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A sacred scientific sustainability story

A workshop for the Gloucester Sustainable Futures Gathering, 2017

Provided here mostly for participants who want to review the story:

"I command you in the name of Jesus to move!"

The horse, of course, completely ignored me, sparking the third faith crisis in my early months as a twenty year old, very recent convert to Christianity.


Gloucester sustainable living festival 2017

Where on Earth have you been?  And where are you heading?

Last time we gathered Jason shared 4 stories of the future found in the sciences and religion.  This time he tries to integrate the scientific and Christian stories into a coherent tale of our past, present and futures.  It’s payback for setting that topic as an essay for his students last year!  Then a yet to be determined background to the story, anecdotes about trying to apply it in his own life, workshopping elements of the story as the audience would tell it, and examples of how the church more broadly is putting it into action.  For people of all faiths or none.

Timed for a 45 minute session, starting on time.


This weekend’s blurb- creative, robust and challenging conversations which explore solutions for our future.

You are needed (weekend, and this workshop).

Your voice, your ideas, your energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom.

I’ll intro myself more in a bit, but for now: Jason, UC minister working in the Uniting Earth ministry.  So the story I tell today has Jesus and God in it.  But this workshop is for everyone, so when we get to the second half, where we start sketching the story of Earth as we would tell it, it will have in it whatever you think is important. 

Religion aside, there’s no way a room with more than 1 person is going to tell the story of the world the same way: even one person would tell it differently as their life goes on.  I’d hope that the way I tell the story changes after our discussion this morning.

So we’re not after consensus, but “ideas, energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom.”

The horse (7 mins)-

“I command you in the name of Jesus to move!”

The horse, of course, completely ignored me, sparking the third faith crisis in my early months as a twenty year old, very recent convert to Christianity. 

The second crisis happened only the night before, lying on my back in a field looking up at the stars and wondering how a God who was way out there could ever notice, let alone care about, the fact that I was lying on a field worrying about whether God noticed me. 

And yet I had the strong, contradictory sense, that God was very real and present.

Back to horse: specifically the refusal of my borrowed horse to obey me.  After all, the bible opens with humans being given dominion over all the creatures of Earth.  The horses’ refusal to submit to that dominion was, in a way, more troubling than the experience of lying in the field.

As the late SJ Gould put it, “Cosmology is just about real estate, but Darwinian evolution raises questions about the very essence of life.”

Who was this horse to me? Who was I to the horse? How are we related to each other in the story of life? And how were we both related to God?

I’d just completed an honours degree in zoology at the University of Adelaide.

According to zoology, the horse and I were quite close relatives, reworking a predator/prey relationship into something more productive (at least for humans).  But as a new Christian, reading the bible as a text book, I believed that I had been granted dominion over the horse, and having been recently introduced to the idea of “claiming the promise” of prayer at some pentecostal rally, I was declaring my dominion, and choosing to act on the faith that my dominion was a reality. 

Hence, after many minutes of sitting on a stationary horse, commanding it in the name of Jesus to move.

Sadly, the horse was apparently an atheist, and still wouldn’t budge.

Other stories

In the 20 years since then I’ve been blessed with numerous opportunities to think this relationship through.  I started with a stint as a University Chaplain, trying to help Christians who though they had to choose between being Christian or accepting evolution.  Your taxes then let me complete a PhD reflecting on the implications of cosmology, ecology and evolution for Christianity.  Then I was an ecominister in Adelaide working on ecofaith communities and ecological footprints and the like, before ending up in NSW/ACT, now working for our state level, the Synod, with uniting Earth with my colleague Jessica Morthorpe. 

In that role there’s a few biblical stories which come up time and time again:



Genesis 1 tells of a plan for humanity, all of humanity, to exercise dominion over the rest of creation.  But it’s not really about ecology.  The point isn’t that humans are granted dominion over other creatures, but that ALL humans are granted dominion, not just the king of Babylon: the country in which the Jews were captive as they wrote the story.

