By Murray MacAdam and Elin Goulden
The enormity of the global environmental crisis and the promise of a response rooted in faith brought 75 people to St. James Cathedral on March 8, for a powerful Lenten workshop called “The Earth is the Lord’s.”
The Very Rev. Douglas Stoute, Dean of the Cathedral, put his finger on the nub of the issue in his opening remarks, when he noted that many people are “absolutely paralyzed” by the sheer enormity of the environmental challenges facing humankind.
Those challenges were underscored by David Bazett-Jones, a scientist and member of the Cathedral congregation, who said he went through shock, dismay, anger and other emotions when he grasped the severity of resource depletion and climate change. Each day about 100 species go extinct. “Ultimately, resource depletion is going to bring the economy down,” he predicted. Yet, like other speakers, Mr. Bazett-Jones said Christian faith can provide hope in these troubled times. “Society needs a new narrative, a new story,” he said. “The faith community has a unique way of telling this. God is present to us.”
Alanna Mitchell, a former Globe and Mail science reporter and author of the book Seasick, painted a graphic image of the ailing health of the world’s oceans, linking it with former mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, all of them involving changes in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. “The chemistry of the ocean is changing faster than at any time in the history of the planet,” she said. “That’s really dangerous.”
Former Member of Parliament Lynn McDonald, who helped found an environmental coalition called Just Earth, also touched on the spiritual elements at play, calling the climate crisis “a moral challenge unlike other moral challenges.” Part of the problem we face as people of faith, she said, is that our moral code was formed before the climate crisis. “We don’t have a sense of our neighbour being future generations. There’s no commandment against greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the call to stewardship of the Earth and the Anglican Communion’s Fifth Mark of Mission can strengthen us to become co-workers with God in protecting the Earth. She named “citizen literacy” around climate change as one of the most important roles the church can play.
Stephen Scharper, a professor and environmental advocate, showed a chilling clip from the 1960s of families being sprayed with DDT as he spoke about Rachel Carson, a pioneer of the environmental movement and author of Silent Spring, a landmark 1962 book on the risks of DDT. Ms. Carson began her environmental advocacy after a woman wrote to her about seeing birds go into paralysis after being sprayed by DDT. “Never think that our little actions cannot lead to stronger actions,” said Mr. Scharper.
Faith communities are rediscovering the care for creation found in Scripture, he said, but more needs to be done. He cited the need for religious education to instill a love for the Earth, and the need for religious services outdoors as examples. “Unless we fall in love with the Earth, how can we stand on guard for it?” he asked.
Despite the huge challenges, Mr. Scharper remains optimistic because of the vast upsurge in environmental awareness and action around the world. “Christians around the world are uniting concern for the poor with concern for the Earth.”
Sylvia Keesmaat, a theologian living on an off-the-grid organic farm near Lindsay, outlined how Scripture is rooted in creation and God’s call to care for the land, starting with the name “Adam,” from the Hebrew adamah meaning “from the Earth.” Genesis calls us to stewardship of the Earth. The covenant with Noah outlined in Genesis 9 is particularly forceful in this regard. “Noah’s story is really a lesson from God to learn what it is to tend and keep,” said Ms. Keesmaat. “The Earth is a home for God to dwell with humanity.”
Theologian Dennis O’Hara from St. Michael’s University said that Christians have read the book of Scripture (God’s Word) without paying attention to the companion volume, the book of Creation (God’s Work). Continuing with this image, he presented the history of the universe as a series of 30 volumes of 500 pages each. Human beings would not emerge until page 498 of the last volume. Yet as the Divine Logos, Christ is the ordering principle of creation and thus present to creation throughout the history of the universe – all 30 volumes. This means that any human behaviour that disrupts the order of creation is an act against God.
Mr. O’Hara concluded that we must act to enhance the flourishing of the Earth community. Instead of asking “What can we do?” we should ask “What can’t we do?” Even if it appears to be too little in the face of the enormity of the crisis, we must be like a hummingbird dropping water on a forest fire, rather than a bystander paralyzed into inaction.
Through table discussions, forum participants shared ideas of their own action to support creation. Kathi Gilbert, a member of the Green Team at All Saints, Collingwood, said creation care has taken root at her parish through things like the “green tip” printed in the Sunday bulletin each week. “We know that it’s working,” she said. “Why? Because when it’s not in the bulletin, people come up to us at coffee hour to ask why it’s not there. And when it is there, they say thank you.”