visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)V. Implications for the Faith, Witness, and Life of the Churches
Chapter V, Section headings:
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dot.gif (101 bytes) Place and role of human beings in the whole of creation dot.gif (101 bytes) Hope in a period of survival
dot.gif (101 bytes) Development in the context of life to the full dot.gif (101 bytes) The role of the churches


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 A reorientation of the present economic system with far-reaching consequences for all spheres of life is required. The changes proposed here challenge every institution and have particular ramifications for the life of the churches and for their witness in society. Reflecting on implications of the new approach for the faith, witness and of Christians' life, the consultation has sought to identify areas which the churches need to address. Areas that call for urgent reflection and action in the churches' self-understanding and pastoral ministry, include the challenge to:

  • revisit our theology and overcome anthropocentrism;

  • uncover the true meaning of development and abundant life in the context of understanding biophysical limits;

  • explore the contemporary meaning of Christian hope in the context of the collapse of utopian thinking in central and eastern Europe and the unique challenge of ecological destruction;

  • look at the pastoral ministry of the churches and examine how Christian teaching and worship might address these issues effectively;

  • consider the obligation of the churches to accompany the wider society during the painful period of transition.

The following illustrate but a few of these challenges:

Place and role of human beings in the whole of creation: Recognition that the economic system has to be understood as a sub-system of the eco-system raises the question of the relationship of human beings to the whole of creation. On the one hand, there is the biblical affirmation that men and women have been created in the image of God; on the other, there is recognition that human beings are part of the whole creation, one species in the community of the living. How are these two affirmations related to one another?

There has been a long-standing tendency to over-emphasize the unique role of human beings within creation. Their relationship to the rest of creation was often described in dualistic and anthropocentric terms. Their role was understood as that of having dominion over the earth, too often with arrogance and a neglect of responsibility. Today, however, the need to overcome such misunderstandings of the Genesis command "to subdue the earth" is generally recognized in Christian theology.

Revisiting key strands in the biblical heritage has helped Christians to rethink the theological categories in which they discuss the inter-relationship between God, human beings, and the wider creation. This new emphasis leaves open the question of how the role of human beings within the community of the living is to be understood. What is their uniqueness? How is their responsibility to be described?

Equally urgent is the question: what does respect for God's creation mean in concrete terms? In the light of the ecological crisis, we have come to recognize that human beings have trespassed their limits and caused destruction and death. There is agreement on the need for a new respect for life (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben), a recognition of the dignity and intrinsic value of all creation. But what does this mean? Are there criteria which allow going beyond the general principle to assess the "value" of creation? In what sense can we speak about rights of animals and even the rights of nature?

Development in the context of life to the full (John 10:10): The shift of emphasis from concentrating on material growth toward qualitative development raises the question of the moral values underlying human society. Such reorientation has spiritual implications and requires a deeper understanding of the true "quality of life." In fact, this shift corresponds to the deepest convictions of Christian faith. Fulfilment of life can finally be found only in developing all God's gifts, in creating space where a communion of life and solidarity can flourish, and in developing harmonious relationships with the rest of creation. Jesus adamantly rejects the human desire to accumulate more and more material goods. He denounces as idolatry the commitment to material acquisition as an end in itself. Therefore, from the point of view of the Christian faith, a culture defined primarily or exclusively in economic terms is in danger of losing its true human quality.

The Christian tradition does not despise material goods. It affirms the excellence of God's creation and rejoices in God's gifts, at the same time emphasizing the need for an inner freedom which liberates from the desire to acquire and to dominate. At its best, the ascetic tradition in Christianity sought to foster this inner freedom. Facing the challenge of progress and expansion in modern times, there is a tendency to minimize the importance of this tradition.

How can it be recovered in a meaningful way?

Hope in a period of survival: The ecological crisis represents a threat to human survival on the planet. The question is on the minds and in the hearts of many: is it still possible to counteract the destructive forces? Will there be the wisdom and will to achieve the changes which are necessary to secure the way into the future?

What is Christian hope in this time? How can we recognize the mortal danger in which we live and yet avoid falling into disillusionment and fatalism? Where are the resources for hope to be found? Hope cannot be obtained by minimizing or even denying the danger. Christians are realists. On the other hand, without hope many of the insights needed to discern the true shape of the present danger are lost. We will forfeit the capacity to repent and to accept the inevitable changes in our personal and collective behaviour which are necessary to protect life and to create a sustainable society. Neither faith nor love can survive without hope.

Ultimately, Christian hope does not depend on human history. It is grounded in God's kingdom which transcends history. Whatever the course of history, even should it lead to the destruction of human life, no force in heaven or on earth can separate us from God's love. But this ultimate assurance does not permit neglect of our responsibility in history. On the contrary, ultimate hope inspires us to struggle against everything that buttresses the destructive forces in society. It leads us to share in the suffering which stems from the ecological crisis and the inevitable pain in any attempt to address it.

