O God, make me carbon-neutral but not yet
Imagine a rural stroll on a crisp winter’s day – an azure blue sky, robins flitting from tree to tree and the overnight frost still glinting off the carpet of grass in the late morning sunshine.
As you turn a bend in the road, you see smoke bellowing from what looks like a thatched cottage ahead of you. You gather pace and walk faster and faster and then start to sprint towards the property ahead of you to sound the alarm. Then something really quite peculiar happens. You spot the owners working in their garden. They’re varnishing the front gate post. You shout and scream to divert their attention to the raging flames behind them. But it’s no good. Their myopic vision means they are blind to the tragedy which is almost certainly about to engulf them.
I want you to hold that scene in your minds for a short while, because strange as it may seem, I think it may help us understand more profoundly that first reading from the book of Genesis.
In those early scenes, we find Adam and Eve are told by God that they are to take on the role of custodians of the land, tilling the soil and caring for the divinely created world. All is well. There are no threats of climate change, deforestation and species extinction. Indeed, a harmonious state of affairs at this point in the story is great news for fans of nudism: our ancestors stroll around unclothed and don’t give a fig leaf about it. No room in this utopia for a nervous, giggly self-consciousness about the body, sex and the naughty bits.
No, it’s only later in this narrative with the Fall, that humans look at themselves and begin to feel shame and awkwardness at their nakedness. The sin of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and evil is about a warped view of the world: for in attempting to put themselves in the place of God, humans lose sense of their place in the created order as ultimately reliant and dependant on the source of all that is. Man becomes, as in the Tower of Babel story, a self-made creature who worships his creator. Let’s stick with that theme of distortion and the wrecking of right relationships, bearing in mind that God made our ancestors stewards of creation.
Four years ago I presented a documentary for Channel Four called God is Green.
One of our interviewees was Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who had dared to suggest in a newspaper interview that “flying excessively” might be construed as “sinful” if it meant behaving without due care for the finite resources of the planet.
In the film, we staged on old style confession, in which, I, as a guilt ridden Roman Catholic, obsessed about committing impure acts in both the solitary state and also with other human beings. Half tongue in cheek and half serious, we replaced this vision with a twenty first century penance through the grill of the confessional: failing to recycle, slavering enviously at Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear and being a petrolhead, having a carbon footprint twenty times that of the average Bangladeshi. For my penance, I was handed a dozen recycling bags and instructed to knock on my neighbours’ doors and fill up the receptacles with glass and card.
My contention is that our falling short in our that God-given vocation to look after this amazing world is due, in no small part, to our disordered view of the world. When the hum an family faces up to the biggest challenge ever as a species because of climate impacts, what do we see on our front pages?… sex scandals and lurid gossip about footballers and politicians’ love lives. Jesus said not a jot about homosexuality and was largely silent about what we get up to in the bedroom, yet the Church of England spends year after year in bitter conjecture about gay priests and their relationships. All at a time when in so many areas of the natural world, our relationship with our planetary home reveals warning lights moving from flashing amber to red.
Think back to that couple and their house. Their shortcoming is not that they don’t love their home: theirs is a fault of perspective. Their scope of vision is simply not tuned into the wider world. They are fixated, distracted, if you will, on an area of activity which, in the wider scheme of things, really is neither here not there.
Spare a though for poor old St Augustine here. For centuries we’ve been led to believe, perhaps a little unfairly, that through his influence, many in the Christian tradition still believe that sexual desire is a direct outcome of the Fall and that therefore there is something intrinsically flawed about our body-liness and our sexual appetites. But let me posit another thought. Might it be that it is not sexual desire as such which is flawed, but the extent to which we allow ourselves to become sidetracked and obsessed by it at the expense of more urgent priorities? If we could spirit back St Augustine to this chapel in late January 2012, would his contemporary prayer be: “Lord make me Carbon zero, but not just yet.”??
With all the accumulating evidence of habitat destruction, depletion of fishing stocks and warnings of future climate instability, our collective track record as God’s planetary stewards is less than impressive. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans began to see themselves as separate from the natural world. How else could a thinker like Descartes say that we were “Lords and possessors of nature?” The forthcoming season of Lent offers us a very string hint about how to get back on track. On Ash Wednesday we are told: “remember man that thou art dust and until dust thou shalt return.”
We are most definitively NOT separated from the natural world: indeed all the bodies of every person gathered here this evening are made off up of complex composites of stardust. We are connected in a web and how we behave collectively will have profound future consequences for those who follow in our wake. In reflecting on this evening’s words from Genesis, let’s not make the mistake of the short sighted couple who delight in varnishing their garden gate at the expense of losing their home. Christians should make no apology for making Creation care a central tenet of their faith. Not because we are an army of tree huggers. Not because we are sentimentalists who assert that artic polar bears have more validity than human beings. But because we occupy a unique place in the created order.
“To those who are given much, much will be expected.”