Genesis 1

All humans are created in the image of God, and therefore equally important to God, equally loved, equally deserving of the chance to have a decent life provided for by the richness of creation. 

No-one in the church would argue with this, and yet we still live in a world where the few exercise dominion over the many.  According to credit Suisse, less than one percent of humans exercise dominion over more than half of the earth.  And many of that one percent live in Christian nations and claim to be Christians.  We haven’t even got Genesis 1 right: social justice.

Genesis 2

Then along  came Lynn White, claiming that the idea that all of creation has been given to us to rule over and use for our benefit created not only the most human centred religion the world has ever known (Western Christianity) but also justified the undermining of the planet’s ecological viability.  Ever since, more and more Christians have turned to Genesis 2, either to replace, or more commonly to constrain, our interpretations of Genesis 1. 

In Genesis 2, a more ancient story probably akin to a Jewish Dreaming story, we aren’t called to have dominion, or to subdue creation, but to radah and kabash God’s garden.  To serve and protect it.  In Genesis 2, the planet isn’t given to us, rather we are created to look after God’s garden.

Imagine if every Jew and Christian woke up every morning praying not “God thanks for all you’ve given us” but, “God- how can I best serve and protect your garden today?”

If they saw their reason for existence here not as a training ground for heaven, but as the garden’s servants.

What a different world!!

So although I ceased being a creationist decades ago, if the world turned creationist tomorrow- properly Genesis 2 creationist- if everyone decided that the fruit of the Spirit, the sign of the revelation of the children of God, was to refocus on God’s original purpose of creating us- to serve and protect the garden, I would die a very happy, lonely, evolutionist. 

And I think God would be well pleased too, not to mention all our non-human neighbours.

So there’s two biblical stories about the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.  One which tells that stupid horse to knuckle down and get on with the ride I wanted to take, another which tells me to get off my high horse- so to speak- and consider what I could do to make the horse’s life a better one.

Pretty different stories.

I mention them, because I think they are stories that are widespread through our society.  The story of dominion and subduing Earth for human benefit, and the story of serving the Earth and trying to restore it to wholeness: to be a better part of the Earth family.

Are the creatures, and even ecosystems around us stuff to be bent to our will, or are they stars of their own stories, in which we just play our part? 

And if we think the latter, how do we sustain that opinion in a world which constantly pushes us to think the former?

Partly has to do with the stories we tell ourselves.  Stories aren’t necessarily made up, they are the way we fit facts together and the meaning we give them.  That’s why Genesis 2 and 1 are different: written in different times, with different information, and needing to make meaning of different challenges.

 It’s why for me, though I’m a Christian, we need to tell the story differently with the information gained by centuries of scientific investigation.

So last year teaching ecotheology I set my students the task of telling the story of the creation, the universe, in a way that gave it meaning, inspired hope and action, drawing on their religious traditions and taking account of whatever facts they accepted about the world.  Then they had to critique their own stories: what was missing, what was uncertain etc.  They found it really hard.  So I set myself the same task for today, and found it just as hard.  You might too when we get to sketch some elements of your stories in the second half of this session.




The story (about 10 mins)

So, the story of our 14 billion year history in 1200 words, skipping over a few bits!

Once there was this God… The God… all alone.  But can you be God if you haven’t got anything to be the God of?  Can you be the God if love if there’s no one to love, and if nobody loves you? 

So whoosh!  God gave birth to the universe.  A zillion degrees hot- ouch!

You can ask a physicist what happened next, or become one yourself and find out, but basically after a really long time, the energy of the universe cooled enough to become matter- stuff- like the stars, like our sun.

There are more suns in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach and every desert on our entire planet.  We’re discovering more and more planets around those suns, so if I had to bet I’d say there are other creatures out there, living their own stories with God, but they are so far away we will never meet them.

This here is the story we have to live.  This is the planet we have to live it on. 

