Truth in Love: A Christian Ethos for Climate Emergency – Br. Keith Nelson
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In May of this year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed information I have heard before, but this time, truly listened.[i]
Five months earlier, in January, I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree, and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark, moist soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
In very different voices, a marine biologist and a hemlock tree spoke to me the truth in love.
St. Paul writes, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” [ii]
It is so hard for us to “speak the truth in love” – and perhaps even harder to listen when it is offered. But how utterly necessary this is for our salvation. If I ask myself: “What is the hardest truth I need to hear, and to speak, in love?,” I hear a clear reply: “The truth that creation is unraveling, disintegrating, from the accumulated, sinful action and inaction of humankind.”
We know the truth of climate emergency. At least, we know the endless stream of its undeniable, factual truths: rising global temperatures; warming oceans; shrinking ice sheets; glacial retreat; decreased snow cover; sea level rise; declining arctic sea ice; extreme weather events; ocean acidification; soil erosion and desertification causing mass emigration of populations; the cycle of wildfires, extreme heat, and drought; and the fatal consequences of it all for the earth’s most vulnerable human, animal, and plant life.[iii]
Perhaps I have already provoked an array of feelings by mentioning these things: anxiety; fear; vague embarrassment or shame at not doing or caring more; cynicism and burnout from doing too much; or the paralysis of any feeling in the face of something so large and complex.
I want to speak, from my heart, not just more facts, but truth in love about this vast and challenging topic from within the powerful vision offered by the Letter to the Ephesians, a vision fitted to the nature and scale of climate emergency… and the cosmic scale of Christian hope.
In the first four chapters of Ephesians, which we have heard these last three Sundays, the author weaves a comprehensive Christian ethos: a symbol system, a holistic and uniquely captivating worldview for human existence sanctified in union with the living Christ.
An ethos is meaningfully distinct from an ethic. Eco-theologian John Zizioulas writes:
“Ethics has to do with principles worked out consciously or even rationally, and perhaps intellectually, whereas ethos relates to symbols, emerging from shared everyday experience in a particular community. Such symbols unite a community in a common attitude toward life.”[iv] Crucially, Zizioulas explicitly addresses ecological crisis, arguing that religious leaders and scientists, “must be ready to propose not simply an ethic but an ethos, and to root our ethical demands deep in human existence and not simply in human behavior…’[v]
In the case of many forms of systemic sin, a focus on a change of ethics is appropriate, a voice crying out that we must change our ways because they are wrong or misguided or selfish. But too often, both secular environmental advocates and the Church mobilize the language of ethics while leaving the vast, transformative vision of an ethos only partially tapped. Human minds and hearts cannot sustain attention to the urgent demands of social justice without a holistic vision that makes life worth living on the other side of the battle. Just as climate emergency is no longer only an environmental issue, it is no longer only a very complex, intersectional, social justice issue. It is an existential issue.[vi]
The letter to the Ephesians is framed on the largest scale its author can imagine, the entire cosmos, through the repeated use of the Greek word panta: or “all.” Over and over again, we hear of the immanent presence of God within and throughout the created order: God is “above all and through all and in all” (4:6). In Christ, God is the binding and infusing agent of a new creation, “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). The Church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). The cosmic fullness of that Church is manifest in language of bodily growth and interdependence: “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:16). Each member of that body is “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17). Its diversity and complementarity of witness builds up rather than diffuses its power “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). This visionary ethos is lavishly detailed before the first true call to a Christian ethic is even mentioned half-way through the letter: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).
Allness, totality, fullness, living growth, interdependence, and diversity – Here, in the letter to the Ephesians alone, is a rich basis for the ethos we need in our time.
But Ephesians doesn’t stop there. Its ethos leads directly to an ethic of personal change framed as the acquisition of a new self:
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupted and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. So then, speaking the truth in love, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.[vii]
The gift of a new self has been understood by Christians in many ways. What kind of new self is Ephesians driving toward with its invitation to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ?” (4:13). And how might we understand that new self here, in the light of a Christian ethos measured to the nature and scale of climate emergency?
