United Church of Christ Resources

Practicing Reverence

An Ethic for Sustainable Earth CommunitiesPracticing Reverence, An ethic for Sustainable Earth Communi

by Ross L Smillie

An ideal accompaniment during the Season of Creation for adult study groups.

Every day we hear more about how humans are degrading the environment and causing suffering to themselves and the rest of life  Where will it all end?  Practicing Reverence shows that it is up to all of us, in community, to live in ways that honor not just our own lives, but all life.

Minister, theologian, and environmental ethics teacher Ross Smillie combines hos areas of expertise to document our current situation and, even more importantly, to offer hope.  Smillie's science background is evident in his extensive factual reporting of ecological issues.  His engagement with theology and ethics balances scientific fact with moral ethical pondering.  The result is an up-close  view of how things "are," and a glimpse of how things "could be."

Item Number: 55938N

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A plane filled with passengers hit some severe turbulence during the flight. There was a bright flash of light and an alarming loud bang. The pilot came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we were hit by lightning and all of our navigational and communications instruments are shorted out. We have no radio, no compass, no GPS. We have no idea where we are or what direction we are going in.” The captain paused, and people looked around nervously at each other as they absorbed the news. Then the captain continued, “But the good news is that we do know our airspeed, and we are making very good time.”

For me, that joke encapsulates the spirit of our times. We live in a society that is going somewhere very, very fast, but we often have no idea where that is, or if we want to get there. The power of modern science and technology means that we can do things that previous generations never dreamed of. We can communicate and transmit information instantaneously around the world. We can cure many diseases and alleviate painful conditions. We have globalized commerce and trade. We are indeed going somewhere very, very fast. But the questions raised by the joke are profoundly important: Do we know where we are going? And do we really want to go there?

As humans we are not totally governed by instinct. We constantly make choices that affect us, both individually and as a society. Some choices, like that of speed, are technical ones. Others, such as the question of direction, are moral choices. Some moral choices are profound and define a generation, and may be recognized only in retrospect. In Nazi Germany, for example, most people went about their ordinary lives without recognizing the moral significance of the Nazi treatment of Jews and other minority groups. Later generations of Germans look back on that time and wonder how it was that so many of their countrymen failed to recognize and act on the great moral test of their time. Remaining neutral on such questions is not an option. On matters of great moral importance, to remain neutral is to fail the test.

Similar moral tests for society arise for each generation. Slavery raised fundamental questions for the British in the early 1800s and in the United States in the Civil War. The movement for the equality of women was a fundamental test beginning in the early 20th century. Segregation had to be rejected in the southern United States in the 1960s and apartheid was the great question in South Africa in the 1980s.

What is the great moral issue of our time? For what will we be judged by future generations? Where do our choices most matter?

From among several worthy candidates, I believe our outstanding moral imperative is to maintain the health of the natural systems in which human life is imbedded. Climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, and the extinction of species, for example, constitute a cluster of issues that raise fundamental questions about the way we live. Simply by participating in ordinary life, we affect the viability of the natural systems on which all living creatures depend for their air, water, and food. Undermining these natural systems not only violates moral and aesthetic sensitivities about the well-being of non-human life, but also threatens the well-being of future human communities. If, as seems likely, the ability of the earth’s natural systems to support a good quality of life for future generations is degraded, our children and grandchildren will endure great suffering and have legitimate reasons to judge us as failures in the great moral question of our time. On this question, I believe that we are making very good time in exactly the wrong direction.

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