by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Sept. 27, 2013
One of the biggest shifts in western history has been occurring quietly over the past 400 years, a shift in the way people relate to the planet that sustains them. And today it’s accelerating. In the time-honoured religious story of the West, the relationship was crystal-clear. Earth came into existence in a mighty act of creation by a God who dwelt beyond it. Human beings were the pinnacle of planetary life, and to them God gave dominion over the earth and every living thing.
Though some Christians still regard that story as true and binding, a growing number do not. Their perceptions of where the world came from, and their place in it, have undergone a sea change. They now see that old story as poetry and myth – and as such it still has much to offer. But in looking to origins, they embrace a new story of how we come to be here. It is a story that transforms people’s understanding of the planet, changes their perspective on the place of human life upon it, and provides a new platform for religious interpretation.
This new story, the gift of science to the church, tells us that humans are products of stardust and time. For 13.7 billion years Earth has been evolving geologically, physically, biologically, and human life and culture are simply a late flowering in the selfsame process.
That means humans belong fully and firmly to the earth. Their life here is almost certainly all the life they will know. It is here they must find meaning and purpose, here they must develop an understanding of God that will not only hold up within the new story, but add value to it. An immediate casualty of the new perspective is the notion that the human species, as the peak of creation, has the right and duty to lord it over nature. Homo sapiens has to take a demotion and see itself as descended from cosmic gas and debris, just like everything else.
In only one decisive respect are humans unique: they have language. This allows them to think abstractly, share their thoughts with others, and open their imaginations to create metaphor, myth, religion, the gods, and God. Sir Lloyd Geering outlines the process superbly in his latest book, From the Big Bang to God.
And collectively, humans are the consciousness of the planet. They make up what the French priest, philosopher and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin called the “noosphere” – that film of awareness of others around the globe, and increasingly awareness of the earth, which humans share in a way that is true of no other life form.
It’s that consciousness, together with its moral cousin conscience, which is now being challenged to respond to one of the great salvation/destruction questions of our time: How should we live upon the earth so that our presence enhances not just ourselves, not just human life, but our planetary home?
The question is urgent, because since the Industrial Revolution humans have been using, exploiting, polluting, sometimes trashing the environment on which life depends at an ever-increasing rate. That has brought the world to the brink, forcing humankind to choose between ensuring the planet will be able to nurture future generations, or destroying it.
American physicist David Robinson puts the choice starkly in The Poised Century: “Given consciousness, we have the capacity for conscious evolution, the ability to look at our own actions, see their effect on ourselves and the world, and then act in new ways that will change our course from extinction to sustainability.” In that light, the current political emphasis on economic growth and prosperity through galloping consumerism is madness. Robinson asks: “Is there a better way to be better off?”, and answers yes – as long as communities develop “a new economics that values who we are over what we have, that values being over accumulation [of goods].”
That happens to accord with an insight which the churches have fostered for centuries. For them, the measure of a human life lies not in a person’s property, possessions or power, but in the love and compassion shown towards others. Those “others” now have to include not only future generations, but increasingly the planet on which all life depends. In addressing this salvation/destruction issue, far-reaching political, economic and personal choices have to be made. And in promoting values and shaping worldviews fit for our times, good religion has a vital part to play. The challenge to everyone, including the churches, is: What price salvation now?