Opinion Putting Down Roots

How might Easter be reinterpreted in light of climate change?

A Hubble photo is but a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula. Captured here are the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and the dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. Photo courtesy of NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

(RNS) — There’s a new hashtag game called #ExplainEasterToAnAlien.

Funny stuff. But it got me thinking: How will we explain Easter to an alien?

As I recently wrote for the BBC, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, as leading scientists tell us, is more a question of when, not if. If these scientists are right, then at some point in the future Christians may find themselves having to explain their most cherished beliefs to intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

But before we reinterpret our Easter stories to make sense within a galaxy far, far away, we need to make sure Christians can make sense on our own 13.8 billion-year-old star home.

These days, they don’t always. The Easter story was received and interpreted within a world that was believed to have been created fully formed a few thousand years before Jesus’ time. That, as we now know, is no longer an accurate view of the world. But it’s possible to rethink the Easter story with fresh eyes to learn how we might make sense of it today.

If you ask the average American Christian what Easter is all about, they’ll probably tell you something like this: God sent Jesus to die and rise again to save human beings from their sins. If humans accept Jesus’ sacrifice, they get to go to heaven when they die. The emphasis is on human beings, the progeny of Adam and Eve.

It was easy to believe this version of the story when humans thought they were the center of a very young universe. It’s harder to accept that story now. We now know that our very old species is just one of millions crawling across a small planet spinning in a tiny section of a huge universe. We’ve been repositioned as one part — perhaps an important part, but a part nonetheless — of a larger interconnected whole. We don’t play the starring role in the universe that our ancestors believed we did.

The problem is, many of us still act as if we’re starring in that role. Such anthropocentrism has had negative effects on our planet. Over the past 130 years, for example, the global temperature has increased 1.5 degrees F, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the force behind global warming, is, as NASA notes, higher than it’s been in the past 400,000 years.

Most scientists accept that rising global temperatures can be somewhat attributed to industralization. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study concluded it was “extremely likely that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”

Some climate experts believe that if this trend isn’t corrected, the Earth’s surface temperature could be 8 degrees warmer by the year 2100. As the climate warms, sea levels rise, extreme weather events happen, less fresh water is made available, ecosystems change, and species go extinct.

This should sound like bad news. But many Christians seem uninterested. A political scientist who analyzed more than 20 years of relevant polling recently concluded, “Christian identity tends to be negatively associated with environmental concern.”


RELATED: For Christians, the green revolution is stalling — and politics may be why


No wonder Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical calling people to think about “how we are shaping the future of our planet.” After explaining that climate change has a lot to do with human behavior, Francis reminds Christians that the New Testament teaches that Jesus has a “loving, tangible” relationship with the entire world. In fact, he says, “the very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”

“Who is my neighbor?” someone once asked Jesus. The answer: a fellow human being. But as theologian Elizabeth Johnson points out, your neighbor is also that whale and that bumblebee and that ocean and that supernova.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with Easter. And the answer is: everything! Although Christianity has interpreted the Incarnation in a narrowly anthropocentric way, the New Testament witness is clear that God stands in solidarity with the entire created world.

Many Christians cherish the belief that God became human, but the Bible never says that. It says the Word was made flesh. Johnson argues there’s no reason why Christians should limit this to human flesh. “The sarx (Greek for ‘flesh’) of Jesus of Nazareth was a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet,” she writes.

God, in the Jesus event, became one with the entire created, evolving, unfinished universe. Sure, that includes humans — but it also includes quarks, eroding shorelines, animals on the verge of extinction and every other planet in the universe. Easter is a celebration of God’s solidarity — God’s at-one-ment — with the universe.

So how would we explain Easter to an alien? We can start by expanding our vision and admitting that Easter is about God’s relationship with the whole world — not just human beings. We can think about what resurrection life means beyond planet Earth. We can think about bunnies and the green fields in which we hunt for colorful eggs; the factories where our dinner hams were raised and slaughtered; the gases our cars emit as we drive to church; and the lilies that adorn our altars.

And yes, maybe even extraterrestrials.

(Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and dancer based in Delaware. He lives in Delaware with his husband and is a doctoral student in theology at Villanova University. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

This story is available for republication.

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Brandon Ambrosino

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