We do have an urgent practical need to rediscover, reassert, and enact more fully our old lost awareness that God’s delicate creation is a good and holy thing, a work and presence of divinity, not dead and empty of all objective values, not by any means evil, not an enemy. Fully recovered and deeply felt, this awareness would lead almost automatically to a radically different handling of Nature, on lines more symbiotic and less exploitive, less appropriate to an enemy and more appropriate to a mother [or sister]: to adapt a phrase from Bertrand Russell, it would bring us back to a needed sense and practice of “cosmic piety.”
We should see the environmental crisis as a warning, alerting us to a basic religious fact that we had forgotten, a basic religious duty in which we had been remiss. We need to accept the warning given, but then to forget all about the crisis and the danger, attending chiefly or only to the duty of giving to our environment the much more respectful handling that it actually deserves, and for no reason beyond its actual deserving.
Our prime concern will therefore be to reconnect the idea of God with the ideas of creation and immanence. While having no pantheistic tendency, without compromising God’s transcendence and the immense ontological gulf between the Creator and every creature, it will also—and more urgently—stress the other side of that ultimate dialectic, the creative and loving presence of God in all his works, all his possessions, and the consequent holiness of the phenomenal universe…. This world belongs to God, not to us: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” In one sense, the whole environmental crisis arises from our habitual but extraordinary assumption that it belongs to us, to the human race, and to this generation in particular. We treat it in a fashion which is not only contemptuous but proprietorial, which is a great folly. By no conceivable title does this world belong to us. We did not make it: we cannot understand or control it except in the most marginal way: individually and collectively, we are catapulted into it by no choice of our own, allowed to occupy it for a short time, and then ejected: the environmental crisis shows up the unreality of any claim that we own it by right of conquest…. There should be preached to us a more realistic idea of our own standing, a habitual awareness that we live here not as freeholders but as tenants and stewards, responsible always to somebody else, somebody who … loves this world and cares furiously about what happens to it.
Doctrinally speaking, an environmental theology will therefore put first things first. In a fashion highly “traditional” and somewhat alien to the present-day thinking of many Christians, it will concentrate initially upon the paradoxical things said and implied at the very beginning of the Bible and in the opening words of either Creed—God’s creative presence in his dearly-loved work; the consequent holiness of matter, our own persons included, and the given circumstances of our ordinary life; the Fall, our collective and culpable spoiling of an otherwise happy scene. Only upon that foundation, firmly established and deeply entrenched, will it erect the lofty structure of redemption and sacrament and of the additional and extraordinary goodness thus made available….
In the field of applied religion, of morals as against doctrine, this will involve the supplementary preaching of two rather unpopular virtues. In the first place, it will urge upon mankind a certain collective humility. This does not mean that it will take a low total-depravity view of human nature, or deny the old doctrine of man’s special dignity and vocation, his qualified lordship over this world. Humility does not work like that. The humble man is not the man who has a poor opinion of himself: he is, rather, the man whose merit and standing, whatever it may be, is not the object of his own habitual and anxious attention—the man, therefore, who feels no particular need to assert himself or dominate. At present, in its fretful desire to conquer this planet and outer space as well, our race displays collectively the vulgar assertiveness that we can sometimes observe (but never with much admiration) in the insecure, under-confident, alienated individual. Such collective behavior is not called for: it is a loutishness. Perhaps, like much individual loutishness, it calls for sympathy and reassurance rather than for rebuke. At the merely natural level, “cosmic piety” suggests that man is a very exceptional and splendid and sacred thing indeed, a lord of creation certainly and already, while Christianity develops this idea to almost extravagant heights. A sound environmental theology will offer us both reassurance and a degree of pained rebuke, a hint that we might do well to forget the boring obsession with conquest and think of happier things. It will suggest for man, in this life, a more gentle and indeed a more aristocratic role than that of the chip-on-shoulder lout, the swaggering bully, the exploiter, the tyrant: it will beseech him to enact, towards the rest of creation, the high relaxed courtesy that comes naturally to the humble.
In the second place, it will suggest for us a degree of practical asceticism [self-denial]: applied in daily life, it will certainly involve us all in a definitely simplified mode of existence, such as might seem alarmingly austere by the fat standards of today. It will probably be a much happier mode of existence, once we have got used to it; but in the early stages, it will dictate a rather painful mortification of the desire to control and the desire to dominate, and of general self-indulgence too. It will encourage us to be less greedy, less demanding, to have a more positive attitude towards existence as such, towards experience as given: if we still use the expression “standard of living,” this kind of theology will help us to give it a meaning less ridiculous than it has now. Thus sobered, we would shed many of the fretful complexities of present-day life—with reluctance at first, but soon with relief.
This would not be the kind of asceticism that despises and rejects the world: it would have exactly the opposite character, being rooted in an awareness of the enormous good that resides in even a very little—in commonplace things and small quantities and familiar routines…. You criticize the given universe if you make impatient demands upon it, if you call for modification and particular arrangements: cars and champagne are excellent things, but if you call for them too insistently, you will be denying the more radical goodness of feet and water.
It will be our most practical course of action to put … religious motivation first, worrying much less about a survival that is temporary at the best, and worrying hardly at all about progress and development and conquest and our precious “standard of living.” The important thing will be the cultivation of an objectively worthy and well-mannered handling of the environment, considered as God’s work and property. If we thus seek first the Kingdom, those other things will, up to a point, be added unto us: otherwise, they are likely to prove very elusive indeed. The great lesson taught by the environmental crisis is that they cannot be captured forcibly in the course of a violent war against Nature. Our temporal well-being will be achieved lovingly or not at all.
We need to assert and enact not only the goodness of this world but also the ontological goodness of its chief inhabitant, flawed and damaged though he plainly is, tiresome though he can often be to ourselves. Too easily, we forget his continuing splendor, detecting it perhaps in small children or at the time of first love, but forgetting it otherwise. Towards a recovered sense of reverence before humanity, no program of charity and courtesy and ceremonial would be too much.
The strongest of all remedies is the daily habit of appreciative gratitude. We may not feel this naturally; but intellectually at least, we can recognize it as an appropriate response to the wholly surprising and undeserved gift of existence, and to this rather amazing world, and to all the apples, frogs, bears, cathedrals, fountains, worms, fireworks, icebergs, skyscrapers, flamingoes, snowflakes, bridges, alligators, honeycombs, girls, books, diamonds, ships, flames, hedgehogs, deserts, butterflies, and wine that we find within it. And for the Christian, a list of this kind will only be a preliminary, of relatively small account. Where this appreciative gratitude is not felt naturally, it should be cultivated. Even in lesser matters, we know that we owe thanks to our benefactors. Where the sentiment is not felt, there is a loutishness of the soul that may not be culpable; but if we refuse even the words and the outward forms of gratitude, we are guilty of bad manners in the highest degree. The necessity of prayer—and even the rule of its first formulation—might be considered to begin at this point: gratias agamus…. It would be good manners, on our part, to make this a daily habit—to make it the whole of our prayers, if it comes to that, but at least their starting-point. And then, on some windy morning, we might open our eyes and for the first time catch sight of this world, our rare and fragile home.
Excerpt taken from The Delicate Creation: Towards a Theology of the Environment.