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A radical kinship

Miranda King  |  21 May 2020

I was recently travelling on a tram into the city when I got chatting with a friendly young woman. She was off to a job interview for a position at a well-known Melbourne restaurant and I was off to my theology class.

She was curious when I mentioned I was studying theology at a Catholic institution and kept asking questions. It’s not a very common interest amongst young inner-city dwellers. She then explained that for her, things are much simpler: she feels connected with her purpose and spirituality when she’s in nature, engaged in social justice and caring for her planet. To her, organised religion seemed disconnected from that.

At that point I had to get off the tram but I wish I had more time to explain that I didn’t see these things as incompatible. In fact, my experience has been the opposite.

However, her words raised some questions for me: What is it about being in nature and caring for our world that seems to be awakening this kind of spiritual urgency, especially for young people today? And why is it that Christians are seen as being disconnected from this?

FINDING GOD IN NATURE

I have always found going for walks, hikes and camping to be healing experiences; an antidote to the distracted, detached, fast pace of life today.

Being in the forest, by the ocean or on a mountain, away from the city, sometimes I like to imagine that I’m in the world before civilisation. I stop looking at my phone and at the time and begin to notice smaller details and sounds – birds, insects, flowers – all existing without any awareness of time. This life speaks to me of the alive and active presence of God.

Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, describes the beauty of the tree coming from its simply being what it is. For Merton, the tree ‘consents’ to speak to God’s creative love.

I think that this is evident to everyone on some level, regardless of their faith background, including perhaps the young lady I encountered on the tram. In the face of an ecological crisis, young people today are standing up not only because it bears upon their own futures. They have recognised a deep lack of connectedness in the way our lives are constructed. They feel a spiritual hunger to be connected with our world again.

FINDING GOD IN OUTREACH

As Pope Francis clearly states in his encyclical Laudato Si’, the environmental crisis is felt most deeply by the poor of our world. I personally witnessed these real consequences unfolding during a year I spent volunteering abroad in rural Zambia.

I lived in a rural town with a small community run by the Salesian Sisters for girls at risk who had come from difficult home backgrounds. Without the same infrastructure we have in Australia, life is more exposed to the harsher sides of nature – the dirt, the heat, the torrential rain, the insects. There are regular power shortages, and no-one to take away rubbish. Without cars or money for public transport, many people walk long distances on day-to-day business.

In short, life is much less sheltered from the outside world. People can’t help but be aware of just how fragile life is, with poverty making people everywhere more vulnerable to illness and shortages in food and resources.

The constant awareness of the fragility of life experienced by people living in poverty, also gave way to a greater sense of interconnectedness. I was amazed at the generosity, kindness and capacity to give of those who had so little. This served as a constant reminder for me of how we as Christians are called to be; to let our own suffering not harden us but to move us into compassion. It was not difficult to feel Christ’s presence in the people I met.

Climate change is already having an effect on communities in developing nations across the world. In Zambia, for years the rainy season has arrived as if on cue, almost down to the same specific day every year. People have relied on the predictability of the seasons for subsistence farming. Most people own small plots of land on which they grow their own maize, a staple food in many parts of Africa.

In recent times, however, the rainy season has been arriving later and later, months after the expected time. Crops planted in timing with the usual seasons wither and dry up before the rain comes and become inedible, leaving many to go hungry over the coming year.

While droughts have not been an uncommon occurrence in the past, in recent years they have become more frequent and severe. Victoria Falls, on Zambia’s border with Zimbabwe is a spectacular wonder. During the dry season it usually slows to a trickle, but last year it was almost completely dry well into the prime tourist season.

CONNECTING ECOLOGY AND JUSTICE

As the earth suffers as a result of the excessive consumption of wealthy countries, the poorest also suffer. Those who consider environmental issues to be secondary to social justice perhaps fail to see that these issues are intimately connected.

Why, then, as I postulated earlier, are Christians perceived at times as not caring about our health of our planet? In his book Ecology at the Heart of Faith, the late Australian eco-theologian Denis Edwards recognised a prevailing attitude among some Christians that this world, despite being a gift from God, has no essential meaning, and will be ‘left behind on the spiritual journey to a better world.’ This view, according to Edwards, ‘acts as a disincentive to active involvement in the struggle for a just world.’

When we perceive our earth as merely a stepping stone into the next world, it can be easy to excuse the extensive damage we continue to do to the environment. Yet as Christians we are called into radical kinship with our earth, not to see it as a mere means to an end.

This kinship or affinity with the natural world and all of its creatures – that which the young woman on the tram claimed as her spirituality – should move us as Christians to do what we can to reduce our harmful impact on this precious, fragile and deeply interconnected creation.

Miranda is a member of our young writers’ community.

 

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