Scriptures: Gen. 9:8-17, Rev. 21:1-4
Recently I watched a wonderful PBS film entitled “Voyage of the Lonely Turtle” that told the story of a loggerhead turtle swimming across the Pacific from Mexico to Japan to lay her eggs on the beach where her life began. The 9000 mile journey took her over a year. Along the way she dogged hammerhead sharks and the nets of fishing boats, signaled by her posture in the water that it was safe for small fish to clean her skin and shell, and swam through ocean debris and violent storms — guided by the loggerhead DNA version of a global positioning device that maps the earth’s magnetic field.
Shortly thereafter the astronauts of the Challenger repaired the Hubble telescope, which allows us to see the edges of the known universe and thus to look back in time more than 12 billion years. We’ve all probably seen some of the wonderful photos taken with the Hubble telescope. They are not only beautiful, but awesome.
Why begin a sermon with these comments about the natural world? Because science gives us insight into nature that constrains our understanding of scripture.
The hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” suggests that God “made” every creature, but our knowledge of science requires that we not take this language literally. Our belief that God is the ultimate power behind all life does not mean we should reject evolution. Nor does our faith contest the scientific fact that every turtle and each person is made by the DNA in a fertilized egg, DNA that reveals the descent of our species from earlier forms of life.
Science also constrains our understanding of the story of Noah and the flood. The common notion that natural disasters are “acts of God” comes from this Bible story, but science reveals that nature has its own laws. We can draw this same meaning from the Genesis flood story, if we emphasize God’s promise not to interfere with nature again. We should not confuse the natural order with God’s will. Natural disasters are not “acts of God.” Death is natural and not God’s punishment.
Science also shapes our understanding of “heaven and earth.” The Bible story begins with the creation of heaven and earth out of nothing, and ends with a heavenly city descending to the earth. The final words of “This is My Father’s World” — “And earth and heaven be one” — affirm this hope. But the Hubble telescope is circling the earth in what was once described as heaven, and its photographs of the universe bring “the heavens” to earth.
Moreover, science offers an alternative understanding of the life-sustaining relationship between the earth and “the heavens.” The sun provides warmth for the earth and makes life possible. The moon creates the tides that move the waters of the oceans and causes the winds that bring moisture to the land. The atmosphere surrounding the earth maintains the oxygen and carbon dioxide that animals and plants need, sustains the water cycle of evaporation and rainfall that distributes water around the earth, and reflects heat back to the earth keeping it temperate.
This natural order is not what the authors of scripture had in mind, when they pondered the relationship between heaven and earth. Yet, surely the earth’s ecology reflects God’s purpose.
Now, on earth, our way of life is destroying this natural order, this life-giving and life-sustaining relationship between the earth and “the heavens.” How are we to understand our ecological crisis? And how might we, in faith, respond?
In my recent book, Doing Environmental Ethics, I explain that our way of life is unsustainable, because we have ignored the natural cycles that enable the biosphere of the earth to break down wastes, purify water, and maintain an ecological balance of oxygen and carbon compounds in the atmosphere and the oceans. We have sinned against heaven and earth. If we are to repent for this sin, we must take steps to reduce our impact on the ecological cycles of the earth.
What might this mean? We can repent by supporting public policies that require greater energy efficiency for motor vehicles burning fossil fuels and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from our power plants, and that provide incentives for investing in solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative energy sources, which will help realize a sustainable way of life. We can drive and fly less, walk and bike more, and use public transportation. We can reduce our consumption of electricity, replace incandescent light bulbs in our homes with more energy efficient bulbs, and allow the temperature indoors to be cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer.
We can repent by not buying water (or soda) in plastic bottles. The sale of bottled water and “soft-drinks” increases the cost of water worldwide, making life even more desperate for those who are poor, and studies have shown bottled water is often no more pure than tap water. Recycling plastic bottles is better than discarding them, but recycling is never 100 per cent efficient and requires energy. Many plastic bottles end up in streams, and now plastic debris covers 40 percent of the earth’s oceans. We have a duty to protect the human right to drinking water and the natural environment from waste (like plastic) that nature has not yet evolved ways to absorb and recycle.
We can repent by eating less beef. Forests are being destroyed in South America and Asia to graze cattle. The loss of forests means: fewer trees are absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen into the atmosphere, a decline in biodiversity due to the destruction of animal habitats, and less rainfall. Cattle in the US are fed corn, which their stomachs did not evolve to digest, and the methane gas these cattle emit into the atmosphere adds to the greenhouse gases causing global warming. The urine and manure of cattle in US feedlots pollute nearby streams and lakes.
Half the world’s grain is fed to cattle, but it takes seven pounds of grain and over two thousand gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. The only reason hamburger is cheap is because the costs of raising cattle are subsidized or being passed on to future generations as environmental damage. We need to eat less beef, so others will have sufficient grain for food at a cost they can afford.
In many other ways we can repent of our ecological sin by caring for the earth as our home. Jesus did not say much about nature during his ministry, but he did teach us to pray to God: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer is about living faithfully, and living faithfully now means reducing our devastating impact on the ecology of the earth.
May 24, 2009