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franciscan - May 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Sustainability:  Theology and Practice

by Edward P. Echlin

There is nothing explicit in the deep sources of our living Tradition about sustainable development. Or about what would be a better phrase, sustainable sufficiency, for all creatures, in all regions. The ancient Tradition did not envision twentieth century earth abuse, and humanity’s gradual realisation that developed world lifestyles are neither just nor sustainable. Sustainability means taking from earth’s resources what is sufficient for today’s needs, for all creatures, without compromising the ability of future generations, of all creatures, to live with sustainable sufficiency.

I have added all creatures to the usual anthropocentric, or really anthroposolic (meaning human alone), definition of sustainable. And for ‘sustainable development’ which was, and is, a calculated, all too successful, fudge, I have substituted ‘sufficiency for all’. Whenever our living Christian Tradition does not explicitly address a contemporary challenge, the way to proceed is to reinterrogate, and reinterpret, the Tradition for our context. In the excellent words of Vatican II, ‘The Church with her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.’ (Constitution on the Modern World, 8)

The Bible, our creeds and liturgies, and teaching, proclaim that the cosmos, all things visible and invisible, is God’s. ‘Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works, in wisdom thou hast made them all’, exults the psalmist. When we question the human place, our role and duties within the earth community, we discover that, as his image, we are God’s responsible representatives within the earth community. Far from being vertically above other creatures, as Aristotle, the Stoics, and many Christian writers would have us, we are within the created community, like shepherd kings among many brethren. Psalm 148, since the time of St Francis associated with his admirers, which John Paul II calls ‘an alleluia of praise’, mentions people last, after the angels, and other heavenly and earthly creatures. Job places people firmly within creaturehood, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (Job 38.4, and passim). Of the four living creatures praising God enthroned, in Revelation, only one has a human face (Rev. 4.6-8). My point is that in these scenes, and throughout the Bible, other creatures praise God too, glorifying him by being what they are, by being themselves, acting according to their natures. They glorify God by being, they don’t need humans to sort nature out, ‘improving’ God’s creation by ‘economic growth’, ‘progress’, and chronic ‘development’. In a recent pastoral letter on climate change, the American Roman Catholic bishops note that the atmosphere, like the creatures of the psalms, is God’s:-

The atmosphere that supports life on earth is a God-given gift, one we must respect and            

protect. It unites us as one human family. If we harm the atmosphere, we dishonor our        

Creator and the gift of creation. The values of our faith call us to humility, sacrifice, and a  

respect for life and the natural gifts God has provided.

Human induced climatic disruption, such as now exists in fossil fuel addicted cultures, is wrong.

‘To hurt the earth’, says John of Pergamon, ‘is a sin’. Climate abuse is blasphemous, the rejection of God in his creatures.

In Jesus, God enters our earth community, becoming one of us, sharing our flesh, and our climate. The anonymous eleventh century Celtic writing ‘The Evernew Tongue Here Below’, describes Jesus, in his humanity, as a microcosm of the cosmos: ‘Every material and every element and every nature which is seen in the world were all combined in the body in which Christ arose, that is in the body of every human person ... All the world arose with him, for the nature of all the elements was in the body which Jesus assumed’.

Here within our living Tradition is a fine testimony to the harmony, in Jesus, of creation, incarnation and redemption. When Jesus stretches out his arms on the cosmic cross, he shows, now and forever, ‘the breadth and length, height and depth’ of the love of God for his creation (Eph. 3.18-19). In Jesus risen, Lord of the universe, God fills the whole earth community, indeed the cosmos. Possibly influenced by Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion of ‘a cosmic nature’ in Jesus, Vatican II said, ‘By his incarnation the Son of God united himself in some sense with every human being.’ (Gaudium and Spes, 22). Later Pope John Paul II, who as Karol Wojtyla contributed to Gaudium et Spes, wrote, ‘“The first born of creation” becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also “flesh” ... and, in this reality, with all “flesh”, with the whole creation.’ (Dom. et Viv. 505.3) Jesus fills the earth. The Church, God’s people, in Jesus, are intrinsically friends of the earth. Sustainability is our lifestyle.

 But how? What is our sustainable lifestyle in practice? The most important fundamental is living sustainably locally. Local sustainability means we are a counter-cultural alternative to our globalised culture, which promotes long distance trade, holidays, and consumption, with massive dependence on fossil fuels. Follow the ‘proximity principle’. Purchase, especially food, drink, and clothes, produced in our own locality, or at least our bioregion. Grow some organic food. Avoid, except where necessary, air travel, and air and lorry food miles. Import only essentials (certainly not apples, potatoes, wine, and wool, for example) which northwest Europe cannot provide. Export what others regions cannot produce, as well or better, for themselves, such as alternative energy technologies, insulation expertise, medical and hydrological science, and pharmaceuticals.

There are large difficulties in living sustainably locally. Being countercultural, swimming upstream is always daunting.  Economonism, the blind pursuit of endless economic ‘growth’ and ‘progress’, makes localism difficult. We are told to uproot plum, pear and apple orchards, grow chemical barley for export, and make ourselves dependent on southern Europe, and California, for fruit. Purchasing as near to home as possible, the proximity principle, takes time, sometimes costs more, and cannot always be arranged. The proximity principle means we do our best. A second major obstacle from the prevalent culture is that we will be accused of disregard for ‘underdeveloped’ regions, which, we are told, we should encourage into globalised export/import. Nothing could be further from the truth, indeed the very opposite. We encourage all people to appreciate, and use, and conserve, their local soil fertility, water, forests, wildlife, minerals, and other resources, including climate. Nearly 2 billion people are short of drinking and sanitation water. To export avocados is to export water. We help them not to export their resources to us.

 In conclusion, we Christians are here to sacramentalise the earth, to join our hands and voices with other earth creatures in glorifying our Creator. Sustainability, living sustainably locally, is our lifestyle. As the Pope, and the Patriarch, said in Venice last June, ‘It’s a long way from the head to the heart, longer still from the heart to the hand.’ Beginning with ourselves, our family, parishes, schools, and neighbourhoods, living sustainably locally because we are God’s representatives, in an earth filled with Christ, we make explicit the earth community’s praise. We join the earth community in a cosmic liturgy.  f

Dr. Edward P. Echlin is Honorary Research Fellow, University College of Trinity & and All Saints, Leeds; and author of Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre (New Alresford, Arthur James, 1999).


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