Samuel Wells: Let Earth and heaven agree
Why should Christians care about the fate of Earth? Because cherishing creation is the way we show God our gratitude, the way we humbly acknowledge our creatureliness, and an important way in which we worship, says the former dean of Duke Chapel.
May 22, 2012 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon originally was preached at Duke University Chapel on April 22, 2012.
Have you ever sat still in the early morning and heard the dawn chorus? Have you ever felt your heart rise in a throbbing ovation as the birds of the air form an orchestra of glory and voice creation’s praise?
Fifty years ago, the conservationist Rachel Carson published a book entitled “Silent Spring.” Carson pointed out the way pesticides were coming to dominate American agriculture and were damaging not only birds and animals but also humans. Just imagine, she said, a spring in which no birds sang: it would be a silent spring.
And if that spring lies in the not-too-distant future for the birds, how long before humanity meets the same fate? First, there will be a silent spring; eventually, there will be no spring at all.
Those who marked the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, credited the publication of “Silent Spring” with the beginnings of the modern environmental movement. And Carson’s book marks a suitable emblem for ecological concerns, because it synthesizes the four dimensions that have characterized the movement ever since.
The first is the urgent sense of human catastrophe. Ecological concerns, such as those raised by Rachel Carson, have a wide following, but what makes them a focus of universal anxiety is the claim that they threaten to diminish human flourishing in the immediate term and terminate human existence in the medium to long term.
“We’re all doomed.” That kind of threat makes the ecological movement unique in its claim on the public imagination. It’s a slow-burning version of the threat of nuclear annihilation that mesmerized people’s vision at the height of the Cold War.
The second dimension is the profound sense of grief that these environmental threats all have a human cause. This isn’t a crisis that’s coming from the outside. This is a crisis humans are bringing on themselves.
I recall a conversation with an activist friend who was estranged from the church. I asked her what she so disliked about Christianity, and she said the biggest thing was that the clergy were always talking about sin, and it all seemed so negative and bitter and judgmental and life-destroying.
I then asked her why she was so passionate about ecology, and without a second thought she launched into a tirade about how people were damaging the air, the Earth and the seas, and she wanted to spend her life changing their hearts and minds and reversing the damage they’d done.
I said to her, “Who’s the one talking about sin now? You sound more evangelical about the environment than most clergy are about Jesus.”
The ecological movement may use different language, but it’s generally a lament for human participation in destroying habitats for other creatures and ourselves, and a call to repentance and a new way of living. The Earth is like an oppressed and enslaved people, and ecologists are shaking their finger like Moses, saying to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” For many environmentalists, the question of human survival is just the tip of the iceberg: what’s at stake is an economic, social, ideological and sometimes religious transformation.
The third dimension that’s found in Carson’s book and among the great majority of environmentalist campaigners is a sincere optimism that the ecological crisis is something that can be significantly addressed through public policy initiatives -- through legislative change, regulation and prescription.
“Silent Spring” is a great motivator for activists, because the uproar caused by the book led John F. Kennedy to set up a commission to investigate its claims, which in 1972 led to the banning of the insecticide DDT in America, a ban extended globally 30 years later.
In 1972, the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, and the public forum on the fate of the Earth convened in earnest. Henceforward, the great debate in environmental circles has been between idealists who want to promote a different way of life that’s not based on a predatory relationship with the Earth, sky and seas and the pragmatists who want to focus the movement on achievable legislative regulation.
The Earth is like the Titanic propelling itself toward the iceberg, and the Earth’s richest nations are like the Titanic’s owners, saying, “Faster! Faster!” Of course, the problem with the Titanic was not that it didn’t have a rudder but that the captain didn’t use it. In just the same way, say the activists, it’s not too late for the Earth to change course, once people accept how catastrophic our present navigation is.
But “Silent Spring” also represents a fourth dimension. It imagines a spring with no birdsong: no chirruping, tweeting or crowing. In other words, it imagines the Earth without a soul. This is a different kind of concern.
Its question is less about the preservation of the planet and its inhabitants, including us, and more about the qualities that can’t be measured or assessed. How do you quantify the value of a bird’s song? How do you estimate the impoverishment of a sky without the waft of beating wings? Even if the planet can survive humanity’s prodigal path of self-destruction, will something precious, and beautiful, and irreplaceable, be lost?