In a culture where green issues are increasingly mainstream, why might you choose to get involved with an organization like the John Ray Initiative, which looks at scientific and environmental issues through a specifically Christian lens? I mean, everyone is interested in this stuff, right, so why on earth would you want to bring faith into it? It’s a fair question and, as a relatively new trustee, I thought I would share something of my own rationale for seeing care of the natural world as a spiritual imperative rather than a pragmatic necessity.
I have a background in research biology and, when I “hopped over the fence” into ministry training, I quickly became interested in the theological and missional implications of the current environmental crisis; things like the habitat loss which has brought many species to the brink of extinction and is increasingly pushing them over the edge, and climate change, which threatens the very future our planet. Since I was ordained in 2015, the alarm-bells have got progressively louder. Respected scientists are now telling us that we quite possibly have only 12 years to curb our carbon emissions if we want to avert disaster. Leave it longer than that, they say, and we will pass a tipping point. Sea levels will rise, deserts will grow, and millions of people will be driven from their homes by flooding or drought. And there will be nothing we can do to stop it. It is a scary prospect whatever your faith. You don’t have to be a Christian to want your children and grand-children to inherit a world which is fit for habitation, a world in which they can flourish. You don’t have to believe in God to believe that you should do your bit to make things better.
There is, though, I think, an additional dimension to all this for those of us who understand the world to have been brought into being by a God who loves his “very good” creation and has appointed humanity as stewards over it. The bible is full of references that suggest that God cares deeply not just about us and our flourishing, but about the wellbeing of the whole community of creatures with which we share our home. The Psalms, especially, paint a picture of a world which has been ordered so that there is provision for all, and of a creation which is valued for its own sake, not simply because of its usefulness to human beings. If you are in any doubt about this, try reading Psalm 104 – “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly … the high mountains are for the wild goats, the rocks are a refuge for the badgers … the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…” We might well, as Jesus tells us, be more important than sparrows, but it’s abundantly clear to me that in God’s eyes sparrows are important too. Fundamentally, we need to understand that it’s not all about us: we need to care for nature not just because it’s in our best interests to do that, but above all because it is precious to God.
When it comes to our relationships with the rest of humanity, though, Christians are of course bound by another, and very specific, scriptural mandate: Jesus’s commandment that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. We need to think of what this means for us in the rich, energy-hungry, economies of the developed world, when we know that the worst impact of the climate change that we are driving will be felt by our brothers and sisters in the poorest corners of the global south. I suspect that any claim on our part to be a good neighbour to a farmer in Bangladesh whose life and livelihood are threatened by the rising flood waters of the Ganges might ring a little hollow, unless it goes hand in hand with a commitment to do what we can to turn back the tide.
When I was growing up in the seventies, there was a rather strange song called MacArthur Park in the charts. The chorus went like this: “Someone left a cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again…” My teenage self always empathised with the poor baker, whose lovely creation had been so carelessly cast aside. And, as I think about the whole sorry mess we are making of the environment that chorus has been going round my head. Because God has made us a beautiful cake, with enough for everyone to share – men and women, birds and fish and things that creep and crawl and slither on the surface of the earth – and I imagine his sadness at its spoiling, at our seeming rejection of the gift, at our readiness to see the creatures he loves deprived of their slice. And I think how both our humanity and our faith demand that we change, and change quickly. We’ll never have that recipe again.
Rev Dr Liz Ratcliffe
Liz is an Anglican priest with a background in research biology, where she specialised in tropical parasites, followed by a career in the Ministry of Agriculture, where she worked on environmental policy before moving to run the Food Minister’s office. Currently Rector of a church just outside Reading, her particular interests include environmental theology and the interface between science and faith. She has been a trustee of JRI since early 2018.
Photo: MacArthur Park Crishna Simmons, Creative Commons