Luke’s parable on the Foolish Rich Man has a timely message when looked at in light of today’s climate emergency.
Luke tells us a person in the crowd asks Jesus to settle a family dispute over inheritance which Jesus declines but then uses the opportunity as a teaching moment taking the conversation to a deeper level. Through storytelling (parable) he reminds the person, and us, when we look at live through the wrong lens, we are in danger alienating ourselves from our relationship with God, with the rest of the human race, and as today we are realizing our relationship with all creation.
The rich man’s attitude (eat, drink and be merry) speaks of a deep disconnection from any relationship beyond himself. From the rise of the Industrial Revolution, we have built society based on accumulation, without questioning how or if it does affect the rest of the world. The American Dream, Freedom 55, because as the commercials often say or imply, we deserve the good life. As a result, we have fallen out of relationship, out of conversation with the rest of creation. The good news is as I look around at the world, I hear from every front a growing awareness that what is needed on a global scale is a change of attitude, a new way of thinking
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ 2015 letter on The Care of Our Common Home, he advocates for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living…. a spirituality which motivates us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world.
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.
He continues: “For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion….’ecological conversion’, where our encounter with Jesus Christ becomes evident in our relationship with the world around us. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
Theologian Thomas Berry who called himself a “geologian,” perceived with many others that we have reached a hinge point in history. We have reached the end of the “lyrical” age, he writes in his 1999 book The Great Work—the age that began sixty-five million years ago and created ideal conditions for all the gorgeous life on this earth, including the rise of human civilization. That age is now ending. This means that those of us living today, like it or not, have a “special role that history has imposed upon” us…which we will hand on to our children, is that of managing the arduous transition from the terminal Cenozoic to the emerging Ecozoic Era, the period when humans must be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community. This is our Great Work and the work of our children.” We humans have become so powerful that what happens next depends on our actions, and our actions in turn depend on our consciousness. Our “Great Work” is to understand and behave as if we are members of a community of beings who all depend on each other. Nothing can thrive unless we all thrive.
Berry is among those who believe that the human race can indeed rise to the occasion and make this shift if we humans abandon our destructive ways and live in intelligent cooperation with earth's natural systems. Moreover, Berry writes, "No one is exempt. " All of us have to participate. Our "personal work needs to be aligned with the Great Work," he says. That means each of us has a "little work," and we must each discover what that might be.
This is where faith communities come into place. The task of challenging the status quo in order to live more sustainably calls us to look beyond our own immediate needs and desires, to look to the very real life needs of the stranger — both human and non-human — sharing the earth with us today and in the future. Faith communities can and do call us to care for others. They can do so because we believe in the possibility of transformation, of turning around from the path we have been following. Equally as important, in our Christian faith tradition, is hope. Even though we might not be optimistic about the chances for social or ecological justice, we believe that God is with us, and we hope for the fulfillment of God’s rule on this earth. But in order to begin moving people in a way of living that is more loving and sustainable for all of earth’s creatures, we need to create new paradigms — new ways of thinking about how the world really works, and how we are called to live in this place called earth.
I want to offer two possible models which come out of scripture.
First, from the second story of creation. God formed the first human and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. The Hebrew word for "keep" is shamar. It has the meaning of to watch over or preserve, as in "May the Lord bless you and keep you." The word for "till" is abad. When used in connection with the land or soil, it carries this meaning of tilling or working the ground. But the more common meaning of abad is to labor or do work, or to serve as a servant or slave. Let’s think of abad as meaning "to serve." What might it mean if the first person’s function within God’s creation was not only to farm and care for the garden, but also to serve and protect the soil from which he was formed? What might it mean for us to serve and protect and preserve this wonderful creation that has given us being?
The second model for our place in God’s creation comes from the Book of Job. The book of Job has a very high view of nature. God lifts up the amazing and unique lives and habitats of wild animals who do not mix in any way with humans. This is not a picture of animals and elements that can be harnessed for use by humans; this is a picture of the beauty and intrinsic worth of everything within God’s creation.
The Book of Job advises us to learn from the animals, the birds of the air, the plants of the earth, and the fish of the sea; they know that God is the source of every living being. They worship God by being what God created them to be. I think that the animals and plants have something else to teach us: limits. Within their natural ecosystems, plants and animals play certain roles within their eco-community. They are in a balanced relationship with every other strand of the intricate web of creation, and they do not overstep the bounds of their place in the natural system. While this is a very simplistic picture, in a healthy, dynamic ecosystem, each species is continually being brought into a healthy balance. The problem arises when a foreign species is transferred to an ecosystem where it does not know its place. One foreign species can come to dominate, greatly altering, and damaging an ecosystem.
We humans are like a foreign species; we generally do not know our place within the natural systems. We want to alter and control nature for our own purposes without placing limitations upon ourselves. We don’t like limitations. But as people of faith, we should be placing wise limitations on ourselves. This does not have to be a negative experience. The joy and beauty is that we can find the Spirit of God in the faithful changes we make in our lives. Finding an intentionally simpler, more sustainable way of living can lead to a slower, more focused, and less frenetic way of life that allows more room for rest, relationships, connection to our local communities, contemplation of natural beauty and relationships, and a deeper spiritual connection to this thing called life.
The pandemic only confirmed what climate models have been telling us already: the human family must make sweeping changes across the globe – infrastructure overhauls, international law reforms- changes that will stretch our meager capacities for working together and laying down our much greed. Our soul sickness and our earth sicknesses, after all, are deeply interrelated.
If we reorient our purpose away from building empires and protecting the power of our particular groups or institutions and instead commit to finding, creating, and nurturing life-giving shelters for the whole household of life, matter and spirit—well, we might be surprised. No one knows how effectively we can reverse course on ecosystem destruction if we try. Much is lost forever, that is certain, and we must somehow reckon with that loss. The moral thing to do is to work for restoration and protection anyway. Humans don’t always destroy things. We can redeem and restore things too. We might be surprised how vigorously life wants to rebuild, given the chance.
In many ways we suffer from “ecological amnesia,” that phenomenon in which we forget our fundamental dependence on the earth because we are largely shielded from the arduous tasks of deriving our living from it.
How do we awake from amnesia? Wendell Berry – the poet, essayist, farmer, and philosopher recommended that we begin with affection.
Berry traces his own lifelong concern with ecology to a modest, epiphanic moment as a child while literally considering the lilies in a meadow.
For myself, my epiphanic moment came at about the age of 10 in Nova Scotia, sitting in a small mossy glen in the forest, beside a pond. That spot claimed me, called me its own.
What inspired your love of creation? What inspires it today?
There is a saying: you cannot love what you do not know. Living here along our beautiful coast each of us has much to fall in love with. I invite you to root more consciously into this place, to fall in love. Love leads to gratitude, gratitude leads to acknowledgement, acknowledgement leads to action. We are led by loving God who is always calling us through the wonders and suffering of this world to transform our ways, a God who draws us relentlessly toward the divine purpose of flourishing for the whole earth and all its creatures.
In Luke’s recounting Jesus clearly saw then, what we are seeing and experiencing now: the need for a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking, a new spirituality.
I end with a benediction from the ethicist Larry Rasmussen, “Ours are hard times for many. They are not for the faint of heart. They will get worse. But they are also times of exhilarating song on the part of a species that was born singing and has never ceased.” May we find the courage to let the Spirit’s power overwhelm us, so that even in these crisis days we might sing a new and exhilarating song.”