Imagine a sandy beach, covered with holiday debris – towels and sunshades, cheap paperbacks and children’s toys, a blow-up beachball in the form of a globe. Happy days.
But where are the people? Have they wandered off for lunch, expecting to find everything still in the same place when they get back?
Time passes. The beach starts to take on a rather more worrisome look; its viewers, peering down from above, start to feel a bit like archaeologists, sifting through centuries’ old bits and pieces to try to reconstruct long lost lives.
The beach is in Venice, in one of the sheds of the medieval Arsenal, and is the Lithuanian entry in this year’s Art Biennale, where it won the Golden Lion Award. Several weeks later, it continues to reverberate in my imagination – and to inform my reading. I thought I knew about the dangers of rising sea levels – but it hadn’t occurred to me that beaches will be the first to go – and that it will take the planet zillions of years to renew them. All those tonnes of rock to be ground down.
Has it yet informed my actions? I admit that’s work in progress. But it’s a fair question – because that’s the test of the efficacy of such transforming experiences – do they lead to transformative action?
Christians and other people of faith have been grappling with their understanding of the issue of the climate emergency for some time now. On the one hand, the urgency of our predicament is not in doubt. On the other, we know that if we act only in our own strength, we shall falter. Our actions need to spring from the deepest levels of our faith. But many of us, perhaps especially those whose faith was formed decades ago, before humans did so much damage to the planet, have not yet learnt to understand the demands of our faith in this way.
There is a lot of help at hand. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. ‘Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience’. His namesake, too, is being pressed into service – ecumenical retreats are using St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, composed at the end of his life and so a summary of his life’s insights, to rediscover the created world as a network of family relationships, and the essential setting in which humanity and divinity became one in the Incarnation.
My own faith community, Quakers in Britain, have been in the forefront of climate activism, but also feel the need to root this more firmly in our faith. This year we took the opportunity to do some internal ecumenism, and invited Eden Grace, from the more bible-based strand of Quakerism in the US, to give our annual lecture, ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven; The Kingdom of God and the yearning of Creation.’
I’m sure other traditions can cite other examples. By working and praying together, we can share and expand our insights into the faith roots of our concern for creation, acknowledge our complicity and uphold one another in our actions for climate justice. My hope, shared by staff and trustees, is that CTE, nationally and locally, can help create a space for us to do so.
I’ll close with the famous words of John Donne, doubtless intended metaphorically, but now sounding heart-breakingly literal – just try substituting ‘glacier’ for ‘clod’:
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea……’
Rowena Loverance is chair of CTE trustees and convenor of the Enabling Group. She is a life-long Quaker.