Christian environmentalism?

Does Christianity have potential as an ecologically conscious force for change? Is a view of the Earth as merely “a theatre of God's grace and glory” sufficient to generate ecological consciousness and action? The question is not only of importance to Christians but to everyone who lives in predominantly Christian cultures.

Do contemporary Christian values include a sense of responsibility for the environment? We might be tempted to assume that they do not, since the media landscape is dominated by issues far removed from ecology: Homosexuality, abortion, and the boundaries of religious freedom seem to be the primary cultural battlegrounds associated with the churches. However, these inflammatory issues can mask some of the ongoing work occurring in many of America's churches. Caring for the poor and homeless, fostering community, pursuing economic justice, and supporting worker struggles remain the mostly unseen work of American churches, both Catholic and Protestant. But what about caring for the environment? Could that be, somehow, a Christian concern too?

I will argue that there is potential for the environment to become an issue of importance to the average Christian, and for that issue to be entwined with an understanding of oneself as a person of faith. The American Baptist Churches, representing the second largest Christian sect in America, has created a comprehensive document asserting the responsibility Christians must take for the environment. The Lutheran Church, though representing a smaller fraction of Christians, has also created a document, which inspires some interesting questions about whether Christians will be sufficiently moved to protect a Creation that is admittedly considered totally separate from God. The degree of interest Christians feel in protecting the environment may hinge, at least in part, upon what that environment is said to be. Is it our temporary home, to be used up as needed? Is it a place we sublet from God and should return to Him in good condition? Is the Earth part of God Himself?

Perhaps the best inspiration for Christian environmentalism comes from the Bible itself, from the message of Jesus' compassion toward the smallest and most defenseless, and from one's own heart. Nonetheless, most American Christians are attached to a denomination, which impacts the formation and expression of their theistic viewpoints, so it is valuable when any denomination ponders, teaches and preaches their own "basis for caring" about the environment.

Here are a few "official" Christian viewpoints on the environment. Whether they are taught or preached to the actual churchgoer is another matter, but their existence at least is cause for hope. There should be more documents like them, and denominational leaders should incorporate, whether subtly or emphatically, ideas of the Earth as a treasure and home, and of the everlasting and universal qualities of Christ invested in the Earth and universe itself. The infusion of more "esoteric" Christian schools of thought into mainstream interpretations of the Bible could pave the way for real ecological consciousness in the Christian community.

The Baptist Covenant of Caring

“Creation and the Covenant of Caring” is a document created by the American Baptist Churches asserting the responsibility of Christians to acknowledge humankind's damaging influence on the Earth, learn more about the problem, and actualize the knowledge through lifestyle change, political influence and compassion. The environmental problem as well as it solution are framed squarely in Biblical terms, so the support for the eco-just Christian viewpoint is soundly scriptural.

The scriptural basis for building ecological consciousness and action among Baptists is based primarily on the responsibility to steward the Earth. The document explains that God “created an everlasting covenant with humanity to take responsibility for the whole of creation” (“Creation and the Covenant” 238). The Earth belongs to God, who has entrusted human beings with the care-taking of His creation.

However, this care-taking covenant cannot be expressed merely through lip service or spiritual ideas. It carries with it a responsibility that must be realized through concrete, meaningful action. The ability of the Earth to provide for its inhabitants as God intended is dependent upon the actualization of the stewardship responsibility.

The document acknowledges the challenges that people face in realistic terms, mentioning that our vast capacity for innovation and creativity is a “powerful tool” that “holds the possibility of both good and evil, life and death” (“Creation and the Covenant” 238). But despite the challenges, the document spells out concrete steps for individuals and groups to take in order to build a more ecologically just world. These include reflection upon the responsibility of stewardship, self-education, recognition or contrition for past negative actions, lifestyle change, political or social change, and a responsibility to hope and persevere (241).

“The danger [to the environment] is real and great," The Baptist Church asserts. "[…] Christians must take responsibility to God and neighbor seriously and respond” (240).

According to the Covenant of Caring, Jesus Christ can serve as a model for ecological consciousness because he unapologetically expanded the circle of compassion in declaring that his mission was “to serve the poor, the captives, and the downtrodden-- the victims of social injury” (“Creation and the Covenant” 239). These victims, captives and downtrodden can easily be seen as endangered species, threatened ecosystems, and animals imprisoned on abusive factory farms. The model of Christlike actions would encourage us to serve these victims of social injury.

In a similar vein, Jesus declared Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25, the year of land reform, to be the “acceptable year of the Lord” (239). This reinforces a commitment to respect for the land and the just sharing of its bounty through the affirmation of God's ownership of the land. And it is the concept of the land as God's that has great potential to encourage ecological awareness in Christians. God's ownerships makes human beings mere tenants of God's property, and worshipful life then should include good caretaking of that property.

The Covenant of Caring interprets the socially equitable sharing of the land to extend not only between people sharing the Earth but throughout time, so that people now living have a responsibility to preserve the Earth for future generations so that they will not suffer. Rom. 12:5 is quoted, reminding us that we are “members one of another.” Luke 10:27 is quoted as scriptural evidence that “the neighbor we are commanded to love is everyone, including those who have yet to be born” (241). These unborn people depend on us to “leave them a habitable Earth.” These sentiments echo the Great Law of the Iroquois, which commands us to maintain the Earth for the benefit of the next seven generations.

