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Christians called to re-imagine relationship to Earth

Sr. Kathleen Deignan (Photo: IERACI)The salvation of the planet from the current environmental crisis is a "religious undertaking," says Sr. Kathleen Deignan, CND. 

And saving the planet requires more than recycling, as important as it is. 

It requires human beings to move from an adolescent relationship with the Earth to a mature relationship, and this is a spiritual endeavour, she said during her stay in Montreal.

The American sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame gave a daylong session at the Biosphere in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue last year. The bilingual session, titled Awakening to Earth, Ecology, Spirituality and Social Justice, focused on the Christian perspective of environmentalism and the teachings of the late Fr. Thomas Berry. 

About 65 people attended the session, organized by the diocesan Social Action Office. A CND since 1966 and a former student of Berry's, Sr. Deignan offers conferences on spirituality and ecology throughout North America and Europe.

Sr. Deignan walked participants through Berry's theology as well as the shifts in human history that led to ecological decay.


The Western psyche is dominated by a desire to transcend the human condition through technology, she said. 

First, philosophical movements promoted by the Enlightenment "de-souled" the Earth and cast it simply as a mechanism to be exploited. The industrialization that followed changed the planet's chemistry. The quest to create a "Wonderworld" created a "Wasteworld" instead.

Though Sr. Deignan recognizes the benefits of technology, she also observes that technology keeps humans in the built world and away from the natural world.

"People are yearning to recover a part of themselves that has been sacrificed to this busy, frenzied, technological bubble ... they are yearning for that which comes to us through the natural world," she said in an interview. 

"We need to reimagine our way of being human on the Earth," she stated. The shift must be toward "a new humility", sustainable living and systemic changes that promote and protect the dignity of creation. "It is a work that will take generations."

The religious studies professor at Iona College in upstate New York said this reimagining would require Christians to re-learn and to embrace the Creation Tradition. 


Fr. Berry had spent a large part of his life retrieving, studying and articulating the Creation Tradition for the post-modern age. 

This tradition is the longest within Christianity, heralding back to Christ himself, said Sr. Deignan. It became somewhat lost, however, with the rise of the Redemption Tradition during the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

Jesus instructed his disciples to "read creation", she said, and the early desert masters would encourage followers to be "present to the divine presence in the natural world". St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the beauty of God manifested in all of nature in his Summa Theologica (c.1274). In recent times, Pope John Paul II called on Christians to read two books of Scripture: the Bible and creation, she pointed out. 

Fr. Berry, a former Fordham University professor, based his teachings on the cosmological Christ relayed in the writings of St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul, Sr. Deignan explained. "Creation is birthed out of the Christological mystery," she added.

Taking practical measures to reduce one's carbon footprint is extremely important, said Sr. Deignan. However, the Christian perspective on the environment is also profoundly spiritual. 

"It is a sacramental vision that sees the entire universe as divine creativity," she said.

"It is about recovering our new planetary vocation. It is more than stewardship; it is sacramental. It is a call to become a communicant in a cosmic or terrestrial liturgy. It is about assuring our true vocation as the gardeners and governors of paradise."

by Laura Ieraci


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