The Prophet Earth, And How to Listen to it

{This is a reblog of an article I wrote for the good people at Earth Keepers: Christians for Climate Justice.}

BC Forest

An old professor and mentor during my seminary days used to say, ‘listening is love in action.’ I have returned to this phrase many times over the years, but never more than now. We humans are facing what Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, called ‘multiple global emergencies’ during his speech to the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations. Several decades of successive wars in the Middle East have resulted in a refugee crisis which is unprecedented in history and on a scale which is unimaginable with no end in sight. The world order itself is also unravelling, as was evident to anyone following the UN Assembly this year, and there are massive demographic and economic shifts occurring right now around the world. What is more, Pope Francis claimed recently that we are fully engaged in a ‘piecemeal third world war.’ However, what every country in the world acknowledged, both in the recent UN Assembly, and in their collective commitments to the Paris Climate Summit, our greatest global emergency is that of climate change. If we are to engage properly with these global emergencies, and do so with love, then there has never been a time more important than this one for us to listen.

We must listen first to the cry of the refugees, as far, and a bit further, than we can bear to do so. This is very hard since it entails listening to the suffering and the humanity of these people, who are displaced, starving, shivering in open fields, and destitute. Hearing them means becoming awake to what they are experiencing, and this is a very difficult task indeed. Hearing them also highlights the fears which seek to keep their cries at bay, to isolate them, and to treat them like enemies of a peaceful order within which we are benefiting daily. But there is no other way for the follower of Christ than to listen to them, and in doing so unite our voice in solidarity to theirs through prayer.

But their cry is part of a larger problem. We must also listen to the earth itself, which may indeed be the prophet of God for our times. A prophet’s role is not fortune or future telling; rather, a prophet in the biblical sense is someone who speaks the word of God into the current world and who expresses what we need to hear now. The outcome, whether we act upon or disregard the prophet’s words, is up to us, as is the future. The earth, I believe, is the prophet of our times and it is calling us, as all prophets ultimately do, to repentance. It might be strange, for some, to think of the earth as a kind of biblical-style prophet, but the earth is God’s creation as much as we are, and in fact it is filled already with news about God. Those who have ‘ears to hear’ will discover the beauty, wonder, joy, and life-giving nature of the God which our earth, and the whole creation, proclaims in myriad ways. Indeed, the natural world is radiant, even symphonic, with the revelation of the living and loving God. And all this revelation is calling us continuously back to communion with God in and through the natural world.

 Listen to the Scriptures

The real question, however, is how to listen to the earth. I would start by listening to what the Scriptures have to say about it. Make a list of the verses, starting with Genesis, which speak directly to creation and our place within it, and begin reading. Read them with an open mind, on your knees, and ponder them in your heart. Try to separate what you have heard about these passages (through your own Christian traditions) from what they are actually telling you. For instance, there is a great deal of industrial-era interpretation about the verses in Genesis concerning the subduing of the earth, almost none of which is actually accurate and in accordance with what apostolic Christians (or ancient rabbinic interpretations) have expressed through the centuries. Another example is the often quoted verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” We hear this verse so often, but always assume the ‘world’ here is humanity. In fact, the Greek word is ‘cosmos’, and is inclusive of the whole whole created order, from solar systems to atoms. I think that we should also try to dwell on God’s own poetry about the earth, such as that in Job, or in the Psalms and Proverbs.

 Listen to the Life of Christ

The next way to listen is to consider the life and Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, the Incarnation itself speaks volumes about God’s love of us and the earth starting with the fact that the incorporeal God became corporeal. God entered creation, became it, and through it saved us and the cosmos. We not only proclaim, as part of our Gospel, that God became Man, but we also say that in doing so he took on the atoms, the water, the soil, and the stuff of earth which comprise the physical body. What is more, He enthroned all this after His Ascension. This means that there is not only a human being enthroned and governing heaven and earth, but the whole creation as well. There is no greater reason to love and listen to the earth than this, since there is no greater honour which God can give it than to enthrone it in Himself. Once we grasp this mystery, we grasp why caring for and loving the planet is central to the gospel and a vital part of our ministry.

