Discerning the Holy Spirit in the Life of Creation

Discerning the Holy Spirit in the Life of Creation

  Dermot   A. Lane


This article first appeared in ‘Doctrine and Life’, February 2012. It is the text of Fr Dermot Lane’s sermon at an ecumenical service organised by Eco-congregation Ireland in the Church of the Ascension, Balally Parish, on 1 December 2011, in the context of the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South   Africa.


We have come here this evening in the context of the 17th UN Climate Change Conference inDurban,South Africa, which started last Monday 28 November 2011. We have gathered in solidarity with all of the participants at that Conference in the hope that progress can be made in terms of honouring the Kyoto Protocols for reducing the carbon emissions. We have also assembled to highlight the responsibilities of the developed countries for resourcing the developing countries to respond to the current environmental crisis. Most importantly, we are gathered as Christians from different denominations united “in Christ”, and so our strength here this evening is our ecumenical unity “in Christ” and our fellowship “in the Spirit” in the service of the environment.


The theme of this service


The theme chosen for our service is that of “Discerning the Holy Spirit in the life Creation”.  This particular theme has been chosen out of a deep conviction that we will never save the planet, that we will never heal our broken world, unless and until we connect with the gracious Spirit of God given in creation and revealed in Christ. It is largely the neglect of the Spirit, the removal of the Holy Spirit from life, the evacuation of the Spirit from creation that has taken place over the years that has landed us in the current environmental crisis. When nature becomes mechanised, that is, when the Spirit is removed from the life of the earth, then humanity feels free to exploit nature for its own selfish ends without regard for the integrity of creation.


In other words, when the cosmos became disenchanted through the scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then the natural world became the plaything of society, devoid of any sacred presence, bereft of all spiritual significance, denied of any transcendent point of reference. It was then that man moved to the centre of universe, supposedly free to dominate, to exploit the earth, and trample upon mother nature. This in turn gave rise to an anthropocentric universe, that is a man-centered universe, with no reference to the indwelling presence of God.


In reaction to this, some have suggested replacing an anthropocentric universe with a bio-centric universe. I want to suggest that it is not sufficient simply to replace an anthropocentric universe with a bio-centric universe.  Instead what is needed is a theocentric universe, that is an understanding of the universe with God at the centre. More particularly, what is required at this time is a rediscovery of the Spirit of God as the source of life, as the dynamism driving the evolution of life, as the power holding everything together and continuously sustaining life on earth.


Of course, there are other reasons, obvious human reasons, for the current crisis within the environment.  These include the rise of individualism, the development of an unbridled capitalism, and the promotion of an unending consumerism in the western world that does not know when enough is enough.


Further, I want to suggest that there is a link, a real connection, a structural relationship between the environmental crisis and the current economic crisis.   Before the Enlightenment, the primary economy was an economy of nature, an economy rooted in agriculture, in the land, and in the fruitfulness of the soil. But after the Enlightenment that primary economy was taken over by humanly-constructed global financial systems, dedicated to extracting the resources of the earth and exploiting the riches of nature. Until we recover some of the spirit of the pre-Enlightenment economy, in terms of being rooted in nature and anchored in the earth, and unless we can recover the wisdom inherent in the rhythm of creation, it is unlikely that the current economic crisis will be resolved.  We must begin to realise that the current economic crisis is largely the outcome of a market driven capitalism which has little regard for the rhythm of nature, unmindful of the limited resources of the earth, neglectful of the integrity of creation.


Perhaps the most serious and most alarming aspect of the current economic crisis is the attempt by governments to fix the existing model of unbridled, runaway capitalism, instead of realising that contemporary, market driven capitalism is a spent force, in structural decline, and that it can only be mended by a radically, new economic order.  It can no longer be “business as usual” with a little tinkering around the edges.  Instead, there must be a radical restructuring of international economic and financial systems, and that restructuring must include respect for the primary economy of the earth’s eco systems and natural resources.  (To this extent, the “Occupy Movement” must be taken seriously in their awareness that something radical needs to be done, though this does not mean endorsing some of the tactics of the “Occupy Movement”).


The reason why the structural reform of modern economies is so necessary is because market-driven capitalism is premised on the principle of growth, of unlimited growth, and we know that there are limits to growth because the resources of the earth are finite and limited.


However, our primary concern here this evening is not the modern economy as such, but rather the need to recover in our own lives and in the lives of those who manage the economy a deep respect for nature, a reverence for the integrity of creation, and a new appreciation of the finiteness of the resources of the earth.


Looking at the Signs of the Times


When we look around us at the signs of the times, the emerging picture is bleak.  As far back as 1990, at a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, it was agreed by all of the Christian churches that: “The stark sign of our times is a planet in peril at our hands”.  That statement was issued over twenty years ago, and there can be no doubt that the planet is now in far greater peril since then.


In the same year, 1990, John-Paul II articulated a crucial principle in regard to the environmental crisis.  He wrote: “Respect for life, and for the dignity of the human person, extends also to the rest of creation”.  That statement clearly demands that we respect creation in the way we respect human beings and that therefore the work of justice embraces not only fellow human beings, but also the life of the earth and the gift of creation. Benedict XVI in a speech to young people on the 28 November, the day the Durban Conference opened, highlighted “that in respecting the Creator’s  impression on the whole of creation, we understand better our true… identity… Respect for the human being and for nature are one and the same”. He concluded by pointing out “there will be no good future for humanity on earth unless we teach everyone a life style that is more responsible towards creation”


The week before the Durban Conference the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, issued a grim warning that the world is heading for catastrophic climate change, and that if governments and policy makers do not take note then we may cross an irreversible threshold of climate change.  In particular, the OECD pointed out that governments need a change of mind-set if we are to heal our broken planet.


