An old professor and mentor during my seminary days used to say, ‘listening is love in action.’ I have returned to this phrase many times over the years, but never more than now. We humans are facing what Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, called ‘multiple global emergencies’ during his speech to the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations. Several decades of successive wars in the Middle East have resulted in a refugee crisis which is unprecedented in history and on a scale which is unimaginable with no end in sight. The world order itself is also unravelling, as was evident to anyone following the UN Assembly this year, and there are massive demographic and economic shifts occurring right now around the world. What is more, Pope Francis claimed recently that we are fully engaged in a ‘piecemeal third world war.’ However, what every country in the world acknowledged, both in the recent UN Assembly, and in their collective commitments to the Paris Climate Summit, our greatest global emergency is that of climate change. If we are to engage properly with these global emergencies, and do so with love, then there has never been a time more important than this one for us to listen.
We must listen first to the cry of the refugees, as far, and a bit further, than we can bear to do so. This is very hard since it entails listening to the suffering and the humanity of these people, who are displaced, starving, shivering in open fields, and destitute. Hearing them means becoming awake to what they are experiencing, and this is a very difficult task indeed. Hearing them also highlights the fears which seek to keep their cries at bay, to isolate them, and to treat them like enemies of a peaceful order within which we are benefiting daily. But there is no other way for the follower of Christ than to listen to them, and in doing so unite our voice in solidarity to theirs through prayer.
But their cry is part of a larger problem. We must also listen to the earth itself, which may indeed be the prophet of God for our times. A prophet’s role is not fortune or future telling; rather, a prophet in the biblical sense is someone who speaks the word of God into the current world and who expresses what we need to hear now. The outcome, whether we act upon or disregard the prophet’s words, is up to us, as is the future. The earth, I believe, is the prophet of our times and it is calling us, as all prophets ultimately do, to repentance. It might be strange, for some, to think of the earth as a kind of biblical-style prophet, but the earth is God’s creation as much as we are, and in fact it is filled already with news about God. Those who have ‘ears to hear’ will discover the beauty, wonder, joy, and life-giving nature of the God which our earth, and the whole creation, proclaims in myriad ways. Indeed, the natural world is radiant, even symphonic, with the revelation of the living and loving God. And all this revelation is calling us continuously back to communion with God in and through the natural world.
## Listen to the Scriptures
The real question, however, is how to listen to the earth. I would start by listening to what the Scriptures have to say about it. Make a list of the verses, starting with Genesis, which speak directly to creation and our place within it, and begin reading. Read them with an open mind, on your knees, and ponder them in your heart. Try to separate what you have heard about these passages (through your own Christian traditions) from what they are actually telling you. For instance, there is a great deal of industrial-era interpretation about the verses in Genesis concerning the subduing of the earth, almost none of which is actually accurate and in accordance with what apostolic Christians (or ancient rabbinic interpretations) have expressed through the centuries. Another example is the often quoted verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” We hear this verse so often, but always assume the ‘world’ here is humanity. In fact, the Greek word is ‘cosmos’, and is inclusive of the whole whole created order, from solar systems to atoms. I think that we should also try to dwell on God’s own poetry about the earth, such as that in Job, or in the Psalms and Proverbs.
## Listen to the Life of Christ
The next way to listen is to consider the life and Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, the Incarnation itself speaks volumes about God’s love of us and the earth starting with the fact that the incorporeal God became corporeal. God entered creation, became it, and through it saved us and the cosmos. We not only proclaim, as part of our Gospel, that God became Man, but we also say that in doing so he took on the atoms, the water, the soil, and the stuff of earth which comprise the physical body. What is more, He enthroned all this after His Ascension. This means that there is not only a human being enthroned and governing heaven and earth, but the whole creation as well. There is no greater reason to love and listen to the earth than this, since there is no greater honour which God can give it than to enthrone it in Himself. Once we grasp this mystery, we grasp why caring for and loving the planet is central to the gospel and a vital part of our ministry.
## Listen to the Saints
I would also keep listening to the saints and holy people through the ages who have actualized the gospel in their lives. ‘God is glorious in his saints,’ says the Psalmist, and their witness also speaks volumes about our ministry to the earth. I would suggest reading the early literature of the Church, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, the Didache, Polycarp of Smyrna, and then go on to read and study Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, Macrina the Younger, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Symeon the New Theologian, Theresa of Avilla, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Muir, Alexander Schmemann, Mary Oliver, Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, Seraphim of Sarov, and many others. All of these people are passionate about the earth, it’s ecosystems, it’s animals and life. They are vibrant, brilliant, martyric Christians who are full and worthy witnesses not only of the Christian life but of how that life incorporates the natural world. Listening to them is to listen to a chorus of love about nature; they point us always to the love of God flowing throughout the cosmos.
## Listen to the Indigenous Peoples
And while we are listening to them, I think it is truly time to listen to the aboriginal peoples around the world who have an enormous amount to teach us about how to live sustainably. Based on their intimate knowledge of the natural world, they can also teach us about how the earth is changing around us now. The genius of indigenous spirituality is that it understands that the ‘voices’ of the great bear or the caribou, the salmon or the eagle, are vitally important to survival; indeed, these voices speak to us and and can even help reveal our identities to us. I wish the churches would listen more to this kind of spirituality. Indeed, I wish the churches would listen more in general! Fr Alexander Schmemman, a well-known Russian theologian, asked in one of his journals, “What is there about Christianity that people feel the need to talk about it so much?” What colonial spirituality needs to learn from the faith traditions of the First Nations is simply this: stop telling people things, and listen to what the natural world is telling us. Note the lack of dogmas, doctrines, and creeds among the indigenous peoples. Theirs is a journey from a human isolation to a harmony with the natural world. I have always picked up a sense from their stories and rituals that it is nature, and not Man, that is the real authority; it speaks to us, and if we listen we thrive; if we do not, we die. They would teach us to love the world God created and lean in to hear His voice in it.
This is the first part of a two-part series. Stay tuned for the second part later this week!
-Kaleeg Hainsworth is the author of An Altar In the Wilderness (RMB ’14), an ecologist, a podcaster, speaker, Orthodox priest, and most of all a dad of three. He is a member of the Earth Keepers team.