America just decided to spend $20 billion invading the planet Mars.  I’d spend that money fixing this one.

If I had to choose between spending trillions of dollars trying to invade another planet, or fixing this one, I’d fix this one. 

This one, where about 4 billion years ago, the oceans came alive!

First as single cells, then billions of years later as bigger creatures, eventually with stems and backbones.  First as fish, then amphibians: who can live out of water for a time but need to stay moist, and breed in water.  Then reptiles with their armour to keep them alive in the dry, and egg shells for their babies. And eventually mammals, who kept their eggs inside themselves (except our platypus and echidna).  For tens of millions of years mammals were tiny little rats, scavenging off the bones of dinosaur kills, until a meteor wiped out all the dinosaurs except birds, and gave our ancestors their chance.

As a kid I wished I could see a real dinosaur, now we know we can every time we go outside, or sit down to chicken dinner.

The asteroid was the fifth major extinction event in our history, there had been worse ones, when nearly all life was annihilated.  Five times the life has clawed its way back from the brink of destruction.  If you think God is almighty and in control of everything then God did some seriously destructive stuff.  I think these were chance events.  Almighty is an English word which doesn’t well describe the Hebrew Shaddai[1].

Five times our ancestors were nearly wiped out, five times they bounced back in new forms.  Life is resilient.  We are the descendants of survivors: for 4 billion years every one of your ancestors lived long enough to reproduce.  Every one.  You are descended from billions of survivors.  That should be appreciated.  So am I.  So is your worst enemy.

There’s a sixth extinction event unfolding at the moment, begun not by asteroids, or super volcanoes, or tectonic plates, but by a species of ape which evolved into its current form about 200,000 years ago.

The kinds of ape who was able to write this talk, and listen to it.

Who lives in a world where almost a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died last year; where Elephants, Tigers, Orang-utans and Gorillas are going extinct; around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by plastics and 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest is destroyed every day [2]

Where the climate is heating at a rate which may make the earth incompatible with “organised, equitable and civilised global community”[3] by mid century. My lifetime, let alone my kids.

But for most of the 200,000 years of our species’ history, things were not this way.  It was very likely that we would end up here, but not inevitable, and we don’t have to stay here.

We can’t go back, but it’s worth remembering where we came from.

Until agriculture emerged in several places around the world about 10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens lived 190,000 years as mostly nomadic, hunter gatherers.  Mostly in groups with few possessions, who were “fiercely egalitarian”, who cooperated together in order to survive.  Who shared their food, bodies, and children, all of which bonded them together into tight-knit communities in a vast and at times dangerous world.

We developed language sometime during our history, perhaps 100,000 years ago, which our large brains were able to use to accelerate certain abilities: to pass knowledge down through generations, and across tribes, to begin to make ever more complex meaning, to plan for the future.  And to worry about it.  To become burdened by fear.  To obtain the knowledge of good and evil.

To have our eyes opened in a new way to the world around us , and the god in whom all live and move and have their being…and to need to make sense of it all.

Whereas the ancient Jews made sense of the suffering in the world by proposing a perfect world made by God, and ruined by humanity, evolution tells a different one.  Pain and death didn’t start with us, they are part of the evolutionary process by which we evolved.  The fundamental nature of the world isn’t our fault.  But some of the pain and death certainly is.

Before agriculture we weren’t ignorant savages, nor nobles ones.  We didn’t live “in harmony” with the world, we shaped it to suit ourselves, within the limits of our technology and knowledge.  On almost every island where humans arrived, the large animals and those easy to catch were hunted to extinction.  The Easter Islanders drove themselves to extinction.  It seems even large islands like Australia repeated the story, with the loss of all our megafauna having humans as a cause, or at least a major contributing factor.  More sure is that the repeated burning of the continent turned Australia into a eucalypt dotted grassland full of animals and plants suited to the Aboriginal diet.  Settlements were built, plants were farmed, dams built as well as fish traps.