Listen to the Saints

I would also keep listening to the saints and holy people through the ages who have actualized the gospel in their lives. ‘God is glorious in his saints,’ says the Psalmist, and their witness also speaks volumes about our ministry to the earth. I would suggest reading the early literature of the Church, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, the Didache, Polycarp of Smyrna, and then go on to read and study Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, Macrina the Younger, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Symeon the New Theologian, Theresa of Avilla, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Muir, Alexander Schmemann, Mary Oliver, Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, Seraphim of Sarov, and many others. All of these people are passionate about the earth, it’s ecosystems, it’s animals and life. They are vibrant, brilliant, martyric Christians who are full and worthy witnesses not only of the Christian life but of how that life incorporates the natural world. Listening to them is to listen to a chorus of love about nature; they point us always to the love of God flowing throughout the cosmos.

Listen to the Indigenous Peoples

And while we are listening to them, I think it is truly time to listen to the aboriginal peoples around the world who have an enormous amount to teach us about how to live sustainably. Based on their intimate knowledge of the natural world, they can also teach us about how the earth is changing around us now. The genius of indigenous spirituality is that it understands that the ‘voices’ of the great bear or the caribou, the salmon or the eagle, are vitally important to survival; indeed, these voices speak to us and and can even help reveal our identities to us. I wish the churches would listen more to this kind of spirituality. Indeed, I wish the churches would listen more in general! Fr Alexander Schmemman, a well-known Russian theologian, asked in one of his journals, “What is there about Christianity that people feel the need to talk about it so much?” What colonial spirituality needs to learn from the faith traditions of the First Nations is simply this: stop telling people things, and listen to what the natural world is telling us. Note the lack of dogmas, doctrines, and creeds among the indigenous peoples. Theirs is a journey from a human isolation to a harmony with the natural world. I have always picked up a sense from their stories and rituals that it is nature, and not Man, that is the real authority; it speaks to us, and if we listen we thrive; if we do not, we die. They would teach us to love the world God created and lean in to hear His voice in it.

Listen to the Scientists

I would encourage us next to listen to the scientists, climatologists, and environmental policy makers who have devoted both their personal and professional lives to understanding the earth’s complex ecosystems and also how they are changing. These men and women have long suffered from isolation and alienation in a world which has not, until recently, listened to what their science was saying. They are not alarmists or charlatans, as they were once shockingly portrayed by a predominantly right-wing media complex; they are men and women who love nature, and often Christians themselves, and are witnessing and reporting one major climate shift and tragedy after another. They deserve our respect, and most of all deserve our attention. Climate scientists will tell us, and thoroughly back up their claims, that glaciers are melting, wildlife is disappearing at alarming rates (49% of the animals in North America have vanished in the last fifty years), the earth’s atmosphere is getting hotter, the polar winds are changing, the animals are moving further north, the seas are acidifying, the deep ocean currents which keep our ocean ecosystems in balance are stopping, the permafrost is melting, and much more. Listening to them is not easy, but it is necessary, because doing so will help us understand the true gravity of what is happening to our earthly home. We can argue about the health of our economy all we want, but there is no economy at all without a healthy ecosystem.

Listen to the Earth

Most of all, I would listen to the earth itself. The first time I realized that the universe had something to say to me, I was 12 years old and hiking in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains. My family and I had spent a long weekend trekking to a remote lake high in the alpine, reached only by a steep shaly traverse up a mountain pass. The pass presented itself only at the end of an already long day of hiking, and climbing it seemed to take forever. When the trail levelled, however, and the view opened, my eyes widened at the sight waiting for us. An alpine meadow stretched as far as I could see, flanked by two snowy peaks, and crammed with Red Paintbrushes, purple crocuses, blue forget-me-nots, pink moss casinos, white Wedgeleaf, yellow Varileaf, fuchsia and Shooting stars. The wildflowers were bright with sun under a wide blue sky and swooning this way and that in the haphazard breezes from the slopes. There are moments in life which are different than every other; they seem fixed in time and history, like way points in a journey. We arrive at them, without warning, stumbling, and depart a different person with new purpose, transformed vision, and self-revelation. I had seen such beauty before, but in this moment I suddenly felt like Keats’ “Watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

