What is community and how do we build it today? David McLoughlin responds to Bishop David by exploring how Jesus and Mary Midgley show us that all life forms are inter-connected. The kingdom of God requires the healing of all creation.
What is the meaning of life? This question may become significant at any stage of life. It may be a fleeting feeling, or something more profound. The answer may seem obvious. The question may also seem perplexing, and prompt further reflection. This series is for all who are touched by the sense that life itself raises questions that need to be explored, for the sake of our own understanding of ourselves, of how we relate to other people, and how we may respond to God.
Bishop David Evans identifies six related topics that can begin to provide answers to this question. Our first resource is Scripture, the Word of God, which may be found to prompt and respond to many human questions. Modern Philosophy is another resource. This provides a rich array of how European thinkers have addressed the question of life’s meaning from the 17th to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is no need to be put off by the word ‘philosophy’. According to the philosopher Pope St John Paul II, everyone has a philosophy of life. Reflecting with more systematic philosophers may help to broaden and deepen that personal philosophy.
Identity – it’s not all about me but about us.
Generosity – giving and giving away.
Adaptability – being and becoming.
Empathy – are we each other’s keeper?
Paradox – managing without resolution.
Community – building now and beyond.
Each theme follows the same model of:
A themed reflection from the Bible and modern Philosophical thinking.
An image and reflection inspired by the main theme.
A question and action point to help with individual or group discussion.
A short prayer to end the session.
Suggested further reading for going deeper.
“And God said, ”Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning the sixth day.”
Genesis 1: 24-31
“And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited upon him.”
Pope Francis has called us to engage with a bigger picture of community in Laudato Si and Laudate Deum. In this light, the Genesis account of God’s creation of all animal life on the sixth day emerges with renewed significance. We are created by God on the same day as the other animals, we share the same stuff of life. “Adam” is “of the earth”, is made of adamah the rich red clay of the Nile delta. Eve is the “daughter of life” – linking her with all life. In acknowledging that we live through the very same breath that God breathes through all living matter (Genesis 2:7), we rediscover our essential interconnectedness. We discover our purpose is not separate from, but is to be worked out in community with all other life forms.
This collaborative community between God, humanity and other creatures is beautifully expressed in the Psalms. Psalm148:3-12 has nature praising God, with all beings giving praise by being themselves.
Mark imagines Jesus as the new Adam. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he spent 40 days among the wild animals in the desert, re-establishing the unity that humanity was called to in Genesis (Mark 1:11-13). From then on, it was in such moments in nature, on the hills and mountains of Galilee, that Jesus sought communion with God and clarity of vision and purpose.
The gospel stories of Jesus reflect this richer and broader community of life found in the Psalms, Genesis 1 and 2, Ezekiel and the book of Job. They refer to chickens, dogs, donkeys, doves, fish, foxes, gnats, goats, jackals, moths, oxen, pigs, ravens, scorpions, sheep, snakes, sparrows, vipers, vultures, bears and wolves. And among the plants: are brambles, fig and mulberry trees, herbs, mustard plants, reeds, thorns, vines, weeds, wheat and wildflowers (cf. Bauckham, 2010, pp.15-47).
For Jesus, the natural world manifests the presence of God’s Spirit. Abba, the Father God, is the Lord of heaven and earth (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21), as the prayer he teaches us emphasises: “Your Kingdom come your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). The coming reign of God is about the healing of the whole of creation – spiritual and material. It includes not just a right relationship between God and us but also right relations between us and the whole of the natural world as creation becomes restored and renewed (cf. Lane 2022, p. 74-91). Jesus is echoing the message of the Psalms: “The heavens will be glad, the earth will rejoice, the sea roar, the fields exult, the trees of the forest will sing for joy at the coming of the Lord” (Psalm 96:11-13 Psalm 98: 7-9).
It makes no sense to the Hebrew mind to separate the natural and the social-political in God’s creation. This vision of the universe is holistic and inclusive. And so Jesus’ preaching and teaching of the healing and renewal of humankind includes the renewal and reconciliation of all creatures in their interrelatedness and interdependence (Bauckham, p.168). In Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it isn’t his fellow human beings who offer comfort to the destitute Lazarus but the feral dogs who lick his sores (Luke 16:19-31).
When John writes in 1:14 “And the word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory” – the Greek word he uses for flesh is sarx. This includes the human person Jesus, but as flesh it includes the whole human race and all the life forms around us. Flesh is the interconnected reality that the divine Word has chosen to enter into.
The Scriptures open with a story of God walking with the man and woman in the evening among all the species of flora and fauna around them. And the vision of the last book of the Bible is of the same God coming again to live among us in a New Jerusalem. A garden city for the healing of the nations. How wonderful it would be to collaborate in the building of such a community!
Bishop David has explored with us, in the light of the Scriptures and the Western philosophical tradition, five major dimensions of human life: identity, generosity, adaptability, empathy and paradox. In this last session, we reflect on the community that could hold these together in creative unity.
