In which we welcome Revd Dr Joel Love as he ponders the summer solstice, World Humanist Day, and our place in the world..
Clung to a ball
That was hung in the sky
Hurled into orbit
There You are
– Rich Mullins, ‘Verge of a Miracle’
This week sees the solstice and World Humanist Day, which both fall on 21 June. In the Northern hemisphere this is known as midsummer or the ‘summer’ solstice (whatever the weather). The summer solstice is when when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and is the day with the shortest period of darkness and longest period of daylight.
Prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge stand as monuments to the annual cycle of the sun, which appears to rise higher in the sky during the summer before falling again towards the Southern horizon in the winter months. Here in the Medway area, Kits Coty is all that is left of an ancient burial mound that was also oriented towards the rising sun. Many Christian Churches are also built on an East-West axis, sometimes literally on top of earlier places of worship. Humanists International, meanwhile, chose the 21st of June because it symbolises light triumphing over darkness, where one represents ‘knowledge’ and the other ‘ignorance’.
Humanism in the West is a largely post-Christian phenomenon, while pagan celebrations of the solstice can be described as pre-Christian. Yet both movements have settled on the solstice for their annual celebrations, as if to point out that the intervening Christian centuries had led to a disconnection between people and our place on the earth — or our planet’s precarious position in the universe. As a Christian who is also a member of the Green Party, this history is a source of regret for me. How did a religion which is all about bodies become so detached from the physical world? The Hebrew scriptures (which we have borrowed from Judaism) describe the natural world as ‘very good’ and even say that it speaks to us about the glory of God. So how have we come to take the environment for granted, exploiting it for our own gain without giving anything back? How can we ever make amends for the destruction of habitats and biodiversity? — not to mention the exploitation of humans by other humans for personal profit, or the appropriation of resources that could and should belong to us all.
Midsummer is a good time for all of us to take stock of our relationship with our planet. Yet for most of us, the solstice has become little more than a curiosity of quaint historical significance. Unless we grow crops or tend a garden, most of us have lost our connection with the earth, too. But as we see the sun reach its zenith in the sky this week, we can let it cheer our hearts and serve as a reminder that we rely on this burning star for everything that makes life possible on our planet.
At a time when environmental concerns should be at the forefront of our minds, the solstice can serve as a moment in the year when our communities come together to reflect. We can acknowledge our dependence on the sun for photosynthesis, vitamin D, a breathable atmosphere, and the water cycle. We can hear midsummer as a call to work together in practical ways, and to take responsibility for our own part in climate change.
In addition to repairing, reusing, and recycling, we can all work to reduce our reliance on plastics and fossil fuels. It has never been easier to switch to renewable energy, for example. And buying local produce saves on food miles. Most of us can also reduce our carbon footprint by walking and using public transport rather than driving and flying.
But the changes that we most urgently need to make will only be effective if we can do them on a large scale. This means working together across party-political and religious lines, as one human community. Whether you identify as Pagan, Christian, or Humanist, thinking about our mutual reliance on this planet of ours should influence the way you shop and live, as well as how you cast your vote.
As we approach midsummer and World Humanist Day with this in mind, I would suggest one more element: gratitude. We will only bother to save something when we are convinced that it is worth saving. And we will only be convinced of the beauty and intricacy of our planet if we stop to really look at it from time to time. Part of the reason we are in the mess we’re in is that we ‘took our eyes off the ball’ for too long where the environment was concerned. We got so absorbed in whatever it was we were looking at that we stopped noticing where our light was coming from. Stopping to notice the sun in the sky is a good way to reconnect with our place in the universe… in whichever way we choose to celebrate midsummer.
Revd Dr Joel Love is the vicar of St Peter’s and St Margaret’s Churches in Rochester.