Caring for God’s gifts: the natural environment and faith
By Sister Ruth Eileen Dwyer
From the very beginning humans have had a mutual relationship with the natural world that satisfied their needs and with the Creator as Source and Giver of life. Perhaps the most ancient of the names people gave to the most observable and basic gifts of nature were the four elements held in sacred regard: earth, air, fire and water. Primitive and thoughtful people observed that these were indispensable for life; hence, the One who provided them was worshipped, striving to build or restore a sense of environmental awareness, a need that has risen in our own day as we experience a world population explosion. In the mid-1900s the population was about two billion people. In the beginning of the 21st century, it has risen to eight billion people. The effect is obvious. The need to change our patterns of distribution is enormous and ecological awareness an inevitable demand.
We know something about the impact of ecological factors and faith practices from many ancient sources and may be most familiar with the Hebrew Scripture accounts. The issues of care for the natural world are not new to us, nor are the links with our relationship with the Creator. Among the Hebrew people, for example, the Creator of Earth was honored and recognized with celebrations of gratitude for nature’s gifts.
Four major categories named these gifts: Earth, air, fire and water. Some examples identify the significance of these gifts both in their ordinary lives and in their recognition of the gifts of God. In recognizing Earth, the people fought for and claimed the land upon which they made their home as God’s inheritance. They sensed the value of the pure, clean air that allowed them to breathe and their crops and herds to flourish. Air provided a welcome coolness in the heat and could be warmed by sun or fire. Their boats moved more swiftly in a strong wind. Fire was another essential gift used to burn the sacred offerings to honor the Source of Life. The column of fire led them to the Promised Land by night, as did the cloud of moist air by day. Earth also provided places to hold the water and the fish essential for survival, for food and for industry as people traded for other necessities. These four sacred elements were honored not only by the Hebrews, but also in many other cultures, thus uniting nature and faith in Holy Being.
Our world holds many things in common. One of these is nature’s gift of seasonal weather, unique in each part of the world. Another is the celebration of the many religious and cultural traditions that marks the seasonal memories. Weather and religious values may seem strange partners, but reflection on the two common realities of our weather patterns and faith commitments come to mind. For example, in weather, we welcome God’s gifts of the renewal of natural seasons in April and May; and in faith, we see the Easter stories emerge and works of the Spirit abound.
First, April and May call us to spring’s awakening of new life with the promise of longer days that give us flowering trees, gardens and the expectation of fresh flowers and food. Christian practice gives us a time of personal renewal. The season of Lenten renewal culminates in the 50 days between the Easter celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the observance of Pentecost to share of his new life in the Spirit.
Not all weather is pleasant. Some is as welcome as gentle rain and as the right balance of light and darkness, of storm and sunshine. Some is unseasonable; some is very destructive, the result of human interference in climate change, lack of care, or contamination of air and water by pollution. God-intended beauty and usefulness is destroyed by our selfish misuse. We must all work to cultivate and enhance these gifts of creation for the good of present and future generations.
The cycle of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus ─ and his call to follow him in living the great commandment of love ─ is closely linked to our care and concern for all creation. Our concerns move from the smallest particle of creation to its highest manifestation of the human, made in God’s image, and shared with us in the person of Jesus, God and human. The Spirit of love by which Jesus empowers us calls us to care for Earth and for one another and to respond in all ways possible. One of the practical ways to do so is to join and act with millions of persons for whom this responsibility is a clear priority. Today we call it the responsibility of environmental awareness.
How does one find ways to meet the moral demand to treat Earth with the respect and gratitude we owe to God, the Giver? The Internet is a good source of ongoing identification of problems and possible solutions to environmental issues. Numerous groups and individuals propose ways to protect and enhance the environment and make the world a safer and more productive place for all people, not only the privileged minority. The situation calls for commitment from everyone. If one is searching for ways to improve his or her contributions, they will readily locate them in many responsible publications. Most of the best organizations have excellent Web sites on crucial issues. For those who use the Internet, a few of the reliable organizations include:
A net search for “environmental issues” on Google or Yahoo will yield many other possibilities. Your own interest and ingenuity will lead you to many other sources.
We live in an era that makes great demands on us in the challenge of caring for and enhancing the natural environment. The eight billion inhabitants of planet Earth make this challenge a serious one because material resources are not fairly distributed and many suffer while others have an abundance.
Reflection on the past few years reveals a significant change in our attitudes and values regarding care of Earth, and, consequently, of one another in the human community. Examples from our own experience are plentiful. We are constantly reminded of our civic duty to recycle and renew.
Hardly a day passes without a new recommendation from dedicated environmentalists to think and act organically.
However, more effort is necessary if we are to address all the environmental needs. Churches and faith communities are called to lead the way. Jeffrey J. Gunin, journalist and teacher, writes in the Feb. 13, 2006, issue of America magazine: “While a recent Gallup poll indicates that over half of all Americans believe environmental quality in this country is getting worse, and that our leaders are not doing enough about it, I did not see the same level of concern reflected as an American Catholic. I have never heard a homily about ecology, although in various parishes I have heard dozens about abortion or the war.”
Whatever the faith commitment we profess, we can take to heart the message of Pope John Paul’s statement in 2002: “We must encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading.”
In a spirit of concern for the needs of the poor, we can avoid a greater catastrophe than is presently underway as we experience the severe shortage of water, energy sources, food distribution, essential housing and medical care for all. We can recognize our dependence on God and our responsibility for all our neighbors, for the future of our world, and for observing the great commandment of love.