Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire—a somewhat Spinozean address in support of the #schoolstrike4climate

Greta Thunberg
READINGS: Jesus Blesses Little Children (Mark 10:13-16)

People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

An edited version of a speech given by Greta Thunberg at Davos in January 2019 (text also printed at the end of this address. Do please take the time to read it as her words are very important to hear, more important, indeed, than this address. . .)


Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.

To begin this address, which is essentially an expression of support for, and celebration of, the inspiring examples of environmental civil disobedience carried out this week by our schoolchildren, I think it is important for us here to locate the matter of environmental activism in the sphere of religion because, first and foremost, we are a religious community, albeit a rather unusual one.

Spinoza in the Exeter Meeting House
A key religious and philosophical figure within the Radical Enlightenment tradition to which this Unitarian Church belongs is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Indeed, in our beautiful eighteenth-century meeting house in Exeter — alas now a Wetherspoons — you will find a stained-glass window dedicated to this gentle and thoughtful thinker who lies at the heart of not only liberal religion in general but also at the heart of the Deep Ecology movement. As the historian Frederick C. Beiser says:

Spinoza’s famous phrase “deus sive natura” made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist (Frederick C. Beiser, “After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900", Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7).

In one way or another this project is still underway in this community and, as most of you will know, the English of the phrase “deus sive nature” — “God-or-Nature” — has been used at the beginning of our Sunday morning service since 2008:

Let us begin by resting together quietly for a few moments in the presence of God-or-Nature.

However, the phrase “God-or-Nature” can, for a casual visitor, make it sound like we can’t quite make up our mind whether it’s “God” or “Nature” we are coming consciously into the presence of; it could be one but, perhaps, it’s the other: “Who knows — so let’s equivocate!” But those of you with a little Latin will be aware that “sive” is the “or” of equivalence and Spinoza was most certainly not being equivocal; he is saying that “God” is “Nature”, “Nature” is “God” and, because for him everything is a mode of God-or-Nature and interconnected, human beings should, therefore, treat all other modes of creation with an attitude of reverence.     

This means that the proclamation of Jesus’ — whom Spinoza admired above all other human teachers — that there is no greater commandment than that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31) is also a proclamation to hear the command as we must love Nature with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and your neighbout as yourself.

The love of God-or-Nature (in which we, ourselves and our neigbour are comingled) and of the need to protect “her” against the continuous, violent assault being made upon her is (or should be for us), quite simply, a religious matter from top to bottom.

But, as we are now coming to know ever more clearly, we have not succeeded in halting this assault. True, many individuals and groups have tried and are still are trying with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength to stop this violence but as a class of people called “adults” our results have been often been pitiable.

We seem to be mired in an abstract and detached world of endless, mere hope-mongering talk about the value of tweeking this or that bit legislation in order to do a little bit of tinkering here and there while outside our very doors the machinery of capitalism goes on relentlessly devouring the planet. This simply cannot go on that as the remarkable sixteen year old Swedish school strike and climate change activist Greta Thunberg said at Davos in January this year:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

Her words are, as Jonathan Freedland noted in the Guardian yesterday, “a terrible indictment of the rest of us. They are a mark of our failure” and this should remind us that our children’s action on Friday both here and around the world “is only necessary because we have failed to act. As one placard at the Belgian protests told politicians: ‘I’ll do my homework when you do yours.’”

We adults have clearly not been doing our homework about in what consists a true and meaningful hope for thefuture of our planet and this failure has revealed another painful truth, again expressed by Thunberg but this time at the UN climate change conference in Poland in December 2018 when she said to we adults: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is – even that burden you leave to us children.”

Mindful of this failure and trying better to heed Jesus’ call to love God-or-Nature with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and my neighbour as myself, on Friday morning I felt religiously compelled to get up earlier than normal so as to be able at least to display some kind of visible solidarity with the striking children who were to begin their march into town at the Shire Hall. When I arrived at about nine-twenty there were, perhaps, only about twenty children there with a few of their parents. And then, slowly but surely, up Castle Hill came more and more children until by nine forty there were at least a couple of hundred children present ranging from primary school age to sixth-formers. Gathered around the entrance to the Shire Hall they began chanting “Hey ho, fossil fuels have got to go” and all around they were waving home-made banners reading “Rebel for Life”, “Take back control of our future”, “We have no planet B”, “Bankers bailed by govt, where’s the action for our climate crisis?”, “Change the leaders, not the climate”, “Change the politics not the climate”, “Trash the world, lose the world”, “Save our home”, “What future are we learning for?”, “What I stand by is what I stand on”. “The future is inside us it’s not somewhere else”, “Theresa, if you really don’t think you can afford it, perhaps get your mates to pay their taxes and use your husband’s arms money to help”, “So severe the kids are here”, “I want you to panic” and many, many more besides.

Never before have I so forcibly felt the truth of Jesus’ words that unless we adults change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I had to ask why is it, at least on this matter urgent beyond all imagining, we adults find it so difficult to be as clear-eyed and passionate as Greta Thunberg and our own striking, marching and chanting children who have been inspired by her? As George Monbiot writes:

Every day at home, we [adults] tell you that if you [our children] make a mess you should clear it up. We tell you that you should take responsibility for your own lives. But we have failed to apply these principles to ourselves. We walk away from the mess we have made, in the hope that you might clear it up.

Given that it is adults, through our various governments, who have contributed so much to, and continued to walk away from, this mess, how dare a No.10 Downing Street spokesperson patronisingly say to the children “It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for” and that this lesson time “is crucial for young people, precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem” when government has consistently failed to apply these principles itself. I was delighted when Greta Thunberg replied to this churlish and “childish” statement with some rather more adult, mature, balanced and wise words:

British PM says that the children on school strike are “wasting lesson time”. That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 yrs of inaction. And that is slightly worse.

Anyway, I find myself compelled to agree wholeheartedly with the two hundred academics who signed a letter of support published last Wednesday saying that

. . . we offer our full support to the students – some of whom may well aspire to be the academics of the future – who bravely plan to strike on 15 February to demand that the UK government takes climate action. They have every right to be angry about the future that we shall bequeath to them, if proportionate and urgent action is not taken. We are inspired that our children, spurred on by the noble actions of Greta Thunberg and many other striking students all around the world, are making their voices heard.

So yes, I, too, support our children in their actions but not simply for reasons that may be called purely pragmatic and scientific but also for profound religious reasons because, to return to where I began this address, when viewed through the intuitive insights of someone like Spinoza we discover we can see our children as responding powerfully to the timeless call of Jesus of Nazareth, to love God-or-Nature with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and our neighbour as yourself.

In so far as we want to have a chance to enter the kingdom of heaven that is a healthy and sustainable world for all we really do need to change and become like children because it is they who are showing us the way to go, namely, that we must act as we would in a crisis. We must act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.