particular interest at this point is given to us in John’s Gospel, chapter 6:
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very Truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (6:53-56).
The Eucharist offers us communion in the bread that is broken and shared, in Christ who died in the flesh for the life of the world. It tells us that God is nowhere more God than in the crucified flesh on the cross, when God ‘disappears’ into death, into the very physical matter of the universe—it is there that Christ truly manifests the visible image of the invisible God.
Our communion, then, in the flesh of Christ is a communion with God and with all flesh. The Spirit through whom this communion is offered is the very self-communion or love of the Father and Son. There is no true communion unless ‘difference’ is totally respected—in the trinity, in the distinction of three Persons, in human relationships in the difference of others from ourselves, and in the difference of the biodiversity and integrity of creation itself. Where no difference is respected, everything is turned into ‘sameness’—exactly what is happening in our exploitation of nature.
This communion of the Eucharist, then, must be a relationship that acknowledges and respects what is ‘different’ from ourselves. Flesh is many things—physical, biological, sensate, intelligent, enspirited, and interdependent. As human beings we share the earth, its natural cycles and processes, its complex and interrelated ecosystems, its diversity and interdependence of life forms, and its fragility and vulnerability, with other creatures. This is a richness established in difference, which, if not respected and acknowledged, will result in a completely solipsist way of life, devoid of communion of any kind.
The truth of the Eucharist is realised only in the changes it brings about in our relationships, attitudes and actions. The gift of the Spirit is the opening of our eyes and ears to the ‘groaning’ of creation, to the devastation, destruction and waste, that is the consequence of our present lifestyle.
Our new story as Christians must include the land and all its creatures as an integral element in our own existence and identity, as a gift to be cherished and cared for in all its rich diversity, distinctiveness, integrity, light and colour, as the place where our own story unfolds enriched by what the land offers us. Being thus attentive to the many voices of creation is to be, in a profound sense, alive to the unexpected and rich possibilities that life in the Spirit offers to us.
1 Frank B Farrell, Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 186.
2 Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 733.
3 See William R Stoeger SJ, ‘Science, the Laws of Nature and Divine Action’ and ‘Cosmology and a Theology of Creation’ in Hilary D Regan & Mark W Worthing (edd), Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cosmology and Biological Evolution (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2002) 117-145; also Denis Edwards, Jesus The Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994, and Earth Revealing—Earth Healing: Ecology and Christian Theology. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
4 See Zachary Hayes, The Gift of Being: A Theology of Creation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 25-40.
5 See as further commentary, James D G Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich: WB Eerdmans, 1996.
6 See as further commentary, Brendan Byrne SJ, Romans. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol 6, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996.
7 For a contemporary theology of the sacraments see Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 315-538; also on the Eucharist, Gerard Kelly et al, The Eucharist: Faith and Worship. Sydney: St Pauls, 2001.
Fr Neil Brown is President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney and lecturer in Christian Ethics. He contributed to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement, A New Earth—The Environmental Challenge (2002).