21 April 2013

Heaven and Earth

Psalm 96, Psalm 148 & Colossian 1: 15-20

Seventh Sunday of Easter/ 21st April 2013/ 

Care of Creation Sunday

Keep America Beautiful.  “Founded in 1953, it’s still the largest non-profit, community improvement organization in the United States, with approximately 589 affiliate organizations and more than 1,000 community organizations that participate in their programs. Keep America Beautiful focuses on three key issues: litter prevention, waste reduction/recycling and community greening & beautification. These goals are accomplished through a combination of community organizing, public education and the fostering of public/private partnerships. Keep America Beautiful was founded by a consortium of American businesses (including founding member Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola) nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and concerned individuals in reaction to the growing problem of highway litter that followed the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The original goal of the organization was to reduce litter through public service advertising campaigns.”[1]  

On Earth Day in 1971, Keep America Beautiful launched a new and probably it’s most memorable campaign around the theme "People Start Pollution.  People can stop it."  The campaign included the now iconic public service announcement that included the "Crying Indian," played by Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999). Perhaps you've never seen it or don’t remember the commercial.  

 I remember it.  I was six years old.  This commercial, probably more than any single event was instrumental in inspiring America’s fledgling environmental movement.  It left a lasting impression.  Here was a Native American looking out on urban America with a tear falling from his right eye, weeping for what had been done to his land. It raised an awareness in me at the time that a terrible wrong had been committed, that I, that adults somehow caused the destruction of this land, of his home. 

Then in the mid-1970s there was the Love Canal scandal, ironically named.  It was revealed that a residential neighborhood of Niagara, NY, known as Love Canal, covering 36 square blocks, was the site of an industrial landfill. The Hooker Chemical Company buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste on the site, and then later sold it, in 1953, to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1, and then it was later sold to a developer. The US Army used the site to dispose of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project after World War II.  I remember hearing about this on the radio and television.  Everyone was in a panic about Love Canal.  What will be found next? What else is buried in our neighborhoods that we don’t know about yet?  Love Canal?  It wasn’t loving at all.  All this helped to raise my consciousness around my relationship to the environment. 

I saw the destruction of the environment all around where I grew up in Northern New Jersey, ten miles from both the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.  Bordering the east of my hometown of North Arlington are the Meadows, which had become an enormous landfill; bordering the town on the west is the Passaic River, one of the most polluted rivers in the country at the time, situated downstream from the industrial mills and factories of  Patterson, and upstream from the factories in Newark, Harrison, Kearny.  My high school biology teachers took us on field trips down to the river to test the water, to see what was in it.  It was depressing to say the least.  My hometown was a nice place to grow up, don’t get me wrong, but it was surrounded by the results of industrialization from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Today, the Passaic River is much cleaner (there are now fish swimming in it); parks have been built in Newark where there were factories. Even in Jersey City, just east of the Meadows, where the enormous Colgate-Palmolive factory stood along the Hudson River there are now high-end condominiums, parks, and office buildings.  The same story can be told of any major city in the North and Northeast – Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and here in Baltimore.

While we might be in the process of cleaning up our urban environments, more conscious of our relationship to the land around us, feeling good about our recycling efforts here, reducing our carbon footprints, the ecological crisis continues.  We’re playing catch-up as we watch the climate change all around the world.  The crisis continues unabated overseas in Asia and Africa and South America.  The devastation continues and as it does, humanity becomes all the more detached from the earth, from the environment, from our home, alienated from Mother Earth.

To some extent Christianity bears some responsibility for the state we’re in.  This might sound like an odd, even ridiculous claim, but I think it’s true.  The Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries originated in Christian Europe, in Germany, France, and, in England, with its “dark Satanic Mills,” as William Blake (1757-1827) put it – and they were dark and Satanic.[2]  The revolution spread to the American shores, colonial expansion helped to feed our mills and the factories, some were just as dark and Satanic.  The United States industrial expansion continued through the nineteenth century, yielding great progress, a better future for immigrants from around the world, and enormous wealth (especially for some), but it also yielded environmental devastation.  Civilization comes at a terrible price.

These were so-called Christian nations where industrialization occurred.  Did the Church ever come to the aid of the environment?  Did it ever come to the aid of Mother Earth?  Did it ever try to save the planet in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries?  Today, yes, the Church is involved in environmental concerns, but we’ve come late to this issue.  Why weren’t we there centuries ago? 

Because essentially the Church, I think, operated with three misguided assumption.  The first false assumption was due, in part, to a false reading of the creation account in Genesis—it was assumed that the earth belonged to us and not God, that God gave it to us to “use” at our pleasure, to use the resources given to us by God and then use them for the advancement of Christian civilization.

The second assumption is this: the Church, for centuries, operated with a dangerous dualism that privileged spirit over body.  The spirit was considered holy, eternal, of God.  Matter, along with our bodies, was viewed with suspicion, if not altogether bad.  For centuries the Church believed that it should concern itself with only spiritual concerns and leave material concerns for those beyond the Church.  And by spiritual, they/we meant concerns of the heart or the soul or spirit, personal, invisible concerns, such as salvation.  It’s this deep division between soul and body, preferring one over the other, which has helped to wreck havoc upon the earth.  This wedge between spirit and matter is insidious.

Contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann makes clear that both theology and the Church’s “domain became the soul’s assurance of salvation in the inner citadel of the heart.  The earthly, bodily and cosmic dimensions of the salvation of the whole world were overlooked.”[3]  In other words—and this is the third assumption—the Church viewed salvation as essentially the saving of the soul, as a spiritual concern.  That’s what God really cared about, it was assumed, that’s what Jesus came to save, that’s the Gospel.  Everything else was, is, outside the domain of the Church.  Inside and outside, sacred and secular—and so reality was divided.  The individual was elevated and separated out from its relationship to the rest of the world, to creation itself. The individual/humanity was viewed as existing apart from nature, instead of seeing humanity as part of the creation.  Reality was divided.  Some things are sacred, holy; everything else is profane, secular.  God is concerned about holy things; doesn’t really care about the secular.  Moltmann writes, “When personal salvation came to be thought of as something that had nothing to do with the world, in the same degree the knowledge and fashioning of the world ceased to have any reference to salvation and disaster.  This meant that the calamitous dichotomy between the subjectivity of human beings and the objective world of ‘mere things’ was deepened.  The truth of faith and the truth of reason split apart.”[4]

This dichotomy contributed to so many other dichotomies that continue to plague our world: the separation of faith and reason, faith and science, faith and economics, faith and politics, faith and ecology.  The Reformation helped to forge this separation and then it erupted during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, followed by developments in science in the nineteenth century, which effectively viewed God as separate from the world, absent from the world, or even dead.  There’s a direct correlation between perceiving the absence of God, the rise of secularism, and the ecological crisis caused by industrialization and technological progress.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) once observed, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither.”[5]  Once heaven is divorced from having any connection with the earth, everything unravels.  The earth, and all of us with is, loses its mooring and we are set adrift.  Once God is taken out of the picture, taken out of creation, everything comes undone.  We are left with the illusion that the earth belongs to us and we can do whatever we want to it.  We are left with the illusion that this world doesn’t matter, that “we’re just a passin’ through,” so who cares if we blow ourselves to smithereens, there’s another shore waiting for us.  Once God is removed from the picture, the world loses its glory, its otherness, its holiness.  Some traditions in the Church were so keen on eradicating pantheism, that is, the worship of nature, that we defaced creation of its magic.  God can’t be found in nature, theologians said. We do not learn about God from creation, many theologians in the Reformed tradition argued for centuries.  It’s true, a crocus tells us nothing about Christ, but that doesn’t mean that the world, the universe, isn’t infused with the presence of God.

The early Celtic Christians of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, before the eighth century, had a much better sense of God’s goodness in the grandeur of creation.  Every thing was every blessed thing because everything was blessed, good, and holy. The incarnation of Jesus, God in the flesh, means that matter matters.  Many centuries later, George Macleod (1895-1991), founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, intent on renewing the Church with a new appropriation of Celtic Christianity, was right when he said that the Christian gospel involves more than soul salvation, it is whole salvation.   Because it is whole, the soul is included along with the redemption of the world, and by world Macleod included the created order.[6] 

A good example of this theological outlook is the meaning of the Celtic cross, such as the St. John’s Cross on our Communion table (from Iona).  The cross is placed over the circle.  The circle represents the earth.  The cross achieves the redemption of the earth, of creation itself.  Celtic Christians had a far more cosmic understanding of salvation.

St. John's Cross, Iona, Scotland

Macleod is right.  From a biblical perspective, any talk of dividing the world up into sacred and profane, spiritual and material is an illusion, a fantasy that we’ve created for our own questionable purposes.  Psalm 24:1 couldn’t be more explicit:  “The earth and all it contains belongs to the LORD, the earth and all who dwell in it.”  Heaven and earth are held together as one.  We need to view the world, our reality in it, holistically.  We need to stop dividing up reality, bifurcating reality.  We need healing, wholeness.  The psalms make this clear, such as Psalm 96 and Psalm 148.  It’s in the New Testament as well, especially in the cosmic hymn to Christ offered in Colossians.  Christ is viewed as “the firstborn of all creation.”  Therefore, “In him all things are held together” (Col. 1:17).  Reality, creation, the universe are all held together in him, are all one.

When we remember this, live from this knowledge, our relationship with the world changes.  If we try to imagine creation from God’s perspective—holistically, heaven and earth linked together—would we dump toxic waste in a landfill?  Would we devastate the rain forests of Brazil? When we abuse the earth, we abuse ourselves.  To treat the environment this way is a form of crucifixion, we’re crucifying Christ all over again.

What will it take for you and me, for us to be re-enchanted by the glory and presence of God? What will it take to again see the world enchanted?   Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Do you feel it?  See it?  Can we say, Praise be to God for every blessed thing and to see everything blessed?  Will the creation again be the cause for praise, help us to praise?

As the psalmist declared: 
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
            let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. 
Then shall all the trees of the forest
            sing for joy before the LORD” (Psalm 96:11-12).  May it be so.

[2] William Blake’s  “Jerusalem” (1804):  “And did those feet in ancient time./ Walk upon Englands mountains green:/ And was the holy Lamb of God,/ On Englands pleasant pastures seen!   And did the Countenance Divine,/ Shine forth upon our clouded hills?/ And was Jerusalem builded here,/ Among these dark Satanic Mills?”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creaetion and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 35.
[4] Moltman, 35.
[5] C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianty.
[6] See Ron Ferguson’s biography George Macleod:  Founder of the Iona Community (Wild Goose Publications, 2004), and also Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London:  Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1993).

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