It’s time for a Green Lent
Many churchgoers have yet to seriously engage with the topic of climate change
Recent flooding – the highest in nearly a quarter-century – in Guerneville, California. Photograph: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP
Imagine a second global flood, occurring tomorrow. A modern Noah, having spent weeks aimlessly drifting across the world’s oceans, releases a dove in search of land.
To his surprise, the animal returns within two minutes and has found something. It is carrying a slightly faded, but otherwise completely intact, soaking wet Tesco shopping bag. On its side, Noah reads: “Use me again!”
You’ll know where this is going: the planet is drowning and humanity is to blame. We all got the message. Or did we? Many churchgoers have yet to engage with the topic of climate change on a level that goes beyond abandoning single-use plastics and separating trash.
Some believed that Pope Francis’s remarkably green encyclical Laudato Si’ would mark the beginning of an increased Catholic engagement with ecological questions, both at the institutional and at the grassroots level.
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference responded by adopting a number of laudable policy measures, such as divesting from fossil fuel usage at the earliest possible moment.
But what about the parishioners? We have been extremely slow in embracing measures to decarbonise our society, our economy, and indeed our personal lives.
At least one reason for the individual parishioner’s lack of engagement with questions of climate change is a deep-rooted detachment from the natural environment.
An oft-cited passage contributing to this is John 17, which reminds Christians that they are “in the world, but not of the world”. Why would we care about the demise of a planet that we do not belong to? As a result, our heads are in the clouds while the water laps around our feet.
Furthermore, critical (re-)evaluation of the place of the human species in a multispecies world would come with the associated risk of blurring the divide between man and animal. We are loath to surrender our exceptional position in the universe.
Equipped with Genesis (“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”, 1:26a) we have thus far managed to defend this anthropocentrism extremely well. We seem to have forgotten that man and animal were created on the same Earth, by the same creator, with consecutive birthdays.
Another possibility is that we have come to see the environmental movement as a rival system of belief. Greenpeace and cohorts display an almost religious zeal when pursuing their goals. Might not the line between Christianity and climate activism become blurred if we get too interested in ecological questions?
However, a key difference in this regard is that of spirituality. Green movements seem to have lost their drive in recent years, focusing almost exclusively on carbon credits and “sustainable” growth.
On the other hand, churches possess strong spiritual conviction and can embed their environmental efforts in a greater narrative – this is precisely what Pope Francis did in Laudato Si’.
Finally, one could argue that climate change is not a suitable topic for discussion in an ecumenical setting, because churches should remain apolitical. But is it not too late for these scruples?
Churches have always meddled in political affairs – recall the various referendums of the last few years – and will continue to do so. It would be risible to draw the line at climate change, the most pressing issue of our time.
It is time for some major changes. Christians have thought about life on a damaged planet for centuries. We are therefore well-equipped to start reading the Bible in an ecological context.
When we start to do so, old texts take on new meanings. Returning to Genesis 1, we might ask: what does it really mean to “fill the Earth and subdue it”, and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth”?
Can we come to practise good stewardship in a world teetering on the edge? Other passages, too, can be read through a green lens. For instance, what is the meaning of “love thy neighbour” when applied to non-human beings?
We stand at the threshold of Lent, a time for reflection and spiritual reorientation. Perhaps this year we should look down, rather than up, and think about the state of our God-given home. Whether we want it or not, our feet are getting wet. What are we going to do about it?
Tomas Buitendijk is a PhD student at the DCU School of English. His research takes place in the field of Environmental Humanities. He attends a church in Dublin’s north inner city