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Renewing the Face of the Earth: Human Responsibility and the Environment

Wednesday 25th March 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered the Ebor Lecture at York Minster.

Ebor LecturesIn his address, the Archbishop spelled out why respect for the environment is not an optional extra, particularly for Christians.  Dr Williams suggests that "we are capable of changing our situation"; in "Christian terms, this needs a radical change of heart, a conversion."

The Ebor Lectures are a series of lectures which aim to relate faith to public concerns.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's Ebor Lecture below, or click download at the right to listen [59Mb].  The questions and answers are included with the audio download.

Ebor Lecture

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams


Some modern philosophers have spoken about the human face as the most potent sign of what it is that we can't master or exhaust in the life of a human other – a sign of the claim upon us of the other, the depths we can't sound but must respect.  And while it is of course so ancient a metaphor to talk about the 'face' of the earth that we barely notice any longer that it is a metaphor, it does no harm to let some of these associations find their way into our thinking; because such associations resonate so strongly with a fundamental biblical insight into the nature of our relationship with the world we inhabit.  'The earth is the Lord's', says the twenty fourth psalm.  In its context, this is primarily an assertion of God's glory and overall sovereignty.  And it affirms a relation between God and the world that is independent of what we as human beings think about the world or do to the world.  The world is in the hands of another. The earth we inhabit is more than we can get hold of in any one moment or even in the sum total of all the moments we spend with it.  Its destiny is not bound only to human destiny, its story is not exhausted by the history of our particular culture or technology, or even by the history of the entire human race.  We can't as humans oblige the environment to follow our agenda in all things, however much we can bend certain natural forces to our will; we can't control the weather system or the succession of the seasons.  The world turns, and the tides move at the drawing of the moon.  Human force is incapable of changing any of this.  What is before me is a network of relations and interconnections in which the relation to me, or even to us collectively as human beings, is very far from the whole story.  I may ignore this, but only at the cost of disaster.  And it would be dangerously illusory to imagine that this material environment will adjust itself at all costs so as to maintain our relationship to it.  If it is more than us and our relation with it, it can survive us; we are dispensable.  But the earth remains the Lord's.

And this language is used still more pointedly in a passage like Leviticus 25.23: we are foreign and temporary tenants on a soil that belongs to the Lord.  We can never possess the land in which we live, so as to do what we like with it.  In a brilliant recent monograph, the American Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis, points out that the twenty fifth chapter of Leviticus is in fact a sustained argument about enslavement and alienation in a number of interconnected contexts.  The people and the land alike belong to God – so that 'ownership' of a person within God's chosen community is anomalous in a similar way to ownership of the land.  When the Israelite loses family property, he must live alongside members of his family as if he were a resident alien (25.35); but the reader is reminded that in relation to God, the entire community, settled by God of his own gratuitous gift in the land of Canaan, has the same status of resident aliens.  And when there is no alternative for the impoverished person but to be sold into slavery, an Israelite buying such a slave must treat them as a hired servant; and if the purchaser is not an Israelite, there is an urgent obligation on the family to see that they are redeemed.  Davis points out that the obligation to redeem the enslaved Israelite is connected by way of several verbal echoes with the obligation defined earlier of redeeming, buying back, family land alienated as a result of poverty (vv.24-28).  The language of redemption applies both to the land and to the people; both are in God's hands, and thus the people called to imitate the holiness of God will be seeking to save both persons and property from being alienated for ever from their primary and defining relation to the God of the Exodus (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, ch.5, esp. pp.90-94).

A primary and defining relation: this is the core of a biblical ethic of responsibility for the environment.  To understand that we and our environment are alike in the hands of God, so that neither can be possessed absolutely, is to see that the mysteriousness of the interior life of another person and the uncontrollable difference and resistance of the material world are connected.  Both demand that we do not regard relationships centred upon us, upon our individual or group agendas, as the determining factor in how we approach persons or things.  If, as this whole section of Leviticus assumes, God's people are called to reflect what God is like, to make God's holiness visible, then just or good action is action which reflects God's purpose of liberating persons and environment from possession and the exploitation that comes from it – liberating them in order that their 'primary and defining relation' may be realised.  Just action, towards people and environment, is letting created reality, both human and non-human, stand before God unhindered by attempts to control and dominate.


