It’s been eleven years since we started Faith in Place and our roots are in the City of Chicago. This might seem a strange location for an organization that connects the teachings of faith to practices of care for Creation, or, if you like, an organization that practices natural theology, but that depends on where you think nature is.
We have been trained in some ways to think of ourselves as outside of nature. Many of our philosophical discussions about humans and nature put it just like that: “humans and nature” as if one were separate from the other rather than the first being a subset of the second. But human beings are a kind of animal. If the thought doesn’t overwhelm you, you could even realize that the human body is overwhelmingly colonized by other microscopic forms of life some of which are pathogens but most of which have found a way to make themselves essential to our continued health so that they can continue to nourish themselves off our bodies.
We are microcosms, ecosystems, and each of us exists in a larger ecosystem on which our life depends. And those larger ecosystems are in trouble, because of the activities of humankind.
The summer of 2010 was certainly a discouraging one for environmental activists. In the summer of the worst oil spill in history (what a mild word for the 5 or so million barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico), we were unable to move legislation that would put a cap on the amount of carbon our economy may produce. The science is clear and undisputed in any serious way that we are exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet, particularly for the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and that the consequence will be, well, wild weather disturbances, increasing heat, melting polar ice caps, loss of oxygenation in the oceans, major agricultural disruptions like floods, fires and droughts — all of which seems like a description of the summer of 2010.
The environmental conversation in this country has been relatively civil for quite some time, and the movement for a federal legislative response to the crisis has been led by moderate groups who were fully prepared to accept less than they asked for. Groups like my own have been advised not even to talk about carbon or climate change, but to talk instead in messages that poll better. “Talk about green jobs” we are assured, or “the new green economy.”
But we have been talking about climate change, and the human impact on the earth, and the responsibility of the church to respond. And we’re finding many friends in the work. Since this is a Lutheran publication, I can mention that Wicker Park Lutheran Church with its worm composting and its beautiful back-yard garden was among our earliest friends, and that Resurrection Lutheran Church was the first solar congregation in Chicago. The commitment of these and hundreds of other parishes to alter their own practices and to minimize their impact on the earth, as well as to speak to their members about these issues as if they present us with a serious moral dilemma has been admirable.
Because these issues do present us with a serious moral dilemma. Our lives are conducted at the expense of others. This is our existential condition — it is unavoidable to some degree except by death, and part of the religious responsibility has always been to help us to understand it and to respond to it with appropriate humility. In eco-speak this means measuring and then shrinking the carbon footprint. In religious terms it means accepting the burden that your existence places on the rest of life — accepting the profound nature of our interdependence, and learning to make that very interdependence the source of our lovingkindness and our mercy toward those around us.
All of this theology is as accessible in the city as it is in any other place. The tight relationships between human beings and other living things are as obvious here as they are anywhere if you know where to look. Life finds a way to happen whether in the dirt in the crack in the sidewalk or in the median strips of our fair city, or in that most hierophanous of eastern boundaries, Lake Michigan, whose vast wildness cannot be diminished by the human-built environment along its shore. That wildness is not separate from us. We live on it and drink it, and when we see it we recognize that it is also something within us.
And, of course, those oh-so-industrious humans are part of nature too. We are the result of the evolution that has led to us, we are related to everything around us, and our ability to manipulate our environment is part of what makes us the particular kind of animal we are. Birds manipulate their environments too, after all, with their nests, and Ravens have been known to use tools. What is here is not unnatural. But it does have disproportionate impact compared to the impacts of other living things, even compared to other human beings in other parts of the world.
It is that impact that we must think about in moral terms and which the church must take it upon itself to address in some way. If our insistence on such a high degree of comfort causes flooding in other parts of the world that deprive people even of the ability to live, surely this is a moral problem, and surely therefore it is within the purview of the church. And, to move even closer to an uncomfortable line, if our elected officials don’t address this situation with legislation because the influence of the corporations which profit from the exploitation of fossil fuels carries more weight with them than the future condition of the planet and the future wellbeing of our grandchildren, then don’t we have an obligation to speak to this as well?
Since our inception at Faith in Place we have worked hard to be engaging, cheerful, hopeful, and to bring everyone to the table at whatever starting point we found them. We still work hard to do that. But we can’t ignore the fact that the issues we’re talking about have a powerful moral component, and that the recognition of the place we occupy on this planet — within nature, and as a caretaker to other living things is both moral and Biblical.
It may even be time to be, occasionally, a little less reasonable and a little less nice, though we are never excused from being less than loving or less than kind to our brothers and sisters.
Even as the politics of carbon grow more disappointing and our progress toward the kinds of reductions we need to make to mitigate the worst kind of shift in the climate is harder than ever to see, the need for the church to take on the moral component of this conversation is more urgent than ever. Why does the economy need to grow without ceasing? What are our lives for and how shall they be given? What is our responsibility toward the life around us? What kind of people are we?
Climate change because of human activity points to a kind of directionlessness in our activity — that we follow the path we have been headed down and don’t ask the kinds of reflective questions that are the business of faith.
Perhaps our excessively human-built environments help to sustain us on those thoughtless paths because they hide the systems from sight on which our lives and all the living things around us depend. But that would make it more urgent for the church to make visible the invisible presence — the abiding, supporting systems of air and water that may help us to know something also about how God is here. Making visible the invisible presence is what churches do, and it has never been more needed than it is now.