Please click on the block above to view the flyer which advertised our conference
GOD, CREATION & US: FROM THEOLOGY TO ACTION, 24-27 MAR 2022
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PAPERS PRESENTED AT THE CONFERENCE
Governments of the world need to enlist faith leaders everywhere to spread the message about climate change. Most people in the world have a religious faith and overall they are more likely to trust and to listen to their own faith leader than their politicians. That was the clear message of our Oxford Three Faiths conference in 2022. Now that we have assembled the principal papers on our website, we offer a contribution to the debate which will go way beyond Oxford and the group who took an active part in our discussions at Wycliffe Hall and online.
In the past, when discussing what Judaism, Christianity and Islam have to say on environmental issues, I have noticed a remarkable synergy. All our faiths teach the value of caring for our world, tending it carefully, and treating God’s creation as so valuable that our concerns should be for every living creature as well as the earth itself. On issues like biodiversity, preserving resources and avoiding excessive consumption, our three traditions speak broadly with one voice. But at this conference we delved deeper, and discovered that there are also distinctive messages from each faith.
Dr Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad) introduced us to the concept of fitra, an Arabic term used in the Quran for what is natural and a reminder of God’s presence. Like other faiths, the Islamic scripture sacralises biodiversity, but more than Jewish and Christian traditions, its sayings and stories show a respect for insect life. King Solomon diverted his magnificent army at the request of the queen of the ants, who wanted to protect her anthill from trampling (Quran 27:18). We read too in Quran 16:69: “Your Lord has granted revelation to the bee.” The sunna, which is the Muslim pattern of life, is an Islamic substantiation of primordial living functioning as a shield against the alienation imposed by technical modernity. Emphasising the point that as humans we are in communication with non-human orders of creation, Dr Tim Winter examined the verse in the Quran 6:38: ‘There is not an animal in the earth, nor a bird flying on two wings, but that they are nations like yourselves. We have neglected nothing in the Book. Then unto their Lord they shall be gathered.’ To back this up, the early Muslim scholars recorded many prophetic directives on animal welfare: “There is no-one that without reason kills a sparrow or anything higher thereto but that God shall ask him about it.” In several stories the Prophet is saved by the intervention of animals, presented as acting under divine tuition. Pursued and hiding in a cave, the Prophet is saved by pigeons who make a nest and a spider who weaves a web over the cave’s entrance. Tim Winter quoted a great Persian Sufi ( Ruzbehan Baqli (d.1209), in his tafsir commentary entitled Ara’is al-Bayan):
‘God created the animals, birds, and insects with instinctual knowledge of God, who speaks to them… Their whistling, lowing, singing, and roaring, come from the sweetness of the spiritual world which is reaching them, and the manifest light of God’s glory. They long lovingly for God and to taste the oceans of God’s mercy.’
Dr Bethany Sollereder, speaking from a Christian perspective, was at pains to emphasis that her views should not be regarded as representative of any single Christian group. She too challenged the view that humans are the only form of life that matters. Her arguments hinged on the research which informs us that climate had never been static. Encouraging us all to have a much wider perspective than we do, she told us that this change in our climate which our collective thoughtlessness, sin and greed has brought on is not going to be the end of life on earth. The vast majority of life on earth is not human or even animal life. By weight there is 35 times more bacteria than all animal life combined. Humans and mammals compose just 0.67 gigatons of carbon, which is 0.03% by weight of life on earth. As Bill Bryson once noted, ‘Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are only on it because they allow us to be.’ A longer term perspective can change the perception that humans are the pinnacle of creation, and the new theology of ‘deep incarnation’ proposes that God became all kinds of life forms, not only a human. This means that God’s providential purposes will continue whether or not there is human life on earth in the future. We are not destroying the planet for all life and for all time. Some kind of life will continue, even if it isn’t we humans. Our developed societies operate in such a way that whatever efforts we make individually, our carbon footprints are still not sustainable.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg pointed out that it was the claim of human ownership over the natural world in ancient times that led to slavery. We no longer sell the bodies of the people, but we sell the things that make those bodies able to thrive, such as the goods of the land and the natural resources, and we do not make recompense to the people who produce them, because the hardest deal struck wins: and so it is very doubtful that we can possibly be paying a due price for what we constantly import and use; and we certainly don’t consider the debt to the very soil and all its organisms that produce the goods that we seek to buy as part of their costs. We have to learn to live more ethically and to become more connected to the earth.
Rabbi Dr Judith Rosen-Berry told us about living on the Isle of Skye, where her life was very much dictated to by the rhythms and disturbances of climate. She taught us about where activism starts and the modern theology which can underpin it, particularly conceptions of remembrance and teshuvah / repentance. She suggested that to combat climate change we need to change direction, and that change might well involve turning back, and remembering the past.
For Jews, the instruction to remember creates a connection between historical past injustice and how we are to live ethically in the here and now… It’s about how remembrance mediates the past, present and future, and all of the responsibilities that come with that.. In doing this, by looking back, we not only give ourselves the opportunity to repair what has been broken, but we give ourselves the possibility of a different future.
What does it teach us if we try to put these different faith perspectives together? Each of them emphasised the importance of understanding the past, but which past? From a Jewish perspective, understanding past human history is an important starting point: from a Muslim perspective, understanding the value of all creation is essential: and from the perspective of extinction theology, we need to change our thinking that humans are the pinnacle of creation. These three perspectives are each different and each gives a different emphasis to how we need to act. The value added by our conference was placing them in dialogue with each other.
