By Stroma McDermott
This September at LCI, we launched our new Autumn/Winter programme ‘People’s Pilgrimage Leeds: Theology and Action around Climate Change’ to coincide with events taking place nationally as part of the run up to the Paris UN Summit on climate change in December 2015. Three events were chosen to commence the programme. The first was an evening with Ruth Valerio, author, community activist and the churches and theology Director of A Rocha UK who spoke on ‘What’s the Good News for Creation?’ The second saw the re-branding of our monthly urban retreat Reflect: Harehills and finally an evening workshop with John Battle giving us his insights on Pope Francis’ newest encyclical Laudato Si. All three events were enjoyable, thought provoking and challenging (this is LCI after all) but by the end of the week I realised things had gone beyond that and that unwittingly I had begun a journey; I was actually on a pilgrimage.
The idea of pilgrimage is common to all the world’s religious traditions. A pilgrimage is a journey of faith, often to a place considered sacred, in order to offer thanks, to atone for wrongdoing, or to seek enlightenment, healing or reconciliation. Pilgrimage supports and encourages the sharing of spiritual experiences and theological insights but most significantly it determines a process of concrete actions, some of which may well involve sacrifice and suffering, all of which seems wholly appropriate in relation to the subject and nature of climate change. Many pilgrim trails required the believer to go barefoot, perhaps a reminder from Exodus 3:5 that ‘you stand on holy ground’ and from Psalm 24:1 that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’. Perhaps as we consider climate change we need to remember whose world it is that we live in and perhaps some simple, humble, barefoot theology is needed.
The word ’pilgrim’ itself derives from the Latin word peregrinus, which means a stranger, someone on a journey or a temporary resident. The term is essential to a central image of the Christian life that sees Christians as temporary residents of this world, but whose real home was heaven. As Ruth Valerio noted, this image of us belonging elsewhere has not been particularly helpful for our environmental awareness, suggestive as it can be of an eternal heaven and a disposable earth. Yet pilgrims were expected to live and behave according to the standards of their homeland as they journeyed; as Jesus’ own prayer says ‘ thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Valerio speaks passionately about how caring for God’s Earth, which is our homeland, should be a main part of our Christian service, witness and mission.
Scripture reflects how God both made the world and loves it; as Genesis 1:31 says it is ‘very good’. Throughout much of Christian history, however, instead of seeing and understanding God’s connectedness to the world (and therefore our own), Christianity has often separated out the material and non-material, the fleshly and the spiritual. In this way, we have failed to understand what really matters to God.
We need to reconnect with the idea we were ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27) for a purpose that affords a radical democratisation of God’s vocation for us in this world (Genesis 1:28). Our vocation to rule over our world is a pastoral one requiring care, justice and humility, and not the domineering perspective we have misinterpreted it to be. We should be excited and ready to rediscover our original vocation and mandate to ‘go out into all he world’ (Genesis 9:7), but as people who offer peace and justice for all of creation.
One of the key features on our Reflect: Harehills retreats is that we do indeed go out, having an hour’s walk observing and reflecting on various aspects of theology and prayer as we go, allowing place and space to inform our thinking and experience; a mini-pilgrimage in itself. Using James Jones’ book Jesus and the Earth our reflections have considered just how ‘earthed’ the Bible is. The word heaven is mentioned 494 times, the world love 537 times, yet the word earth is 853 times. Similarly the gospels show Jesus as a very earthed or even earthy young man. It is telling that Jesus’ preferred title for himself was Son of Man, from the Hebrew, Son of Adam, the one hewn from the earth. Jesus, the incarnation of God lived here and I mean really lived. Perhaps sometimes we have understood Jesus’ life from Paul’s beautiful hymn in Philippians 2:1-8 as a kenotic relinquishing of his divine life in order to become a humble servant without maybe considering that Jesus liked being here and wanted to be here. As Jones notes, the Son of Man came eating and drinking (Matt 11:19)!
The strap line for Reflect: Harehills is Meet: Retreat: Eat which is interesting considering Jones suggests Christianity is a religion of consumption. As we gathered back after our walk to a wonderful bowl of hot, spicy food it was good to reflect on the fact that just as sin entered the world through one act of consumption Jesus redeemed it through another, an act that has become a central symbol of Christianity itself. Consumption does not have to be a bad thing.
Yet humanity’s overconsumption is clearly at the heart of the problem of climate change. In his reading of the encyclical John Battle commented that Pope Francis sees the environmental chaos and destruction facing our planet as the main challenge facing humanity. It is a chaos that comes from the cultures that shape our human co-existence. As the late Leeds MP Michael Meacher noted at the UN Johannesburg Earth Summit on sustainable development in 2002,
“There is a lot wrong with our world. But it is not as bad as many people, think. It is actually worse”.
On this theme, Pope Francis argues that relativism, understood as the disorder that drives one person to take advantage of another and leads to global exploitation, needs addressing. He also recognises, however, the need to protect work and encourage business, which he suggests, can be a ‘noble vocation providing wealth and improvement for our world’. We do have the means to act for the good of creation, and in this need to be guided by the God of Creation to look for the common good for our common home within a universal communion. In this way, climate change is a spiritual issue.
For John Battle the one word that Francis used that struck him the most was ‘beauty’. Francis, like the Psalmist and other Wisdom writers appeals to the mystery and the beauty of creation and the Creator. It would be very easy to get sentimental about beauty, but in the stark world of climate change, how does a focus on beauty help? Immanuel Kant suggested ‘beauty is a symbol of morality’ and I wonder if we could recover or even identify a beauty that could be a moral imperative for all areas of life and most especially for our economics? A beauty of business that allows a dignity and integrity for producer and consumer, that respects and values the source and resource as much as the end product. In this way, we could consider the Fairtrade movement as beautiful and see recycling as an act of beautiful worship.
As our events programme continues, so has my journeying with these questions. Reflect: Harehills offers a glimmer of hope; yes there is consumerism, shops, busyness and business all around, but it is in balance, in proportion to the community and its needs. In her book L is for Lifestyle Ruth Valerio suggests we make personal and communal changes to how we live our lives so that we live within our planetary resources as part of the whole of humanity and creation. We need to make adjustments for the common good. Such changes require metanoia, to change our way of believing, acting and being. They are not necessarily easy nor are they without sacrifice but they can perhaps be pilgrimage and for our planet’s wholeness, L also stands for Life.