In May last, Fr. Tom Cullinan addressed Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link on “Christ and Ecology”. “We need,” he said, “to allow that which God brought about in Christ’s ministry (and the mystery of his cross and resurrection) to reproduce itself in our age. In other words, we need to become extremely aware of the conditions we are living in; of the social order we are part of, and of what’s happening on our planet.”
Fr. Norman Tanner S.J.’s talk to CCEL last night, “Ecology in Christian tradition from the early church to today” had a different emphasis. The Professor of Church History at Rome’s Gregorian University brought us “a few scattered historical reflections”. Central to his theme was the humanity of Christ, who showed us that an ecological life meant the best, the most sensible way to live.
Norman started with an illustration from the early 4th Century, given us by St Jerome: St Paul of Thebes lived in Egypt as a hermit, a raven supplying him with dates and bread. But hermits did not completely disassociate themselves from the world: St Anthony visited Paul once a year. When Paul died, his grave was dug out by lions with their paws: Anthony placed the body in the grave, the lions covering it up. Both saints lived to 100, their good lives “an image of ecological balance”.
“Good” lives, that is, not just ascetic ones. Jesus is symbolised as a fish: the Eucharistic bread and wine flow into the rest of our lives, where we enjoy a meal at leisure: it completes a natural symbiosis. Ecology implies a mixture of beauty and suffering – the suffering necessary for growth.
A feature of the early Church is life in community – in villages, families, monasteries, nearly all with their animal and vegetable kingdom attached. Where humans and animals live together, as they did, each animal (not just dogs and cats) is known by name. Most people live in the countryside, and farming is – as St Benedict wrote – an integral part of a balanced life. This synthesis does not need emphasising: it is just there.
Within these manageable units, mutual correction between the human population is possible, and the norm. This changed with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which placed more value upon each person’s relationship with God, than upon God’s place within an ecologically balanced community. Individualism grew stronger – and we became too polite. “All of us for ourselves” and “the sky’s the limit” get in the way of a balanced life for the community. The question today is: how do we hope to achieve ecological balance?
Now, aware of resource constraints, the problems of overpopulation and habitat destruction, there is a new imperative to live simply. We nevertheless need to remind ourselves that the reasons for doing so, characterised in the early Church’s history, remain valid.
Norman’s talk provoked a flurry of contributions from the large audience. One audience member questioned whether concerns about overpopulation were not exaggerated, which brought a sharp response from Mary Colwell, environmental adviser to our Catholic Bishops Conference: “Even if we are able to feed seven, going on nine, billion people,” she said, “at what cost? 60% of even the animals and plants in the UK are already under serious threat of extinction because of the way we have to use the land.”
She went on, “The problem is that the Christian Church has nothing to say about the natural world: it doesn’t know what it thinks about nature generally and our relationship with it.”
Mary Paterson passed on a recommendation for Richard Bauckham’s “Beyond Stewardship: The Bible and the Community of Creation”. On the controversial question of population, Clive Burton pointed us in the direction of Albert Bartlett's classic YouTube lecture, "The most important video you'll ever see".
Feedback since received includes a note from Canon Andrew Bowden: he found helpful Norman’s stress on the importance of ‘community’ and 'collegiate theological discussion' for a healthy ecological life. At the same time, he asked “Where would we be in our understanding of ecology without the scientific individualism unchained by the Reformation and Renaissance?”
Gordon McConville, Professor of Old Testament Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, also liked the connections to “community”: Norman “said some very interesting things, even if some members of the audience thought he was working with an idea of ecology that they were not expecting.”
From Mary Colwell came the comment that she "really valued Norman's ideas that community, simplicity and connection with nature are great insights the Church has to offer the world today, wise ways of living whether there is an ecological crisis or not."
Norman himself said he enjoyed being with us – and that he had learned a lot! Thanks to him for sparking this particular evening of 'collegiate theological discussion'.