Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Passion for God,
Passion for the Earth
What an age in which to live! Although war and disaster, tragedy
and sorrow continue to plague the planet, we may be living in one of history's
most exhilarating eras. Godly people are nothing short of mesmerized as they
learn more and more about the amazing cosmic dance that is the universe.
In recent years, satellites, space probes, and the Hubble Telescope
in particular have expanded our vision to a degree no one could
have envisioned a decade or two ago. What God has made and continues
to make unfolds before our astonished eyes, and these stories
are vastly different from those in the opening chapters of the
Book of Genesis. Should this make us nervous and uneasy? Not in
the slightest. Our ancestors in the faith spoke from a worldview
the polar opposite of our own. Their notion of earth as a flat
plate, supported by pillars, and capped by an overarching dome
or firmament seems quaint and fanciful to us, and so it is. God,
the one constant, has not changed, but our frame of reference
has, expanding our grasp of what has been there all along. With
greater comprehension comes the need to process new ramifications
and responsibilities. This old earth, its solar system and galaxy,
and the far reaches of space are suddenly seen in utterly new
lights, both literally and metaphorically.
A New Awareness of Planet Earth
The image of our planet Earth from space, a blue marble swirling
with white clouds, has become familiar to this generation. Astronauts whose
own eyes have seen this view speak of its power to change their deepest feelings
and attitudes toward the world.
Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, part of an
international crew, recollected, "The first day we all pointed
to our own countries. The third day we were pointing to our continents.
By the fifth day, we were all aware of only one Earth."
Another astronaut, American Rusty Schweigert, who walked on the
moon, had this to say, "From the moon, earth is so small and so
fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you
can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that
spot, that beautiful warm blue and white circle, is everything
that means anything to you...all of nature and history, music,
poetry and art, birth and love and death, tears, joy, prayer,
dancing...all of it right there in that little spot that you can
cover with your thumb. And then you are changed forever. Your
relationship to the world is no longer what it was."
In truth, these are religious experiences. On the
brink of the third millennium, a new awareness of planet Earth
as one community of life is growing among peoples everywhere.
But this appreciation is marked by strong paradox: the more we
discern how precious all life on Earth is, the more we also realize
alarmingly how human actions are ravaging and exhausting the natural
world. The spiritual/ethical question of our right relation with
Earth emerges as a new, vitally important issue, one that encompasses
all others, including relationship with God and peaceful justice
Like the Psalmist, we need to realize that God
has made all creation glorious: "When I see your heavens, the
work of your fingers / the moon and stars that you set in place—
/ What are humans that you are mindful of them, / mere mortals
that you care for them?" (Ps 8:4-5).
One With the Earth
The new creation story, which is the tale told
by contemporary science of how the world came into being, teaches
us that the world is unimaginably old, large, dynamic, and organic.
When filtered through the eyes of faith, it reveals a Creator
Spirit initiating, upholding, moving, vivifying, and playing in
the world that grows increasingly bright and complex, truly the
Giver of Life.
Roughly five billion years ago an aging star died
in a great supernova explosion that spewed its debris into the
cosmos. Some of this cloud of dust and gas re-ignited to become
our sun, a second-generation star. Some of it coalesced in chunks
too small to catch fire, forming the planets of our solar system,
including Earth. Thomas Berry calls this ancient, exploding star
our Mother Star, our sacrificial Christ Star, because in its death
it gave itself up so that we might live.
Out of the Big Bang came the stars, out of the
stardust the Earth. Then, out of the molecules of the Earth emerged
single-celled living creatures, setting off a new kind of explosion,
life. From the evolutionary life and death of these creatures
flowed an advancing tide of life, fragile but unstoppable; single-celled
plankton, jellyfish, creatures that live in shells, amphibians,
insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, mammals, among whom emerged
human beings with a consciousness and freedom that concentrate
the self-transcendence of matter itself.
If the inelegantly named Big Bang exploded
on January 1, then our sun and planets came into existence September
10, and human beings came on the scene on December 31 at ten minutes
to midnight. Bacteria, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great
gray whales...we are all genetic relatives in the great community
of life. And we are all part of the larger universe. Everything
is connected with everything else; nothing conceivable is isolated.
Telling the story of creation this way leads to
three insights. First, we realize that human beings are not pilgrims
or strangers on this Earth, merely passing through; rather we
belong here. Second, while the Earth does have instrumental value
for human use, we realize that it is more than just a stage or
backdrop for the human drama of redemption; rather, it is a marvelous
creation in its own right, loved by God for itself, saved by Christ,
destined for eternal life in the new creation. It has its own
intrinsic value. Third, since amid the whole web of life human
beings are the ones consciously aware of the Holy One who created
everything, we have a unique distinction and responsibility. In
Abraham Heschel's words, human beings are the cantors of the universe.
