“Our planet is now in great peril not only from the possibility of a nuclear disaster, but from the effects of an affluent society that abuses the earth’s resources” reads the cover jacket of the elegant watercolour illustrated copy of Fritsch’s ‘Renew the face of the earth’. “This book is meant to be a catalyst to bring people to the rescue of the earth.”
Where others appeal to survival, justice, or a sense of loss, Al Fritsch’s catalyst for action is an affinity with the suffering earth, a sense of mystery, and an understanding of the earth as mother. His is an ‘eco-spirituality’ born of his unusual dual vocations – doctor of chemistry and Jesuit priest. One of the distinctive features of the Jesuit order is the belief that God can be found in all things, so it is natural that ecology finds its place among their concerns. Mainstream Christianity is still only waking up to this now, but care for the earth has always been important on the fringes, among the Benedictine tradition, the Quakers, or the Mennonites as well as the Jesuits.
I picked up a copy of Fritsch’s book in a second hand shop and thought I’d read it as an interesting alternative perspective. Unfortunately a fair bit of the more mystical material was lost on me. Other things struck me as out of touch, noble but unrealistic, and far too much of the book is purely theoretical, as if it was written from the cosy safety of a cabin somewhere in Appalachia. (Which it was, I gather.)
However, an outsider can also see things we don’t, and there is real wisdom to be found too. “Lifestyles are the outward manifestation of our inner selves” he writes, which should give pause for thought to anyone whose lifestyle is defined by consumption. A simple lifestyle can model sustainability to those around us, and compassion is needed for both the rich and the poor, as “the affluent are as oppressed by their own surplus as are the poor by their lack of power.”
Rather than practical suggestions, much of the book discusses the right kind of attitudes. “The challenge is to be both angry about ecological harm and patient with the time it takes to learn to renew” is one that caught my attention. The idea of patient anger, anger that is productive rather than destructive, is inspiring. So too is prophecy, which Fritsch explains rather well. “Prophets are not bearers of the fates in some Grecian classical sense; rather they are people who perceive human causes and trends. They are not pessimists, for they do not predict what will surely happen, only what will happen if — .” We associate prophets with doom and judgement. I like the idea of prophetic optimism.
Best of all is the concept that forms the title: “To renew the face of the earth is to participate in the creation of it” he writes. The Christian calling is not just to preserve and conserve the earth, but to bring out the best in it, to develop it as co-creators. As part of the ecosystem ourselves, the human story is not separate from the earth’s story. As we build cities, grow crops, expand our scientific understanding, discover new elements and new uses for them, we can either do so in harmony or in defiance of the earth. Unsustainable as it is, we are currently living in defiance, denying both the finite nature of the planet, and our own nature as part of it. A worldview that sees our lifestyles, cultural pursuits, industry and progress as part of the earth’s story, with us as co-creators and stewards, is a beautiful vision for what humanity in general, and christianity in particular, could represent.
In short, ‘Renew the face of the Earth’ is intriguing and confusing, inspiring and frustrating in equal measure. Those are all fine things for a book to be in my opinion.
- ‘Renew the face of the Earth’ was published in 1987, so it is a little out of date. More up to date material, along with daily reflections, and some useful articulations of eco-spirituality, can all be found on Fritsch’s website earthhealing.info.