The English poet John Donne fell seriously ill from typhoid fever in the winter of 1623. We who have been passing through this coronavirus season are perhaps in a better position now to appreciate what it must have been like to live through the waves of disease in the Middle Ages and on through the 17th century, when news of someone’s death was relayed by the tolling of the passing bell from the village church. Donne came very close to dying that winter, and recorded the impressions that emerged as he passed through his time of illness. One of the poems he wrote, published after his recovery the following year, was this:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
But of course we belong not only to the human race, we are part of the whole web of creation. The stars tell our story, the moon pulls the tides of our blood, the salt in our tears has the same briny balance as the sea, we depend on the bees for the food in our supermarkets, and without the forests to stabilise the earth there would be no more rain and no more harvests — flood and drought would bring life to an end. We inter-are.
I saw this very vividly this week in two brief moments.
The first of these was that Tony came bounding forth to step into his beautiful white car parked outside our house on the road, to find it covered with a fine layer of orange dust. This had blown on the winds of the world from the Sahara, and we depend upon it. Dust from the Sahara brings iron (that was the orange colour) and phosphorus to nourish our depleted earth, fertilising the Amazon over 5000km away from it, bringing vital nutrients to the fields of Southern Europe, the islands of the Mediterranean — and on this particular occasion, also to St Leonards in East Sussex where I live. We inter-are.
The second thing was a tiny snatch of conversation overheard — a young man coming up the steps mounting the steep hillside from the park, saying to his girlfriend: “I care about family. I don’t really care about wildlife.”
I wondered whether to stop and tell him about the dust from the Sahara, about the bees holding the line to keep humanity fed, about the trees who watch over us like angels, slowing the movement of water through the landscape, about how the purring of a cat on his lap helps to heal his bones — but I didn’t. It was not for me to intrude into his conversation. I walked on.
The word ‘universe’ means ‘one turning’— that is to say, it is about elements combined by being folded in with each other, like folding in the flour when you make a cake. The nearest synonym I can find to ‘universe’ is ‘enfolded’; turned into one. What Buddhism calls dependent co-arising — where each one has its own form and being, and yet is a part of the whole; like the ocean waves that each have their own shape and identity, no two exactly alike, yet each one made up entirely of the same sea that conjoins them all, going down to depths unimaginable. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave; and so we belong to one another, we inter-are.
An aspect of Biblical thinking we tend to lose sight of is that, as we heard in our readings today, the covenant God made after the Great Flood was between God and all creation, not just with humanity; and the healing of the cross and the Christian work of reconciliation are not for humanity alone but for all creation. We inter-are.
The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment brought a movement away from seeing the beings of other species as ensouled, introducing instead the concepts of mechanistic thinking. So began the long, dismal and continuing era of vivisection and cage farming, the arrogant presumption that sees only humanity as illumined by the possibility of divine indwelling. And of course it was only a short step from there to seeing human being also as an assembly of components — a view that still ramifies into the thinking of our day. I’d put money on it that somewhere in the course of your life you’ve read a medical or biological treatise proposing that “your body is just a like a machine” or “your brain is a computer”. But I hope you know — it isn’t. You are alive.
And this is the thinking that leads to a spare-parts approach to medicine and wilfully ignores — or even despises and belittles — the routes of holistic healing. It’s the thinking that leads to the cruelty of meat plants and unthinkable practices in abattoirs that I won’t even describe to you because they’d keep you awake at night. It’s what leads to the stupidity of Elon Musk thinking we can all eat lab-grown meat and that’ll be just as good for us as meat from animals who have roamed free on the moors. It’s the thinking that has perverted Christian belief away from the awareness of the light of God in all creation, to seeing holiness only in humanity, and mistaking the rest of creation as a collection of insensate items to use as we see fit.
But we are made of light and healed by light and meant to keep our light shining until the end. The breath of God is in all creation, and when we see the light sparkling on the sea or meet the amber gaze of a fox in the garden at dusk or behold the colours of the dawn or listen to a blackbird singing as night falls or watch the stars one by one begin to shine, we are looking into the eyes of God.
So the work of addressing climate change is not a niche interest separate from our Christian calling — it is the work of reconciliation God has entrusted to us in Christ. It is the work of peace the New Testament envisions.
Our devotion is not just the time we spend sitting down reading the Bible and saying things to God, it is the garden we grow, the food sources we choose, the vote we cast, the economic patterns we support. If it isn’t holistic it isn’t of God, because the purpose of God is shalom. No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave. We inter-are.