In our day the human race is inflicting deadly
damage on the life systems that keep this planet a habitat for
life. The twin engines of destruction are over-consumption and
overpopulation. In 1950 the world numbered two billion people;
now, at the turn of the millennium it numbers six billion; and
by the year 2030 there will be ten billion persons on the planet.
Think of it this way: the Earth's population will have multiplied
five times during the lifetime of someone born in 1950.
To translate these statistics into a vivid image:
another Mexico City is added every sixty days; another Brazil
joins the planet every year. Our species now uses up resources
faster than Earth's power to replenish itself. By a conservative
estimate, in the last quarter of the 20th century, 20 percent
of all living species have gone extinct. We are killing birth
itself, wiping out the future of our fellow creatures who took
millions of years to evolve. We live in a time of a great dying
But the odd thing is that, with some notable
exceptions, many religious people and the church as a whole are
curiously silent about the Earth. We are like the disciples asleep
in the garden of Gethsemane while Earth undergoes its passion
Responses in the Spirit
In spiritual terms, what this time calls for is nothing less than
a conversion of our minds and hearts to the good of the Earth.
Catholic Christians need to unlearn the dualism that led us to
pit the spirit against matter and caused us to pursue paths of
holiness marked "flee the world." We need to learn to relate anew
to the natural world not as dominators, not even as stewards (which
does not go far enough) but as real kin in the one creation of
God. How we pray and live responsibly in this community will determine
whether life on this planet has a glorious or miserable future.
The very glory of God is at stake.
The sacramental response gazes contemplatively
on the world with the eyes of love rather than with an arrogant,
utilitarian stare, and sees there the handiwork of God. Moreover,
in the incarnation God chose to unite with the material of Earth
in a profoundly personal way. The resurrection of the crucified
Jesus transforms a piece of this Earth, real to the core, into
glory in God's eternal presence. "Charged with the glory of God,"
as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned, the world with its beauties
and terrors makes present the loving power of the Creator whose
image it reflects.
The ascetic response calls for intellectual humility
in our assessment of the human place in the universe and practical
discipline in our use of natural resources. An ecological asceticism
works to restore right relations between humankind and otherkind
distorted by hubris and greed. Rather than the medieval construct
of the hierarchy of being and honor ascending from the pebble
to the peach to the poodle to the person, all under the sway of
the monarchical God at the apex, asceticism reconfigures that
pyramid into a circle of life with human beings thoroughly interwoven
with all other creatures, special in virtue of being conscious
and free but utterly interdependent on others for their life.
The prophetic response moves us to action on behalf of justice
for the Earth. One stringent criterion must now measure the morality
of our actions: whether or not these contribute to a sustainable
Earth community. Undergirding this ethic is a startling idea:
we need to extend vigorous moral consideration to the nonhuman
community of Earth. We need to respect life and resist the culture
of death not only among humankind but also among other living
creatures. In such ethical reflection, the great commandment to
love your neighbor as yourself is extended to include all members
of the community. We all share the status of creature; we are
all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our
vision of justice must be one of cosmic justice. The aim is to
establish and protect healthy ecosystems where all living creatures
A flourishing humanity on a thriving Earth in an evolving universe,
all together filled with the glory of God; such is the theological
vision and praxis we are being called to in this critical age
of Earth's distress. We need to appreciate all over again that
Earth is a sacrament vivified by the living Spirit of God. We
need to realize that the way we are destroying it is tantamount
to a sacrilege. And we need to act as members of the Earth community
called to be partners with God in the ongoing creation rather
than destruction of the world.
This moment of crisis calls for a spirituality
and ethics that will empower us to live in the web of life as
sustainers rather than destroyers of the world. Ignoring this
view keeps the church and its members locked into fatal irrelevance
while the great drama is being played out in the actual wider
world. But being converted to the Earth sets us who are the church
and our ministries off on a great spiritual, intellectual, and
moral adventure. Instead of living as thoughtless or greedy exploiters,
we, by conversion to the Earth, are empowered to rediscover our
kinship and live as sisters and brothers, friends and lovers,
mothers and fathers, priests and prophets, co-creators and children
of the Earth as God's good creation gives us life.
This is our generation's great religious adventure
which is absolutely a matter of life or death. No more monumental
challenge faces those who are led by the Spirit of God at the
start of the third millennium.
Next: How Jesus Prayed (by Michael Patella,