Welcome to the Environmental Chaplain’s blog – a new page where Rev’d David Coleman shares his thoughts and reflections.
- Science and Faith The war is over: the peace is more demanding. For all.
Picture: painting by my son, who has grown up very happy that faith and science inhabit the same planet!
Blogs are a useful medium, in that thoughts can happen without the demands of other genres.Continue reading →
Throughout much of my career in Christian ministry, I have been able to reflect with congregations on science and faith. In a lockdown situation, this is rather difficult, but this is that time of year!
Herewith therefore, some inevitably flawed and opinionated thoughts from this experience.
Ever since the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and indeed, well before, I have found it beautifully useful, as a grassroots minister in various places, to emphasise the mutual concern of science and organised (Christian) religion, where both are pursued with the discipline, integrity and openness proper to their traditions and cultures. Perhaps, also, with love.
From the outset, people in the (Welsh, English and Scottish) congregations were overwhelmingly grateful and encouraging.
More than twenty years ago, a lady in a village church came and said how good it was for her that she ‘can now own up to believing both in God and dinosaurs’.
More worryingly, a church-connected child in a city primary school ( about 2010) was told by a teacher, precisely, that these things were incompatible. Museum curators who had been hassled by obnoxious Creationists, were extremely wary about any contact with churches, but generally also relieved that this was not the only face of religion.
The myth of the war between science (observation) and faith (interpretation) has been so pervasive, and damaging, and the barriers between these fields so heavily fortified, that we did need a period comparable to the recognition of colonial injustices, of the rights of colour, or women, and LGBTQ+ communities, when perhaps people of faith for a while stood back, as if we only had things to learn, and listen, rather than contribute.
It’s sad and complicated, that this point will be reached at different points in different places, but from where I’m standing, it’s happened, and I can’t continue putting energy into battles no longer worth fighting, (here) even if skirmishes continue elsewhere. My condolences if you’re still under heavy fire.
If the cultures of science can also trust faith (though I appreciate people of faith can make this enormously difficult!) we’ll be getting somewhere. But ‘victory’ is the toxic option for all.
Similarly comes the shocking point at which even faith/science initiatives can become a distraction from the existential urgency of multi-layers environmental crises, ignoring these with the same apparent anxious meticulousness as some Biblical education bodies still undoubtedly do.
Some years ago, my congregation accepted funding from a foundation happily encouraging churches to engage with science, with – in the small print – a prohibition on environmental projects. The resultant exploration was fun and worthwhile, though in 2021, I hope every colleague in ministry would spot that glaring moral inconsistency and call it to account. Science/faith must never be an excuse for fiddling whist the Earth burns.
With the fun branding of ‘Dinosaur Sunday’, and inspired by the ‘Clergy Letter Project’ in the US, I led congregations on explorations both of scripture and science. The magic that spreads through a congregation when a genuine (and local) fossil is brought reverentially into the sacred space of worship has been wonderful to see. In these excursions , it seemed that evolution- as life’s adaption to changing circumstance through engagement with disaster – provides a hermeneutic (a mode of analysis) far more congenial to scripture than the forcible imposition of a nineteenth century model of linear progress.
Likewise, we should proceed with far more respect for the efforts of our forbears, more ready, helpfully to recycle whatever resources, spiritual or otherwise, if we do not only see ourselves automatically as superior to previous generations, but assess instead, how well they adapted to their time, place and environment.
As environmental chaplain, I have had the opportunity, additionally, to discover the hermeneutic of recycling: that the spiritual and other ‘assets’, with which threat and oppression were encountered, can and should be repurposed (rather than crassly, blindly re-used) as we encounter global threats which appear without precedence. Even some scary and wild parts of our traditions can be valued and reassessed as spiritual responses to crisis, and the real challenge of Endings, rather than the comfortable capitalist mythology of a singe-use planet, which can be discarded.
