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Back to the Garden

Alastair McIntosh

ALASTAIR McINTOSH envisions a deep green future

Fecology.jpgSo the world's leaders came to the UN's climate change conference at Copenhagen in December 2009. And they saw the political magnitude of what lay before them. And they deferred conquest to another day. Like the young ruler in Luke 18, they were very rich. And the richer you are, the more it costs to give it all away. As in the story, the leaders of the world walked away, 'sadly'.
That pretty much sums up the impasse facing modern environmentalism. But it's not good enough because, as Joni Mitchell's 60s hymn puts it, 'We've got to get ourselves back to the garden.'

Theologically that means taking 'the Creation' seriously. Many Christian denominations in the West have sidestepped this. They work up a lather about the biblical literalism of creationism, but fail to embody the prologue of John's Gospel, Psalm 104, or those several chapters around Job 36 that testify to God's full-on presence in nature.

This is a problem of prophetic fail­ure because, to the mystic, God is the quickening sap that courses through 'all that came to be' (John 1:4). If that's rendered invisible, or even denied, we negate the roots of life and worship death.

How can such failure have come about? After all, an older generation of evan­gelicals celebrated a full-on panentheism. This is not to be con­fused with pantheism. Panthe­ism confuses God with nature and so limits God to the visible world. However, panen­theism knows God (or Christ) as both trans­cendent and immanent in nature (Hebrews 1:3).

For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 teaches that 'God executeth his decrees in the works of Creation and Pro­vidence.' The 18th-century Cal­vinist minister, Thomas Boston, noted that, 'Every pile of grass is a preacher of the loving-kindness of the Lord.'1

Religion that denies the immanence of God and focuses only on the transcendent becomes neurotically obsessed with personal salvation. Yet, Jesus himself warned against the shouting of 'Lord! Lord!' by the upright and uptight self-assured 'saved'.

Instead, we are invited, with Job, to call upon the birds to inform us, and the creatures of the field to teach us (12:7-12). Like Jeremiah we should bear witness to human impact on biodiversity: 'How long must the country lie parched and its green grass wither? No birds and beasts are left, because its people … say, "God will not see what we are doing''' (12:4).

If environmentalism is to have a future worth celebrating we need to start by confessing our complicity in what is happening to the planet. The lives of nearly all of us are riddled with contradictions - mine certainly is. I want to reduce my carbon footprint and so gather scrap wood to help heat the house, yet I continue to run a car. But the difference between being contradicted, and being an outright hypocrite, is whether or not we are also in denial. Denial puts out the very eyes by which we might hope to see deepening truth. In consequence, 'the Earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick … because they have … violated the eternal covenant' (Is. 23:45).
'You were in Eden, the garden of God,' said Ezekiel, clearly using Eden as a metaphor. 'You were on the holy mountain of God and walked among the precious stones .... But in the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned' (Ez. 28).

It's easy enough to project onto others the causes of such vio­lence but we all have our share in it. We've all got blood on our hands. And we're right to worry about climate change. Even as I write, Ladbrokes have just cut the odds that Britain's temperature record will be 'beaten' this summer from 7/2 to 3/1.
So we must campaign on climate change, but we must also open to inner transformation. Only by becoming more spiritually alive we can make it 'back to the garden'.

What can we do in the next ten years? I leave you with four suggestions.

1. Recognise consumerism as the leading idolatry of our times.
2. Rekindle the spirituality of an activated inner life to counter it.
3. View beauty as the touchstone of all right relationships.
4. Suffer little children to connect elementally with fire, air earth and water.

When Mary Magdalene first saw the resurrected Christ she thought he was the gardener. I think she might have been right.

Alastair McIntosh

The Beauties of Boston, Christian Focus, 1979, p. 325).