What I had stumbled into as a dorky pre-teen boy was indeed a new planet, not a different one, but this planet seen through eyes of wonder and awe. Thomas Treherne claims that “if we would see this world as the angels do, we would be ravished and enraptured as the angels are.” I was seeing like his angels, and wondering how I could have missed until now the radiant inner world around me. I say inner world, but perhaps inter-world would be a better spatial designation. This world, of which I had known only the natural part until now, was as much a revelation of individual elements as one of a complex network of relatedness. Each flower seemed to proclaim itself, but in relation to all the other flowers and the scenery in general. Everything around me was communicating and I felt invited to join the conversation. “It is a blessed thing,” observed John Muir, “to go free in the light of this beautiful world, to see God playing upon everything as on an instrument, His fingers upon the lightning and torrent, on every wave of sea and sky, and every living thing, making all together sing and shine in sweet accord, the one love-harmony of the universe.”

This ‘seeing God playing upon everything as on an instrument’ is essentially seeing the world as sacramental and is vital to spiritual ecology. I know well that the word ‘sacrament’ is most often associated with Christianity and it certainly has a lot of baggage that goes with it. But a spiritual ecology, indeed spirituality in general, is nothing without it. In western Christianity there are only seven sacraments (baptism, marriage, confession, confirmation, holy orders, communion, and anointing of the sick), and these are upheld as guaranteed ways in which God acts graciously upon humankind. However, in the Eastern church, there is no such delimiting of sacraments. Simply put, a sacrament is something – anything – that reveals the sacred. The alpine flowers I witnessed in the Kananaskis were a sacrament, as was the wind in that valley. Perhaps to the flowers and the wind I was a sacrament too. Everything was communicating something of itself, and that something was inherently sacred. The key message here is that nature is communicating constantly.

Listen to our Heart

Last of all, when we have listened to the Scriptures, the life and teaching of Christ, the examples of the saints, the experience of the aboriginal peoples, the findings of the scientists, and to earth itself, we can begin listening to our own hearts. The life we live now has almost nothing to do with nature. Everything from our toothpaste to our house has been created through a petroleum industry which is now in its final years. We even acquire our food which has been produced in factories somewhere else in the world. We live in a kind of matrix of unreality, as removed from the natural world as we possibly can be. No wonder we are so comfortable with the concept of colonizing other planets like Mars, because we live on earth as if it is a hostile place not suitable to human life. In truth, it isn’t suitable for the kind of life we have enjoyed for the past seventy years. And it is certainly not suitable to seven billion people trying to live the same way. At some point we have to reckon with the truth of our situation; we will have to face the fact that life on earth is not meant to look like it does now and that we have to find a way back to a healthy, engaged, Christ-centered and sustainable way of living.

And this is where listening to our heart is so important. We already know deep down that there is something wrong. We were made for communion, not dominion, with nature and whenever a person is living in contradiction to how God intends, they know it. We may be out of control as a race, but we can change as individuals. We can repent, and turn to the love of God and take our proper place in the natural world. We can honour the presence of God in the flowers and animals. We can live very well upon the earth. We can begin to uphold the love which God displays for the earth in our own lives and personal witness. Each of us will do so uniquely, but we are each capable of it. And we are capable because we were meant to live this way. It is in our DNA, and it is in the DNA of the Gospel itself. But knowing this, really knowing it, requires a long journey of listening – but as we are called to love, this is the only journey worth taking, and certainly one which needs be made before we can take up action.

And let’s start by listening to this saint, a Syrian just like those currently crying out to be heard and helped right now in Europe:

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the one who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised – St Isaac the Syrian.

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