My granny has a collection of Bible verses, prayers and sayings stuck to the wall right above her fruit bowl, in the kitchen. One that she has herself typed onto an ancient post-it note sticks in my mind: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’
These are the opening lines of Psalm 19, beloved of writers, artists and hippy types the world over. C.S Lewis called it ‘the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ Bach, Beethoven and Haydn all set it to music, and Romantic poets such as Blake and Wordsworth used it as a source in their own poetry.
It’s an inherently British quality, I think, that we wax lyrical about our landscape - its dancing daffodils, its mountains green. Nature has been, and will be a core part of our identity, a source of comfort, and of inspiration. The beginning of Psalm 19 captures this completely - the glorious celebration and wonder of nature, pointing to the Creator behind the creation.
For a long time this was how I understood my environment, using the natural world as a shorthand to point out the benevolence and beauty of God. And yet my response to that environment was to do exactly nothing, at least, nothing practical. I didn’t think that I needed to recycle, because if major corporations weren’t going to cut down on CO2 emissions, what did it matter if my glass got melted down? I didn’t think about the need to stop consuming, because really, what impact could one person have? Shamefully, I neglected to care for the very landscape that I claimed to love, all the while espousing a Natural Theology that claimed that the beauty of nature was a revelation of the Divine.
I live in Glasgow, a word coming from Middle Gaelic, that translates to ‘dear green place.’ It is a very green, and often very beautiful place. It was in this place that I started to consider the impact that my life was having on dear places unlike this city, places whose environment stands in stark contrast to the fairly mild conditions we experience in the UK. Just in the last month we have seen deadly devastation at the hands of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes in North and South America, the Caribbean, and in Bangladesh. Our failure to restrict climate change is leading to terrible consequences, not just for ourselves but also for plant and wildlife. Climate change is a serious threat to our shared humanity, one that certainly requires action at the level of governments, but also one that we should be concerned with on an individual basis.
It is here that it is important to look further down Psalm 19, to verses 7 - 9:
"The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous."
Although it is the first section of the Psalm that receives the most praise, it is this middle section that bears even more consideration. The themes are obedience to God, and the link between the overwhelming beauty of God’s creation and its necessary connection to the beauty of God’s righteousness. For me, the link goes further, in that part of following the precepts of the Creator is to care for the creation.
It can be so easy to glory and marvel in nature, to see the beauty where we live, and still do very little to care for it. It can be even harder to care for places and people we’ve never known or seen. And yet God commands us to be stewards of this earth (Genesis 2:15), decreeing that we should not pollute the land (Numbers 35:33). We are to follow these right precepts, especially if doing so is uncomfortable. Part of fearing the Lord is to ensure that we lessen the harm that we do to this planet, and by extension to other people. In short, we are called to celebrate the beauty of creation, and in a spirit of obedience seek to protect and nurture it.
I have been, and still am tempted to look only at beauty and disregard reality. I am still tempted to do what is easy, instead of what is right. I often give in to these temptations. By taking part in SCM’s Green Challenges I hope to explore my personal impact on the planet, and give myself a monthly strategy to choose to care for beauty for the beauty of creation, for ‘the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’
You can join in with the SCM Green Challenge months here.
Caitlin is the LGBTQ+ rep on SCM's general council. She lives in Glasgow.