It is a rather different reading of the biblical tradition to that often (lazily) assumed to be the orthodoxy of Judaeo-Christian belief.  We hear regularly that this tradition authorises the exploitation of the earth through the language in Genesis about 'having dominion' over the non-human creation.  As has been argued elsewhere, this is a very clumsy reading of what Genesis actually says; but set alongside the Levitical code and (as Ellen Davis argues) many other aspects of the theology of Jewish Scripture, the malign interpretation that has latterly been taken for granted by critics of Judaism and Christianity appears profoundly mistaken.  But what remains to be teased out is more about the nature of the human calling to further the 'redemption' of persons and world.  If liberating action is allowing things and persons to stand before God free from claims to possession, is the responsibility of human agents only to stand back and let natural processes unfold?

In Genesis, humanity is given the task of 'cultivating' the garden of Eden: we are not left simply to observe or stand back, but are endowed with the responsibility to preserve and direct the powers of nature.  In this process, we become more fully and joyfully who and what we are – as St Augustine memorably says, commenting on this passage: there is a joy, he says, in the 'experiencing of the powers of nature'.  Our own fulfilment is bound up with the work of conserving and focusing those powers, and the exercise of this work is meant to be one of the things that holds us in Paradise and makes it possible to resist temptation.  The implication is that an attitude to work which regards the powers of nature as simply a threat to be overcome is best seen as an effect of the Fall, a sign of alienation.  And, as the monastic scholar Aelred Squire, points out (Asking the Fathers, p.92), this insight of Augustine, quoted by Thomas Aquinas, is echoed by Aquinas himself in another passage where he describes humanity as having a share in the working of divine Providence because it has the task of using its reasoning powers to provide for self and others (aliis, which can mean both persons and things).  In other words, the human task is to draw out potential treasures in the powers of nature and so to realise the convergent process of humanity and nature discovering in collaboration what they can become.  The 'redemption' of people and material life in general is not a matter of resigning from the business of labour and of transformation – as if we could – but the search for a form of action that will preserve and nourish an interconnected development of humanity and its environment.  In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm: in a world where exploitative and aggressive behaviour is commonplace, one of the 'providential' tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed.  In others, the question is rather how to use the natural order for the sake of human nourishment and security without pillaging its resources and so damaging its inner mechanisms for self-healing or self-correction.  In both, the fundamental requirement is to discern enough of what the processes of nature truly are to be able to engage intelligently with them.

And all of this suggests some definitions of what unintelligent and ungodly relation with the environment looks like.  It is partial: that is, it refuses to see or understand that what can be grasped about natural processes is likely to be only one dimension of interrelations far more complex than we can gauge.  It focuses on aspects of the environment that can be comparatively easily manipulated for human advantage and ignores inconvenient questions about what less obvious connections are being violated.  It is indifferent, for example, to the way in which biodiversity is part of the self-balancing system of the world we inhabit.  It is impatient: it seeks returns on labour that are prompt and low-cost, without consideration of long-term effects.  It avoids or denies the basic truth that the environment as a material system is finite and cannot indefinitely regenerate itself in ways that will simply fulfil human needs or wants.  And when such unintelligent and ungodly relation prevails, the risks should be obvious.  We discover too late that we have turned a blind eye to the extinction of a species that is essential to the balance of life in a particular context.  Or we discover too late that the importation of a foreign life-form, animal or vegetable, has upset local ecosystems, damaging soil or neighbouring life-forms.  We discover that we have come near the end of supplies – of fossil-fuels for example – on which we have built immense structures of routine expectation.  Increasingly, we have to face the possibility not only of the now familiar problems of climate change, bad enough as these are, but of a whole range of 'doomsday' prospects.  Martin Rees's  2003 book, Our Final Century, outlined some of these, noting also that the technology which in the hands of benign agents is assumed to be working for the good of humanity is the same technology which, universally available on the internet, can enable 'bio-terror', the threat to release pathogens against a population.  This feels like an ultimate reversal of the relation between humanity and environment envisaged in the religious vision – the material world's processes deliberately harnessed to bring about domination by violence; though, when you think about it, it is only a projection of the existing history of military technology.

A.S.Byatt's novel The Biographer's Tale tells the story – or rather a set of interconnected stories – of a writer engaging with the literary remains of a diverse collection of people, including Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist.  Late in the book (pp.243-4), Fulla, a Swedish entomologist, holds forth to the narrator and his friends about the varieties of devastation the world faces because of our ignorance of insect life, specifically the life of bees.  'She told fearful tales of possible lurches in the population of pollinators (including those of the crops we depend on for our own lives).  Tales of the destruction of the habitats by humans, and of benign and necessary insects, birds, bats and other creatures, by crop-spraying and road-building...Of the need to find other (often better) pollinators, in a world where they are being extinguished swiftly and silently.  Of the fact that there are only thirty-nine qualified bee taxonomists in the world, whose average age is sixty...Of population problems, and feeding the world, and sesbania, a leguminous crop which could both hold back desertification, because it binds soil, and feed the starving, but for the fact that no one has studied its pollinators or their abundance or deficiency, or their habits, in sufficient detail.'  It is a potent catalogue of unintelligence.