There’s certainly an idolatry of ‘eternity’ seen as a featureless continuum, rather than a succession of ‘ages’ with turmoil at times of transition. This emerges from the specious ‘logic’ that because God is assumed to be endless, the pursuit of endlessness – and endless economic growth at all costs – must be sacred!
And yet elsewhere in the archive of faith, we find a befriending of mortality; a recognition that endings – and even death – are not failure, but part of life. Memento mori! Creation is serially recycled. Nothing is single-use. Thank God.
Can anyone begin to engage with the state of the Earth, without accepting that disaster -or even extinction – is a possibility? Can anyone engage with Christian Scripture without a similar acknowledgment?
Following that particular leap, of re-use, re-cycling, repurposing, things go deeper: discovering the surprising coherence – as a record of experience- of an Old-Testament closed-earth view of sky and soil (heaven and earth as one Creation) , and the deep awareness of the cycles of nature, identical with divine partnership in continuing life. And the ‘kingdom’ the ‘reign’ or ‘way of rule’ of that sky seems close to these cycles. There is no ‘incompatibility’ with science here, if we approach with respecting humility. Likewise the wonderful, if differently expressed insights in science and scripture, of what human beings share, down to a molecular level, with all the life. In Christianity, ‘the Word was made flesh’, rather than merely human.
In my own ‘field’ of theology, where I seem to have become more a ‘folk-singer’ than ‘classical musician’ I note that poetry, preaching and storytelling are potentially the most sophisticated tools we have for processing existence, where a more systematic approach sits back and assumes that for just so long as we analyse something, then we will have no cause to ‘fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day’. Ivory towers are as fragile as any other human construction. The life of the world and the danger we urgently face, does not wait for an essay to be fully referenced. Urgency is now a condition of existence, not a threat to it, though if we do speak or act urgently, we do so in humble awareness that we may turn out to be mistaken. And grateful for any chance to correct or refine our provisional vision.
It was always useful groundwork to share in a worship context, insights about the great age of the Earth, and evolution. Creationism has precious little to offer in comparison. 4000 years, and a big stick if you disagree, compared to 14 billion and counting. For someone concerned with building up the faith of a worshipping community, awe and wonder are amongst the most basic building blocks.
There were two additional bonuses: first, the clear awareness that both faith and science are essentially evidence-based, even if the modes of what can be admitted as evidence vary sharply, and secondly, that both fields, in order to maintain any authority at all, must needs modify their statements and habits when new evidence comes to light.
Awe and wonder should sharpen our abilities to process such evidence, rather than insulate us against them. And yet it is possible so to love a snapshot way of expression and of faith, that such enrichments come as a threat.
We see, all of us, ‘though a glass, darkly’ pending enlightenment with a small “e”. The capital E of the rationalist movement in the Age of Enlightenment, whilst lending authority to positive ideals of liberty, progress, toleration and more, also intimidated and entrenched division between different, but inevitably overlapping aspects of the broad richness of human reason, when not limited to its verbal expression.
Alongside the great achievements of the Age of Enlightenment, the place of women, of enslaved people, and those lacking the privilege of the philosophers, let alone of fellow creatures, was not at all fully addressed by that movement, and worst of all, the priority of purely human modes of thought over all else in Creation, laid some terrible foundations that it has taken the threat of environmental catastrophe finally to shake.
The objectification of everything other than ‘Man’ ( sic) forbidding ‘who’ in place of ‘it’, remains a shortcut to violence, exploitation and gross injustice. The frequent biblical insight of the co-occurence of injustice and environmental devastation should be no surprise. Welfare and happiness, though notoriously difficult to quantify, are values nonetheless. Science always requires the humility to acknowledge, that to disregard the immeasurable is an experimental expedient, rather than a final resting-place. And the most disciplined of scientists remains richly human.