Around the same time the International Energy Agency warned that  “without a bold change in direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high carbon energy systems”  because of the large number of power plants already fired by fossil fuels  and plans for more in the future ( Irish Times 26 November 2011:15)


There is a now a litany of ecological-nightmare-headlines we are all familiar with: headlines about global warming, reports about the melting of glaciers, accounts of the burning of rainforests, the ruining of wetlands, the depletion of natural fisheries, increasing toxic oil spills, extraordinary hurricanes like Katrina, the extinction of rare plant and animal species…


The majority of scientists today are now agreed that the well-being of our planet is under threat from climate change caused by human activity.  There is a small minority of scientists who deny this, but when you probe into their background, you discover that they have vested interests in multinational oil companies and pharmaceuticals industries.


    Responding to the Signs of the Times: Moving forward


If we are to move forward out of this environmental crisis, we must begin to recover the gift of the Spirit of God within creation.  This is best done in the first instance by going back to the biblical story of Creation in the Book of Genesis.  There we discover in the Second verse of Chapter One a strong statement about the breath of God, that is the Spirit of God, brooding creatively over the waters of chaos.  It is only in virtue of that presence of Spirit at the dawn of time, that God could say: let there be light… let there be a dome in the midst of the waters.. let the earth bring forth living creatures… let us make humankind  in our image and likeness( Gen.1 1- 26)


We need once again to familiarise ourselves with that powerful image of the Spirit of God brooding, or hovering, or hatching like a mother hen over the earth at the beginning of time. We should remember that this same Spirit of God, this Creator-Spirit, continues to brood, and hatch, and hover over creation today. It is that same Spirit of God that the prophet Ezechiel invokes in the book of Ezekiel to impart new life to the dry bones in the valley:

“I shall cause breath to enter you and you shall live” (Ez.37: 5)

The dry bones represent the people ofIsraelexiled in thevalleyofBabylonfeeling lifeless and abandoned. Similar dry bones are around to day in our institutions, in our churches, in our assemblies which urgently need the spiritual rejuvenation that comes from recognising and respecting the gift of the Spirit of God in the life of creation. The biblical doctrine of creation is a doctrine about the Creator-Spirit’s  continuous involvement in holding creation in existence.


A second way forward is for Christians to rediscover the underlying unity of spirit and matter.  Since the Enlightenment, there has been a damaging split between spirit and matter, between nature and grace, between the presence of the Spirit of God and creation.  It is now time to realise that it is only in and through matter that we can discover the Spirit. This divorce between spirit and matter was prophetically resisted by lone voices like Teilhard de Chardin SJ who composed a well-known “Hymn to Matter” in 1919. In that hymn he wrote: “Without you ( ie matter) we should remain…ignorant both of ourselves and of God”. He then goes on to state: “I acclaim you (ie matter) as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the incarnate Word”


If you read the Bible carefully, you will discover that the Spirit is always embodied: embodied in creation, in the people ofIsrael, in the prophets of God, in the flesh of Mary, in life of Jesus, and in the Christian community. If you  want to recover the unity of spirit and matter, then you must begin to realise the Spirit of God  exists for us in this life only as incarnate in creation, as  incorporated in Israel, as indwelling in Jesus,  as inhabiting the historical Body of Christ—and not over and above these realities but in and through them.


Here is a principle that might help us to reunite Spirit and matter:

“To think Spirit, think matter” (Eugene Rogers). It is only in and through matter, the matter of creation, the materiality of the people ofIsrael, the corporeality of the Body of the Church, the matter of oil and water, bread and wine that we encounter the Spirit of God alive in our midst. To find the Spirit of God we need to do two things: to look deeply into matter, into the depths of our own bodily-consciousness, and into the animating centre of our Christian communities. Secondly, we need to look out into the immensity of our expanding universe to see exquisite beauty and realise that we are a part of that larger story.


A third way forward is to rediscover that our humanity and our human identity are rooted in the earth, derived from the earth, and dependent on the earth.   Let us look once aging at the book of Genesis. In the second creation story of the 2nd chapter of the book of Genesis we are told  that “ the Lord God formed man from the dust of the  ground  and  breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”( Gen.2:7).  We should note it is the breath of God that gives life. Secondly, we should observe that the human comes from the earth and that a better translation of word human/Adam would be “an earthling” or a “child of  the earth”, or perhaps “a worldling”. The human in the biblical vision is bound to the earth, comes out of the earth, and returns to the earth.  And the reason the earth is so life giving and abundant is because the earth is inhabited by creative the Spirit of God.

Thus it is not surprising to find modern scientists telling us without batting an eyelid that human beings are cosmic dust in a state of consciousness, and that  there is therefore a natural kinship between humans and the earth.


It is perhaps the poets more than the theologians that have captured this fundamental unity between the Spirit of God and creation.


Let me conclude therefore by giving the last word to two poets :  Gerard Manley-Hopkins(1844-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (1806-1861).Hopkinscaptures brilliantly the presence of the Spirit in creation in his celebrated poem “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

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: …

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World, broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

The resonance of these lines with the stories of creation in the book of Genesis is striking. And the second poet is Elizabeth Barrett-Browning who in “Auror Leigh” has a strong sense of the co-presence of the sacred and the secular in creation:


Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –

The rest sit round and gather blackberries.


And so the import of this ecumenical service is that we seek to recover the gift of the Spirit in creation, in the earth, in each other, and in our Christian communities so that we may together be inspired and empowered to heal a planet in peril.


Dermot A. Lane is President of Mater Dei Institute of Education and Parish Priest of Balally Parish in Dublin 16. He has recently published ‘Stepping Stones to Other Religions: A Christian Theology of Inter-Religious Dialogue’, Veritas, 2011.



Author: | Date: 19 March, 2012 | Category: Sermons | Comments: 0

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