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Human Life as Part of Creation

Tom argues that many of us grew up in a church where nature was static, a backdrop to our lives. This ignores our real Catholic tradition and the teaching of Scripture which have an intuition that the planet is sacred and all matter is sacramental. If our lives were lived based on this awareness, our use of, and impact on, the environment would be very different.

On living within a revolution in consciousness:

the Planet as the new context for understanding Creation and Redemption.

Talk given to the Benedictine community at Ampleforth Abbey

by Fr. Thomas Cullinan, OSB, 6th March 2001

In one of my previous incarnations when I used to accompany boys caving in the Pennines, one of the boys found, in a local caving shop, a reprint of a little book called A Tour of the Yorkshire Caves. It was written 200 years ago by the Rev John Hutton of Burton in Kendal. The booklet ends thus:

“About 4 miles before we arrived at Leeds on our way from Bradford we were suddenly presented with the grand and venerable ruins of Kirkstall Abbey in view from the road. We stood some minutes looking with silent respect and reverence on the havoc which had been made by times on this sacred edifice. How much soever we might condemn the notions of monkish piety, that induced the devotees to a lethargic supineness, and to forsake all the social duties of life in order to be good men; yet we secretly revered that holy zeal which inspirited them to exert every power in erecting structures, the magnitude and beauty of which might excite ideas worthy of the Deity to whom they were dedicated; and also reprobated that fanatic bigotry which suffered them to decay and go to ruin, because they were once inhabited by a set of Christians whose manner was not orthodox. While we were moralizing thus on religious prejudices, the instability of the work of men’s hands, and the fading glories of

this world, we came to Leeds.”

I don’t know if I need an excuse for sharing that with you, but the very slender excuse is that Kirkstall Abbey was founded in 1150, so it was a-building in the middle part of the two centuries, the 12th and 13th centuries, during which Europe was virtually deforested. Barons were calling for royal charters to deforest Devon, or to deforest Wessex and so on. Acquiring timber for building, for charcoal for smelting iron, for domestic fuel, and of course for land for agriculture and settlements. By the end of the 13th century there were in fact fewer trees in Europe than there are today, to the extent that roof architecture had to be completely thought out again because they couldn’t find any oaks long enough to span what they used to span before that period. So when today we are so aware of the deforestation of most of the world’s tropical forests, with irreversible effects on eco systems and on world climate, it’s good to remember that in fact the process has been part of our modern civilization from before the industrial revolution, and certainly before the modern era.

The big difference, between the 12th and 13th century period and our own, is that there was no way in which they could have known the significance of what they were doing, whereas in our age we do know. In the last 20 or 30 years there has been a revolution of consciousness, perhaps the fastest and the most widespread in the history of ideas that the world has ever known. It’s a revolution of consciousness in people’s heads and hearts, which put very simply is this: that every human activity impinges on the environment in which we live. Or to put it another way: it’s as though we had thought until recently that the rest of creation, the rest of our planet and God’s creation, was the backdrop to a stage on which the significant drama was being played out in the foreground, the human story. It’s only in these recent decades that we have come fully to appreciate that the backdrop itself is part of the drama, that our story and the planet’s story is in fact the same drama. My guess is that it’s going to take a while before we interiorise the full reality of this new context we live in. It is certainly going to take a while before the church takes on board the spiritual, scriptural, liturgical, theological implications of this new context. It’s made more difficult for us because the ideologies, the ways of thinking, which have shaped our western mindset have assumed that the rest of creation is there to be exploited for human well-being.

If you were to go back to the beginning of the scientific revolution and read some of the writings that people like Francis Bacon wrote at the time, the language used is very militaristic about the great blessing on the horizon of being able to dominate and control the whole of the rest of nature, so as to bring it into the service of human interest. Or again, consider the two great economic theories which have shaped so much modern thought, those of Karl Marx and Adam Smith. Both have in their very different ways assumed that the rest of nature is there to be exploited for the sake of human progress.

We mush also be honest in admitting that some of our Christian ways of thought are to blame. Many people who are now in ecological and environmental movements have turned away from a Christian tendency to see human beings as too unique and superior within creation. They quote, as did Christians in the early scientific and industrial ages, God’s command to have dominion over the trees and plants and animals as a command to exploit and dominate not to care and be responsible for. (The fact that the word used in Genesis was a caring word – the same used when Solomon is called to have dominion of God’s people – hardly changes the fact that Christians did not read it that way.)

Certainly my memories of our theology course are that we did a section on creation, treating it as a static ‘given’, and when we had done that the real drama began with salvation history. We started with God’s covenant to Abraham not with the covenant to Noah. God’s commitment to his people, not his commitment to creation as a whole.

Everything in our modern western mental makeup has led us to a sort of hubris, an arrogance with respect of God’s creation. It characterises our western attitudes to many things – to a lot of agricultural activity, to the way we market food, and to our assumed rights that we have as consumers. Now we face, I think, one of those critical moments in history when God is saying to us, yet again: choose life or choose death. It’s a critical moment for two linked reasons, one is that during the lifetime of most of us here this evening, the population of our world has doubled and before the younger ones here have died, it will have doubled again. In that context, if the life styles which we built up and now take totally for granted in our developed world, are already proving unsustainable within the developed world, they certainly cannot be the norm for everyone else in the planet. However much the liberal capitalists and the language about globalization may assume that they can be, what we take as normal cannot be normal for most of God’s people. If, for instance, you were to take the levels of carbon emissions causing global warming at a stabilised point today, and then shared those emissions out throughout the planet, so everyone had a personal ration of how much use of fossil fuels they were allowed, then the average family car in this country today uses in a year twice that personal ration. The average family home uses four times that ration for heating alone. Many of these statistics which we are now realising involve us in how we use and live on the planet, are inviting us to a very deep new appraisal, new assessment, of many things that until now we have taken so much for granted.

