There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.
~ T.S. Eliot
My wife and I spent consecutive weekends in September at the weddings of some of our closest friends. First, I stood with my friend Chris as he said his vows to his wonderful wife, Jess, at her home in Montrose, CO, with the smell of summer peaches still lingering in the air and the San Juan Mountains decorating the southern horizon like crooked teeth. It was beautiful.
The following week my wife stood next to her friend, Tonia, while she smiled up at her husband, Mike, beneath the flame-tipped maple leaves and crisp autumn sunshine of northern Wisconsin. This, too, was beautiful.
For the first wedding, we drive six hours across the Rocky Mountains and gazed at the scattered groves of Aspens flaunting their first golds of the fall. For the second, we drove 5 hours on Highway 8 through the forests of Wisconsin, which are just now bursting with the pockets of blaze and burgundy that will color the landscape until the snowflakes fly. This is a marvelous time of year for outdoor weddings and road-trips, and it’s made for some further reflection on Christianity and creation, and the wild, wonderful places that I love. Oh, and I finally finished that book I was blogging about, so here are a few more thoughts about creation-care and the Church:
It’s been my experience that the majority of Christians are encouraged to appreciate the greatness and beauty of God’s creation on things like spiritual retreats and camps, which at least at a superficial level, engenders some sort of ecological appreciation. Growing up, nearly all the youth camps I attended took place just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and there’s no doubt that when the wind whistled through the giant pines and the sun shined off Longs Peak’s diamond face, I gained a deeper sense of who God is and what this God is capable of. Every time I return to the mountains I am overwhelmed and humbled by the greatness of those places and the God who made them.
And the same thing happens still today with different churches and different landscapes. This August I led a cabin of high school boys at YoungLife’s Castaway Club in Pelican Rapids, MN. On the final evening the students were asked to spread out across the grounds and spend 10 minutes alone as the red sun receded over Pelican Lake and the prairie wind carried the waves quietly across the water. Later that night many of our students expressed the significance of that time for them. For whatever reason, we all find it easier to pray when we’re alone beneath the northern sky and the starlight creates shadows in the trees and the loon cries out from somewhere in the darkness. These sorts of experiences seem fairly common among religious people.
So why the disconnect? Why are so many Christians skeptical of, if not outright against, today’s “green movement” and other ecological advocacy efforts? I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts as to why this is, and then share some of Bouma-Prediger’s suggestions for reshaping the way the majority of Christians think about the earth.
I mentioned in my previous post that for most Christians this issue is perceived as too politicized and secular. Environmental issues typically form part of the leftist platform, thus many Christians won’t align themselves with a cause that will get them labeled “liberal,” or worse yet, suggest that they somehow support PETA or Ale Gore or other supposed wackos. While in some cases I understand this reservation, it’s actually kind of ridiculous to determine your beliefs and opinions based on the types of people that might agree with you. That would be like choosing not to feed your children because your neighbor feeds his children but he also lets his dog poop in your yard and “we wouldn’t want to be confused with that sort of person.” If something is the right thing to do, like, say, feeding your kids or protecting an endangered species, we should do it regardless of those who might also agree. It’s called having a conviction. Unfortunately, too few Christians have any convictions regarding the created world.
A related issue is that many people are now turned off by how doggone trendy it is to be “eco-friendly” these days. You can’t turn on the TV or read a magazine without seeing some new company flaunting the greener version of itself (which is usually not all that much different than the old version). This now even happens in some Christian circles, like the University/Seminary I attend, which recently tried to capitalize on the fact that a few of us seminarians and one undergrad student actually garden and make our own organic compost. In at least one publication the University tried to spin these small, normal efforts as some sort of grand initiative by which the University is going green. As an institution, we may be going green, but for now, we are still hot pink.
As annoying as this trendy-ness can sometimes be, we ought to agree that just because something has become popular doesn’t mean we should abandon it. That’s like those people who can no longer listen to Kings of Leon because they overheard the homecoming queen humming “Use Somebody” while pulling Starbucks receipts out of her Coach bag. Oh, and if teenage abstinence ever becomes super-cool I don’t think we should all ditch that bandwagon just because it’s too popular. Anyway, back to ecology…
Another big problem is the imbedded sentiment within conservative Christianity that feels that any statistic suggesting the earth is in some sort of ecological crisis is so skewed and slanted by the left that we must throw out any claims they might make. Truth-telling around environmental issues is a big problem, and I don’t necessarily fault conservatives and evangelicals who feel like the facts are always being manipulated. Many of the facts are being manipulated, and unless you’re an expert on the environmental sciences, you are at the mercy of someone else to tell you what our problems are. And that person probably has an agenda.
