AFTER the shock of the lockdown, and the social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus epidemic, it is now time to begin to manage a controlled, if prolonged, return to what has ben called the “new normal”.
But such a time, as has been widely appreciated, has also been a time of question and challenge. The New Testament calls this a kairos moment: a place of choice, of metanoia (usually rendered “repentance”).
At such a time, two things can happen. There can be a fresh clarity, a rediscovery of suppressed truths. And there can be a renewed challenge to struggle to learn lessons and map out fresh directions.
Unsurprisingly, under the impact of the immediate crisis, other issues and concerns are overshadowed, almost forgotten. But they have not gone away, and are now resurfacing.
The greatest of these is the ever-present elephant in every situation: the looming possibility of the “sixth extinction”, manifest in climate change, species destruction, pollution, and the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources.
Last year, pre-lockdown, there were signs that this had, at last, risen to the top of the world’s agenda. This has to be reclaimed. Indeed, the lockdown has shown us that reduced human activity leads to remarkable signs of nature’s ability to recover.
Renewable energy and alternative technologies continue to be developed. Many have found fresh connections with nature. So, it is argued, now is the opportunity to move towards a radically greener and sustainable society.
It is, therefore, appropriate that Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and many others re-energise their campaigns, and that Parliament be challenged by Caroline Lucas’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill.
THE Christian community is not silent, either. A host of people are engaged in greening the Church and are involved in the wider struggle. Creation care is now written into the Church’s agenda.
The world is sacramental: mediating, indirectly and yet really, God to us. God can be found in and through our material world. This is explicitly affirmed in the eucharist, in which bread and wine, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands . . . become for us the body and blood of Christ”; and in baptism, in which we are washed as though passing through the Red Sea.
The incarnation also reveals the inner mystery of creation itself. In and through Christ, we glimpse the very heart of God, and, therefore, of creation itself. As Paul affirms, “All things are summed up in Christ, who is Lord over all things” (Colossians 1.19). To be drawn into Christ is to be drawn into the life of creation.
The Church, as the priestly people, has the task of articulating creation’s praise and interceding for the whole of creation, including the natural environment. This is a dimension of our prayer and praise which is only now being recognised, and is all too seldom heard.
In the second Genesis narrative, however, another note is struck. The “earthiness” of humanity is emphasised. Adam is created from the ground (adamah). . . Humanity is part of the natural world, dependent on it and working with it — a commonality underlined by evolution and DNA. . .
Our industrial, technological, and urban world has disconnected us from the earth. We need to reconnect with nature, and accept the limitations of living on the earth, dependent on the quality of air and earth and water, and the abundance of the life that they support, part of the cycle of life and death.
AT THE heart of the capitalist economic model is the notion of “economic man” — whether an individual or a corporate unit. “Economic man” sells what he can provide, whether goods or services, at the highest price available, in return for disposable resources for his own use.
The aim is to maximise profits and minimise risk. Thus, in the cut and thrust of the market place, there is an innate conflict, and also a radical individualism that can be found throughout society.
The emphasis is on stimulating growth so that the economy can deliver and expand, allowing for added income and further investment. Success and prosperity is measured, therefore, in terms of growth, set out as GDP, which, in turn, demands more of the finite resources of the earth.
Since the 2008 economic collapse that did so much to expose the shortcomings of the present system, there has been little change, despite some protest against the current economic models, and some modest modifications in the regulation of the financial market.
The economy is still largely seen as the driving force of society; debt is rife and dangerous; and growth continues to be the measure of all things.
What is urgently needed — and, for some, the Chancellor’s reaction to Covid-19 can be seen as offering a possible new approach — is a deep rethink: a new story concerning who we are, how we relate to one another, and how we organise our world, integrating the economy with the demands of environmental concern and social justice in the rebuilding of a fragmented world.
THE Christian perspective starts from a very different point. There is a place for the market as a mechanism for exchange and connectivity, but only as servant, and not as master. We are persons, not autonomous individuals; and persons exist in community, not only as members of a family, but of a locality, as citizens, of groupings within society and of humanity itself.
However broken and fragmented our present experience of this may be, it is both the hope and the vision, because it reflects the essential form of creation. . .
“God’s option for the poor” comes to include all things vulnerable, including the natural world. The flora and fauna of our planet have something akin to natural rights, each having their place in relationship.
There is also a responsibility for future generations. It is a truism that an orchard is planted for one’s grandchildren. This is the thrust of the Jubilee instructions in the Torah, and the notion of inheritance.
There also needs to be a “wisdom of enough”. In a world that already demands more from the planet than it can give, “enough” can only mean exercising restraint. To have enough implies being content with a life of reasonable comfort and security. Indeed, some have expressed how positive it has been, despite all the restrictions and pressures, to live a slower and more basic lifestyle under lockdown.
Politically, “enough” means having to live within the earth’s resources, controlling acquisitiveness and consumerism, and reducing excess and waste. This will also reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, which undermines social cohesion. In the words of Horace Dammers, a former Dean of Bristol: “To live simply that others may simply live.”
There is a telling image in the Old Testament of the perfect life: “They shall sit under their own vines and their own fig trees and none shall make them afraid” (Micah 4.4). The quest for an economics of enough is part of today’s search for a stable and secure society.
Such a shift in perspective demands radical change: to move from a consumerist, possession-based, hedonistic society to one where the good life is one of simplicity and responsible consumption.
THE challenge of our time is to move from the present trajectory, and to work to a new vision of our place in creation and our relationship with the earth
It is an immense task. Time is not on our side. Despite the warning signs, the juggernaut of civilisation grinds on, and threatens to destroy us in its path. But this is a scenario with which the Bible is remarkably familiar: danger and judgement.
The prophetic tradition constantly declared that Israel was facing tragedy, seen primarily in terms of judgement for apostasy. The simple instrumental terms in which it is couched sound strange to us; but we can recognise the misuse of power and social injustice that has been exposed through Covid-19. The people, in some way or another, are facing the consequences of their inadequate, perhaps corrupt and selfish society.
The warning is, however, not simply the sound of doom, but a calling to repentance; to change, to follow another path, to return to the solid foundations of justice and peace. Prophecy is uttered for the inevitable not to happen.
This is the gospel: there is yet hope, if only the warnings are heeded.
Paul Ballard is Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, where he taught Practical Theology. He is an Hon. President of the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology. This is an edited extract from an undelivered paper for the Rutland Theological Society for use in March and since revised. It can be found in full on churchtimes.co.uk.