A Vision for a Transfigured CreationMark 9:2-9 & Psalm 50:1-6
Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Seeing it might make you reconsider the old saying that all mountains in the East are just foothills in comparison to those in the West. Mount Katahdin is the most difficult non-technical climb in the East, and many of the trails have a tendency to go straight up. The most spectacular route involves taking the mile-long Knife Edge, which combines 2,000 foot drops on either side of the trail. It's definitely not a trail to get caught on in bad weather.
I’m not much of a mountain climber. I’ve never been back to Katahdin. But as I remember this event I think of those who have tried to summit Mount Everest. Some make it. Many do not. Bill Burke was one of the oldest climbers to summit Everest at age 71. He plans to return. When asked why, Burke said, “I love that mountain and think about it often. Mt. Everest is beautiful, powerful, awe inspiring, fearsome and benevolent, all at the same time. It is always the same, and it is never the same. When I find myself blessed to be on its flanks, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground.”
Agreed. Mountains can be sacred places. It should be no surprise that mountaintop experiences part of our sacred stories. As the waters of the great flood subside, Noah’s ark comes to rest in the mountains. On the mountain of the Lord, Abraham draws his knife to sacrifice Isaac, and on the mountain God provides a substitute offering. God calls Moses from a burning bush on a mountain. On a mountain, God gives the Law to Moses. And on that very same mountain, centuries later, the Prophet Elijah hears God in a sound of sheer silence. Jesus delivers his best-known sermon on a mountain. And today, we get the story of a backpacking trip with Jesus up a mountain. On the mountain, Jesus’ shines in dazzling, transforming light. On the mountain, people they hear the voice of God and see Moses and Elijah.
A lot of people connect with God on mountains. How about you? Where do you connect with God? When I ask this question, a vast majority of people tell me that they sense God most when they are in nature. People tell me about hiking up a mountain and catching the view at the summit, taking a walk in the woods, going to the shore, or working in the garden. Last week, Public Religion Research gave their findings about why Americans are conflicted about climate change. One of the survey questions connected spiritual experience with nature. Public Religion Research asked people how often they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe, nature and the earth. A majority of the 3000 or so people reported a moderate to very high connection.
I have to wonder, if people feel deep spiritual connections in nature, why don’t we spend more time outside? If we feel a sense of wonder and awe wandering around creation, why don’t we take better care of it? What’s the ambivalence about? Why are we even arguing about the reality of global warming and climate change? The good news is this: 57% of those surveyed by Public Religion Research believe God gave us the responsibility to live with other living creatures and resources on our planet – they are not there just for human benefit. We could call this a “stewardship” mindset. For me, this is a transforming, transfiguring trend. The bad news: many people of faith are stuck in a worn-out way of treating the earth. 37% of those surveyed believe God gave human beings the right to use other living beings and the resources of the planet for human benefit. We could call this a “dominion” mindset.
In spite of the mounting scientific data, global warming continues to be controversial. I don’t think the controversy is over the fact of climate change. Global temperature has increased over the last 50 years. Glaciers are definitely melting. Tundra is thawing. Ocean levels are rising. There is more CO2 in the atmosphere. The controversy seems to be over the degree to which human activity is responsible for this warming and the extent to which changes in human behavior can stop it. I do not possess the scientific tools to resolve that controversy, although I am convinced that human activities bear much responsibility for greenhouse gases, which contribute to the warming. I think substantial changes in human behavior would moderate global warming.
My vision of a transfigured creation is not just about buying LED lightbulbs and installing solar power on your house. I love those ideas, but there is some inner-work that needs to be done, first. Before we renew creation, there is some transfiguring change that has to happen in our minds. WHY are we buying the LEDs and solar panels? WHY would be need to make sacrifices to our comfort? Our mindset about global warming is influenced by hundreds of years of assumptions that have come to us from names of those philosophers and scientists you learned about in college: Kant, and Locke, Copernicus and Descartes. Once upon a time, humans and our climate were intimately linked. Humans understood themselves as part of creation and responsible for its care and protection. Now, we humans see ourselves as displaced from the rest of creation, estranged and isolated from a natural world, needing to subdue it and tame it.
