Creation and Conversion

Celebrant: Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?  People: I will, with God’s help    

These words have recently been added to the Anglican baptismal liturgy, effectively placing care of God’s creation as one of the fundamental disciplines of the Christian life. I had this new liturgical exchange in the back of my mind as I read Pope Francis’ recent encyclical: Laudato Si’, which explores the goodness of creation itself as well as our human role in preserving it.

There is much to be said about the Pope’s words, and not just from political punditsLaudato si’ is a both an astounding piece of theology and (I would argue) a call to radical discipleship in the church. It touches on everything from our rampant consumerism to the impact of human behaviour on global climate change to the sacramentality of all creation. I cannot possibly do justice to all Francis explores in the document. But perhaps Francis’s observations can at the very least give us some insight as to why our own Anglican church has seen fit to place the stewardship of creation at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Francis’s words are at once meditative and provocative — convicting and condemning for all of us who are guilty of exploiting the gift of God’s creation for our own ends. The pope challenges us to see nature as having value in itself, apart from any utility to poses to human consumption. Though humanity enjoys a special relationship with God that sets us apart from the rest of the created order, we do a grave injustice to our Creator by failing to mark the inherent worth of all creation. Francis asserts: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (par. 84).

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Not only are we called to affirm the worth and goodness of creation, but we must also acknowledge our own deeply entwined relationship with the realm of nature. God may have made men and women the stewards of creation, but we are creatures ourselves, dependent on our Creator and on our relationship with one another. It is not going to far to grasp that for Francis our attitude towards creation mirrors our attitude towards God. Do we see God as the loving creator of all in which we live and move and having our being? What does it say of our attitude towards God if we reduce the bounty of creation to raw materials to be merely exploited for our use? How do we see ourselves as creatures depended on our creator and the rest of creation? Not only this, but what does out impulse to plunder the earth in a consumeristic quest for a satisfaction we will never find suggest about our relationship to our human brothers and sisters? If we are indeed all connected to and dependent on one another, how we use our shared creation has an undeniable bearing on our compassion (or lack thereof) for other people. Indeed, we simply cannot affirm the promises of our baptism — vowing to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbours as ourselves, if we do not approach the created world with a sense of reverence and value.

Throughout his document, Francis speaks of the impulses of greed and self-gratification which drive our consumer economy. We believe that we are free if we have the capacity to define ourselves and our lives however we wish. Certainly the lie of consumerism is the promise that with the right resources we can craft our own perfected, individualized lifestyle. But perhaps the greater freedom is saying “no” to such empty consumption. Choosing to limit our own resources to better value God’s creation in its own right and to think of others’ needs,  not of our own desires. Such an attitude is not merely a system of beliefs but it involves actively making choices, living our lives in a disciplined way with respect to the stewardship of creation. In so doing, “we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change” (par. 218).

This is the heart of Francis’s argument. Concern for and care of God’s creation marks the moment of conversion to which we are all called in our baptismal covenant. Perhaps if there is one inescapable truth in Francis’s words it is the neccessary embodiment of the Christian life. The act of baptism itself defies the notion that our faith can ever in any meaningful sense be a purely a rational, intellectual attitude towards the world. In baptism we are born of the material elements of water and marked with the substance of oil. The Christian faith is subsequently lived not just in belief, but in action. Care for the environment cannot just be a matter of thinking nice thoughts about how beautiful God’s world is. It means making active, concrete changes to how we live our lives–how we eat, how we consume resources. In so doing, we not only honour the wondrous gift of the natural world that God has created, but we also honour our connection to the whole human race throughout the world. We recognize that our actions of irresponsible consumption have real consequences for real people.

Like all calls to conversion, Francis’s words can be hard for us to receive. Our own baptismal covenant, however, makes it clear that heeding his call to action is not a pleasant idea we might make part of our lives. Rather it is a mandatory element of Christian discipleship. Let us strive to undertake it, with God as our helper.

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