Earlier in the book (p.205), Fulla has said that 'We are an animal that needs to use its intelligence to mitigate the effects of its intelligence on the other creatures' – a notable definition in the contemporary context of what the Levitical call to redemption might mean.  We cannot but use our intelligence in our world, and we are bound to use it, as Fulla's examples suggest, to supply need, to avoid famine and suffering.  If the Christian vision outlined by Aquinas is truthful, intelligence is an aspect of sharing in God's Providence and so it is committed to providing for others.  But God's Providence does not promote the good only of one sector of creation; and so we have to use our intelligence to seek the good of the whole system of which we are a part.  The limits of our creative manipulation of what is put before us in our environment are not instantly self-evident, of course; but what is coming into focus is the level of risk involved if we never ask such a question, if we collude with a social and economic order that apparently takes the possibility of unlimited advance in material prosperity for granted, and systematically ignores the big picture of global interconnectedness (in economics or in ecology). 

Ecological questions are increasingly being defined as issues of justice; climate change has been characterised as a matter of justice both to those who now have no part in decision-making at the global level yet bear the heaviest burdens as a consequence of the irresponsibility of wealthier nations, and to those who will succeed us on this planet – justice to our children and grandchildren (this is spelled out clearly in Paula Clifford's new book, Angels with Trumpets.  The Church in a Time of Global Warming).  So the major issue we need to keep in view is how much injustice is let loose by any given set of economic or manufacturing practices.  We can't easily set out a straightforward code that will tell us precisely when and where we step across the line into the unintelligence and ungodliness I have sketched.  But we can at least see that the question is asked, and asked on the basis of a clear recognition that there is no way of manipulating our environment that is without cost or consequence – and thus also of a recognition that we are inextricably bound up with the destiny of our world.  There is no guarantee that the world we live in will 'tolerate' us indefinitely if we prove ourselves unable to live within its constraints.

Is this – as some would claim – a failure to trust God, who has promised faithfulness to what he has made?  I think that to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of our individual folly or sin.  This is not a creation in which there are no real risks; our faith has always held that the inexhaustible love of God cannot compel justice or virtue; we are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race.  God's faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster love will not let us go; but it will not be a safety net that guarantees a happy ending in this world.  Any religious language that implies this is making a nonsense of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the urgency of the preaching of Jesus. 

But to say this is also to be reminded of the fact that intelligence is given to us; we are capable of changing our situation – and, as A.S.Byatt's character puts it, using our intelligence to limit the ruinous effect of our intelligence.  If we can change things so appallingly for the worse, it is possible to change them for the better also.  But, in Christian terms, this needs a radical change of heart, a conversion; it needs another kind of 'redemption', which frees us from the trap of an egotism that obscures judgement.  Intelligence in regard to the big picture of our world is no neutral thing, no simple natural capacity of reasoning; it needs grace to escape from the distortions of pride and acquisitiveness.  One of the things we as Christians ought to be saying in the context of the ecological debate is that human reasoning in its proper and fullest sense requires an awareness of our participation in the material processes of the world and thus a sense of its own involvement in what it cannot finally master.  Being rational is not a wholly detached capacity, examining the phenomena of the world from a distance, but a set of skills for finding our way around in the physical world.      


The ecological crisis challenges us to be reasonable.  Put like that, it sounds banal; but given the level of irrationality around the question, it is well worth saying, especially if we are clear about the roots of reasoning in these 'skills' of negotiating the world of material objects.  I don't intend to discuss in detail the rhetoric of those who deny the reality of climate change, except to say that rhetoric (as King Canute demonstrated) does not turn back rising waters.  If you live in Bangladesh or Tuvalu, scepticism about global warming is precisely the opposite of reasonable: 'negotiating' this environment means recognising the fact of rising sea levels; and understanding what is happening necessarily involves recognising how rising temperatures affect sea levels.  It is possible to argue about the exact degree to which human intervention is responsible for these phenomena (though it would be a quite remarkable coincidence if massively increased levels of carbon emissions merely happened to accompany a routine cyclical change in global temperatures, given the obvious explanatory force of the presence of these emissions), but it is not possible rationally to deny what the inhabitants of low-lying territories in the world routinely face as the most imminent threat to their lives and livelihoods.

