Biodiversity

Fourth Sunday of Creation Cycle,  October 4, 2015

Job 38:39-41; 39:1-4,19-30

And so we come to the fourth of our Sundays of Creation. We have been taking the creation account in Genesis as a rough guide, and have looked at some of the elemental forces named there: wind or breath or Spirit; light or wisdom; water, both threatening and life-giving. And now we come to the purpose of creation, the goal for which all these other things simply set the stage: that is life, life in its infinite variety. All the green  plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. All the flying creatures that fill the sky and swimming creatures that fill the sea and all the creatures that crawl and run upon the land, each according to its kind, each called to multiply and fill the earth.

Of course there is one final stage, the making of humankind as the crown of all creation. We are created in the image of God: that is, we are given dominion over all the other creatures, to rule over them as God’s representatives within creation. But this does not mean that we alone are the purpose of creation, that all other creatures have been made only for our sake. Indeed, it is just the opposite: we were created for the sake of the rest of creation, in order to till and keep the earth, to manage and care for the rest of the creatures so that all may thrive together.   The earth was not meant to be a monoculture where only human beings count – it is the glorious fullness and variety of all God’s creatures, that wonderful richness we have come to call biodiversity, that fulfils the purpose of all creation in giving glory to God.

Which brings us to our first reading today, part of God’s powerful answer to Job. For more than 30 chapters Job has been lamenting his terrible and undeserved suffering, while his friends attempt to answer back with various explanations which just don’t cut it. The original Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People. And now, at the end, God breaks silence and addresses Job out of the whirlwind.  His answer, unexpectedly, is a vast hymn to creation. Now I am going to leave aside for today the question of whether this is really satisfactory answer to Job. What interests us today is the evident joy and pride God has in creation. After a first long hymn to the elemental forces of creation, God begins to boast about some of the animals he has created – some of his personal favourites, if you like: the lion and the raven, the mountain goat and the wild ass, the ostrich and the horse, the hawk and the eagle.

What is remarkable about this poem is that when God is boasting about creation, humankind has no place at all.  All of these animals are praised for their untamed wildness, for the fact that they will not serve humans.  Only the warhorse is in human service, but it appears to be there by choice, out of its own fierce lust for battle. There is a certain violence in this list of creatures; it begins and ends with predators, and their appetite for blood is graphically described. In the next chapter, in fact, God goes on to describe with huge pride the Behemoth and Leviathan, semi-mythological descriptions of the hippopotamus and the crocodile.  God would appear to have a seven-year-old’s delight in dinosaurs!

What is the point of all this?  It shows us that these creatures, that all of God’s creatures, exist for their own sakes, that they have their own beauty, and that God delights in them all. That elemental joy that is part of creation – remember Holy Wisdom, whom we read about two weeks back:

and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world

This elemental joy finds its direct expression in the variety and wonder of the different creatures.  That is a basic statement of faith, of who the God of the Bible is, that we should pay more attention to: that God takes delight in each of his creatures, that each of them by their very existence are a hymn of praise.

I think this is something that most of us can understand instinctively, because we too share this delight.  What else explains the building of zoos throughout the world, what else explains the popularity of nature programs on TV, what else explains the spontaneous love of animals that so many children have – and not just their pets, but the wild and exotic animals of distant parts of the world. Even the big game hunter shows this same love, in a twisted way.  And though some people might consider this delight in creation sentimental or romantic or even childish, it is an instinct we share with God. It is perhaps part of that original image of God implanted within us: that we who are meant to rule and care for nature should do so out of love and delight.

And yet that is not the way it has turned out, is it?  Our love for creation, the biodiversity of the soul, has been confined to the realm of entertainment. The real business of this world runs on another agenda:
•    the rainforests are slashed and burned to create vast palm oil plantations, and ranches to produce beef for fastfood restaurants;
•    wetlands are drained to turn into farmland and residential areas;
•    our own old growth forests have long ago been felled, and increasingly the forests of Nova Scotia are being reduced to a simple biomass plantation;
•    urban sprawl and highways are cutting into natural habitats, reducing animals to smaller and smaller pockets;
•    overfishing, and wasteful and destructive fishing techniques, have collapsed the populations of marine life;
•    pesticides and herbicides are wiping out all kinds of life, often unintended; bee and songbird populations are shrinking;
•    global warming is destroying both the arctic and the coral reefs;
•    small farms are swallowed up in huge agri-concerns;
•    hedgerows and woodlots are ploughed under to create larger and larger fields of monoculture;
•    species diversity has plummeted on the farm; as the Holstein has become queen, all kinds of different breeds of animals and plants, each with its own strengths, are becoming rare or extinct.

And so it continues, on and on. The way of our economy is the way of short-term advantage and efficiency, and that is the way of monoculture, the reduction of variety and richness to a single manageable, predictable product. The result of this economy – perhaps not necessarily intended, but inevitable nonetheless – is the collapse of biodiversity. Biologists and pharmacists will tell us all kinds of practical reasons why this is a disaster; but there is also a religious reason: that it is an assault on the very purpose of creation.  In God’s eyes, biodiversity is a good in itself, it is the purpose of creation created not for use, but for joy.

The new encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si, addresses some of these themes in a haunting way.  I don’t usually quote from Papal encyclicals in my sermons (this may be a first), but I believe that this is a hugely important document for all Christians, for all human beings in fact.

Centred on the hymn of St. Francis, it breaths this sense of creation’s basic integrity as existing not for another purpose, but to give glory to God. Some haunting lines:

“Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

“The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”

“To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.”

Now, some may dismiss these as naive or romantic. They are after all religious or spiritual statements.  So some might say they belong in the realm of private hobbies, they cannot have any role in setting public policy.

But think of the alternative.  If things do not exist in their own right, for themselves, for the useless purpose of simply giving glory to God, then they necessarily exist for merely utilitarian principles, to serve a relentless logic of exploitation that will ultimately consume us.  And that brings us inevitably to the next question: what do we exist for?  The logic of utilitarian exploitation is a logic that will eventually consume us as well: if we treat everything else as merely to be exploited, then we will treat human beings the same way.  We will look upon others, and eventually look upon ourselves, as valuable only for what we can produce.  And that is a surefire way to end up despising ourselves as useless.

God does not look upon us that way.  God looks upon us with the generous delight he feels towards all creation. God delights in our differences, the strengths and also the limitations that make us the unique people we are.  And God invites us to enter into this delight, to share in this joy and celebration of all life.  It is an invitation that will set us free from the compulsion to justify ourselves, from the need to conform, from the self-contempt that can so easily creep in when we measure ourselves by the world’s standards.  It is an invitation to trust in the delight of our own hearts, to trust in our own better natures.