I live barely three miles from the sea.
In plain view of our home are the highest tides in the world, often cresting at 55 feet.
In recent years, we have watched the raising of dyke embankments, first constructed by the Acadians, by seven to 10 feet to arrest the encroaching waters.
I read widely in the arguments and scientific literature to understand the causes of this natural evidence.
I confess being overwhelmed by the findings of meteorological and terrestrial science, but I know what I see. Moreover, “all truth is God’s truth,” to cite the early church fathers.
I have long been an advocate of faith speaking into issues. History is a painful witness to how nonreligious voices face difficult issues and speak courageously toward human rights.
Too often Christians (and other religious traditions) are embarrassed by such courage and are left to play catch-up with theological rationalizations or accommodations that fall far short of clear convictions.
Christians need to respond to the ecological crises now and with good reason.
Pope Francis I is to be applauded for his encyclical. His adduction of solid biblical data and cogent theological arguments, plus his affectionate use of St. Francis of Assisi, make his remarks compelling for all Christian ethicists to contemplate, whatever their tradition.
His theological articles are replete with passion, and his science bears serious reflection. The head of 1.2 billion Christians has every right to weigh in on environmental issues.
Francis’ encyclical should embolden the spokespersons for every Christian denomination – and para-church organizations – to study the issues and voice their concerns. Religious voices must not be silenced or separated from ethical concerns.
With respect to the spiritual content of the encyclical, several points are worth noting.
1. Francis’ Trinitarian orientation.
“Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness,” he writes in section 53.
Of the ministry of Jesus, he observed, “The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder” (section 97).
And of the Spirit, he writes, “The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge” (section 80).
2. Francis has captured the essence of contemporary Protestant theologians like JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, John Webster and Stanley Grenz.
In the English translation, the pope has created a beautiful Christological image: “The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence” (section 100).
3. At the foundation of Francis’ case for revisioning our environment is a solid theological rationale.
Here is no ethic of dominion, nor an instrumentality for human consumption and competition, nor a facile use of biblical texts to support preconceived templates.
Rather, Francis outlines five categories in what he calls the Gospel of Creation, a truly new departure.
These are the light offered by faith, the wisdom of biblical accounts, the mystery of the universe, the harmony of creation and a universal communion.
“Everything is related,” he declared, “and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (section 92).
It follows a Franciscan track with a blend of language from indigenous peoples and interfaith conversations.
4. Francis’ Gospel of Creation is at counterpoint with what he identifies as destructive and excessive anthropocentrism in part three.
“An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology,” according to the Holy Father, “gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world” (section 116).
This has resulted in major disparity between rich and poor, widespread pollution of the earth’s air and waters, abuse of natural resources and major climatic adjustments.
Here he mirrors the burden of the social gospel of a century ago, enunciated by a Baptist theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch.
5. I am particularly moved by the eschatological aspects of Francis’ challenge.
He envisions a connection between our experience in this time and space with the eternal abode of God. “Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: ‘I make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5).”
“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all,” he said (section 243).
Of his spiritual mentor, Francis said, “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology … He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast” (section 10).
Thoughtful Rauschenbuschian Baptists could pray the Saint’s prayer, “On Union with Creation,” with their Catholic brothers and sisters:
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment. Previous articles in the series are:
Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics, and Adjunct Professor in History and Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is also president of the Board of Interfaith Spirituality Network, a provincially based interreligious organization.