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Angela Tilby: A theology for the environment

04 August 2017


The light from the darkness: earth, seen from space

The light from the darkness: earth, seen from space

“CHRISTIANITY”, Rowan Williams said recently, “lights some very long fuses, that eventually explode. . .”

The explosion that he had in mind was a creative one: the kind of rush of energy which occurs when an ancient intuition suddenly blossoms and illuminates a present-day dilemma. The dilemma that he had in mind was our environmental crisis, and the intuition comes from reflection on the transfiguration.

Theology struggles to interpret environmental issues when it rests solely on the biblical doctrine of creation. The first reason for this is that the Genesis account has man dominating nature; the second is that the thrust of the biblical picture is eschatological: all will be swept away at the close of the age. Those who deny that there is a problem, some of whom are biblical literalists, may not be particularly concerned about a cataclysm engulfing the earth.

There is another way of speaking of creation which could help. The “very long fuse” that is perhaps now beginning to explode in the Christian imagination goes back to the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, the sixth-century author of a famous treatise, On the Divine Names.

This suggests that, at the moment of creation, God’s glory imbued each part of the created world with its own meaning. Everything that exists, whether animate or inanimate, is a kind logos that contributes to the harmony of the whole and helps to make the world intelligible. Following this line of thought, contemporary Orthodox theologians have had a good deal to say about the need for human beings to be conservers of nature rather than exploiters.

The West took a wrong turning when it interpreted the world of nature simply as a machine. The true picture is that nature is a theophany, a manifestation of God — and this is where the transfiguration comes in.

The transfigured Christ is a sign and foretaste of the destiny of the entire material world. We are not the only part of the universe to communicate meaning; not the only part destined for heaven and resurrection. The transfiguration of matter is one of those insights that Rowan describes as “rumbling along in the background” of Christian thought for centuries. But now the time has come when it can be developed further, in response to our need to be both more robust and more in tune with tradition in our theological defence of a sane and respectful environmentalism.

Sunday’s feast is an opportunity to reflect on the destiny of creation and the dignity of its constituent parts. The True Logos sums up all the “words” spoken by nature. Matter is destined to participate in the resurrection of the Lord. This surely gives a new depth to our claim to believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.


Malcolm Guite - Poet’s corner

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