“The sky proclaims the glory of God,” says the Psalmist.
While we might think of the sublime majesty of the Milky Way splashed across the night sky, the endless shape-shifting of clouds or an Instagram-perfect sunrise, the heavens above us proclaim divine glory in even more ways than ancient Near-Eastern poets could imagine.
Without our protective sky shield, space would kill us many times over.
If we focus on the bit of the sky known as the atmosphere, the largely invisible blanket of nitrogen, oxygen and various trace gases that envelopes the surface of our planet, then scientific investigation has revealed a raft of ways that life on Earth would be impossible without it.
The atmosphere is typically invisible when we’re standing in it, but can clearly be seen from the International Space Station.
First, we’re familiar with the ozone layer protecting us from deadly ultraviolet radiation, but the even higher atmosphere also screens out the solar wind – high energy subatomic particles streaming from the sun that are sometimes visible in high latitudes as auroras. And then there are the much larger death-dealing space entities: meteors.
Our planetary gas blanket is thin enough for us to move through, but thick enough to burn most meteors before they cause any trouble. Without our protective sky shield, space would kill us many times over.
Second, this thin blanket of sky keeps us warm. Some of the trace gases in the atmosphere let visible light in but retain some of the infrared radiation that bounces back from Earth’s surface. This is known as the greenhouse effect, a natural phenomenon that keeps everything about thirty degrees warmer than it would otherwise be. Without an atmosphere, the Earth would be a frozen ball of ice and rock.
Air also balances out temperature extremes by transporting heat from one place to another, shifting energy from the tropics to the poles, from the sunny side to the dark side, and from the summer hemisphere to the winter one (the oceans play a big role here too). To get a sense of how important this is, the surface of the Moon drops to about -170ºC when turned away from the Sun, while it bakes at about 100ºC in full sunlight.
Third, the bit of the sky that is generally visible to us, clouds, carry moisture from oceans to the land, allowing plants to grow, rivers to flow, lakes to fill and gradually eroding mountains in a very slow process that creates fertile river deltas, while helping to cycle carbon out of the atmosphere and keeping salinity stable in the oceans. All while giving us fresh water to drink, clean, cook, cool down, and baptise! Without an atmospheric conveyer belt for that water vapour to travel on, the land would be barren and bone dry.
Up to seven million people die annually from [air] pollution
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, all animals require oxygen for energy, while plants require carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. We breathe in what plants breathe out, and vice versa. The sky is the medium of this crucial exchange for all terrestrial life.
Yet this awesome and life-giving place has recently become the focus of so many of the ways that we are making the planet less habitable.
A few decades ago, the depletion of stratospheric ozone (“the hole in the ozone layer”) threatened to send skin cancer rates soaring, and was only a bullet narrowly avoided through unprecedented international agreement.
Today, air pollution from burning fuel (especially coal, diesel and biomass) dumps toxic particles into our lungs and heavy metals into the water we drink. Up to seven million people die annually from such pollution, and recent research has shown that this particulate pollution also makes all us less intelligent, suppressing our ability to think.
But the most famous and most dangerous form of sky meddling is from enhancing the natural greenhouse effect by adding too much carbon dioxide. As we burn fossil fuels, cut down forests and raise increasing numbers of ruminant livestock, we’re thickening the natural atmospheric blanket that keeps us all alive, disrupting the usual patterns of temperature and precipitation that our civilisation has been built around. The consequences of all that extra heat are increasingly disastrous for more and more people.
What can we say about this as Christians?
Even as I write this, two major hurricanes are in the process of making landfall, one in the north of the Phillipines and one on the eastern coast of the United States. These most damaging storms are getting stronger as warmer oceans power faster and wetter winds, and as storm surges arrive on top of rising oceans. At the same time, drought in our own nation is worsened by changes in the distribution of rainfall, our corals are bleaching, our cities bake in more frequent and more intense heatwaves, our crops are put under more stress and the whole web of life is pulled apart strand by strand as the ecological relationships developed gradually over millennia shift in a matter of decades.
What can we say about this as Christians? How does faith in Father, Son and Spirit shape our love for clean and healthy skies?
Our holy scriptures speak of all living beings sharing in God’s Breath, or Spirit (Psalm 104:29-30; Genesis 1:30); all life is connected as we breathe the one atmosphere. This is a picture of both dependence upon God and interdependence upon one another. From its opening chapters, the Bible pictures us as members of a community of life, sharing in the giving and receiving of what is necessary to flourish, which comes from our fellow creatures and ultimately from the hand of God.
Being interdependent means our life is precarious, fragile; our very breath can be stolen by our neighbour. If our neighbours breathe in what we breathe out (not just our physical respiration, but more broadly, all the emissions associated with our way of life), and if our breathing is leaving the air unbreathable, then we are stealing the breath, the spirit, the life of our neighbours.
Love means not making our neighbours choke on our exhaust.
Jesus didn’t fight smoke with smoke, but breathed out pure, life-giving kindness, grace and truth
When our world treats the sky as unlimited rubbish dump for short-term profit and convenience; we are invited to breathe in God’s Spirit and share the sky with the lungs of all God’s creatures.
And if we follow Jesus, he breathed in the toxic hatred, greed and selfishness exuded by those around him. Yet he didn’t fight smoke with smoke, but breathed out pure, life-giving kindness, grace and truth. By the power of God’s life-giving Breath, he was willing to die in pursuit of justice and true peace, rather than protect himself at the expense of others.
Those who want to breathe in sync with this clean wind from God will find themselves stirring up any stagnant and oppressive haze, blowing away the fog of apathy and being carried on a breath of fresh air.