Here is one possibility: What if the seeds of an ecological self are waiting to be found within the new self of Ephesians?
Imagine this self:
Created according to the likeness of the Creator; rooted and grounded in love; sustained by a nourishing ethos of totality, fullness, living growth, interdependence, and diversity of witness; a self loving one’s neighbor as oneself, having extended the definition of neighbor to all things in heaven and earth. Imagine that self loving and serving alongside a community of selves “joined and knit together, each part working properly”; imagine experiencing a continuous, living sense that what holds true for the body of the Church holds true for the body of the earth: we are members of one another. Imagine that self were already alive within you.
The good news of Ephesians is that, by the power of Christ, it is alive within you.
That we possess this hidden power means that we can take our place, confidently and in hope, in contributing to change, no matter how high the tide of despair rises around us. Our culture is awakening to the reality that, in the words of deep ecologist Arne Naess, “the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.”[viii] The Church is awakening to its ecological vocation on an unprecedented scale. We are “being renewed in the spirit of our minds” (4:23). As agents of Christ’s regeneration, we each occupy a vital niche in this global web of greatest need. What we do matters, but what and how we love from the center of a new self matters most of all: how we love every molecule of soil, every tree, and every human life for whom Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth” and “ascended far above all heavens, so that he might fill all things” (4:9-10).
[i] Video of all four sessions of the webinar can be found on the Youtube chanel of the Episcopal Diocese of Western MA: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCv7jWa-XhOJDS45WbiHVFWQ. Dr. Hecox-Lea spoke at Session 2.
[ii] Ephesians 4:15-16
[iii] For details about all of these subjects, see: https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
[iv] John Zizioulas, speaking to the symposium Religion, Science, and the Environment; quoted in Margaret Barker’s Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (3).
[vi] To be clear: It is an existential issue, encompassing a complex, intersectional, social justice issue, encompassing an environmental issue, like widening ripples in a pond. That it is existential signifies its inclusion of these other (equally true) frames of understanding.
[vii] Ephesians 4:17-25.
[viii] Arne Naess, Think Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings.
For a powerful documentary presenting unvarnished truth alongside much evidence of cultural awakening and reasons for hope, see Kiss the Ground: https://kisstheground.com/
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Thank you for your words. I am paralyzed at times with which best action to take. The science involved in saving our planet and those most vulnerable is extremely complex. A daily searching is important.
This quote suggests how warped are our ideas of freedom: dominated by an unrealistic and naive obsession with freedom from and an ignorance of the utmost importance of freedom to.
We’re at “CODE RED” for global warming, a definitive new report says, and here’s a current example: the devastating wildfire on Evia Island, Greece, last Friday. The human species must reduce carbon and methane emissions drastically by 2030 to avoid the catastrophes of melted polar ice caps, oceanic flooding, unbearable heat, failed crops, deadly storms and more. But politicians the world over actively prevent effective solutions so they don’t get blamed in the next election for “taking away our freedoms” to burn oil and coal, or “banning burgers” by discouraging beef consumption, so what are the chances of our longterm survival? The next big test comes in November, when politicians will gather in Scotland for another round of climate discussions none of them seems prepared to lead. What we’re doing now is no way to treat God’s creation. (Theodoris Nikolaou/AP)
Dear Br. Keith,
I heard you preach this and have read it three times now. Preach on brother. Preach on. There are those of us who have been trying to do this for the last 10years or so. And hundreds of little churches have made their token gestures of solar panels, packed insulation and vegetable gardens but none that I have heard of have managed to translate it further into the lives of their parishioners..
The distinction you make between ethics and ethos is a very constructive perspective But I very much wonder if there is the time to build a new ethos. Strong ethical law seems to be the world’s best option now. Perhaps they might be concurrent but a gigantean task in our highly individualistic and competitive Twentieth second century American society.
But above all ignore all discouragements. Preach on.