Authentic Christian Environmentalism

July 13, 2014: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalms 65:10-14
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

Jesus knows how to communicate.

He is the incarnate Word of God, true God and true man.

As God, He understands all truth, and as man, He knew how to explain the truths of salvation in ways that we would understand.

One of His favorite ways to explain things was through the use of parables, like the one we just heard. Parables are comparisons. They use a familiar, earthly reality to illustrate a difficult, divine reality, a truth about God and God’s plan of salvation. The main point of the parable of the sower is that God is not going to save us and fill us with His grace and wisdom all by himself. He will do so only if we let Him, because He respects our freedom, and longs for our friendship, not our slavery. And we let Him by responding humbly and obediently to His action in our lives. God plants the seed and gives it life, but He leaves it up to us to prepare the soil and tend the garden.

The lesson is important enough to warrant an entire homily. But a less obvious lesson in today’s readings is also important. In this and many other parables, Jesus takes His examples from nature. And in the First Reading and Psalm, the prophet Isaiah does the same thing. And in the Second Reading, St Paul Points out that all of creation has been affected by the sin of mankind, and all of creation is involved in Christ’s redemption. Today, God is reminding us of how Christians should think about the environment, the physical universe in which we live.

And considering the confusion that abounds on this issue, it’s worthwhile taking some time to reflect on that reminder.

There are three key ideas underlying the Christian vision of the environment.

The first key idea is that all of visible creation is like a living book that teaches us about God.

God created all things, and he wants all things to help us know, love, and praise Him.

The breathtaking beauty of desert sunsets, the intricate order of molecules and ecosystems, the immensity of 100 billion galaxies held together by a few fixed laws of physics — in all these wonders God wants us to discover evidence of goodness, wisdom, and power — of His Fatherly love for each one of us. As today’s Psalm says, “Distant peoples stand in awe of your marvels.” Just as children learn to appreciate their parents as they discover all the wonderful things their parents do for them, and just as visitors to a museum learn to appreciate an artist by marveling at his captivating works of art, so too we can learn to appreciate God when we take the time and make the effort to admire His awe-inspiring creation. This is one of the reasons why monasteries, convents, and hermitages are so often located in natural settings, away from the noise, hustle, and bustle of city life. St Benedict built his great monastery on the top of a small mountain outside of Rome, Monte Cassino. St Romuald wandered from forest to forest throughout Italy in the eleventh century, starting small communities of monks in the most beautiful and remote natural settings, because they were so conducive to contemplation and prayer.

Creation, the mysterious and sublime beauty of the natural world, is God’s first revelation of His goodness and wisdom, His first gift to us, a book that even the youngest of His children can read.

And summer vacation is the perfect time to crack it open.

The second key idea is that nature, though it reveals God’s wisdom and power, is not God.

Primitive religions often got this point wrong. Primitive peoples were so over-awed by natural phenomena that they thought the powers of nature were in themselves divine. They actually worshiped certain rocks, rivers, or various forces of nature. This was a common form of polytheism — the belief in many gods. Other religions even worshiped the world as a whole, thinking that the different parts of the world were simply like different organs of God. This is the core idea behind pantheism — the belief that everything is god. Unfortunately, neither polytheism nor pantheism has gone away. These are persistent temptations, precisely because nature is so beautiful and fascinating. You can meet modern pagans at a restaurant, and hear them tell you about how they worship the sun or the moon, the stars or the planets. You can meet modern pantheists at workshops on transcendental meditation, and hear them tell you how religion just means getting in tune with the divine force that flows through all things, especially the little crystals on sale in the book shop.

But the very first line of the Bible corrects this misunderstanding: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

In other words, nature is not God, and God is not nature: nature is God’s creation, just as the great medieval cathedrals, as beautiful and impressive as they are, are the creation of the people who built them.

And just think, if the things God creates are so amazing, how much more amazing must God himself be!

We who know this truth have to communicate it to those who are searching for divinity in all the wrong places!

Nature is not God, and God is not nature. Our God is the maker of all that is, seen and unseen; He is the Lord of heaven and earth, the King of all creation, as Jesus showed so many times by His wonderful miracles.

The third key idea to remember about God’s creation is that mankind, the human family, every single human being, is infinitely more valuable and important than the whole rest of the physical universe combined. Every human person will live for all eternity, either together with God or separated from God. But the physical universe, the beautiful trees and mountains, the immense galaxies and the smallest flowers, are doomed to pass away when Christ comes again to bring about the “new heavens and the new earth,” as the Bible describes it (2 Peter 3:13). Creation too was wounded by original sin, and it will not last forever. This is what St Paul was writing about in the Second Reading when he described how all of creation “would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The purpose of the world around us is to help us, human beings, the only material beings created in God’s own image, to know, love, and serve God. Apart from that, nature has no value or meaning.

This is exactly where many extreme environmentalists get off track.

They see the natural world as something that no one should touch, like precious and fragile artifacts in a museum.

Human beings, they say, should make no impact on the environment.

But that in itself is unnatural! Human beings are not parasites and pests to be exterminated — we are a unique part of nature, the most important part, the “center and summit” of creation, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it, and it is natural for us to impact the physical world. Human beings are not the cancer of the world; we are the custodians of the world. Healthy human culture is not a hideous deformation of nature’s beauty; it is its crown and fulfillment. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to “cultivate and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15), not to “leave no impact.” We are supposed to discover sources of energy, build houses and bridges and cathedrals, enjoy campfires, plant crops, and raise cattle — the world is God’s gift to us. Every single human person is more important than any amount of rocks, wildflowers, spiders, or orangutans: Jesus died to save us (“for us men and for our salvation”), not them. As Jesus said, “You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:24).

The sower went out to sow, Jesus said in the parable, and the rich harvest was a good thing.

These are the three key ideas behind the Christian’s beautiful, true view of the environment. The natural world is God’s gift to us, a book where we can contemplate His beauty, wisdom, and power, where we can experience His love. The natural world is not itself divine, but the result of God’s creating word. The natural world is not superior to human life, nor is it even on the same level as human life: on the contrary, the flourishing of human life is the crown and purpose, the “center and summit” of the natural world.

Unfortunately, these truths often get lost in today’s debates about environmental issues.

One of the reasons may be that even we Christians don’t always live in accordance with this beautiful vision of creation. Like all gifts, the gift of creation can be abused. We are gardeners and stewards of creation, but we are not always good gardeners and stewards. Too often the gifts God has given us are used selfishly and destructively. As the Catechism puts it (#2415):
Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

Creation is God’s gift to us, and we should use the gift responsibly, that means enjoying it, contemplating it, developing its potential, and also taking care of it.

When we do that, it becomes a source of joy, inspiration, and prosperity.

Today, as Jesus renews His commitment to us in Holy Communion, let’s renew our gratitude to Him for the gift of creation, and let’s also renew our personal commitment to use all of God’s gifts exactly as He hopes we will.

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