The latest issue of the Bible Society’s ‘Bible in Transmission‘ journal features an article entitled ‘Sinning against the earth?‘ (pdf) Writer Chris Sunderland addresses the issue of a changing definition of sin, as new awareness of environmental problems gives us new perspectives on right and wrong: “A whole new set of environmental ‘sins’ is emerging into human consciousness.” This is something the Vatican mentioned recently, as did the Bishop of London last year when he suggested flying was a sin.
Our culture isn’t particularly comfortable with the notion of ‘sin’, but Sunderland describes it not as a religious definition, but changing views and new awarenesses. He compares this changing moral climate to that at the time of the slave trade. “Just as new compassion dawned in the days of the slave trade, such that those perceived to be commodities to be traded became valued as people, so in today’s situation a new compassion is dawning for the earth and its creatures.”
I’d have reservations using the word ‘sin’ in describing environmental ethics myself, mainly because the term is so easily misunderstood. It’s a word that has in many ways lost its meaning, or gathered a load of unhelpful connotations. Nevertheless, there is a changing “sense of wrongdoing in the wider society”, so it amounts to the same thing really, whichever word you choose for it. “We can identify as ‘sin’”, Sunderland concludes, “those things that we previously did not recognise to be so. The time is coming when it will be hard to call yourself a Christian and live an earth-destructive lifestyle.”
What do you think? Is the church ready to consider environmental sins?
- Check out Chris Sunderland’s project ‘Earth Abbey‘