Caring for Creation: Spiritual Wisdom that Can Save the Planet

January 24, 2018

A recent book I can’t set aside is Pope Francis’ on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home, which was published in 2015. In this book, one of the world’s most respected spiritual leaders describes the environmental crisis that threaten people everywhere, explains ways in which human activity contributes to changes in the environment, and casts a vision of the transformed world that people like us can help to create. He declares that many kinds of wisdom are needed, but as a representative of a biblically-based Christian faith community, he offers his guidance from that perspective. His ideas can be summarized under five headings.

God’s design for creation: God’s love has brought creation into existence and every creature is enfolded by God’s love. God has given a special responsibility to humankind, to care for creation. We are to respect its laws and the “delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world (¶ 68). “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our powers” (¶ 78).

The human response: Human beings misunderstand our original assignment to care for the world and its creatures so that each part lives in ways that are consistent with God’s design. Instead, we act as though we are in control, with the right to dominate all things for our own good. Pope Francis talks about the cult of unlimited human power and the “technocratic paradigm.” We master natural processes and do with them as we will.

The results: Some of the results of our technological prowess are good and lead to better lives the world over. Even so, our manipulation of nature also gives us power which often we do not use well. The exercise of this power can lead to suffering, destruction, and death. “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay” (¶ 122).

Vision for the future: Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to describe his vision of the world we can help to create. “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop.” Since all aspects of life are interrelated, he continues, the term “integral ecology” describes the world we hope to live in. The Pope discusses environmental, economic, and social ecology; cultural ecology; and the ecology of daily life. He affirms the importance of “the principle of the common good,” and the fact that this principle extends to future generations. If we face these issues courageously, we will be led to a deeper understanding of our purpose in the world and be able to live with greater dignity (¶ 160).

The response by people of faith: One of the strengths of the Pope’s encyclical in his emphasis upon the need for insights from all sources of wisdom: religious, scientific, philosophical, economic, political, artistic, and all the others. He also urges dialogue at all levels—individual, local, national, and international. As is appropriate for a leader of the Christian faith, he concludes his book by discussing “ecological education and spirituality.” He writes that “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends,” and encourages people to develop simpler life styles. Doing so, he continues, could have a positive effect upon businesses and lead then to give more consideration to the environmental impact of how they do business. In our faith communities we need to provide education and encouragement to help people live in simpler, gentler, and more peaceful ways.

The Pope concludes the encyclical by reaffirming the value of Christian sacraments in leading to a way of life that is right for us and for the world. He discusses baptism and the live-giving qualities of water; eucharist (the communion service) and the way that food and drink connect us to God and one another; and the Sabbath (weekly day of rest and gladness) that helps us live a slower and more fulfilling life.

Other people also are publishing books that provide solid information and persuasive recommendations for how people in developed countries can live their way into a new future. A later column in this series will give a short list of those that I find especially helpful. The encyclical is published online by the Vatican and also is available in several trade editions from book dealers.