Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

“From Apocalypse to Genesis”

Author: 
Janet Parker

Today’s service is in honor of Earth Day, and yesterday the Rock Spring community came together in an extraordinary way to celebrate the goodness of God’s creation and to highlight our role as stewards of creation in our first-ever Earth Day festival.

The Earth Day festival was a symphony of creative and inspiring activities that demonstrated our love for the Earth and various ways that we can care for creation and minimize our harmful impacts on the planet. Yet while the mood was celebratory and fun, close attention to the creative exhibits revealed some discordant notes. For example, one of the exhibits that generated interest was the “enviroscape,” an ingenious model that demonstrated how different forms of pollution like pesticides, animal waste, construction materials, litter, agricultural runoff, and oily residue from cars get flushed into our local streams and rivers and run down into the Chesapeake Bay. Exhibits like this reminded us that Earth Day is more than a celebration of nature, though it is surely that. But Earth Day is also implicitly a recognition that something has gone wrong in our relationship with the natural world, something that needs fixing — something that we might describe in religious terms as a call to repentance, and even conversion.

Yet here we begin to tread on treacherous ground, because acknowledging the depth of the planetary crisis human beings have created is fraught with danger. I’m not speaking here of political danger, of the suppression of ecological truth by political leaders. I’m speaking of emotional and spiritual danger — the danger that recognition of the true magnitude of our ecological crisis will lead to paralysis and despair. If we are really paying attention, the drumbeat of news about ecological degradation and climate change not only evokes fear, but also a deep sadness. Because if we are tuned in, we sense on some level that the Earth that we know and enjoy right now will not be the Earth that our children and grandchildren inherit.

The signs are everywhere. Headlines scream at us: three-fourths of the rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay are diseased. The Shenandoah River is now listed as one of the top ten most endangered rivers in the nation. Glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic are melting much faster than expected. Warming temperatures over the next century could turn rich agricultural land into desert, dry out the rainforests, raise sea levels, extinguish countless species, and cause disastrous storms. In fact, most scientists now say that climate change is not some- thing facing us in the future, but is already here. The debate over whether global warming is happening is over. The only question is how bad will it get? Dr. Gustave Speth, dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale, was asked recently if environmental damage due to climate change could be prevented. No, he replied, it’s too late for that. But we may still be able to prevent catastrophic damage. He concluded, “This is our last chance to get it right. We have run out of time.”

Speth and many other scientists and theologians are speaking a language that sounds off-key to our modern ears. It’s a language that biblical prophets like Ezekiel and John of Patmos would recognize, however. It is the language of apocalypse — the imagery of the end times and the mysteries of God. The environmental challenges that face us are beginning to look apocalyptic, except now the apocalypse is not a fantasy of fundamentalists, or the stuff of science fiction, but the edge of an abyss that clear- eyed scientists peer over and tremble at. And the threats we face are not orchestrated by God but self-inflicted.

An Obsolete Faith?

It’s hard to talk about these things, but we have to break the silence, especially within the churches, because here, above all else, we must speak the truth. As Daniel Maguire, a Catholic theologian, has said bluntly, “If current trends continue, we will not….If religion does not speak to [this], it is an obsolete distraction.” And so we need to speak about it, and we need to weep about it, because it’s only when we allow ourselves to actually feel what is going on that we will have the capacity to change it. As one ecofeminist theologian has said, “The capacity to weep and then do something is worth everything.” This is the purpose of apocalyptic literature in the Bible and the purpose of the eco-apocalyptic warnings of scientists and environmentalists — not to paralyze us with fear, but to spur us to act, and even to invest us with hope.

Ezekiel, writing to exiles, whose homeland had been destroyed, offered a vision of a new day — a dream of the time when they would return to their land and dwell in peace, when the land itself would be restored from its former desolation and bloom as if it were the garden of Eden. And the people who would dwell there would be different than the people who went into exile, because they would be transformed by their experience. They will return, but not as the same people, for we are told that God has cleansed them from their idols… and so, “a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.” Isn’t this what we so desperately need today? To have our hearts of stone removed, and in their place to receive hearts of flesh that can hear the crying of the Earth? What we need, says Larry Rasmussen, is nothing less than conversion to the Earth, because even our religion needs reformation. For too long, Christianity has been prone to Earth-denying tendencies and nurtured fantasies of mastery and control over nature. The new reformation being called for means that “all religious and moral impulses of whatever sort must now be matters of unqualified earthbound loyalty and care. Faith is fidelity to Earth and full participation in its ecstasy and agony.”

But the question remains, can Christianity be converted to the Earth? Can Christianity become what Rasmussen calls “an Earth faith”? It not only can, but it must. We search now for Earth faith and Earth ethics, because as Rasmussen explains, “Society and nature together…is a community, without an exit. Whether we like it or not, it’s life together now or not at all.”4

But there is good news. The good news is that we do have it within our faith to give us hope for the future and power to act and to change. The Bible itself is rich in resources, from its imagery of the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem — a new kind of garden — in the book of Revelation, which holds out a vision of a different way to live. In fact, some people say that apocalyptic literature is more about Earth than it is about heaven. Because apocalyptic literature is written to people who are in crisis, who are struggling and desperate, people who need hope. Another meaning of the word “apocalypse” is revelation. Apocalypse reveals to us a new vision, not of heaven as pie in the sky but as heaven on Earth. In fact, in the book of Revelation, heaven is not something we are raptured up to, but heaven is raptured down to us! Heaven is on Earth, and God dwells on the new restored Earth, as poisoned rivers become the river of the water of life. In apocalypse, sometimes we’re taken through hell, but we return to Eden.

Reading the Bible Backwards

So today, I would like to suggest that we have to start reading the Bible backwards. That’s our starting point. We begin with Revelation, not with the pristine garden. But then, reading backwards with the saints of all times and places, we discern the possibility for a new beginning — we reach toward a new genesis, a new way of living in harmony with the Earth, a change of consciousness and a re-rooting of all of our religious traditions in eco-friendly soil. We have this capability to envision a new Earth, and that was in abundant view yesterday when we saw the next generation at the Earth Day festival — most of the people there were under twenty! They are going to be our teachers; they will lead us forward. And all of this is tied into what we’re about to do, when we renew our baptismal vows in a few moments.

As we have this opportunity to touch the water — the water of life — which springs from the Earth and is a gift from God — we have the chance to allow our consciousness to be transformed, to be converted to God and the Earth. We have the opportunity to be born anew, not only as children of God but as children of the Earth — as the new Adam and the new Eve who are committed to restoring creation, who are committed to serving the creation with nurturing love. And so as you come forward today, let this clean water wash away any indifference you have, any despair you feel, any fear which clouds your vision.

Let it symbolize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a transformed people.

Let it remind us of the thirst of the Earth and the thirst of the people in many parts of the world who live parched lives.

Let it remind us of the dream of children to dance and bathe and drink clean water.

And let it remind us of the promise of scripture that streams will break forth in the desert, and that the river of the water of death will be replaced by the river of the water of life.

Janet Parker is Pastor for Parish Life at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia. Earlier this year, a version of this sermon was awarded the best entry in a new eco-sermon contest sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The sermon’s title was borrowed from Anne Primavesi’s book, From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Feminism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

Notes

1    Cited in Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), 10.

2   Greta Gaard, “Living Connections with Animals and Nature,” in Ecofeminism, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 3.

3   Rasmussen, 10.

4  Rasmussen, 19.

Issue Title: 
God's Green Earth
Issue Year: 
2007