The burning bush of God's energies

Do not be conformed any longer by the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12. 2 - 3

The root of the risk of dangerous climate change from industrial civilisation’s profligate use of fossil fuel is sin. Excessive consumerism is putting the future stability of the planet into question. As with the fall of Adam, this present fall into climate chaos is indicative of the inextricable relations between the goals and relations of human life and the lives and wellbeing of all creatures. Rituals of consumption which neglect the relations these rituals constitute, even if in ways hidden by the market, are at the root of the problem. Industrial civilisation risks despoiling the oikos of the planet because modern humans lack a true knowledge of relatedness, to other creatures, to one another and above all to the divine creator who is the source of all life, and whose providential presence in the cosmos has made the last 10,000 years a time of unique climate stability in which civilisation itself became possible. This is a sign of the divine blessing on creation, but especially on the time of human civilisation in which the will of God for human life has been most fully revealed.

As Patriarch Bartholomew has suggested the ecological crisis calls forth a spiritual conversion from humanity as well as material economic, political and technological reorientation. Pope John Paul II spoke in 2001 of the need for an ”˜ecological conversion’ ”˜that will render the life of creatures more dignified, protecting the radical good of life in all its manifestations’. The need for conversion arises from the fact that our ecological predicament reflects a misconception of the relation between body and spirit in modern culture. Too often responses to ecological crisis neglect the interconnected nature of spirit and matter. Technological progress therefore also has a spiritual dimension, substituting humanly made creatures for the creator and the worship of idols for the worship of God in spirit and truth. Thus there is a related loss of the spirit-body relation which is foundational to the Christian tradition as framed in the first acts of creation, reframed by the Fall, and reaffirmed by the Resurrection of the Incarnate God whose resurrected body is the prototype of the new creation towards which God, and Christians in their priesthood of creation, invite all creatures. In this perspective humans are saved as body and spirit and so salvation means to save nature as well as humanity.

The rituals of fossil fuel consumption, and the myriad other acts of consumption cheap fossil fuel enables, represent impiety, and sustain false worship of created things rather than uncreated. For consumption to be real in the spiritual as well as material sense, rather than illusory and idolatrous, there is a need to restore right relations to our consumption rituals – between human makers and natural goods, between producers and consumers, and between rich and poor. Recovering the communitarian setting of the exchange of gifts, reconnecting the economy of such exchanges with the oikos of the household and of the biosphere, is then a moral as well as a material and a spiritual challenge. The victims of climate change – such as those already suffering from drought-related famine and from floods in such places as Tanzania and Bangladesh – are mostly those whose lands are still plundered by the empire of the global economy. Since it is already the poorest who are suffering from the growing frequency of extreme climate events mitigating climate change is an urgent moral priority.

In the Christian tradition justice is not only, or even primarily, a matter of distribution of material resources but a recognition that true justice is modelled first by the creator in giving good gifts, and above all the gift of life, to all creatures, and in commanding those first called as the people of God to design their society in such a way as to give special place to the poor and the sojourner, and to restrain the rich and powerful in their tendency to accumulate wealth and power. The determining constraint on the growth of inequality and even slavery in Israel was the constant recognition that Israel received the land as gift from God as liberator, and that the earth belongs to the Lord. In our present context of climatological disruption this means that the biosphere is not owned by any corporation or government or group of nations. The atmosphere, like the land, is a gift from God to all humanity which in its delicate balance of gases, and its protecting veil, makes life on earth possible even as life, in the providence of God, helps to sustain that delicate balance, as the gaia hypothesis reveals, or, as in the present case, disrupts it to the detriment of all life.

The eschatological hope of Christians is that this design for human society, first spoken of in the Old Testament, should become the pattern of the body of Christ on earth, and even beyond the body in social relations. Among the strongest eschatological metaphors are those of fire and light but the fire of God does not burn to destroy but rather burns to cleanse and transfigure towards the new creation. Similarly the hope of salvation from suffering and death in this life through the life of prayer and worship depends for Christians upon the uncreated light of the Son of God, the Christ. The energy of sunlight stored on the earth as fossil fuel is created light but its source is divine, and this recognition invites that we treat this store with much greater respect. But nonetheless the light that redeems is not created but uncreated light. Christ in St John is described as uncreated light; for St Paul light is the metaphor for the illuminating power of the Spirit. Christian power consumption in the mystical body of Christ which is the Church does not then use up stored energy but magnifies the ever present abundance of divine power available now in time – in this sense praise and worship, and the mutual dependence and right relations which are to constitute the body politics of Christians as described in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 increase the gift of God’s divine power and the associated charismata.

The Christian hope is not a hope which is confined to the sanctuary or to the hope of transformation in the next life. The Gospel speaks of abundant life in this life now, and the Book of Acts of the infectious joy which accompanied the meetings of the first believers. Talk of sacrifice in relation to energy and climate change obscures the reality that the fossil fuel economy already rests upon enormous sacrifices including the well-being and peace of the millions who dwell in lands where these fuels are extracted so as to be made available cheaply to others. The recovery of right relations in the energy economy will involve new communitarian approaches to energy production where renewable energy is harnessed locally and hence efficiently, and in a way which creates jobs and opportunities in local communities instead of the corporately controlled global economy with its hidden trade offs of injustice and pollution. A society which embraces the challenge of moving towards a renewable energy economy will therefore be one which is committed to the goal of right relations, justice and peace between humans and the earth and between all creatures. The quest for a civilisation based upon renewable energy is then intricately connected with a move away from the utilitarian hedonic calculus of costs and benefits towards the goal of human and ecological well-being. Such a goal will also be one which invites the divine blessing promised in Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom.

From a theological perspective the central analogy for the renewing of energy in the life of the Christian is the life of Christ himself. Christ for St John is the mediator between the earthly and heavenly light, created and uncreated light. This is taken up in the Orthodox theological account of material light as an analogy of uncreated light of divine glory which issues in an aesthetics of light which radically challenges the profligate industrial use of the earth’s store of sunlight; for Maximus the Confessor, Christ is the prototype and everyone who is connected with him in the Spirit is filled with uncreated energy and light or is ”˜deified’. The vision of God is therefore key both morally and spiritually in the Hesychastic tradition; seeing God through the uncreated inner light or divine energeias (Gregory Palamas) transforms the character and orientation of the saints.

The world, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, is charged with the grandeur of God. We might even say that all creation is a gigantic ”˜Burning Bush’, permeated but not consumed by the ineffable and wondrous fire of God's energies. And this metaphor of creation as the burning bush is an icon for the quest for a society based on renewable energy and right relations. In the Monastery at Mount Sinai a famous ikon represents the burning bush as the prototype of the birth of Christ in the womb of a woman who bears God and yet who is not burned up. The ikons of our age are increasingly the lives of the rich and famous which rely upon a holocaust of natural resources, and fossil fuels, to sustain them. The ikon of the burning bush is a powerful visual focus for the worship of God as Trinity for it is precisely in the Trinitarian relations between God and the creation which is revealed in its fullness in the Incarnation, and the gift of the Spirit, that the goal of all being to be transfigured in its relation to God is made visible on earth. To look to this goal, and to reorder our life after it, is no sacrifice – it is the ultimate source of well-being and joy for all creatures.