“That the arc of creation does not match the arc of redemption is a big problem in Christianity.” (Larry Rasmussen – Festival of Faiths, Louisville, Kentucky 2010)
The fact that you are reading this paragraph must mean that you have some interest in the issue of environmental crisis and the response of the Christian faith. You may be a skeptic, a newly open seeker about this issue, or a full-fledged member of the environmental choir. In any case, it is hoped that you understand the importance of this topic for the church, for good or ill.
You are part of a rising tide. There is a growing interest and consensus in faith communities that our present day environmental realities do indeed involve issues of faith, morality and spirituality, and therefore demand a response from the church as the church. But just what that response should be is not so clear. As you have probably already experienced, this issue can quickly lead to conflict within churches. Opposition can range from open hostility through suspicion to unease.
Why this, Why here, Why now?
Within the debate is a set questions often asked by the church and of the church: “Why this talk of the environment within the walls of the church? Does this belong here? And with the many pressing issues without and within, is this the time for it?” These are valid and serious questions, so let us begin by granting them serious consideration.
“Why this?” is a hard question to respond to, since there is little consensus about what this “this” is. What does one mean when referring to the “this” knocking so persistently at the church door? What is the nature of “this” issue and what is it asking of the church?
For some, the “this” is thinly veiled idolatry or paganism. For those whose faith has taught them to distrust the things of body and earth, the “this” is a distraction from the root work of getting to the post-earth, post-body heaven that is the central concern of God. For them, body weighs against spirit and spirit against body, and a body/spirit competition is a zero sum game. The more you care about the body, the less care remains for the spirit. The core work of salvation, then, is to become free from worldly concerns and therefore become more spiritual. For them, calling the church to environmental care is a distraction about lesser things. The “this” is seen as a temptation to the church to be resisted and overcome.
For others, the “this” is secular environmental activism – a largely political effort that has been on the public scene for forty years or so. This scene has been experienced as dominated by the likes of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the various “tree huggers” who have been carrying out their activities without (and sometimes against) the church. Often these activists with their political agendas are seen as simply wanting to recruit church members to the service of their cause, with little concern for whether their cause is actually germane to the church or to the faith. They simply see the church as a ready-made pool of recruits for political activism, with little care or respect for who and what churches are. The “this” is seen as a political manipulation of the church to be deflected.
For yet others, the “this” is a practical and worthy cause among many causes. For them, environmental problems are serious and real, and deserve the good efforts of those who find it their calling to serve such a cause. Environmental injustice is another form of injustice to be responded to, just as are feeding the hungry or advocating for all victims of social injustice. They agree with the Sierra Club that the “environment” is a social problem that deserves advocacy and social organizing – along with the many other causes that deserve advocacy and action. Since the church is a diverse place with many gifts, it is natural that some would choose the environmental cause as their particular gift and calling. The “this” is a cause to be added to the various ministries of the church – one on a long list of worthy causes that deserves a portion of church attention and resources.
For others, the “this” is good economic and common sense. Good stewardship, energy efficiency, recycling and the like are all wise and helpful things to be doing, and the church should be embracing them. The environmental crisis is a sign of poor stewardship (at least as far as the church has any role in it), and poor stewardship should be corrected with good stewardship. However, since this is an issue of poor judgment and neglect about material resources, the issue has no place in the church’s life of worship, prayer, evangelism and mission. The “this” is crisis of poor management, about which the church can correct its course.
Sometimes you can get a hint about how your church views the “this” by how its response is incorporated into the church structure and budget (if at all). If it is not allowed any placement or budget, perhaps the “this” is seen as a threat or distraction. If it is part of the social justice committee, perhaps it is seen as a cause for eco-justice. If it is part of buildings and grounds or stewardship committee, perhaps it is seen as a problem of stewardship.
A Need for a Deeper, More Holy “This”
But none of these definitions of the “this” is going to move the church into an adequate response to the environmental realities before us. Because behind each of these definitions is a common assumption: That human beings are the sole recipients of God’s attention in creation and the solitary actors in God’s unfolding work. In other words, these are responses that act as if planet earth is but a stage upon which God’s human drama is being played out. As a result, each of these definitions fail to place environmental issues within the historical central concerns and work of the church: holiness, justice, love, worship and salvation.
What the church needs is a way to keep on being the church and still find within its traditional self the ways and means of responding to this issue of environmental health and wellbeing. The church needs to find a way of owning the “this” as a something that fits clearly into the ways and means the church has always claimed for itself as core to its being.
Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy” –Wendell Berry
What Wendell is putting his finger upon perhaps points a way forward for placing the environmental crisis into the heart and center of the Christian church: the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The “destruction of nature” Wendell refers to can serve both as a call to stewardship and justice, but also as a mirror reflecting the fundamental spiritual disconnects between our souls and God’s coming kingdom. Naming “this” as a blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to genuine repentance and a pathway for restoring a relevant form of Christian holiness and discipleship that reflects a whole hearted participation in God’s unfolding work of reconciling all things to Himself.
The depth of the problem is well articulated by Thomas Berry:
In our present attitude the natural world remains a commodity to be bought and sold, not a sacred reality to be venerated. The deep psychic shift needed to withdraw us from the fascination of the industrial world and the deceptive gifts that it gives us is too difficult for simply the avoidance of it difficulties or the attractions of its benefits. Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us.
What the church needs are ways seeing the salvation of all creation as the work of Christ in the world, and of including the “this” into the very work of being Christ in the world, and not simply one more agenda item which demands from the church precious and limited heart, soul and resources. What the church needs are ways to incorporate into its language, worship, prayer, education, ministries and service the shared work of Christ’s redemption and reconciliation of all things, in the heavens and on the earth. What this means is that that we need to begin to address these issues in the terms most central to the Christian faith: Repentance, worship, redemption, salvation, obedience, holiness and the like.
With the state of the Christian church in Western society being what it is, and with an aging and declining membership operating in a society of growing numbers claiming “none” as their faith tradition of choice, the church has its hands full just figuring out how to have a future. If those of us with environmental concerns approach her with yet another problem to solve or as simply a bottomless pool of time and resources to recruit for yet another cause (especially one of such magnitude as climate change, food justice, toxics and mass extinctions), our appeals will continue to fall upon deaf ears. Rather, we need to help the church make the spiritual connections between what is happening to our natural eco-systems and what is happening within her own pews. In other words, we need to make connections between church life and God’s plan of salvation. This needs to become Good News.