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/ 21 September 2020

Love, the second law and the resurrection

Jesus Christ (reported in Matthew Ch 22) was asked by a lawyer what was the greatest commandment in the Jewish Law.  He responded with two great commandments from the Old Testament: the first is “to Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds”, and the second (which He commented is like the first) is “to love our neighbours as ourselves”.

The original reference to the Second Law, to love our neighbour, is found in the third book of the Old Testament (Leviticus Ch 19). It is exemplified by an injunction against greed in farming practices – which is also important for environmental reasons. Loving our neighbour and caring for God’s Creation are part and parcel of each other.  How important this is during Creationtide, the annual Season of Creation!

There is also another second law, a cardinal law of Nature – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. According to this Second Law, the natural world and also any artificial products or systems we can create tend to run down into degeneration and disorder. Hot things cool, batteries go flat, orderly things get messed up, useful gadgets break down, materials are used up and wasted.  That is, unless they can be replenished and repaired by sufficient sources of new materials and energy and creative input.

That state of disorder, which generally increases, and supplants orderliness and useful design, is called ‘entropy’.  “Change and decay in all around we see”, as Henry Francis Lyte wrote in ‘Abide with me’. This doesn’t help when we are trying to cultivate and take care of Creation!  The book of Genesis puts the weeds down to Sin. But as philosophers have recognised for centuries, we are also up against Necessity.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has profound implications for how we care for the environment, which is God’s Creation. We are continually competing against the Second Law, as we strive to create things and sustain and improve our lives and our habitats; and to look after the world of other living creatures, for their sake and for love of our neighbours and for the sake of children and young people, the poor and vulnerable, and those who come after us.

To do all that we have to draw on sources of materials and energy, from the earth and from the sun, as well as our own effort and creativity.  That is not wrong.

Yet, according to the Second Law, it seems our efforts must ultimately prove futile.  To some degree we see this every day, as consumer goods wear out and get discarded.  We try to recycle, and before that to reduce our consumption and to make imaginative re-use of things that still have value.  We reduce and will hopefully eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, drawing instead from the immense energy of the sun and wind and tides.  We are right to do these things, and must rapidly ramp up our efforts.

Even the benefits of solar power aren’t actually endless. Of course the sun will keep going for billions of years. But unfortunately we have to use scarce materials to make solar panels and batteries.  We hope to find new substitutes and develop technological improvements.  Then we have to try to re-use and recycle those materials at their end of life.  Doubtless we’ll get better at all this, but it won’t be for ever.

Behind and ahead of us, that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics continues to lurk.  The great scientist Sir Arthur Eddington said “The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If your theory is against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope.”  That’s pretty bleak. Eddington admitted that scientists ‘could bungle things’, but he doesn’t seem to have bungled much in his illustrious career. For example, he predicted the solar eclipse of 1999 which did indeed occur 55 years after he died; I know that because I was in hospital at the time and I remember the ward darkening as it happened.  Eddington was also very open to religion and philosophy and spirituality. He didn’t mean in that sense to hold out no hope for us.

So what becomes of the promise of the Bible to redeem and renew God’s Creation, to ‘make all things new’?  This is asserted and repeated in many shapes and guises throughout the Scriptures.  It is secured by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

“If Christ was not raised”, wrote St Paul (1 Corinthians Ch 15), “we of all people are most to be pitied.”  In relation to the environment, our lives and all our efforts including on the environment, and doing our utmost to hold back climate change and biodiversity loss, and to stop plastic getting into the ocean, would still, it is true, yield benefits for the present and for the future. We all ought to keep these up as long as we can. But ultimately, we would be struggling against the inevitable; ultimately our efforts would come to nothing. We came from dust, and to dust we shall return.  “Vanity of vanities!”, as ‘the Preacher’ in Ecclesiastes cries.

It isn’t comfortable saying this; but many people are thinking what they might prefer not to say, for example that climate change may already have passed the point of no return. It may be outrunning all humanity’s efforts to combat it – even if those efforts were a lot less faltering and more single-minded than they are.

Yet, I firmly believe, our efforts should continue unabated, whatever the outcome. We should not be cowed, nor broken in our stride.  Our God demands no less of us.  Remember the divine First and Second Laws – to love Him with all our hearts, souls and minds. To love our neighbours as ourselves, to deliver justice to those with least resilience who are suffering most. Which also positions the Care of God’s Creation as an intrinsic consequence of those laws.

Does God ask of us to do what is pointless?  I think not. That would be to reckon without the Resurrection of the Dead.  For St Paul went on to say “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead”.  According to the Christian Gospel that is our only hope, by means of which God’s Creation, and His people, are not doomed to failure and mere abject decomposition.

Furthermore, I humbly suggest of the late Sir Arthur that there is one little point he seems momentarily to have missed. The Second Law applies to isolated systems, that is, to systems which cannot access new materials and/or energy sources.  But, according to believers in God, our world, the Universe, is not an isolated system; on the contrary, it is open to the love and power and energy of God.  In that case, all things are possible.  Even the Resurrection of the dead, and the reordering of a Universe, as new.

I shared a draft of this article with a valued colleague and ally, who commented that it would be good to emphasise our Resurrection hope even more. This admonition could hardly have been better timed: it arrived while I was listening, awed and spellbound, to the Creed from Beethoven’s immense ‘Missa Solemnis’.  He had just affirmed the Resurrection, and was continuing with his declaration of belief in the life of the world to come, through the medium of one of the most glorious of fugues.  Yet still he seems to baulk at the magnitude of this hope: “Amen, amen… And, and…” – he hesitates for a moment – finally bursting into a thrilling fortissimo by the full choir and orchestra, in which they declare to earth and heaven that the world to come is a future certainty.

Revelation 5:13 contains a wonderfully exalting and moving promise of ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” ’

Then I too will rest with that assurance.  Of course, like Beethoven, and even St Paul I suspect – but evidently not ‘St John the Divine’ who wrote Revelation – we may have conflicts and doubts.  We are in the presence of deepest mystery.  I do not – to be clear – deny the science of thermodynamics. I do not know how or when God may redeem or renew His Creation. Let Him be the judge of that, and everything else. Meantime, let’s place our trust in God, and go on undaunted, caring for each other and for His world.

See Diocesan Environmental Policy

Environment and Sustainability

About Brian Cuthbertson

Brian is the Head of Environment and Sustainability at the Diocese of London.

Read more from Brian Cuthbertson

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