And what the perspective of faith – in particular of Christian faith – brings to this discussion is the insight that we are not and don't have to be God.  For us to be reasonable and free and responsible is for us to live in awareness of our limits and dependence.  It is no lessening of our dignity as humans, let alone our rationality and liberty as humans, if we exercise these 'godlike' gifts in the context of bodies that are fragile and mortal and a world that we do not completely control.  A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the current financial crisis had more to do with pride than with greed – understanding pride as the attempt to forget or obliterate our sense of living within limits and lacking total control.  Intelligent life in these circumstances is not the triumphant imposition of human will upon a defeated natural order, but the reasoned discovery of how we live in such a way as not to destroy a balance in the natural order which we sense rather than fully grasp.  It is to turn away from denial – from all those denials of our finite condition that were summed up many years since in a famous book by Ernst Becker, The Denial of Death, in which he identified the basic pathology of the human mind as the fantasy of being 'self-created.'

Such denial is not properly understood as deliberate refusal of the truth; it is in large part a consequence of the perceived complexity of the global situation, a complexity that produces both paralysis in some areas and a stubborn adherence to failed or outdated paradigms.  Jonathon Porritt, in his magisterial essay on Capitalism as if the World Matters, ascribes the 'continuing, utterly perverse denial on the part of politicians' to a failure to grasp that much of the very complexity which makes people stick to policies they think they understand is itself the result of 'the dominant paradigm of progress through exponential economic growth' (p.215).  Unfortunately, he goes on, too few politicians who have grasped the issue have worked out carefully enough what 'transitional strategies' would be possible for the reimagining of a broadly capitalist practice (i.e an economic practice that values risk and innovation and enables increased collective wealth through trade)  that was not systematically disastrous for the environment.  His book attempts to offer some starting points for such work – noting, soberly, that denial of a different kind afflicts many Green movements, whose campaigning style allows them to be dismissed or at best patronised by actual decision-makers.  Among the strategies discussed is the crucial call to alter the way in which we calculate cost and profit so as to include some sort of monetary valuation of the depletion of natural capital and also some way of assessing impacts on individual and social well-being.  One consequence of taking this seriously would be one or another form of carbon taxation.  In the same way, more positively, we need ways of redefining business excellence in terms of sustainability and deliberate encouragement of low-carbon technologies (ch.14).  An economic world in which environmental responsibility was rewarded, was assumed to be a routine aspect of practice that was both ethically defensible and profitable, would have a very different flavour from what we have generally seen for most of the last couple of centuries.  And it is also an area in which the pressure of the 'ordinary' consumer can make a perceptible difference.  More broadly, Porritt rightly underlines the close connection of all this with what we ought to be saying about 'political virtue'.  We must find ways of opening up a proper discussion of how to restore a sustainable democratic politics in a world where unbridled economic liberalism has in many contexts eroded the authority of elected governments and led some to believe that there is no alternative to current global capitalism but economies of the most static and protectionist kind.

All these proposals illustrate what an intelligent response to the environmental crisis might look like.  Porritt is clear that this needs grounding in carefully defined common values and in the renewal of civil society through the articulating and promoting of such values – including the recognition of the interdependence of all things and of the equal significance of diverse kinds of 'capital' – social and human as much as material or natural (see p.293 for a summary of the argument of Part II of his book).  In other words, intelligence comes to life when a kind of empathy and imagination is stirred by a new vision of things: intelligence alone does not generate new vision, and bare argument does not on the whole change things; but vision displayed in new forms of human life and engagement can renew intelligence in the sense I have been giving to the word.  And this is where the significance of the perspectives of faith is most obvious.


Renewing the face of the earth, then, is an enterprise not of imposing some private human vision on a passive nature but of living in such a way as to bring more clearly to light the interconnectedness of all things and their dependence on what we cannot finally master or understand.  This certainly involves a creative engagement with nature, seeking to work with those natural powers whose working gives us joy, as St Augustine says, in order to enhance human liberty and well-being.  But that creative work will always be done in consciousness of costs, seen and unseen, and will not be dominated by fantasies about unconditional domination.  It is a vision that, in the Christian context, is founded on the idea of humanity as having a 'priestly' relationship with the natural order: the human agent is created with the capacity to make sense of the environment and to move it into a closer relation with its creator by drawing out of it its capacity to become a sign of love and generosity.  This entails so using the things of the earth that they promote justice between human beings – making sense so as to make peace, equity and so on, using the skills of negotiating the environment in order to alleviate suffering and spread resources.  Used in this way, the raw material of the environment is seen as serving human need – but only by being used in awareness of its own integrity and its own constraints.  It remains itself, but in its use for the sake of healing or justice becomes 'sacramental' of the infinite gift from which it originates.  The 'face' of the earth becomes an aspect of the face of God.  And a good many theologians have started from here in explaining what the actual sacraments of the Church mean – especially the Eucharist – as the firstfruits of a world of material things that has been given meaning in the context of communicating divine generosity.

