This Thursday, April 22, is Earth Day, a global holiday for celebrating the Earth and the importance of environmental protection. Earth Day was first proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell, who was the son of a Pentecostal preacher. Since then, it has grown to be observed each year by more than one billion people in nearly 200 countries.
In the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient collection of saying of Jesus that many people believe should have been included in the Bible, Jesus describes the mystical presence of God in nature: “Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” [Thomas 77b]
This idea is called panentheism, the idea that God is present in Creation. The remarkable beauty of the physical universe — and perhaps especially our planet which is teeming with so many species of life — is an expression of the Mind of God in all its glory. When we look at a flower, a tree, the creatures of the land, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea — and ourselves — we are witness to the marvelous and incredibly diverse reflections of the Divine all around us and within us.
The exquisite beauty of nature can bring us joy in difficult times. This spring, arriving at what we hope will be the waning of the Covid Time, may feel especially joyful — a reminder that no matter our difficulties, life goes on. Every year, the buds will open and the flowers will bloom. The animals will have babies and the cycle of the seasons will continue, like the rhythm of a heartbeat, or the breath of God going in and out of the lungs of the world.
In the down times, it can be easy to lose sight of the continuity and interconnectedness of life. We turn inward and tend to focus on our own troubles. But God’s creation gives us reminders, like clockwork, that the world is so much more than ourselves. Beyond our circumscribed horizons there is always a joyful new vista to discover, or a renewal of something we saw before, that brings us out of ourselves and reconnects us to a greater divine plan.
One of these reminders is the sheer persistence of life in the natural world. Nothing can keep it down! In the words of a folk song by activist singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds,
“God bless the grass that grows through the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.”
Some of the reminders of what God wants to teach us through the natural world come from our experience with technology much more advanced than concrete. In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe that humans had launched into space thirteen years earlier took a photograph of the Earth from the edge of the solar system, a mind-boggling 3.7 billion miles away. In this iconic photo, our planetary home appears as a single pixel — a “Pale Blue Dot,” as it came to be known, in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan.
In Sagan’s 1994 book by the same name, he reflects on its significance:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Indeed, from that perspective, that God’s-eye view of reality, we can learn profound lessons. If all of us can be represented by a single pixel, perhaps we should take the teachings of universalism more seriously. Contemplating our one and only home in this physical universe should make us remember our common humanity, putting aside the things that divide us, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political philosophy. On the cosmic scale, we are one. Could we learn to be at least a little bit more united with each other, and less quick to compete with, attack and condemn each other, when we’re looking on the scale of our everyday lives?
We’re going to have to learn to do this if we hope to survive. Life on Earth is resilient, but human civilization is not. We evolved our advanced societies during a period of Earth’s history when the climate has been relatively stable and favorable for widespread productive agriculture. But the climate has changed dramatically throughout history. When humans were primitive hunter-gatherers, much of the planet was covered with ice. Then most of the ice melted, and huge areas of land were submerged beneath the sea, giving rise to legends such as the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
Today, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, we are facing rapidly rising temperatures as a result of the burning of fossil fuels to power our rapidly developing civilization. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that in the centuries ahead, the seas again will rise and flood many of our greatest cities on the coastlines, and the equatorial regions of the Earth will become too hot for human beings to survive, leading to mass migrations to inland and northern regions of the world.
If you have time to read just one book to gain a greater understanding of the scope and magnitude of the problem of climate change in the 21st century and beyond, I highly recommend The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Filled with scientific facts and predictions that are backed up by the data, this 2019 book also delves deeply into the social implications of global warming and the conflicts it may provoke, even within our own lifetimes.
If you read it, be prepared for a soul-searching experience. You may be left wondering, as I do, why human beings seem to be so incapable or unwilling to work together to deal with problems that so obviously affect us all — a question that could haunt our descendants for generations to come. It’s as though we’re one big family and our house is burning down, but instead of cooperating to put out the fire, many of us throw gasoline on the flames through our own personal habits and political choices. In fact, as Wallace-Wells points out, hardly anyone is really doing what needs to be done — not even the most well-meaning environmentalists among us, as long as we’re still indulging in the unsustainable fantasies of a disposable consumerist lifestyle and politics as usual.
It can be depressing to know that something important needs to be done and yet hardly anyone seems to care enough to take the necessary action. That’s especially true when the issue is a question of our very survival, or at least the survival of the civilization we take for granted. This has led to some dramatic demonstrations of hopelessness. For example, in 2018, a prominent lawyer who had become an environmental activist doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire in the middle of New York City. His suicide note explained that he had chosen self-immolation as a protest against the burning of the planet by excessive use of fossil fuels.
Increasing numbers of people are choosing not to have children as an expression of their hopelessness about the future. This decision is usually couched in terms of social responsibility, to prevent excessive population growth that the planet cannot support. However, it’s important to remember that the future will be determined by the people who exist, not by people who don’t exist. If everyone with socially and environmentally responsible values decides not to reproduce, while those who believe it’s okay to trash the planet continue to have children, then our future will be hopeless indeed, for the only people who will be passing on their values to the next generation will be the very kind of people whose values caused the environmental destruction in the first place.
As David Wallace-Wells writes, “Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal… surrender. I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won, and acclimating yourself to a dreary future brought into being by others less concerned” about climate change and the health of the environment.
In the creation story in the Bible, God gives humans the responsibility to care diligently for the wellbeing of life on Earth: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” [Gen. 2:15]. We are the great gardeners of this planet, and our work should make it more bountiful and beautiful rather than destroy it.
To our first parents, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” [Gen. 1:28]. To rule the Earth responsibly, we must be good stewards, not growing and consuming beyond the ability of the planet to sustain us, and ensuring that all the other living beings who form the ecosystem of which we stand at the head shall be respected and protected.
If we fail to do this, and instead let our planet burn in the fires that are lit by our own selfishness and greed, we have failed to do our duty to God and to each other. No wonder, then, that God might use the very environment we were commissioned to preserve as an instrument instead to remove us as a scourge from this world.
Let us not let such a bleak apocalypse come to pass. God willing, let us correct our errors and go forward with a repentant spirit of healing, working together as one human family to cherish, protect and preserve the glorious bounty and beauty of the Pale Blue Dot that is the only home under heaven we have.
Watch on video (starting at 8:03):