Climate Change, Sustainable Living, and the Generosity of God

ClimateChangeTalks on climate change and sustainability don’t often start with a discussion of generosity, but that is what we see on Earth. The natural resources available at the beginning of human history were not unlimited, but they were vast.

God’s awesome creativity resulted in a world in which living things essentially make themselves, using the materials available to them. For example, plants, algae, and some bacteria use air, water, sunlight and minerals to make their food. The rest of us eat these ‘primary producers’, or the organisms that ate them, so the whole of the living world essentially thrives on a few basic raw materials.

In the economy of ecosystems, nothing is wasted. Minerals and other nutrients are recycled from decaying organic matter. Water is recycled and purified by the processes of evaporation and rainfall. Everything is used for something, and through the dynamic processes of life, the overall trend on Earth has been towards increasing diversity and complexity.

In the story of the prodigal son, a generous father gives half of his property to his son, allowing him to learn by his mistakes. This parable is played out, in part, in our relationship with the environment. Genesis 1 describes how we are called to be responsible for the whole of creation, but we have used the world’s resources in ways which – while inventive – were not always wise. Many of our enterprises have been disastrously short sighted, wasteful and destructive. The end of the story is that God forgives our mistakes and loves us no less because of them, but there are still practical consequences to be dealt with.

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change this week is an attempt to address the damage that is still being done, and will hopefully result in effective and fair solutions. Measures need to be taken to protect vulnerable people and ecosystems, and to ration or recover resources that are now scarce. Extravagant standards of living must be brought down to a sustainable level. Poorer countries deserve the opportunity to develop in sustainable ways.

So is this the end of God’s generosity? I don’t think so. Sustainable living is not just about cutting down, but is about the improvement in everyone’s quality of life that will come from using natural resources well. We really can aim for a full, just and responsible enjoyment of the amazing gifts that our generous God has provided for us.

Reposted here with permission of The London Institute for Contemporary Culture.

Photo credit: Nigel Bovey

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University, based at the MRC Human Genetics Unit. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth then moved to The Faraday Institute to develop the Test of FAITH resources, the first of which were launched in 2009. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science and on the advisory council of BioLogos.

Continue reading

This Fertile World

Earth from Apollo 17, NASA, 1976
Earth from Apollo 17, NASA, 1976

‘Planet Earth is astonishingly fruitful’, says Robert White, Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. White is often asked why God would allow natural disasters to happen. He has laid out his answer in a new book Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God. Part of his response is to begin by explaining the science behind the fertility of the Earth, and I share it here with permission of the author.

Without a measure of natural global warming, without earthquakes, without volcanoes, without floods the world would be sterile and humans could not live here. But paradoxically, many of the processes that make it possible for humans to live on earth are the same as those that Continue reading


Solar eclipse, 1st Aug 2008, NASA

This Christmas post is taken from ‘Nature’s Witness’ by Daniel Harrell. This series of extracts is from chapter 6: ‘God is great, God is good, but maybe I’ve misunderstood?’, that explores the vastness of the universe, God’s creation of it, and the presence of suffering. I’ve chosen some portions that I thought were appropriate to the season – that ask why God created the universe and why did he care about us?

When I consider the works of your hand, which you display in all you have created, I am at once awed and bewildered. I believe, yet sometimes I need help to believe. I wonder at your creativity, and at the same time I wonder why your creativity looks so different than I would expect. I wonder why the earth evolved instead of simply appearing, and why life has taken such a long road to get to where it is. I would have expected you to act more immediately and efficiently.  Yet I know that my expectations are extensions of my own desires. And though you may be the author of my desire, I am the one who distorts it and imposes those distortions on you, I know that I must humble my understanding to your unveiling. Yet to observe your world and your ways creates a collision within my mind, a dissonance that I desperately long to resolve.

You’re infinite, and I’m finite, confined by time and by my sin and thereby limited in perception and understanding. Your eternity dwarfs my capacity to comprehend it. Your holiness outshines my feeble faith. Any claim to know you sounds presumptuous. And yet as a God of love you unveil yourself so that I can know you. Revelation is part of your character. You show us yourself in order to draw us to yourself. Your work and your word extend love and beckon our response of love. Relationship is your essence and you invite us to partake of it. You are love and your love is magnificently splashed across the universe and intricately wired into our souls…

Life itself your gift and yet each life hardly registers as a whisper in the vastness of time. And time itself registers as barely a whisper in the vastness of eternity. I and every other living thing are but insignificant moments in an unsearchable string of moments that are swallowed up within an infinity where no moments exist.