All this echoes what St Paul touches on in Romans 8: creation is in some sense frustrated so long as humanity is 'unredeemed'.  The world is less than it might be so long as human beings are less than they might be, since the capacity of human beings to shape the material environment into a sign of justice and generosity is blocked by human selfishness.  In the doomsday scenarios we are so often invited to contemplate, the ultimate tragedy is that a material world capable of being a manifestation in human hands of divine love is left to itself, as humanity is gradually choked, drowned or starved by its own stupidity.  The disappearance of humanity from a globe no longer able to support it would be a terrible negation of God's purpose for a world in which created intelligence draws out the most transformative and rich possibilities in its material home.  As is true in various ways throughout the whole created order, humanity and its material context are made so that they may find fulfilment in their relationship.  Without each other they are not themselves.  And the deliberate human refusal of this shared vocation with and within the material order of things is thus an act of rebellion against the creator.

Which is why Christians are bound to set all this discussion in the context of that divine practice which decisively redeems humankind.  God restores relationship with himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: he shows his face to us and – as St Paul says in II Corinthians – our own faces are 'unveiled' as we advance towards God.  We are revealed for who or what we are.  And in this event we become able to reveal what the entire material world is for, to display it as a sign of love by our loving and just use of it – and by our contemplative respect for it and our capacity to let it be.  The grace set free in Christ's work allows us to be liberated from the murderous anxiety that drives us to possessive models of engagement.  Liberated ourselves, we become able to act liberatingly towards the world we inhabit and whose materiality we share and depend upon.  Our own redemption is the re-creation of our intelligence.

The contemporary Greek theologian, Christos Yannaras, has developed a rich and complex metaphysics of relation, stressing that Christian theology sees the human person as purely abstract if cut off from relation with God and others and the material world.  He diagnoses the malaise of modern Western society (in politics, philosophy, art and religion) very much in terms of a loss of relation and what goes with it, a loss of the sense of vocation to a sort of 'artistic' transformation of the world.  Technology, Yannaras argues, is toxic when it forgets this artistic and transformational dimension – that is (in the terms I've been using here) when it loses its proper human intelligence.  But it is a particular image used by Yannaras that perhaps expresses most simply what a Christian account of responsibility in our environment comes down to.  In his book of meditations, Variations on the Song of Songs, he speaks of how love compels you to see things differently – to love 'the landscapes we have looked at together.'  And so if we fall in love with God, even fleetingly, all the sense impressions of this world become part of such a common 'landscape' (p.67).  We love what we see together with God; and – as I have argued before – if God sees the world he has made as 'very good', I must begin to see it with his eyes and so to sense in it the promise of his beauty.  It becomes, in Yannaras's vocabulary, 'a gift of erotic joy' – an encounter with something that generates desire beyond utterance or final fulfilment.

Now it may be a long way from the technicalities of recalculating economic gains in terms of environmental cost to the experience of 'erotic joy' in relation to God.  But the distinctive Christian approach to responsibility for our environment has somehow to hold these two languages together.  Finally, our care for the world we inhabit is not simply a duty laid upon us but a dimension of life made whole: a redeeming activity grounded in the character of our own redemption, a revelation of the true 'face' of creation as we ourselves undergo the uncovering of our own human face before God.  Going back to the root meaning of the Hebrew word, what we're asked to undertake is in fact a conversion – a turning – towards the truth: towards the God who is eternally active and giving in ways beyond our concepts, towards the hidden depths of who we ourselves are – and thus towards the face of the earth, seeing it freshly in its unfathomable interrelatedness.  As Ps 104 (vv 29-30) has it, when God hides his face, creation is locked in fear and slips towards death; when he breathes on creation (when he 'sends his spirit'), creation happens all over again, and the face of the earth is renewed.  That turning of the Spirit towards the earth is the movement that carries our love and intelligence in the same direction, so that we can properly make answer for, be responsible for, our world.       

© Rowan Williams 2009

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