Do We Really Love Our Earth?

April 24, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft

Anniversaries are important.  In most cultures people celebrate the anniversary of their birth. It’s a time to be grateful for our lives, and for people who love us to also show that they appreciate us. Wedding anniversaries are also important celebrations. They are opportunities for a couple to show each other how important the other is to them. I think that the first anniversary is probably particularly significant.  The first year of marriage is usually tough.  During that first year couples learn from experience that love calls for change. And after a year of adjusting and adapting, couples have reason to celebrate that their love for each other has been stronger than their self-will.

Usually opposites attract and it is those opposites in each other that also drive us crazy; especially those opposites that we didn’t really know about before we got married.  One person is messy, the other values neatness.  One person likes to spend while the other is more frugal.  In the past, when couples came to me for marriage counseling and I asked about their difficulties, they’d usually each complained about something in the other.  He might say, “She always on the go; never home.  She’s involved in so many things; always a new project.” Then she might say, “He’s so boring.  He just wants to stay home.  He works all day and when I want to go out with him at night, he says that we can save money by just having a nice meal together at home.  He’d be happy doing the same thing night after night.”  At some point in the conversation I’d usually ask each of them, “What attracted you to her?” and “What attracted you to him?”  And inevitably he’d answer something like, “She was so full of life; so interesting.  She had so many interests and for a young person had had so many experiences.  She enriched my life by just sharing stories about what she had done.”  She on the other hand would likely say something like, “He was steady and responsible.  My dad went from job to job, spent more than we had, and we were always being hounded by a collection agency.  We were nervous wrecks growing up. I knew that would not be the case with John.”   Then I often used my image of a tapestry.  I’d say something like. “You’ve been looking at the back side of your tapestry.  You need to walk around it and see what you fell in love with.” That was number one.  Because usually the things that drive us crazy about our partners are the flip side of what attracted us to them in the first place. And it’s these differences that also enrich the relationship and the home. I’ve often thought that if our children had had two parents like me, they would have grown up neurotic.  On the other hand, if they had had two parents like Tom, they wouldn’t have grown up at all.

The second step in healing a stressed relationship usually involves, showing love for the other by making some changes in our behavior; seeing if the differences between us that are causing stress from living in close contact can be modified to make life  together more pleasant. In stretching ourselves to make these changes, we grow.  We develop aspects of ourselves that we likely never would have. Loving someone whom we live with almost always requires some change; and if we change we are usually better off for it.

It’s the same with our earth.  Loving our planet and all that is in it involves more than watching beautiful sunsets, walking the beach and picking up cute little puppies.  Truly loving our earth calls for change.

Friday, April 22, was Earth Day.  Today, April 24th, is the first anniversary of Laudato si’, the second encyclical (official papal letter to the world) of Pope Francis. The title of the social encyclical Laudato si’ is an Umbrian phrase (Medieval Central Italian) meaning,  Praise Be to You and comes  from Saint Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century “Canticle of the Sun” (also called the Canticle of the Creatures), a poem and prayer in which God is praised for the creation of the different creatures and aspects of the Earth. It is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in Italian. The Canticle, believed to be written in 1224, praises and thanks God for such creations as “Brother Fire” and “Sister Water”. It is an affirmation of St. Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to humankind, and rejected material accumulation and comforts in favor of “Lady Poverty”.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and took the name Francis when he became pope, because he valued, St. Francis’ spirituality.   The Pope’s encyclical, subtitled On Care for Our Common Home, reflects that spirituality and applies it to today’s culture. In it the pope critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”

Francis reportedly has said that the encyclical is not really an environmental document at all. He believes that the warming of the planet is a symptom of a greater problem: the developed world’s indifference to the destruction of the planet as they pursue short-term economic gains. This has resulted in a “throwaway culture” in which unwanted items and unwanted people, such as the unborn, the elderly, and the poor, are discarded as waste. The real problem, according to Francis, lies in the fact that we see “other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination” and do not realize that other creatures do not ultimately exist for our benefit. Francis says that instead of viewing humans as having “dominion” over the earth, we must see that everything is interconnected and that all of creation is a “kind of universal family.” Nature cannot be seen as something apart from humanity, or merely the place where we live. He says that our social and environmental crises are one complex crisis that must be solved holistically.

Francis pulls no punches when lamenting pollution, climate change, lack of clean water, loss of biodiversity, and an overall decline in human life and a breakdown of society. He states, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” He describes a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blames apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. Francis asks “what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive. But he ends on a positive note saying, “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” Francis does state that concern for the natural world is no longer “‘optional’ but is an integral part of the Church teaching on social justice.”

Sallie McFague is, I believe, one of the most essential North American Christian theologians of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She has contributed greatly to our understandings of God—including the language and metaphors we use to speak about God.  She believes that how we view God can shape how we regard the natural world and the human impact upon it, particularly in terms of environmental protection and thriving, nuclear arms, and economic justice. She states, “As I have come to realize that we all live and move and have our being in God, the names of each person, species, creature, and element are superimposed over God’s name. God is reality; God is the source of reality of each of us. Panentheism seeing the world as in God – puts God’s “name” first, but each of our names are included and preserved in their distinctiveness within the divine reality.” Sallie McFague’s seeing the world as “in God” for me not, only gives me a more intimate experience of God; it also places on me a sacred responsibility towards creation. McFague says,” We meet God in and through the world, if we are ever to meet God. God is not out there or back there or yet to be, but hidden in the most ordinary things of our ordinary lives.” She also states, “Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.”

Rosemary Radford Ruether, another feminist theologian, says it another way, and in fairly complex language. But I still  think what she says is worth pondering. She says, “God is not a ‘being’ removed from creation, ruling it from outside in the manner of a patriarchal ruler; God is the source of being that underlies creation and grounds its nature and future potential for continual transformative renewal.”

We are celebrating an anniversary, an anniversary of a document that calls us to meet God in creation, and love creation as interconnected beings. Again, according to Sallie McFague, “We, all of us, are being called to do something unprecedented. We are being called to think about “everything that is,” for we now know that everything is interrelated and that the well-being of each is connected to the well-being of the whole. This suggests a “planetary agenda” for all the religions, and all the various fields of expertise.” I think that this call is an extension of Jan’s exhortation last week to “act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”  This call is a call to change; for which of us does not use more that our share of the earth’s resources, or choose convenience at the expense of care for the earth?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and who took part in the discovery of Peking Man. He wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. … It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist. We are collaborators in creation.”   The problems of creation seem overwhelming, but if we show our love for God through our love for this earth and all in it, by each changing one behavior, we will have done something important to live more at peace in our interconnected family and we will have grown in the process.  Amen.