By your power you made the heavens and the earth. You created reality, breaking open existence with divine and furious heat. The dust of the starry heavens became the dust of the earth, the dust from which you made every living thing…

Were you so intent on making creatures in your image and granting them a world to inhabit that you’d spend thirteen billion years of cosmic and planetary life to make it happen? All for the slight blip of relationship you enjoyed with humanity before we fell from your favour? Who are we that you would go to such lengths, not even sparing your own Son, but giving him up, and with him, giving us all things? This is too great. I can’t understand it. We don’t deserve it…

Your handiwork is like a potter’s art. But my mind is like a potter’s wheel; round and round and round I go.

You are amazing

‘The fifteen-minute race has been an uphill battle – only a few thousand sperm out of hundreds of millions have made it to the final stretch. Swimming furiously up the fallopian tubes at a few millimetres per second, helped along by contractions of the tubes’ walls, millions die along the way in one of the world’s most competitive marathons. The remaining sperm plunge their little heads into the outer layer of the egg wall, releasing enzymes that weaken the tough ramparts. Finally a single sperm manages to penetrate the wall and, within seconds, reaches the inner membrane layer that surrounds the egg’s cytosol. There it fuses its complete contents with the egg, so that sperm and egg become a single cell. Within a few more seconds, other enzymes are released from the cytosol to render the egg wall completely resistant to any further interlopers, and the wall remains intact for another five days yet, just to make sure. A few other sperm that make it to the finishing line knock their heads on the wall in vain.

Each of our lives began this way…Had another sperm swum just that tiny bit harder, then you could so easily have been male rather than female, or vice versa, but then of course ‘you’ would have been someone else altogether.’

That was the beginning of chapter 3 of Denis Alexander’s new book, The Language of Genetics: An Introduction. It makes me laugh – I imagine that was the desired effect – but it’s a great description of the beginning of life. I’m not sure about the wisdom of anthropomorphising sperm, but it does get across the urgency of the ‘race’, and highlights how unique each of us is. The scientific detail is interesting, and helps to illustrate something I’ve mentioned before that I think is often missed in natural theology – generosity.

I was at a meeting of Christians working in science a couple of weeks ago, and someone prayed a prayer that included thanking God for his efficiency in nature. Efficiency?! Millions of sperm for one individual? The earth’s crust packed full of useful ores, precious stones and energy-rich substances? Free energy from the sun, wind and waves? Plants that produce food from sunshine, air and water? I think these are examples of God’s great generosity in producing an abundance of resources*. Of course efficiency is something we need to think about when we use natural resources, but those resources are provided on a spectacular scale. I need to make sure that I don’t create my own God – in the image of a divine time and motion technician…

*I know that the production of thousands of gametes in reproduction is an adaptation to ensure successful reproduction, but I still think it flies in the face of the images that Christians sometimes use of God running everything very efficiently – as if overabundance might be a waste. That’s not what we see in nature.

The generosity of God

Flowers in the desert

I slipped in to the  Faraday Institute ordinands course this morning to hear a lecture by Hilary Marlow on ‘Theologies of Creation: The foundation for environmental concern’. What she said was tremendously positive, focusing on the relationship between God, humanity and ‘the non-human creation’ and then covering the range of theologies of creation found in different branches of the church.

The part that I liked most was Hilary’s interpretation of Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 as a sign to us of God’s generosity. At times when we hear about environmental concerns the response is a ‘hair shirt’ frugality that is very difficult to live out. But we can see examples of God’s generosity all over creation – take for example a  desert that bursts into flower – and also in stories like the prodigal son, where the father is quite happy to give half of his property to his son so he can learn by his mistakes.

Of course waste isn’t good and the desert doesn’t always burst into flower, sometimes becasue of interference by humankind. But it’s good to remember that what we’re aiming for in sustainable living is a full enjoyment of the amazing gifts that God has given us.