For me, a vision of a transfigured creation means that we hear the voice of God, in creation. This is the experience of Psalm writers, who insist that the earth speaks about the glory of God. Listen to these words from Psalm 50:
In every mountaintop vista, in every ocean wave crashing the shore, in every star in the sky on a clear night, we hear God saying, “This, this is my beloved. Listen to it. Listen.”The mighty God, the Lord, has summoned all humankind from east to west! God’s glory-light shines from the beautiful Temple on Mount Zion. God comes with the noise of thunder, surrounded by devastating fire; a great storm rages round. God has come to judge the people. To heaven and earth God shouts, “Gather together my own people who by their sacrifice upon my altar have promised to obey me.” God will judge them with complete fairness, for all heaven declares that God is just.Creation is God’s court, summoning us to worship.
If we listen, I think we will hear something disturbing. We will hear creation crying for justice.
Global warming is, like food, housing, and healthcare, a matter of justice. Those most adversely affected by global warming have the least ability to do anything about it. Those who have the most to gain by staying the course also have the greatest ability to protect themselves from the direst results. Sure, all will suffer from climate change, but the world’s poor will suffer the most.
I want us to consider that our faith calls us us to love the poor. If we are really listening to the voice of the earth, we will realize that the poor are not just poor people. Nature itself is the new poor. When we talk about God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed, we must include that natural world within our scope. Respect for the natural world will mean some commitments from those of us who are on the privileged side of the equation. It will mean converting from our consumerist lifestyles, addressing poverty, avoiding war and its devastating ecological effects, promoting education in ecological responsibility, and appreciating the beauty of nature, which summons us to God’s presence. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then the range of neighbors now includes the whale, the monarch butterfly, the ferns growing on the side of the bike path, the entire web of life. If the common good requires solidarity with all who suffer, then our compassion extends to suffering species caught in patterns of extinction.
So here is what I think needs to happen. What I’m about to say is not a solution. It is not a technical fix. Let’s call it an adaptive challenge – in other words, something we need to do to transfigure our minds and our souls. I think we need to reclaim the idea of repentance. I’m not talking about walking around with “repent for the end is near” signs in downtown Silver Spring. I think we need to transpose the idea of repentance – to shift it it from the religious world into the civil world. Repentance needs to become part of our national vocabulary. This may not be as ridiculous as it sounds. Other religious ideas have already made the shift. Like the idea of stewardship. Stewardship started out as a religious term. Now ecologists use it all the time, talking about environmental stewardship. What if the idea of repentance could make the same leap? After all, the world simply means “to turn” – to make a 180 and go the other direction. What might that look like?
First, it would mean learning how to show true remorse for what we have done to the earth as a way of showing respect to that which has been violated.
But we all know remorse is not enough. Another part of civic repentance means making restitution. This could mean financial punishments, sanctions, and civic pressure on businesses that continue to abuse and neglect the earth. Restitution also means restorative justice. In other words, justice to an injured earth requires that we work to restore the victim to wholeness. We need to find ways to listen to the earth’s cries and help those who have hurt the earth have a stake in its repair.
Many times we stop there. We show remorse and we make amends. But repentance has one more step. Those who are truly repentant must restructure their lives. Guilty parties must show, over a period of time, that we have transformed and transfigured our own lives – that we have new priorities that are sustained over time.
Some people say that we need a moral megalogue on civic repentance. A "moral megalogue" is a dialogue projected onto a larger scale. It is a process by which we identify shared fundamental values that guide our lives. How could we possible get entire societies to come together to affirm a set of values by means of a moral megalogue? The process occurs by linking millions of local conversations -- between couples, in neighborhood bars and pubs, in coffee houses, next to water coolers at work -- into society-wide networks and shared public focal points.
It has happened before. Until 1970, the environment was not considered a shared core value in Western societies. Society as a whole paid it little heed to the ecology, and it was not listed among America's core values. The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring triggered a nationwide megalogue. A massive oil spill and the ensuing protests in Santa Barbara, California, and the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident further impressed the subject on the national agenda. Thousands of people gathered in New York City to listen to pro-environment speeches and to pick up garbage along Fifth Avenue. Two hundred thousand people gathered on the Washington Mall in 1970 to demonstrate concern for the environment on Earth Day. The same process of moral megalogue could strengthen any one country's commitment to repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.
Our God is not merely the God who changes the way we see. Our God is also the God who changes who we are. So we work for a transfigured creation: a world where our love for getting and spending is tempered by the growth of human solidarity and devotion to the public good; a world where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; a world where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; a world where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate. A world that calls us to repentance, to restoration. A World that summons us to live in God’s beautiful light.
A Political Theology of Climate Change by John Northcutt