Though Christianity can teach, with integrity, that ‘conquest’ is an inferior outcome to reconciliation, nonetheless, conquest, domination, victory and the pursuit of perfection, were powerful spiritual drivers of an age when ‘improvement’ of, for instance, Britain’s native wetlands, took precedence over the understanding on which that improvement was believed to be based.
The Voice of the Earth, which is now ( with irony?) conveyed by the insights of science, together with the voices of marginalised and oppressed humans, was always easy to ignore in these circumstances.
Working ecumenically, I have discovered that traditions and ‘churchmanship’ are far less significant as to whether a congregation is able to embrace care for the Earth than the presence or absence of trust in science. Catholics and protestants, liberals and evangelicals, conservatives and progressives all inhabit the same common home, all cherish the same scriptures, though of course, with diverse traditions of interpretation.
But, truly, a critical trust in the honest observation of the Earth (as opposed to the crypto-spiritual overstepping of this by militant atheist movements) should be native to all wings, at least, of the Church.
In this, the re-emergence of the scientific respectability of regarding, for instance, the Earth, as a ‘living’ entity in her own right, as well of the erosion of the human monopoly on language, complex communication, intelligence, reason, and feeling, have been signs of hope.
Many authoritative leaders, above all Pope Francis, have recycled the authority of spiritual – yes, personal – relationship with the Earth married to scientific observation, in the pursuit of justice.
The more we do learn about the ‘simplicities’ of nature, the more we are challenged by her complexity and the interdependency of all life.
Of course, our species has a decisive role, and having long since ‘filled the Earth’ with our populations, we have also reached the tipping-point frontiers, simply to step back and ‘leave well alone’ is not an option either.
With regard to the continuing destruction of habitats and ecosystems by humanity, there is no fence left on which to sit. We learn instead, from the experience of invariably faith-based liberation movements:
“In the end, “ says Martin Luther King, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
Will the Earth now say likewise?
Desmond Tutu adds
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
This mouse, we have discovered, is neither vermin nor a mere object of pity, but the key to our own survival.
Two, perhaps unscientific, words, also along here: ‘Halleluyah anyway’.
The ( unwitting) Enlightenment intimidation of spiritualities, which often extends to the unspoken demand that the transforming power of hope must demonstrate a clear rational pathway, is most often rebelled against only by those who have already lost everything.
By those who have nothing to lose but their chains. Even out of lament, hope can emerge. Faith has a vital -and arguably objectively positive – role in maintaining ‘hope against hope’. From them we learn. Them we neglect at our peril.
Just as a scientific observer cannot but be part of the experimental environment, a community which, with eyes wide open is not naively optimistic, but rather embraces the spiritual resilience of apparently irrational hope, will encounter different outcomes to one which has only rationally extrapolated despair.
In the meantime, some generations of religious teachers unwittingly(?) took the species absolutism of the Enlightenment to heart. Representing the human responsibility for fellow creatures (including the land/earth) which is such a huge theme of the scriptures, as dominational sovereignty, and where this seemed too authoritarian, to the cosier ‘stewardship’, which, though honourable, demands, spiritually, little less than looking after someone else’s property, rather than a partnership. I have encountered (and in my training read) respected teachers of previous generations of religious scholars who, though acting with discipline and integrity are as oblivious of their anthropocentric bias as would be (the early) Immanuel Kant to ‘Me too’ and ‘Black lives Matter’.
To have to account for your treatment of an entity who ‘looks you in the eyes’ repurposes the laboratory. Science, though pursued passionately by participants in a very particular culture, with rules, doctrines and prejudices, will never be morally or spiritually neutral, though efforts in that direction are often honourable and perhaps essential.
Maybe this is a ‘get used to it’ insight. Like the one that all scripture is necessarily interpreted.
For all of us, ‘by their fruits, you shall know them!’
Please, let us all both learn and contribute. It’s later than we thought. More difficult. More exciting.