Aboriginal people survived in Australia for tens of thousands of years, but they did so in a landscape carefully shaped to suit them and those animals who were useful to them.

Their spiritual stories and songs tell of their intimate relationship with the rest of life, and their manipulation of it.

The technological revolutions of the West allowed rich Europeans to imagine that they were separate from nature, and poor Europeans and African slaves to wish that they were.  Their stories and songs reflect that.  Swing low, sweet chariot, and get me out of here!

As agriculture spread around the globe so did the need for things.  People had property, and needed ways to guard it.  In the societies controlled by men, people swapped shared care of children for concerns about parentage and inheritance.  Laws developed to protect male privilege, and guard their property rights, as we see in the Hebrew Scriptures, where women and children are the property of men, and the rules around sexual morality serve to assure males that theirs kids are theirs. 

So prostitution is assumed, and the rape of virgins is fixed by marrying them to their rapists, but adultery with a married woman is a death sentence for the man and woman.

Into that Hebrew world, under Roman occupation, came Jesus of Nazareth, now claimed by 1/3 of the world to be their Lord, or Messiah.  Though many call him “Lord, Lord,” his revolutionary attempts to revive the egalitarian core of Judaism: the love of God, self and neighbour, of doing for others what we would want done for us, of rejecting material riches in favour of divine reward, of loving enemy, largely failed, and became a moderate reform of the excesses of Empire.  Though he continues to inspire pockets of significant resistance around the world.

Agriculture drove the need for new technologies, and technologies drove the expansion of agriculture, until it spilled forth into industrialisation, which required masses of workers.  And so small family agriculture was crushed and replaced with vast holdings, and the rich (whether agriculturalists or industrialists) kept getting richer, until as this is written over half the world’s wealth is controlled by less than one percent of us, and the poorest 50% of us control less than 1% of the world’s wealth[4].

Human consumption of the world’s ecological productivity doubled last century, heading towards 40% of the total[5].  Humans and domestic animals make up 97% of the biomass of all land vertebrates[6] and growing.

What Hope is there?

The Prodigal son came to his senses.

Mayan and Easter Islander societies suffered ecological collapse, along with the Anasazi, Henderson Islanders and the Norse in Greenland. But the people of Iceland, Tokugawan Japan, the Incas, New Guinea and Tikopia Islanders did not.  Our government is hell bent on making it easier for companies to dig up coal, but China is weaning itself off it.  Some societies find themselves in the pig pen but turn around and learn to live well within the family, even if the family is now substantially less rich.

Many Australian Aboriginal societies, and others, perhaps never headed to the pig pen in the first place: playing the role of the older brother in the story, who stayed loyal to the family.

If other societies got off their high horses and lived, maybe we can too.

Critique (25 mins)

On own (2 mins)

Just for a couple of minutes, thinking about that story, what was good, what was missing?  What would you tell differently?

I’m Xn, so God is in there, but maybe not for you.

Jot it down, I’d be glad to keep the feedback if you’re happy to give it to me later.

Turn to neighbour and share (5 mins)


On your own (5 mins)

What would be key elements of the story of creation/the universe you’d include? 

Write down each point on  a post it-note


Turn to (other?) neighbour (6 mins (3 each))


Together dot point out a story of creation/universe 5 mins

Starting at 13.8b years, on a whiteboard, get people to stick their post it notes where they should go, and then read through the dot points.

(or if we don’t have a board and postit notes) Start at 13.8b and work through to present and then future, asking people to call out bits they were going to include as we get to them in the timeline.

[1] A good summary of a complex topic is in good old https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Shaddai

[2] From Gail Hintons class essay, -In 2016, almost a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/07/the-great-barrier-reef-a-catastrophe-laid-bare

-Your Greatgrandchildren will ask about the time when Elephants, Tigers, Orang-utans and Gorillas lived on       Earth. http://www.livescience.com/41421-animals-threatened-with-extinction.html,

-We lose upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talks-daily-destruction/

-Around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by plastics.