Astronauts returning from a trip to the moon have reported how their attitude to our planetary home changed after seeing it from space. For the rest of us, perhaps the pictures of earth from a distance have served the same purpose. From out there in the darkness we can see how our biosphere exists in a zone as thin as the outer skin of an onion. Zooming out in this way alters our perspective on our frequently trivial preoccupations and reminds us of our fragility in the cosmos.
The discoveries over the last 150 years or so, now accelerating rapidly, have been astonishing. We now know that we live in a universe of unimaginable size, one where there are billions of stars and an uncountable number of planets where other life-forms may exist, possibly forever inaccessible to us. At the smallest scale too we know that matter is far from solid: on the contrary, it emerges somehow from fields of energy where nothing is determined and everything is in a constant state of flux. We humans are ourselves are a fleeting phenomenon in this ever-evolving, ever-changing universe which began its journey 14.5 billion years ago, not 6,000 years ago as was plausibly believed well into the eighteenth century. Now this dominant species is actively and persistently destroying the basis of life on its planet.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that former Christian concepts of “God” won’t do any more. Many of them are based on the cosmology of the times when our scriptures were written. Most Christians accept the Genesis story of creation as a myth – in the best sense of that word as a story which helps give meaning to life and of our place in the scheme of things. Nonetheless, throughout both the Old and New Testaments the background assumption is of an earth that is the static centre of God’s creation, that God is “above” in a literal sense, and that human beings are the “crown of creation”, for whose benefit everything else was made. The imminent return of Christ in glory which was anticipated by the very early church was to be accompanied by a winding-up of creation when the stars would fall from heaven and the sun would be darkened.
At all stages of its history Christianity has accommodated itself, albeit sometimes slowly and reluctantly, to the theological implications of new understandings of the way that the world works. Evolution, for instance, is probably now accepted by the majority of Christians as an accurate account of the emergence of life and ultimately of homo sapiens over millions of years. It is sobering to recall how, before Darwin, early fossil-hunters were vilified for claiming (in contradiction to Genesis) that species now extinct had existed long before we came on the scene.
When we face the facts and implications of climate change and ecological collapse it can suddenly reveal- like peeling off a label- what previous assumptions may lie underneath. I think most people, whether of faith or not, have in the past assumed that the earth provides for them a stable and largely predictable environment in which to live their lives. Our ethics, for example, have until very recently almost entirely been about how we humans relate to one another. We now see that this won’t do any more- that we are inextricably entangled in a whole complex network of interactions with other living and non-living things. How are we to live now, when everywhere we look we see that our way of life in the West is deeply damaging and unjust not merely to fellow-humans but to other creatures too?
At the intellectual level this is a place of unknowing, where many of the old Christian certainties no longer resonate. The compass needle is swinging wildly and we cannot readily discern where we should be heading. Multiple voices provide innumerable and often opposing opinions on what we need to do to sustain our future. How should we tell our story as Christians? Indeed, can we with integrity tell it at all any more? Perhaps it is a time to seek the springs of discernment and right action in silence, in taking time to listen, and to have the patience even as we do act to ask for wisdom.