Joy to the World: Environmental Ethics from the Birth of Jesus

hilary_marlow
Dr Hilary Marlow

Today I am tucked away in the nice warm office of Dr Hilary Marlow, Biblical Scholar and Course Director at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, who will be talking to us in this Christmas podcast. Hello Hilary!

Hello Cara.

…you can listen to our conversation here or read the transcipt provided below.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it means to be a Biblical Scholar?

I started training to be a Biblical Scholar after my youngest child started secondary school because I wanted to learn the Biblical languages Hebrew and Greek. One thing led to another and I ended up coming to Cambridge to take a PhD in Biblical Studies. Biblical Studies is a way of examining the text of the Bible using critical skills like language, comparison with other ancient Near Eastern cultures, looking at the genre, the form, the style of the text, and just exploring it in a greater depth. It’s quite an analytical discipline, but it also is one that feeds very well into Christian understanding of Biblical texts.

And am I right in saying that your PhD examined environmental ethics in the light of Old Testament prophets? Can you tell us a bit more about this?

Yes, when I started my PhD I knew that I had two main areas of interest. The first was that for a long while I had been very concerned about environmental issues. I had been part of the Christian environmental charity A Rocha, so I knew that was a real, big part of my life. Then I became very interested in the Old Testament, and especially the Old Testament prophets when I was studying my undergraduate degree, and I wanted a way of bringing the two together. One of the big questions was, “What has the Bible to say in the light of our contemporary environmental situation?”, and particularly nobody had really written about whether the prophets of the Old Testament had anything particular to say. So I tried to look at the prophets through a framework of the relationship between people and the natural world, and from there to draw some ethical principles which might help guide our current situation.

Great, so they did have something to say about it?

They did, they talk an awful lot about this relationship between people and the natural world and God and how, when people’s relationship with God is broken or fractured, so also their relationship with the natural world suffers. So although the prophets weren’t looking ahead to what we have now, in many ways they were foreshadowing the situation we have now. A lot of society has lost its way in a spiritual sense, people have no longer acknowledged God as creator, and we see that people’s relationship with the natural world is breaking down. The natural world is suffering because of human activities and this relationship between the three is not working as it is meant to do.

And this is a great time to think about that isn’t it, because this Christmas follows Pope Francis’s Laudato Si and also the COP meetings in Paris? I know you’ve spoken at various events on Laudato Si. Can you tell us a bit more about the content and the take-home messages you share at these events?

I think the Pope’s encyclical is very timely, and really interesting. He adopts the model of relationship which talks about our relationship with the creation, the natural world, and our relationship with God. He talks about how these have broken down, and how so often in the pursuit of “economic progress” – growth – we’ve actually lost touch with the world that we live in, and also with the Creator. He is not against technology, but he’s wary of the way that technology and economic growth drive everything. Part of his plea is that we recover some of the Christian virtues – ways of living that make for the flourishing of the whole of society. So he addresses issues like injustice and the fact that it’s the poorest people in the world that suffer the results of environmental issues. For example, when climate change causes sea level rise and flooding it’s always the poor people that suffer the most from that. He sees that this is very much a moral responsibility and there are ways of living that we as Christians should think of adopting to help mitigate the issues and make some positive contribution.

I don’t think he suggests that this can solve everything, and obviously the COP21 agreement has shown that we need political will as well as Christians to do their bit, but I think the Pope’s message is that everybody individually should do what they can. He talks about virtues such as restraint, in other words not always going out for the maximum that we can, thinking about restraining materialism, thinking about deliberately limiting our own possessions and our lifestyles in order to make for a better world, and I think this is really important. I certainly would endorse almost everything he said. I think it’s a message for Catholics, but also for Protestants and for people who are not of the Christian faith.

Great. Being Christmas, Christians will also be thinking about the birth of Jesus, so let’s skip forward to the New Testament. Do you see any links between Jesus’ arrival and life on earth, and a continued call to care for creation?

One of the issues that comes up in conversations amongst environmentalists is whether the natural world has any value in and of itself, or whether it’s only valuable because it provides the resources that we humans need to live. So the natural world is a source of raw materials, if you like, for everything that we have and need to live. Some environmentalists will say that’s the only value that it has, and I suspect perhaps some Christians also think like that. But when I reflect on the absolute wonder and mystery of God becoming human, talking on human form, entering into the world that his word spoke into being, it makes me think this actually gives a very high value to the material world. Jesus enters that world as God made man. To me that speaks of an incredible mystery, but also the value of this material world. I think that if we as Christians don’t value it in the way that God values it, then we do end up trashing it. The message is that God has given it this value because it is an expression of his creativity and love, and Jesus Christ enters that world, so we too should love and value it.

One last little thing, I’m always intrigued by the way that the natural world, from the biggest to the smallest, is somehow involved in Jesus’ life and ministry. So for example, just to take Christmas, when Christ is born in a stable, you have some great astronomical happening that guides the kings, the wise men, to worship him. The cosmos is involved. And it seems quite incredible that the wise men come because they’re following a star to see the Christ child – the one who’s responsible for that cosmos and the creation of that star.

I’ve never thought of it like that, so those are some really great things to think about this Christmas. Thank you very much for speaking to us, and have a great Christmas!

Thank you very much Cara, and the same to you.

2 thoughts on “Joy to the World: Environmental Ethics from the Birth of Jesus

  1. David Thomson December 24, 2015 / 11:02 am

    Reblogged this on Bishop's Blog and commented:
    Dr Hilary Marlow is Course Director for the Farsday Institute in Cambridge and an important collaborator for us in helping a good relationship between science and faith thrive in our diocese.

    Like

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