Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Missing Vision

Reform Club

Last night I went to a dinner debate at the Reform Club in Pall Mall (I think that's where Phileas Fogg made a bet with his pals about going round the world in 80 days). the main speaker was Bishop James Jones of Liverpool and the other guests were a mixture of water engineers, environmental scientists and a few religious leaders/representatives.

James Jones is a thoughtful and sensitive man who has a lot to say about our spiritual relationship with nature, which he has been thinking about seriously since 2000. He said his turning point came when he visited many schools in his deanery and realised that the vast majority of children were really worried about the future of the earth and felt we ought to be doing something about it - and that was 9 years ago. It was a wake up call to find out how a Christian leader could respond - and a book called Jesus and the Earth was the result.

The following discussion was not so much a debate as a chance for a varied group of people to have their say - and it struck me very clearly that everyone does have something to say about the environmental situation, but we are all told too much and not listened to enough.

One of the main points was - where is the vision we need to strive for to encourage us to have a change of heart? Who is helping us to see the future? Who is the inspirational leader pointing to another way? As I wrote in the Guardian article last month - we are truly lacking a vision of something good that is worth making sacrifices for - doom and gloom won't do it. People also wanted to know how scientists and environmentalists can help. Bishop James's answer rang true for me - he urged them to use better language, more accessible, inspirational, poetic even. Again it echoed the saying that my colleagues and I at ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation) often talk about - if the word you want to use isn't in a poem - don't use it, because no one loves it enough!

Others asked how we will get those of us who live in plenty to accept less? What role does the religious understanding of love play? Is this deep down a matter of justice, not climate change or biodiversity? Are religious leaders just too timid?

James Jones urged all religious leaders to act together, to stand up and proclaim what they believe.

I put my oar in and said I thought much of the time religious leaders were acting at the wrong level. I firmly believe that most people who are trained in theology are not necessarily good at telling people about science. But all of them without exception are experts about what it is to be human. The environmental crisis like any other breakdown is the result of a broken relationship that we have allowed to disintegrate under our noses. It is not deliberate very often, but it is all -pervasive. Religious leaders need to get us back to the basis - what is a human being? How do we fit into the web of life that we know so much about now? What is science telling us about what we are? We are physically the same as the rest of the known universe, the same matter, chemicals, elements. We don't float about as semi-angels, we are mammals and have an ecology. So what is it to be human? How should we behave towards others, including the natural world?

Anyone who has been to one of my talks knows I define a human being by 4 relationships - our relationship to God, ourselves, each other and the earth. So far religious leaders have been very good at the first 3 and only recently starting to talk about the 4th. But all have to be in balance to be a flourishing person. This is the level at which religion enters the environmental arena, it sets the ground rules.

I'm looking forward to the big Windsor Conference coming up in November, it is a great pity we won't have James Jones there - he would add a great deal.

He finished the evening with an extract form a poem, God's Grandeur, by Gerard Manley-Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


  1. This is exactly how I feel as a non-scientist about the environmental question and the need for a vision - you put it so well. I have been won over by the likes of Richard Mabey and, just the other day, a new author (as well as BBC radio producer), Tim Dee, whose recently published book 'The Running Sky' (starlings on the cover, Mary!), while a memoir, is a lyrical and poetic rendering of his life among birds. At the launch I attended in Bristol, he assured us he was neither scientist nor ornithologist but sought to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and he spoke of the effect that birds have of 'abolishing your personality.' I took this, from my own experience, to mean the sense - when we are out in woods or among wildlife (and it doesn't have to be a rural idyll, but just a small piece of untamed ground within an urban setting) - that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. You've got me going!
    (Have tried to contact you via email, but can't get the link to work.)

  2. I was a committed Christian for eighteen years and I left the Church fifteen years ago, I have not been back since. The Christians who I had contact with had very little or no interest in the environment and their view of the destruction of the environment was that it is one of the sighs of the 'End Times' according to the teaching of the Bible, and I can guarantee they will still hold this belief. Since I left the Church, I have become aware that we are far more responsible for one another, and that includes our environment, than what I was ever taught in the Church. These Christians, who believe that we are living in the 'End Times' view themselves completely separate from the rest of the World and therefore they do not see that they are as quilty as the rest of the us of consumerism and do not see that they are also with the rest of the World, quilty of contributing to the destruction of our environment.

  3. Quite agree Lynmiranda. But others feel differently and it will hopefully infiltrate and make a difference.