In seeking to understand our identity, our frame of reference is not so much Descartes’ capacity for reason and detachment – that which sets us apart from creation, but rather what connects us. The philosopher who developed this most clearly in our time is Mary Midgley. Over a long and full life of study, work, marriage and motherhood, she produced consistently challenging yet accessible writing. She opened up the question of our particularity, our human nature, and, at the same time, our membership of the inter-related life forms that make up reality. The extraordinary range and breadth of her interests and research enabled her to see, more clearly than most, how different ways of knowing are necessary and linked. She located Bishop David’s empathy and paradox, and the identity with reason they give us, alongside not separate from other creatures.
Midgley saw the tendency in Western tradition to over-emphasise the rational and logical over the intuitive and symbolic. This has led to a reductive, controlling use of reason manipulative of science and technology with long-term negative consequences for our planet and its myriad life forms. All the more dangerous when underpinned by a narrow definition of the seemingly God-given human dominion of our species.
Midgley drew on, among others, the Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz’s study of animal psychology – King Solomon’s Ring (1952) and later Professor James Lovelock’s Gaia thesis (1979). Lorenz demonstrated our nearness and affinity to the many animals among whom he lived. Lovelock, as a chemist, argued for the necessary inter-relationship of all life forms on our planet. For millions of years, we have evolved into a symbiotic community with subtle checks and balances, mutually dependent on each other. The present imbalance where we assume we can treat the rest of the material world and all other life forms as disposable and for our use is aberrant. In response to such influences, Midgley developed the idea of a community of shared life that offers hope of re-locating human nature and nurture within more subtle and generous relationships.
This framework invites us to re-read the great symbolic stories of creation and the preaching of Jesus’ Kingdom of God anew. It re-locates the themes of identity, generosity, adaptability, empathy and paradox, which Bishop David has shared with us. Such a community provides a richer framework within which to pose the question of the meaning of all life.
Reflection on the image by Fleur Dorrell:
What do you see in this image? Is this a fun day out at the local Aquarium for a mother and children? Is it half term – the family marvelling at the fish in our oceans who normally swim far beyond our neighbourhoods? Perhaps the mother is a marine biologist hoping to inspire the next generation to take care of our planet, educating them about the world beneath our feet. Maybe the children have never seen such large fish as they wonder at nature’s power and scale? If they live inland and have never been to a beach, this might be the first time they’ve encountered the sea bed for real. But look how adaptable these fish are – this is not their real home battling a shark or an oil spill, this is indoors!
This aquatic day trip might make for a beautiful memory. Here, the shimmering blues and greens, intricate rockery and darting fish embrace the daily group of spectators. Divided by gigantic screens and sealed containers, this sea life might seem alien to human beings, but is this so? Midgely tells us that we are all interconnected, whether we live on land, at sea or in the air. We all come from the same breath of God. Therefore, our identity and purpose are not separate either – they are to be worked out in community with all other life forms.
An aquarium is entertaining but also educational – it alerts us to species in danger of extinction. It models the paradox of care and imprisonment – these fish can hardly escape. Here is another aspect of our fragile world, and we have to decide if our relationship with the planet is helping or harming its survival, as well as ours. If we ignore these fish, the seas they navigate, and the food and vegetation they depend upon, then we will destroy them and us.
In the Bible, the world is created out of deep waters. We are born in water, we cannot live without water, our bodies are mostly comprised of water and we are baptised in water as well as in spirit. Yet so many people live without access to clean water and die each year of water-related diseases. The marine life family in this tank is being threatened by climate change, pollution and other man-made enterprises. So might this aquarium be protecting the last species of some of our fish and plants?
The kingdom of God is about the healing of all creation – spiritual and material. When Jesus lived among the wild beasts, he did not abuse them for his food and comfort since the angels looked after him. He gave us an example of the right relationship between us, God and the whole of the natural world. He pointed towards a time when the whole of creation will be restored and renewed.
If we want to build community with the values explored in this series: identity, generosity, adaptability, empathy and paradox, then let us stop to think about the re-location of human beings among our fellow inhabitants. In this way, we might be more generous towards other life forms, we might protect them from our man-made desires. They might not need to swim against the current quite so often.
Question and Action point:
What do you think is most needed in your church and neighbourhood to build community, now and beyond? How can the natural world help you to achieve this?
Which of the six values: identity, generosity, adaptability, empathy, paradox and community are you challenged by most? How does Jesus’ life help you to respond positively?
Help us to build communities that reflect your beauty and truth,
and where the whole of your creation can flourish.
May we seek to understand each other with new eyes and hearts,
so that what affects one life form affects another.
Through Christ our Lord.
Suggested further reading for going deeper
Psalm 104; Colossians 1:15-20 and Revelation 21.
Bauckham, R. (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation” pp.15-47
Lane, D. A. (2022) Nature Praising God: Towards a Theology of the Natural World. Dublin: Messenger Publications
Midgley, D. (1989) Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What is Knowledge For? London: Routledge
Midgley, D. (2002) Beasts and Man: the Roots of Human Nature. London: Routledge Classics
Midgley, D. (2005) The Essential Mary Midgley. London: Routledge