The ecological crisis forces a re-examination of the values and the temptations of utopian thinking. In light of what has happened in central and eastern Europe in this century, one must ask if the failures of building on utopian thought in one place and time preclude reformulating models of the future that might help clarify our present tasks. Of course, the assumption that all people in any given society could agree on a single vision of the good life carries a ponderous burden of proof. Do these failures condemn us to approach the future pragmatically, which can so easily end in disillusionment or fatalism? The main flaw in the failed attempt was that in unswerving commitment to a future of unprecedented possibility, it justified the use of coercive power and denied basic freedoms to vast numbers of people. The same oppressive violence which victimized millions of human beings also led to widespread environmental degradation. The obsession with bringing about the perfect future through the use of force blinded political leaders to the appalling destruction of life and hope in the present.

A similar pattern can be discerned in capitalistic countries, especially in the Third World, where people are forced, through both internal and external economic mechanisms and coercive powers, to forego their basic needs today with the promise of creating an abundant future for their children.

While trying to avoid the foregoing false conceptions of the future, it must be asked if Christian attempts to scan the eschatological horizon can discern patterns that might help shape a more just, participatory and ecologically stable society? How are such spiritual and ethical visions to be related to the insights of the scientist, the philosopher, the politician, the businessman, and other thinkers and planners, in a pluralistic world?

The role of the Churches: What can the churches contribute to the process of reorienting society? How does a new understanding of the role of human beings as participants in the wholeness and diversity of creation challenge historic models of church life?

i)  A prophetic voice: The churches have no reason to be self-confident. They need to admit that their past teachings on creation, as well as their praxis, often promoted an exploitative approach to nature. Now they must help Christians and others to unlearn such teaching. Any contribution of the churches presupposes the open admission of this past role. Through repentance they may gain the freedom to propose, to advocate and to live the new perspectives which are required for a sustainable society. It is essential that the churches provide a place for dialogue and common search for new solutions.

ii)  Accompanying the process of change: The fundamental changes which are required are bound to be disruptive. The transition to an economic system which gives priority to respect for the life of the whole eco-system cannot be achieved without pain and suffering. The tensions which will inevitably arise may lead to conflict, violence, and war. Therefore, the churches cannot be content with pointing in the direction to be followed. They must be willing to accompany the process of change, and through their life and witness to create conditions which reduce the risk of disruption and disintegration.

iii)  Commitment to the ecumenical movement: To bear an effective witness in this time of global crisis, the churches need to maintain the vision of a universal community which transcends dividing barriers. They can promote reconciliation and peace only if they accept reconciliation and peace among themselves, and offer the world a plausible model of "unity in diversity," of mutual respect and solidarity despite the threat of increasing fragmentation.

Today, the churches are affected by the same forces which cause tensions in the world. A few decades ago, a surging tide seemed to be sweeping the churches into dialogue, collaboration, and unity across ecclesial, theological, and geographic divisions. Today, the trend goes rather in the opposite direction: local concerns and partisan interests prevail and weaken commitment to the common cause. In a real sense, the quality of the churches' witness in the process of re-orienting economic and social models depends on the commitment to their universal calling.

iv)  A place for the celebration of hope: Since the emergence of the modern human species on earth, women and men have expressed the deepest mysteries of their lives, the rhythms of the earth and cosmos, through myths, rituals, and ceremonies. Confronted by the present ecological crisis, the churches would do well to recognize liturgy and the celebration of worship as powerful and fruitful areas where people can begin to integrate into their lives this new vision of the role of humanity in creation.

Christian teachings should inculcate attitudes of compassion, respect, and love for the earth. Expressing ecological awareness in the rituals, symbols, narratives, prayers, and other forms of participation in worship, can make human connectedness with all creation more explicit and the call to stewardship more intimate. The search for appropriate liturgies can spark creativity in music, dance, art, poetry, and worship.

Others might draw on the example of the Greek Orthodox and institute a Feast of Creation, a day to celebrate the environment. Christians, who affirm belief in God as "creator of heaven and earth," need new signs of rejoicing in the origin and abundance of God's creation of the universe and the Christian vocation to care for the earth.

Three illustrations may help: In the sacrament of Baptism, the focus can include the wider community of humanity and creation. The bread and wine offered in the Eucharist draw on elements of the natural world -- water, bread, oil, fire, light, and darkness -- and can deepen awareness of a new holy communion between God and all creation, including humanity. Lastly, drawn from the understanding of Sabbath in the Hebrew scriptures, inviting the community into the abundant rest of God to give priority to worship, prayer, friendship, community, and right relationships with all creation, can help people to turn away from life styles based on acquisition and consumption, and to experience abundance.

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