We discovered that placing the issues into the context of our faiths leaves us with the same imperatives to act as secular thinking, but with an important different emphasis. Thinking within the context of our faiths makes it far more likely that we will talk about the value of all forms of life, and be more concerned about the loss of a single species; furthermore, our faiths urge us to consider the meaning and purpose of life, and whether or not God’s purposes are served by the way we live at present. Thirdly, we are all motivated by the need to guard those at risk and protect the vulnerable, be they humans, animals or plants; and finally, faith thinkers are much more likely to take into account the very long term future, even eternity.
The 6 billion adults and children around the world who are affiliated with a faith community are likely to share this concern for the future, something which all faiths discuss. There are some secular thinkers too, such as Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, author of What We Owe the Future (2022), who share the same concern. Such thinking takes on a new urgency when we realise that our past and present actions are not only using the earth’s resources now in a way which is hard to manage, but also polluting the future. This is not new: recent research suggests that much of England’s woodland was destroyed in favour of farmland more than 3,000 years ago. They began the agriculture which today is leading to flooding and soil erosion. In the same way, humanity’s use of fossil fuels is not new: it is the rate we are using them which has accelerated, and is now fast heating up our fragile atmosphere. And as Will MacAskill shows, we now have far more detailed knowledge than past generations on the specific effects of the way we are using and misusing the earth’s resources. Insights from science feed into and cause us to adapt and shape our theologies to meet the urgent needs of today. None of our conference speakers rejected the scientific evidence for climate change, but there are people of faith and faith leaders who do: and because people do listen to their faith leaders, this is now a challenge for all people of faith.
When the evidence for human-caused climate change is challenged, the first part of the dialogue must be to try to find common ground. The so called ‘golden rule’ of loving our neighbours, and helping others as we would expect to be helped, is found in all the world’s traditional faiths. But who is our neighbour? Here the insight of an earlier Oxford philosopher, Peter Singer, founder and mentor of the Effective Altruism movement, is helpful. He points out that ethically, our duty to others cannot depend on proximity. It is true that if someone falls over in front of me, I can reach out a hand: if someone falls over in a distant land, I cannot. But when it comes to the relief of disease, of famine, of poverty, of pollution, and to questions of resources and of peace and warfare, what does it matter where someone is?
To this perspective of Singer, thinkers such as MacAskill and a third Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, in his book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity have added an additional insight. The argument about proximity demands that we think not only about how distant we may be from others spatially, but also how distant in time. Ethically, it must be just as important that an action of mine today can help someone a hundred years from now as it is to help someone tomorrow. Admittedly, this is a more difficult insight, since it brings generations yet unborn into the equation, but this is where our theologies have a role to play. In Hebrew and Arabic, the same three letter root ayin-lamed-mem / ayin-lam-mim generates words that mean ‘world’ ‘universe’ and ‘eternity’. Space and time are interrelated.
Even people of faith who reject the science of climate change will accept that judgement will come upon the world, and we must prepare ourselves, whether it come tomorrow or aeons hence. Even those who say humans have not caused the mess we are in, can accept the need to find a way out of it.
In my conference sermon, I pointed out that three of our Muslim speakers independently quoted the same text. I looked it up and found it. Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said, “Even if the last day the day Resurrection comes to one of you while he has in his hand a sapling, let him plant it.” (Source: Musnad Aḥmad 12902 Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Arna’ut)
إِنْ قَامَتْ عَلَى أَحَدِكُمْ الْقِيَامَةُ وَفِي يَدِهِ فَسْلَةٌ فَلْيَغْرِسْهَا
‘in qaamat 3ala ‘ahadikum alqiyaama wafee yadihi fasla, falyagh-ris-haa
There is a similar and probably older saying in the rabbinic work, Avot de Rabbi Natan, in the B text not known until published by Solomon Shechter in 1887:
אם היתה נטיעה בתוך ידך ויאמרו לך הרי לך המשיח. בוא ונטע את הנטיעה
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” If you listened to the Arabic and the Hebrew they even had the same sentence structure. Even the shift from “you” to “he” is in both the Muslim and the Jewish saying. And there is a similar quote attributed to Martin Luther. “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my tree.”
All these principles have profound implications for the way we need to act, and the practical measures the world needs to take. In numerous international conferences, the peoples of the world have pledged themselves to do a huge amount. But a pattern repeats itself: the pledges are not honoured, governments go back on their commitments, and individuals too fail to carry through on their good intentions. As this continues and repeats itself, speeches become increasingly insincere and wishful thinking replaces real change. Within our faith communities, we are often little better: our hearts are in the right place, but all of us have prayed insincerely at times. Sometimes, we pat each other on the back for having achieved very little.
I am mindful of the well known saying which occurs both in Jewish and Muslim traditions, that someone who saves a single human life, it is as if they have saved a whole world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, Quran 5:32). But why bother saving a single human life, if the world around us is already dying? It would be all to easy to give in to despair, were it not for the fact that all our faiths teach the value of hope. And yet hope without action is not enough.
All our teleological theologies show us that even in the face of near total death and despair, humans do not lose the ability to plan. How much more so do we need to plan before that end point is reached.
Please read with care the conference papers collected here. Please show them to your faith leaders and other faith leaders, and help us spread the word.
William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View, 2022.
Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, 2020.
Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, 10th Anniversary Edition, 2019.
Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton
Author, Campaigner, Scholar, Teacher, Friend