A lot of us start tinkering at the edge or with little things here and there. I mean when you think that the average light bulb is about 2% efficient, (that is that of the energy that goes in to the power station originally in the form of fossil fuels finishes up about 2% in light energy at the end), then we can find small ways of trying to do better by buying low energy bulbs or whatever. Or we can learn to build and to insulate buildings in far more efficient ways. Last year I asked my architect brother what he would say to us as a community about sustainable energy use in new buildings. He said straight off, “I would triple glaze all the windows. I would double the insulation required by legislation, and I would use voltaic cells in the roof. But more important than all those, I would get the boys involved because their generation understands these things in a way that ours does not, and probably never will.” Certainly my experience, my slim experience, with 6th formers in our area, is that they carry a slight resentment in them about the previous generations, and a great concern for themselves and their families in our future planet. (The fact that their generation is also one of the greatest consumers of consumer goods the world has ever known, is another discussion, I suppose, for them!) Of course most of us feel that tinkering with light bulbs is not really getting at the heart of these issues. We probably do need to do what we can do. But in fact, in my experience, the issues are so global and vast and real that they can paralyse people. I have been to one or two conferences on these issues, and especially as they relate to people in poorer countries, and the tendency is for people to come for a couple of days and end feeling paralysed. Not enthused and encouraged, but paralysed. Somehow that’s to be avoided at all costs. The question we need to ask is not: how do we save the planet? but is: what in this reality is God asking of us in our particular vocation? In a sense, asking what the Vatican Council asked: to have a sense of our particular charism, our gift and calling, but in the context of the Signs of the Times.

We are Catholics, and the Catholic tradition has an intuition, built right into its core, that matter is sacramental. That in a sense the planet is sacred. If many of our Lenten prayers are rather dualistic about body and spirit and matter and so on, that’s not true to our real Catholic tradition. So we should find it easier to address God’s concern with his planet as part of the drama. We are monks, and as you know monks are not mendicants or wanderers, they are ‘placed’ people. They have a genius loci. They have a sense of belonging to and being part of their environment. If the environment is now slightly wider than the valley, because our life styles involve us with things worldwide, it is still the world and environment in which we live. I think there is a great hunger for that holistic sense in the monastic tradition.

Our community touches the lives of thousands of people, both on site and elsewhere. Its influence is partly through teaching and preaching but, even more than the spoken word, through its attitudes, interests and decisions. Attitudes, interests and decisions are made within the context, the reality, in which we see our life. There is no other way of being faithful to God, in the charism of our vocation, other than being vulnerable to the new context in which are today, the Signs of our Times.

Just a final word. There are many people in the environmental movements, in various bodies like Friends of the Earth, in Ethical Consumers, in so many of these bodies now, that hunger for serious theology, serious scripture and a greater liturgical understanding of these issues. It’s my guess that the monastic tradition has an enormous amount to offer to the debate, and we also have a lot to receive from them. Perhaps I can return to that at a later date.

I think we are being asked to reread the ‘text’ in the light of a new ‘context’. To reread our understanding of creation and of redemption. Redemption not as a private personal thing, not even as a domestic thing, but as God’s overall story and drama, the redeeming of his creation as a whole. It’s what Paul talks about in Romans Ch.8. Whatever the redeeming of God’s people is, it’s a redemption that gives meaning to the whole of the rest of creation. (The extraordinary insight in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. Re-reading him now, with our contemporary context in mind, is a shattering experience – a word from God which we were not ready for at the time.)

Let me finish with a story that Fr Aidan will remember. It’s to do with that question: what is God asking us to do? When we started building Ince Benet a young couple from Switzerland came to stay with us. He was a conscientious objector and was having time out from his country to avoid going to prison every weekend. We took to them greatly, Fr Aidan especially because of the amount of gardening they did. They came to be nicknamed Adam and Eve by the end of the week. On the last morning before they left they disappeared for the morning and reappeared at lunch time. We asked them where they had been, and the said, “Well, we’ve been to see the Chief Planning Officer in Liverpool because when we came here originally we saw that there should be trees planted in that area by the tunnel in Liverpool. People don’t realize how important trees are in urban areas, so we went to tell him”. Aidan and I had been around for four or five years and we may have been vaguely aware of some of these things, but the thought of doing anything about it hadn’t entered our minds. So our immediate defence mechanism came to bear, and we said defensively, “Did you get to see him?” And he said, “Well we got to see his deputy for half an hour”. And defending ourselves again we said, “But of course he won’t do anything about it will he?” They looked at us as though we hadn’t begun to understand, and said very simply, “God has given us the insight and the blessing to know the importance of trees, and is only asking us to make our contribution in the way we can. Whether that man then takes it on and does anything with it, that’s not what God is asking us about, that’s up to him.” They were saying by implication that if you spend time being concerned about what everybody else is meant to be doing, then you won’t have the inner perception to hear what God is asking you to do. I felt very humbled by Adam and Eve, and I’m still trying to learn what is called ‘Christian personalism.’ You don’t set up institutions and others as the problem. The ‘why-don’t-they-do-something-about-it’ approach. You live with the simple question of what is God asking and enabling me to do? My sort of guess is that as a community we need to find ways of working together, not in private consciousness, but a community consciousness, to listen, to learn and to contribute to these issues before us today.


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