A THEOLOGY FOR CARING FOR THE EARTH.
Martin Luther, the 16th-centry German Augustinian reformer, was once
asked: "If you know for certain that the Lord would return tomorrow,
what would you do today?" Luther responded, "I would plant a
tree?" Those five words continue to inspire me and to enrich my
study, prayer and reflection.
"In the beginning..." Like a theatre curtain dramatically drawn
aside - something exciting is ready to start - a story we all know,
a story we believe in - a story we want to share. The story of
the universe, which according to scientists, astronomers,
physicists, paleontologist, archeologists, biologists and
geneticists, began somewhere between 15 and 20 billion years ago.
Our store, my story and yours, of how we are part, in fact the very
center of this universe, begins for us when we look with wonder, awe
and curiosity at the world around us. Fixing our eyes on the
nearest mountain, or gazing into the heavens on a clear, starry
night, we3 might think the world is static and permanent./ That's
the picture we see in the Genesis story. Nothing is farther
from the truth. The fact is that the primary feature of the
story is one of change and transformation. Indeed the
time-scale and the space-span are immense - Aristotle thought
infinite! Imagine, we are part of that wonderfully exciting
I am quite certain this reality of cosmic transformation, renewal,
growth, evolution is the deeper significance of Paul's statement in
his Letter to the Romans: "From the beginning of time until
now the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving
birth..." (8:22-25). I see it all summarized, synthesized and
symbolized in the biblical "Tree of Life"!
"Yahweh God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree,
enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life in
the middle of the garden" (Genesis 2:9).
"On either side of the river is the tree of life with its
twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the
leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations"
(Revelation 22:2). So we see the "Tree of Life" at the
beginning of creation and again at the beginning of the New
Creation. The New Creation is here.
Unfortunately Christians, especially biblically formed Christians,
are not often recognized as friends of the earth. Such Christians
have historically emphasized the salvation of souls and their
future life in heaven. The world's beauty was often thought to
be a seduction of the body and a peril to the immortal spark within
us that alone is worth saving. Any spirituality divorced from
the cosmos and its inter-connectedness cannot be authentic,
biblical, incarnate spirituality. We already see the effects of
the destructive, growing tendency to separate the social, political
and economic dimensions from the spiritual cosmic dimension.
For many biblical fundamentalists nothing really matters except a
personal relationship with Jesus. By basing their eschatology on a
false interpretation of the Book of Revelation, they gaze
indifferently on the destruction of the world, since the saved will
be removed by rapture to occupy a new heaven and earth. This
present earth for them is only a temporary package for the saints.
God will crumple it all down, burn it all up and toss it aside. For
them, working to preserve the earth and its resources is a kind of
denial of the great cataclysm that awaits us.
Such anti-body, anti-creature spirituality is false spirituality. If we are
truly intent on renewal, we must internalize a much more holistic
approach to spirituality than that embraced by some of the former
classical spiritual guides, to quote only two: Thomas A. Kempis
(d.1471), Augustinian author of the famed Imitation of Christ,
wrote: "Every time I go into creation I withdraw from God"; and the
Sulpician Adolphe Alfred Tanquerey (d.1932) "May I know thee, O God,
that I may love thee. May I know myself that I may despise myself."
We, the Church as the Body of Christ, must become a laboratory for a
life consonant with the care of the earth as God's creation. We
must learn how to cultivate practices that, at the very least,
respect the precarious balance between the earth and all living
creatures. As an embodied community, the Church must also be a good
citizen of the world community be actively supporting policies which
honestly advocate for the earth. In other words, the Church should
lead in being the earth's friend.
BUT the Church can hardly do this as long as our own
self-understanding and way of life are based more on personal
salvation, individualism and consumerism of an increasingly
unrestrained capitalistic world order rather than on the Gospel of
Jesus Christ; imitating the Messiah rather than mimic the market;
spiritual fruitfulness rather than size; service rather than
domination; maturity of life rather than growth in numbers,
suffering in solidarity with all of creation rather than prosperity
as a sign of God's blessing.
Brothers and sisters, we have failed to appreciate that our
ancestry includes all forms of life, all the starts, the galaxies,
even the "ball of fire" at the very heart of time. We have
failed to realize that our first allegiance embraces, not our
families, our tribes, our nations, but rather all species, the
whole marvelous living earth. When we finally comprehend this
beauty, this community of creation, then there will spring forth a
power, an energy, a will that joyfully works to renew the face of
the earth. In the meantime, I stand with Martin Luther. If the
worlds ends tomorrow, I will plan a tree today.
Fr. Bert Ebben, OP