“Oh when I see, ungrateful man defiling, this bounteous earth, your gifts so good and great…”

Most will be familiar with these words from the stirring hymn, “How Great Thou Art” whose narrative places us in the position of someone observing the damage that is being done to our planet. We no longer have to make the imaginative leap to see the world through the eyes of the author of this hymn, because we are facing an unprecedented environmental crisis that is obvious to most of us.

These lines (among others that were not taken up in the Spiritualist versions) were a later option added to this traditional hymn, added by British Methodist Stuart Wesley Keen Hine as a translation of a Russian version. This was in 1953, and while it is true that some themes in traditional hymns have not stood the test of time, here we find words whose meaning comes into greater focus with every passing day. This hymn is ringing both a spiritual and corporeal alarm.

Recently we have seen David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” on our screens, and the distressing footage of whales choking on some of the 8 million tons of plastic waste that humanity dumps in the oceans every year. We have read reports of orangutans facing extinction as humanity’s demand for palm oil bulldozes the tropical rainforests - their home along with 50% of the planet’s biodiversity. We have seen Extinction Rebellion and the “strike for climate” movement, inspired by 16 year old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg, express their fear of imminent climate collapse. The planet is teetering on the edge of an irreversible crisis.

It is within both the words of the hymn and this unfolding environmental disaster that we find the intersection of our inner-world and our outer-world – our spirituality, and our shared lives. Whilst it would be easy to respond with panic, we have an opportunity as Spiritualists to approach things constructively. If ever there was a moment in history that desperately needed the power of Spiritualism, it is here. It is now!

If we first think back to our human ancestors who lived before wide-scale agriculture and industry, it is likely that they worked with nature. This has been a theme discussed on the philosophy walks in the grounds of the Arthur Findlay College on Open Week. It is a reasonable thought to believe that they had a closer relationship with nature, through the necessity of having to cooperate with it. While the further back in time we go it becomes harder to know how they organised their spirituality, we might imagine their understanding and awareness of their God, or a greater spirit, was ever present.  I imagine that they were co-creators, working respectfully within a bigger picture of their environment. Fast forward to today, and humanity seems to have lost the idea of co-creating with God, and has lunged head first into consumerism. Materialism’s grip is real and wide-spread.

Spiritualism’s philosophy puts us back in control of both our own destiny (through personal responsibility) and our collective destiny (through a spiritual sister- and brother-hood). Personal responsibility does not mean only thinking about how our behaviour affects our own progress, but how it affects that of our brothers and sisters. By extension we can include this bounteous earth and all life upon it. Never before have we had a more real and global model of compensation and retribution than in the environmental crisis. The trash and pollution that humanity has generated over the past 100 years is staring back at us with menace and intent.

Maurice Barbanell envisaged that a humanity that enacted our second principle that honours brotherhood and sisterhood would mean war being “driven from the face of the earth.” In a similar way, enacting this principle along with personal responsibility and a desire to manage compensation and retribution, could be a recipe to avoid disaster. Spiritualism is a rational and pragmatic religion for living. We have an opportunity to react.

Recently the Union published “Caring for the Environment – a checklist for churches” as a resource for churches who wanted to minimise their environmental impact and increase their sustainability. Distributed to churches, and still available to download, it highlights a number of areas that any public building could take that could benefit the environment and those who operate within it. These include making a considered use of energy to reduce carbon footprint and bills, thinking about water use and re-use, transportation and meetings, and even planting in the church grounds. Importantly, it talks about raising awareness, and a church has an opportunity to work with its congregation to raise such awareness about the environment, and contribute to a better future for us and generations to come. The checklist is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, but hopefully sets the thinking in motion that we can aim to run our churches and centres in a way that provides spiritual and practical leadership through the urgent environmental issues of our time. This was mentioned in the President’s speech at the AGM in Glasgow, and we also learnt of the World Interfaith Harmony Grove in Scotland, and its efforts to preserve our planet.

As individuals we have before us an opportunity to express our spiritual values through our daily lives. Spiritualism and its philosophy are not something reserved for Sunday evenings – they are greater, and inform our way of life. It is with us in the supermarket aisles as we make choices about what we consume. It is with us when we recycle our plastic instead of discarding to landfill. It is with us when we plant our gardens with pollinating flowers instead of spraying toxic chemicals. By enacting our Spiritualism, we are not just honouring our connection with those around us, but those who are yet to come. Our connection to the rest of humanity is not just through space, but also through time.

The call for spirit in action grows louder by the day, and we can take strength and courage from the power and support that our spiritual understanding gives us. It also important to remember that personal responsibility can be applied to institutions and corporations as well as individuals. We can make our voices heard by telling our politicians, and companies that produce what we consume that they must behave and produce responsibility. Until we are offered environmentally friendly choices that are both accessible and affordable to all, then social injustice will continue to prevail. We can take heart from our pioneers who used their spiritual motivation to fight injustice and demand change. Their many legacies reminds us of this.

For us, it is our legacy that we are responsible for. Evidence tells us that the grass is greener on “the other side,” but how much will we enjoy the gentle climes of the Summerland if we leave behind a depleted and defiled planet? If we truly accept that our temporary home is God’s bounteous earth, and that the God-force is an intrinsic part of us, then we have enough understanding to become co-creators with the divine. I know that many Spiritualists and churches are working and striving towards this, and including God in their actions is proving to be both transformative and restorative. I leave you with the words of authors Fred and Mary Ann Brussat, “We are not here just to care for and sleep on God’s couch. God is the couch.”

[This article featured in SNU Today, which is distributed to our members, churches, and centres, and available in our online shop.] Our Year of the Environment activities will be re-booted later in 2021.