- A prayer for COP ( United Nations Conference of the Parties)
Continue reading →
as in November, at great cost and with great urgency
the leaders of our species
and those with concern for their common home
will gather in Glasgow,
we ask for your welcoming, affirming presence
in the many layers of gathering
which are part of that event.
Give to those who make decisions
a freedom from the burdens of a past
which have pushed us to this cliff-edge.
Give a dawning vision of your offer of healing
greater than the blocked horizon of what it might cost
Argue and wrestle with the powers and principalities
of expediency and despair
Open every human ear to the voices of the Earth, and of sisters, brothers, siblings
who already suffer sharply
Save us from the despair of complacency
and the toxic temptation
when the visitors have departed
to embrace ‘business as usual’
for that ‘normal’ has gone
And our only future
will be in wakefulness
as we live out your love for the Earth we are part of
through your Word made Flesh
Jesus, our Friend.
- Friends and troublemakers: recycled hymns for immediate use
This is a resource of hymns using singable and well-known metrical tunes, which can be used, printed, projected, recorded and sung without further ado.
If you do record any of them, please send an MP3 to email@example.com as this may be very useful for work with other congregations. Download the PDF below:Continue reading →
- Word on the Wild Side: Lent thoughts to prepare for COP
A word about ‘A Word’
Noting that people are now beginning to put stuff up for Lent…..
These texts arose from an invitation to provide a series of short reflections in Lent, for Glasgow’s online Christian Radio Station, Radio Alba, as part of a spiritual preparation for the Conference of the Parties (COP) United Nations Climate Conference due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021 .
As chaplain, I’m suggesting that the best preparation is to do so in the framework of regular worship and Bible Study
Given their short form, you’re reminded that these pieces are to provoke reflection. You might look in vain for specific recommendations on insulation and church heating, but you’re clever enough to find those elsewhere.
Links to the audio versions below
It’s OK to disagree, but better still if you examine why you do.
The texts are also provided here as a PDF ( below the sound links)
Fifth word: For fifth Sunday in LentPDF of texts, with added hymn texts for free use and sharingContinue reading →
- Good New Year – yes, really!
Good New Year - and I’m not joking!
(and I won’t rub it in about how nice it is once more, suddenly, as a cyclist, to enjoy clear roads!)
What a cloud of opportunity comes with this year! as a movement, we have learned so much as we engaged with barriers of distance and regulations: not of our choosing, but in place for our protection.
As chaplain I discovered I really can offer to be wherever and however you are as churches, and then also share our experience with others online. That’s one reason I can be happy to visit, irrespective of the numerical size of your fellowship: we give light to the ‘whole house’. And the encouragement even of small things lifts the spirits of others.
Churches in vacancy, and currently lacking in support might also consider using one of the Chaplaincy’s ‘major reflections’ ( video sermons) each month. There will not be a month without at least one, and there is a back catalogue,
So yes, some tough months remain, both of precautionary restrictions to the fuller life of our churches, but also, to make the most of our spiritual preparations to welcome the nations of the world to Scotland, to discuss and challenge each other towards greater ‘ambition’ in their responses to ‘climate change’.
When lockdown first loomed, we seemed about to miss the expected boat of COP 26 - when the world was due to descend on Glasgow, in the colossal international circus of a Climate Change conference, though something by the same name, even more urgent, if, reshaped by the events of this last year, still awaits us in November 2021.
Perhaps the cancellation in 2020 was a blessing: I saw little sign in 2020 that our churches were anywhere close to being prepared for this catalyst for growth in our familiarity with the backdrop of crises against which every single aspect of our faith, life and worship will, for the rest of all our lives be played out.
Certainly, there have already been conferences and consultations as to what might be the “priorities for Scotland in the year of COP.”
Listening in on these, folk often opt for
‘more charging points for EV’s’
or push for
“an earlier target date than 2045 for the nation to be carbon neutral”
Or yell at governments to do all the work, make all the changes. Carts before horses? (Though I will admit that sometimes, investing in a cart encourages the acquisition of a horse!)
