WHEN the 16th-century Venetian artist Tintoretto depicted God creating the birds and animals, he painted great flocks of birds springing out of God’s hand and the ocean teeming with fish. Alas, as we know, this is no longer the case. A report from the United Nations last year warned that one million species of plants and animals were at risk of extinction.
This very much came home to me last summer. One of my greatest pleasures is to go out into the garden in the evening, lie on my back, and watch the swifts darting and diving and weaving in the sky. Last summer, I saw hardly any. In their migration from the south, they follow the insects, and, in recent years, insects have been much reduced. “It’s only an insect,” people might have thought in the past; but now we know that all life depends on them. The decline in insects is so precipitous that there are warnings that the whole eco-system is in danger of collapsing.
Many people who do not regard themselves as religious still feel that there is something deeply spiritual about our concern with the future of our planet. They are right to do so. After all, why do we feel distressed about so many species being lost every year? Behind this distress, there is, I believe, a profound theological conviction: that creation is good in itself, for itself. This loss of species matters not just because they might be of use to us, but because they are of value in themselves, for themselves.
This insight reflects those wonderful verses in the book of Genesis: God saw what he had made, and, behold! it was very good. Birds, butterflies, fish, trees, flowers — even weeds — are little miracles.
We sense the goodness of creation in the way that nature refreshes us, whether it is a pot of flowers in the room or the sky as we look out of the window. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the same poem, he goes on to say that this life-giving power is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Behind, beyond, and within the beauty of nature, there is a supreme beauty. Worship is about being taken out of ourselves to acknowledge this surpassing reality as good in itself, for itself. As St Augustine used to pray, “O thou beauty most ancient and withal so fresh”. So it is that sometimes, when we are taken out of ourselves by beauty in nature — say, a magnificent tree — we teeter on the edge of wonder to feel awe before the unimaginable source of all things.
One of the greatest marine biologists of the 20th century, Sir Alister Hardy, said about his work shortly before he died, “Just occasionally I became so overcome by the beauty of the natural world that for a moment or two I fell to my knees in prayer.”
IN THIS lithograph by the Indian painter and academic Solomon Raj (b.1921), Christ is shown arising out of a lotus, a symbol of our true self. But what is also interesting is the way in which he is depicted at the centre of creation.The man and the woman are rather diminutive figures, dominated by the abundant fish in the river, and ringed by animals, birds, and angels. Christ is not only at the heart of our personal lives as our true centre — he is the heart of creation.
In a remarkable passage in the Letter to the Colossians, it is said of Christ that “In him, everything in heaven and earth was created . . . the whole universe has been created through him and for him . . . all things are held together in him.” So, for a Christian, care for creation is part of our response to Christ, the ground of our being and the goal of our longing.
In the light of this awareness, creation is sheer gift. Suppose in a family there has been handed down from our grandparents an ancient clock. It is not hugely valuable, but it is a much treasured possession. Our parents loved it, we love it, and we want our children and grandchildren to have it in as good a condition as possible when we are gone. So we take great care of it.
If that is how we feel about something like a clock, how much more important is it that our grandchildren — and their children — are not deprived of a natural world which means so much to us. As we have benefited from the labours of generations before us, we have an obligation to those who come after. We are, as the political philosopher Edmund Burke said, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.
We have been given a beautiful earth, not just for our own use but to look after for those who come after us. As the first book in the Bible makes clear, we are stewards of the earth, custodians, caretakers; we are not the owners of it. On present predictions, we will leave it in a worse state than we found it. Things will get worse, anyway. The point is to avoid disaster on a massive scale.
There are small actions that each one of us can take in our immediate environment, and there are changes that are needed in the economic and public spheres. To act politically without acting personally is hypocritical. Equally, to act personally but not politically is to be ineffectual. Both individual actions and public policies matter, and the more we are committed to one the more likely we are to be committed to the other.
In the past, people tended to think that creation was just a backdrop for the great drama of human salvation. Now, we have woken up to the fact that not only are we a part of creation but that creation matters in itself, and Christ is at the very heart of it. He calls us now to respond to his gift of a beautiful earth with a much greater sense of urgency.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His new book, Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images, was published in February by SPCK at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).