Green Christianity

We have welcomed you this morning to the Lake District. This is an area that has many associations: poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge lived here, and more recently Norman Nicholson. Ruskin lived on the shores of Coniston Water, and this was the home of children’s writers Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. But for many who come this is Wainwright territory. This is the place to come striding the fells, to dally at the side of a lake or tarn, to stroke the rock of a buttress. The tops of these hills are places where you need to stand still and take the scenery in.
Wainwright wrote and illustrated the definitive guides to our fells, and the beauty of the central heights was not lost on him. He wrote: “ In the quiet of late autumn and early winter… I (marvelled) anew at the supreme craftsmanship that had created so great a loveliness, and at my own good fortune to be in its midst, enjoying a heaven I had done nothing to deserve”.
And those of us with the eye of faith recognise here the majesty and the loving kindness of God, the creator of heaven and earth, who is also our creator and sustainer. We give thanks to God who made all things well, and we have shared this morning in celebrating with the Psalmist God’s goodness to us:

“From your dwelling you water the hills;the earth is enriched by your provision.” (Ps. 104: 13) and we join with him in adding, “Bless the Lord, my soul.”

That’s what creation should be about: sheer loveliness.
But all is not well. Even as we make use of creation and enjoy it, we damage it. The many boots that trample up and slither down our hillsides erode footpaths and create scars that spoil the landscape. That’s a simple example of the way that we can carelessly destroy what is meant to give us delight.
On a global scale, we are plundering the Earth of its resources at an unsustainable rate. The human population is now increasing by 2 million people every 9 days, generating more mouths to feed: more people who need housing and jobs and education and medical care. Partly to create more land to meet our human hunger, we are cutting down native forests at an ever increasing rate, and the destruction of forests means that thousands of animal and plant species are becoming extinct. We do not even care properly for the soil we do have: by erosion or by building over it, every year we lose 5 tons of topsoil for every man, woman and child living. We are polluting our watercourses and oceans as well as the atmosphere, changing the climate, allowing the deserts of the world to expand and generating a future more uncertain in our ability to support ourselves. And as we have seen in June this year, the leaders of our nations cannot agree on how to stop this downward plunge.
What we are now talking about is the destruction of our environment, and more and more we are realising that in the middle of it all it is the poor of the world who are most entrapped. It is the subsistence farmers who eke out a living on thin soils who see the desert encroaching. The need of the poor for firewood means they cut down trees that would halt erosion and enrich the soil. It is a vicious circle from which we see little hope of escaping.
This is a picture totally different from the beauty of the Lake District that surrounds us here. How can we thank God as creator and sustainer? Especially when we remember that we are entrusted with being stewards of all of creation, to till the earth and to husband it.
What is needed is a change of attitude. We have to begin by admitting that we are in the wrong. Not only are we dependent upon the Earth for all its resources to provide us with food, minerals, clothing and energy, we are now learning that the Earth can only furnish us with its true riches if we care for it and tend it.. For the Earth is dependent upon us: we are inextricably bound up together. The welfare of the Earth is our welfare, too. Before we can save the situation we have to recognise that we also need to be saved.
There are ways to put things right, if only we have the will. Many years ago a French geologist, Georges Druin, claimed that under the Sahara lay a great basin of water: if only it could be tapped, the desert could be cultivated. But despite years of pleading, no government was willing to act. It would be too costly. In any case wind and sun had caused the total erosion of the soil, and more than water was needed to restore fertility. So nothing was done.
Then other geologists came with something else in mind. They drilled down, and at 10,000 feet they found what they were looking for: oil. Money poured in. It might have been hard living out in the desert if there had not been an added boon. Before they had struck oil, at 4,000 feet the drills had passed through an enormous reservoir of water-bearing rock. The water was piped up to support not only the townships but trees were planted and irrigated, providing greenery and shade. More recent technology has found the means, given this abundant supply of water, to bring fertility back to the desert. It is possible to put things right.
But there is a sad footnote to the story. A generation after Georges Druin, much of the Sahara cannot be used to grow crops, because it is contaminated through the atomic bomb tests carried out by the French. It is an example of humankind’s misuse of God’s gifts in creation.
What is to be done? To put it in Christian terms, we need to be redeemed, and then the Earth can be redeemed too. Paul said: “The creation waits in eager expectation in hope that it will be liberated.” It is we who need that change in attitude. But once we have made the change, then we shall have the right to place our hopes in the future, to rejoice in God’s goodness and all his provision for us… and give thanks.
Let us keep silence for a moment as we think of what we have done to God’s creation…

: Dr. John Biggs, MA, C.Chem., FRSC, former Chairman of the Free Church Federal Council, preached the above sermon during an ITV Morning Worship programme broadcast in August, 1997. We are grateful to Dr. Biggs for permission to print it.

Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997.

All creatures great and small.