However .... having recognised amidst what should have been a totally compelling torrent of facts and figures, that it really is primarily the change of mind and heart that takes the lead and tips the domino of change, and leads to the “behaviour change” so beloved of our Scottish Government, I’d like to suggest some much more demanding priorities than these.
First of all, the oldest and most basic of spiritual duties: hospitality and welcome. Together with the Trees of their homeland, Abraham and Sarah - the founding family of our faith and of others - welcomed the Strangers who turned out to be God.
(Of course, attending conspicuously to the details of hospitality, such as eco-friendliness in food and facilities, greatly strengthens the witness. It really does undermine the point of an environmentally-themed service when you meet for fellowship afterwards over single-use plastic.)
Whatever else we might contribute to the deliberations and decisions in the white heat of the conference floor itself, an atmosphere of welcome and encouragement in the cold and damp of a Glasgow November should not be underestimated as a force for good. In that, whether we’re next door to the conference site, or in the hills and islands exposed to the November gales. We really have learned lots about being in touch; and about being more than just physically present, this past year.
Secondly, as we have seen from the surprisingly worthwhile statement from Scottish faith leaders (- and my surprise is that a statement with such broad agreement can be so strong and searching-) a commitment to change ourselves, and the things within our own grasp, rather than looking only to others and to governments to play their part without disturbance to our own participation in cultures and lifestyles which, like it or not, are still part of the problem, rather than leading the way in engagement.
Of course these changes will involve, challenge -and potentially strengthen - our ways and targets of prayer and worship: though this is also a joyous challenge: to deepen our relationship with the Sustaining Christ; to uncover the treasures in our fields, and to bring from our hoarded reserves of wisdom and hope. To encourage prayer and worship, in partnership with Creation, to come into their own.
And this year, that’s what the chaplaincy of EcoCongregation can reasonably hope to offer to local churches. Not a convenient filler for a gap in a preaching rota, but solidarity, encouragement and partnership in realising the spiritual value and potential of the Body of Christ. How blessed and gifted we already are. How seldom we recognise this. We. And our neighbours too.
I will continue, on receiving invitations, to enquire how congregations have reached out to neighbouring churches to share the occasion. EcoCongregations are the yeast in the dough of the church, as the church is the yeast in our various cultures, networks and environments.
The future we had been relying on is gone. Since this future involved acquiescence in the demonic myth of church irrelevance, despair, and terminal decline, other options may not be all bad! But alertness and responsiveness are mainstream gifts of Christianity as a whole.
Some parts of our movement have helped each another with visible signs of spiritual change: *attention to the environmental impact of a congregation and - even more - its component households;
*support for Christian Aid, SCIAF, Tear Fund and others who bring to light the harm long entrenched and visited on those with least power and wealth;
*facing with solidarity rather than blame and condemnation the just transitions which will have up-front costs not only to ourselves, but to others, and having the courage not to be neutralised by the towering “we-know-better” demons of threatened employment, prosperity and peace, when it is the crises we are still perpetuating that, not only in the long term, deeply threatens all these human values and far, far, more in the home our species shares, as the sustaining peace and balance of the living planet.
The spectacularly, if understandably unpopular healing courage of Christ at Gerasa/Gadara, [(see Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39, Matthew 8:28-34). ] which was also an attention to misplaced spiritual powers, is given us not just to inspire awe, but also action.
As everyone who is pleased that their taxes fund the NHS will recognise, healing change will cost someone somewhere something, usually long before the costs of continued harm, however apparent, are sufficiently recognised.
It’s a very difficult story, not least in what also seems to be the destruction of living creatures, let alone the prosperity of the swineherds, though intervention and partnership with the living world has its robust side.
We plant trees, and need to plant more, though the right trees in the right places help most, and yet those tending our most valuable wetlands often remove them, transforming carbon-positive to negative.