But I think that if you’re paying any sort of attention, you’ll notice that we are having a negative impact on the earth, and even if we aren’t going to die tomorrow, we should be trying to fix it. The evidence is everywhere. In 1995 a bunch of schoolchildren studying around a pond in Minnesota were horrified when they came across a number of deformed frogs, many with missing limbs. And when I moved to Minnesota eight years ago I couldn’t walk to the end of my driveway without sending at least a few leopard frogs into a panic as they leapt for the ditch. By the time we left that house four years later, after the area became more and more developed, no frogs could be found. That sucks because I like leopard frogs, and their presence in an ecosystem is suggestive of health and balance.
And when you drive to Denver from my parents’ home in Fort Collins, as soon as you crest the hill near Longmont, you can see the brown cloud that hovers over the Mile High City like a dirty rag. It’s ugly and it smells like barf. We should be doing something about that. And admitting this doesn’t make you a tree-hugger.
So hopefully most of us can agree that God’s green earth is a pretty nice place, and we’d like to keep it that way. This isn’t too radical of a statement. However, as soon as we start discussing the things we’d have to do and the changes we’d have to make if we really wanted to start lessening our negative impact on creation, people start to get real uncomfortable. For instance, it’s my opinion (and shared by many others) that environmental issues are largely related to our consumerist, materialistic habits as a culture, thus consuming less would naturally lessen the stress and exploitation of the non-renewable resources needed for material production. And last time I checked, simplicity and self-restraint, especially with respect to material wealth, are not something invented by environmentalists. They are, one could argue, quite biblical.
But the common argument against this sort of solution is that our way of life would collapse if everyone started consuming less, and even if some Christians did this, it’s ridiculous to think any grand-scale change could ever happen. Bouma-Prediger addresses these two objections quite nicely. For the last one, he argues that the probable results or consequences of our moral actions do not determine whether or nor we should do the right thing. We ought to act justly and rightly whether or not there will be any noteworthy consequences. And to the first objection he writes, “Truth be told, however, our current way of life is in many respects unsustainable, and it is already showing signs of collapse. Maybe our way of life ought not revolve around the constant quest for more stuff.” I agree, and I also recognize that this is an unpopular stance.
There are many good people who make things, sell things, work in retail, etc. I understand that. And to suggest that our consumer economy is somewhat to blame for the abuse of the earth, and that we need to change, has deeply personal and scary implications for a lot of us. But what if he’s right and we do need to consume far less than we do right now? Is it possible that there are other ways of making a living and being happy on this earth that don’t revolve around this way of life? And can’t we be more creative about producing goods in sustainable and less wasteful ways? After all, we are bursting at the seems with good ol’ American ingenuity; let’s put that to use thinking of ways we can consume less, not more.
As a Church, we can start being radical about more than just personal sin issues. For many of us, when asked what makes us Christians different, we say something like, “I don’t get drunk, I don’t sleep around, and I don’t cuss. Plus, I go to church and I tithe.” This is all good stuff, and certainly these may be some of the ways that Christians can distinguish themselves. But what if our answer to that question involved things like, “As a Christian, I want to be part of Jesus’ activity in renewing the world. Which means loving my neighbor, restoring broken relationships, and taking care of the good earth that God created.” What if part of our radical stance as Christians was about more than not sinning but about actively participating in the restoration of all things. This should inform the way we think about the environment.
And on this point, Bouma-Prediger makes it clear that the Bible presents a gospel concerned with far more than saving individual souls. He accurately portrays the false sentiment shared by many Christians who think, “We should take care of first things first—saving souls, feeding people, preaching the gospel—and worry about timber wolves and northern falcons only after we have attended to God’s primary concerns.”
This is a false dichotomy. The gospel is not about one or the other, and Bouma-Prediger is careful to assert that concern for the environment should in no way be construed as anti-people. The gospel is definitely about human relationships, salvation, and reconciliation, but this gospel also involves the earth. Poignantly, he states, “This objection wrongly assumes that the gospel is somehow unconnected to the earth, as if the message of the bible concerns only disembodied souls in some netherworld, as if in the eschaton the canvas of creation will be annihilated, as if our Redeemer is not our Creator.”
And this is really the most important point. Many of us haven’t even considered what it would mean for us and our churches to start showing concern for the earth because we think this has nothing to do with our duty as Christians. But we need to change the way we think. And when we’re on that retreat in the mountains, or a hike with our kids, or a fishing trip with Grandpa, we should look out over the landscape and sense the presence of God, and know that our lifestyles and efforts as Christians have a lot to do with this place, this good earth.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing no less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
~ T.S. Eliot