Accept our repentance, Lord.
(Litany of Penitence, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268)
The ashes on our foreheads are a sign of our penitence and our mortality. As the ashes are imposed on our foreheads, we hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are mortal, created from “dust”, the fundamental stuff of the universe. Religious people perhaps more than others are tempted to forget this from time to time. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, but we Christians often speak as if we believe in the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul instead. Reacting to a culture that tempts us to see ourselves as bodies without souls — the root of many sins — we sometimes overcorrect and begin to think of ourselves as souls without bodies. Forgetting our embodiment, forgetting that we are made of dust, can also be the root of sins.
The dualism resulting from thinking of our souls and bodies as independent of one another is one source of our failure to care enough about God’s creation. We talk about loving God and loving one another, but somehow think we can do that by being nice people who don’t want to think about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere since the concrete world around us isn't "spiritual".
If you’ve been following the national political conversation leading up to the presidential election, it seems the risk climate change poses to human life is not on most people’s — or at least most politicians’ and commentators’ — lists of most important issues. The destruction of the biosphere is treated at best as some sort of side issue. It is amazing that the biggest threat ever faced by humanity is given only glancing mention at best, and is still downright denied by some.
Pondering our own mortality as individuals can be difficult intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, but we recognize that coming to accept our mortality is necessary to our growth as mature Christians. Pondering the mortality of our species, and pondering it not in some distant age, is much, much more difficult, but equally necessary for Christians in this century to think about and pray about.
Phil Torres is a philosopher and the author of the book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse. The book will be released in a week. From some of the reviews available, it sounds like Torres pits science / reason / observation against religion / faith / revelation (a different dualism from the soul / body split) and indicates that religious eschatology puts us in danger of not responding adequately to the very real risks to the survival of humanity we face in this century. Given this negative take on religion, it’s perhaps ironic that an article by Phil Torres published today on the Common Dreams sight gave me a deeper understanding this Ash Wednesday of the importance of pausing to think about and pray about our own personal mortality and the mortality of our species. Our survival might depend on our remembering our mortality, on our remembering that we are dust.
In Biodiversity Loss and the Doomsday Clock: An Invisible Disaster Almost No One is Talking About, Torres outlines some of the risks we face as a result of climate change and related forms of environmental degradation, and then notes:
We must, moving forward, never forget that just as we’re minds embodied, so too are we bodies environed, meaning that if the environment implodes under the weight of civilization, then civilization itself is doomed.Ash Wednesday brings us back to the reality of our embodiment. An adequate look at our own mortality this century must include embracing the reality of our environment.
Remember that you are dust.
Remember that we are connected to one another and to everything else on our planet.