Is any of this ‘simple’? I don’t think so. But human beings like you have brains and the capacity for discernment.
And before the Season of Advent fades, hold on to its key message: even in winter “Wake up!” - there’s an exciting and demanding year ahead, and as part of EcoCongregation Scotland, you’re well-placed to enjoy it too!Continue reading →
- Eight out of ten for a National Treasure
It’s New Year’s Day….
as I often would as a local grassroots minister, I was putting together something like a ‘New Year Message’ which will also follow.
When, following on from my daughter’s long-awaited viewing of a Dr Who Special, our favourite Grand Old Man – David Attenborough – popped up on the screen, fervently and usefully reminding us of the significance of the COP 26 event in Glasgow this year.
Wonderful that the BBC still feels able to slip this in to some of the remaining peak viewing (before the unmitigated nastiness of Eastenders, no less!).
All of us express things as best we can, and Attenborough is no different: his recent semi-autobiography ‘A Life on This Planet’ would be very good and useful reading for the New Year: so many connections, and the importance of one life, one specices, to all the others.
God bless David Attenborough.
Two niggles, though. Not by any means to turn off or not to see what he still has to present.
The first is the almost Reaganesque conviction that :”if we work together there is no limit to what we can achieve”. It’s an inspiring thing to say, and uplifting to hear, though it’s unwittingly based on the fundamental philosophical toxicity which also sells us ‘unlimited growth’. There certainly are limits to what we can achieve, and to how our intervention, vital though it is and will be, to our engagement with climate and other environmental crises. Unless we proceed with an awareness of these limits, of our mortality, of our not-God-ness – indeed, unless we also remain mindful of one of God’s most helpful hints, that we are “dust and to dust we shall return” then our assault and abuse of the planet, whatever our good intentions, is the only thing which will have no end.
Great and greater things than we have so far seen may yet emerge from COP and from all the revolution of awareness that we need to encourage surrounding it: we need the humility as well as the ambition, to do only what we really can; to be prepared to value what may seem a very small thing. To offer to God with dignity whatever our own tiny contribution might be to a world different from what might have been. But please, every time you hear of “solutions” to climate change, or “calling a halt to the crisis”, as if we can simply fix it, take a deep breath and pause for thought.
As Pope Francis long ago pointed out, we are ruled by/at the mercy of the Earth. It’s less a matter of war and victory than of what do do with a oonflict you really can’t “win” [Cf Luke 14:31]. Befriend the rest of Creation, rather than “fight” climate change. Watch out for those military metaphors!
My second worry – and for many it won’t seem troubling – is the title of his forthcoming series “Perfect Planet”. The interpreted notion of ‘perfection’ has played into the hands of racists and tyrants for centuries. Divorced from its biblical context of ‘finding our true place and purpose’, ‘perfection’ causes endless waste (‘imperfect fruit’, and far far more) and intolerance, as well as fuelling despair: no action we might take in response to the crises will ever be ‘perfect’. No car is ‘emission free’, no form of energy has zero environmental impact. Nature itself, the Bible rather hints, needs our human intervention and management, to fulfil its potential. But perfection is something else. My own ministry would be completely impossible if perfection were required in even one dimension of it, be this my own lifestyle, the infallibility of my theology, or my ability to keep track of my diary!
Please watch and enjoy all that David Attenborough, and the huge team of skilful, and creative people who stand behind him, have to offer. I will.
But please: remember and cherish your limits. Please, be thankful for your life, gifts and commitment in every imperfection.
And if you think I’m being too fussy, then my point is made anyway 😉
This year, rely on grace, and friendship with Christ. Let’s see where it leads.Continue reading →
- Advent Thursday 24th December 2020 – Day 26
- Advent Wednesday 23rd December 2020 – Day 25
- Advent Tuesday 22nd December 2020 – Day 24
- Advent Monday 21st December 2020 – Day 23