Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker
The slow motion catastrophe continues. We watch with alarm and sorrow as more oil pours into the Gulf daily. Whole ways of life and livelihood will likely disappear. Dead zones in the ocean may grow. Species will die. Meanwhile, the price of oil will rise – a more precious and expensive commodity than ever – and some will gain wealth from the devastation.
What are we thinking? That we can go on living this way? “We must end our addiction to oil!” people cry and few disagree with the imperative. The question is, “How?”
Flipping T.V. channels the other night, a preacher with a Bible in his hand caught my ear: “Build a new green economy with new energy technologies! Reduce consumption of fossil fuels! Release third world countries from the burden of debt so they be won’t be under so much pressure to abandon environmental standards in a rush to industrialize!” “Amen!” I responded. “Thank goodness he’s been reading his Bible and is calling on Christians to put their muscle into working for ecological and economic justice!” Not so. He was exhorting his listeners to oppose this list of dangerous ideas with all the spiritual strength they could muster. Otherwise, he sputtered, the environmentalists will destroy our freedom, ruin our economic security, and disrupt God’s plan for America.
As a progressive person of faith, my heart sank. If we are going to end our addiction to oil, a spiritual awakening is needed – as anyone who has successfully recovered from a personal addiction through the 12-steps knows. Our religious traditions must help not hinder the cause. We need spiritual resources that can sustain us through the arduous task of re-orienting our economic system and changing our way of life so we “live simply that others may simply live.”
Religion in America has not always been a friend to the earth. Biblical injunctions to “dominate and subdue the earth” have been used to justify sucking the earth dry, mining its treasurers, and dumping waste into its rivers and air. These atrocities have even been regarded as an appropriate prelude to the Last Days. Apocalyptic theology, made immensely popular in the Left Behind books, or Hal Lindsey’s best seller The Late Great Planet Earth, has made its way into the corridors of power, affecting public policy. “We don’t have to take care of the environment,” one secretary of the interior famously said. If the end times are near, we might as well grab what we can before the Rapture.
TV evangelists are not the only ones attached to the worldview that a new and better world is coming, making care for this one superfluous. Our culture frequently thinks this way. After all, America itself began as “the new world” and we are habituated to the belief that something better is ahead either through the awesome power of God to save us or by our own ability to create that better world through our technological advances.
But what if this faith is faulty? What if we are destroying things faster than we can fix them? What if God has already given us the gift of life but we are squandering it? How much further do we have to go to hit bottom? I hope that the Gulf catastrophe will be enough to bring us to our knees and pray to be released from our life-destroying habits.
It’s time for a spiritual awakening in which we turn from obsession with future salvation and begin to savor and save the world that we are in. “I came that they might have life and life in abundance,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. Early Christians believed he meant it, here and now. They taught that through Jesus the doors of paradise had been re-opened. Paradise was no longer lost at the beginning of time, or a realm that could be entered only after death or after this imperfect world was replaced by a new and better one. Paradise was all around us, in this beautiful creation, blessed by God. A fourth century Christian baptismal ritual instructed the newly baptized to open their eyes to see “this paradise before us.” No less a theological giant than Augustine taught that the seeds planted in the paradise garden have been scattered throughout the whole earth, so that now Eden is everywhere.
Assuredly, paradise is not a place free of struggle with temptation and evil – the snake does lurk in the garden – but paradise was, and is, a place where beauty abounds and life flourishes in myriad forms and intricate interrelationships. We are called to develop the maturity and wisdom that makes us worthy citizens of paradise. Our task in life is to wake up to where we are and who we are; to use our capacities to rightly honor this sacred world.
We need a rebirth of reverence for life here and now on planet earth. We need to foster spiritual depth that drinks deeply from the waters of this life and that recognizes the preservation of those waters is necessary for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. Refreshed at the wellspring of love for life, I believe we can and will find the spiritual stamina we need to recover from our addiction to oil and convert our way of life to be just and sustainable for us all.
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker is president of Starr King School for the Ministry and co-author with Rev. Dr. John Buehrens of A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century (Beacon Press, 2009).