Creation and the Covenant of Caring is a vigorous, thorough defense of eco-justice and Earth preservation argued from a purely Biblical point of view. Yet its energy is so precise and passionate that at times it seems to transcend a purely Christian viewpoint. Statements like “the distinctive human vocation is to bring creation's beauty and order to consciousness” establish human beings as unique members of a global ecological family,wherein human beings have the natural potential to add a dimension of consciousness and care-taking to an already glorious creation. This is not unlike the worldviews of some indigenous peoples. In fact, Native Americans are mentioned in the document, albeit only the Christian ones, as natural authorities on ecological consciouness (240). The Baptists interpret the loneliness engendered by estrangement from the Earth as an estrangement from the Creator and creation; “alienation” is the term assigned to this loneliness. And while no specific changes are spelled out beyond the general, the insistence upon contemplation and “vigorous response” opens the way for meaningful action.

The Baptists do not fully engage, however, with one of the questions at the heart of the Christian relationship with the Earth. While Christians are commanded to steward the Earth, what exactly is the Earth, and its animal and plant inhabitants, in relation to the Creator? Some have criticized Christian interpretations of the Bible because scholars have seen Biblical texts as granting permission for unlimited exploitation; after all, the Earth is provided for human use. At the least, even the more Eco-conscious Christian sects view the Earth as an emanation of God and a display of His power and care, rather than a fully alive ecosystem with inherent value.

The Lutheran Basis for Caring

These conflicts are on display in the Evangelical Lutheran Church's document on ecological responsibility, Basis for Our Caring. The ELC document espouses a view of creation as a good emanation of the divine God, who has existence beyond all earthly things.Though God called the Earth “good,” the Earth is not to be worshiped, because it is “distinct from the Creator” (“Evangelical Lutheran” 243-4). God is “wholly other,” and immortal, while the Earth is a finite creation bound by scientific laws and natural limits (244). These limits and laws, however, do not make the earth debased or unworthy of care; “nature […] is neither unclean nor unspiritual” (245). Nature is simply an expression of God's care and love which “receives its meaning and value from God.”

There are a couple of interesting apparent or near-contradictions in “Basis for Our Caring.” Creation is said to be good “solely because of the grace of its good Creator” yet it has been “given its own integrity” (244, emphasis mine). The goodness of Creation is apparently imparted by an outside source, and yet creation is whole, and possesses integrity of its own. Integrity here seems to imply entirety, as the statement is followed by the assertion that creation is “intact and healthy” (244).

Another interesting dichotomy is present, certainly intentionally, in the statement that God “stands over and against creation as judge” and also “stands for creation as giver of free, sustaining and saving grace” (244). These contradictory statements establish creation as belonging to God, as if they are a family over which God has dominion. God may punish at times, but God also sustains continuously. The image that comes to mind is the breadwinning patriarch, an image that is certainly not at odds with Christianity.

Direct Experience, Mystical and Evolving Theology

If official, sect-specific Biblical interpretations leave something to be desired in the realm of ecological consciousness, this does not mean that individuals cannot draw inspiration directly from emotional and spiritual exploration of Christianity, whether through individual reading and interpretation of the Bible or direct spiritual experience. Sally McFague, author of The Scope of the Body: The Cosmic Christ describes the Body of Cosmic Christ as the entire universe, or even as a cosmic oversoul within which the universe is contained, making us all bodies that exist within the compassionate consciousness of the Christic Body.

Creation is, in this way, much more than a “stage on which the action [of redemption] takes place” (McFague 288). Rather, Creation is the body of God as well as our own body. Christian ecological imperative may then stem directly from compassion, love, worship and even self-care, since the Earth is also our spiritual body. By caring for the Earth, we care for ourselves as well.

Says Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province:

Western Christianity has plucked Jesus completely out of the Trinity. The historical Jesus has become the new monotheistic God -- God the Father for all practical purposes. Once you no longer have a Trinitarian view, you no longer have a dynamic view of God. When you emphasize Jesus apart from the Father and Holy Spirit, then creation is just an afterthought or a backdrop to a limited salvation drama, “an evacuation plan to the next world,” in Brian McLaren’s phrase...

The real trump card of Christianity is not just that we believe in God. The mystery we are about is much more than that: It’s that the material and the spiritual coexist. It’s the mystery of the Incarnation.

Rohr's perspective should not be surprising since his sect draws inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi (pictured in the first image) who befriended birds and believed the natural world to be infused with holiness. St. Francis is a bit of a dangerous figure within Christianity, devout yet so in love with nature.

The idea of the Cosmic Christ is in contrast to the perspective on the ecological crisis described by the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In that perspective, the world is “a theatre of God's grace and glory” (“Evangelical Lutheran” 245), a very lovely emanation that is in relationship with, but is not, God.

Is a view of the Earth as a "theatre" sufficient to generate ecological consciousness and action? The question is not only of importance to Christians but to everyone who lives in predominantly Judeo-Christian places. It is not necessary to hold specifically Christian values, or to have any specific theistic orientation, in order to be shaped by Christian interpretations of the relationship between human beings and the rest of the ecological community. The very basic assumptions and theistically derived beliefs about our relationship to the Earth are a part of our secular culture as well. In other words, Christianity is so powerful in our culture that if Christians believe it, non-Christians believe it too, at least to some degree. Our beliefs about our environment are influenced, both historically and currently, by Christians' ethical orientation to the Earth.

It is worth asking whether Christianity can become an ecologically conscious force for change. Christian beliefs, even when they seem to run counter to ecologically-sound attitudes, cannot simply be plucked out of society; such beliefs are deeply rooted and shape the beliefs and assumptions of non-Christians who live in predominantly Christian cultures.

Mystical Christianity, such as McFague's nondoctrinal celebration of the compassionate Cosmic Christ, may provide the fewest stumbling blocks to real ecological awareness, but most Christians are identified with non-mystical traditions and they will benefit most from sect-specific Biblical interpretations that make room for Christian caring and radical action in defense of the earth. And such denominational interpretations might benefit from making more room for the "cosmic Christ" as well, the eternal Christ who predates the historical Jesus and is present throughout creation.


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