Creation Care Rising

I am heartened by the rising interest in Creation Care and environmentalism within the Church at large. Christians have often been accused of abusing the Creator’s covenantal directive to Adam and Eve to rule over creation. It’s even been said that Christian theology has poisoned Western civilization with an ecocidal impulse.  Unfortunately many of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus can often be supporting that claim with statements such as: “It’s all going to burn up any way so why bother trying to save it?” This is not uncommon popular theology in the streams of the Church I have experienced over the years. But it is wholly devoid of any Biblical view of the world that GOD has lovingly gifted to us. We spit at GOD and trample on His love when we despise His Creation. More and more Christians are coming to realize that to follow Jesus means we must repent of self-worship – which includes the view that the world around us has no purpose but for our own careless exploitation.

Shallow Environmentalism or Christian Ecology?

But even as we shift back to an awareness of Creation as a gift of love from our Creator I believe we need to go beyond mere popular environmentalism to a more ecological approach. Let me explain what I mean. Environmentalism deals primarily in reversing the desecration of Creation. It is foremost a social movement rooted in ecological justice. Stopping the destruction of the planet has to be one of our highest priorities especially as people of faith but in our efforts to conserve nature and stop environmental obliteration are we thinking holistically?

I believe we must go beyond shallow environmental thinking that calls for just reducing plastic bag use and switching to mercury-laden CFL lightbulbs to save the planet. We must become wise ecological stewards. This involves more than chaining ourselves to trees in protest or greening our purchasing habits. We must go beyond recycling our mountains of consumer packaging and goods to a life unhinged from the corporate industrial economy on which we depend on like babies at their mother’s breast. We must become intimately aware of the needs of Creation and this will involve a life that is entangled in what we call the natural world. Ecology demands understanding and continued relationship with Creation. We have to learn to live and work and play as those who are dependent on Creation – as leaders within Creation but also as members. Shallow environmentalism only demands a bleeding heart and the ability to parrot popular green messages even while being completely estranged from it. A Christian ecology demands humble reconciliation with Creation – it demands not just patronizing but right relationship.

Lynn White’s ‘Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’

In thinking of all this I am reminded of the famous lecture and article by Lynn White, Jr., a professor of medieval history, that he wrote in 1967, titled The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. I have seen it referenced by Wendell Berry and Francis Schaeffer and others in their writings.. In his famous article that appeared in Science Magazine at that time, Mr. White contended that Western civilization is largely a result of Judeo-Christian theology – even today in our “post-Christian age” and that our modern, widespread ecological crisis is rooted in Christian theological understanding of Genesis 1 – that humans are above GOD’s Creation as it’s master.

“What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny -that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors….We continue today to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms.

What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment?

While many of the world’s mythologies provide stories of creation, Greco-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as non-repetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created

Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image. Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”

Despite the fact that I believe he is misreading or rather reading his own interpretations into the Biblical text (for instance: Mr. White is saying that we believe Eve was GOD’s afterthought) – I find his premise to be compelling. Where maybe I differ with his opinion is that I believe he is speaking of a twisting of sound Christian teachings about the world and Creation. He seems however to believe that abusive leadership within Creation by humans is inherent in the very teachings of the Christian faith. In essence he is saying: “You believe you are special within the Creation community – and that GOD has called you to rule over it – this believe has led to the destructive conquest of nature and modern progress’ careless use of technology to assault the natural world”.

Resituated Eco-Leadership and Franciscan Theology

The call to resituate humans within Creation is an important one – but for it to be faithful to the Biblical narrative we must maintain that as humans we are unique among the Creation community and that we are uniquely called to shape, cultivate and lead. We are called to greater responsibility, greater awareness and greater leadership than any other species of creatures within the created order. What Mr. White is calling out is bad leadership – misused privilege and authority. But does that mean all human privilege and authority in Creation must be turned away from? What kind of world would that be – if humans acted merely like other animals only tending to their own impulses and needs? Isn’t this the very problem Mr. White is pointing out?

Of course as a Christian it is easy to get offended at all this talk – especially when the environmental movement leverages Mr. White’s essay as proof text for how ecologically reckless Christian religion is. But I was surprised to see that Mr. White goes on to advocate, not for casting off Christian belief into the religious dung pile, but for embracing an alternative Christian theology of our place in the world that is rooted in the life and practices of Francis of Assisi who was a radical follower of Jesus. I was shocked to read this because I always assumed he ended his essay with a green fist in the face of the Church. Instead he says:

“What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our time, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us. Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi…

The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his. Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Gubbio in the Apennines was ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground…

I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation…”

This is not the voice of someone calling for the wholesale turning away of Christian faith. This is the voice of a historian calling the Church into account for our role in the present day ecological crisis. It is a call to turn away from a certain kind of Christian faith – one that despises Creation and views it with careless or evil intent. Are we willing to listen and repent?

How Wolves Change Rivers

I’ll end with this. I saw an incredible video today titled How Wolves Change Rivers narrated by journalist/environmentalist George Monbiot, In this video he talks about trophic cascades and the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990’s after being absent for nearly 70  years. The result is totally astonishing. As I finished this video and was reading about Lynn White’s call to a more ecologically-minded Franciscan Christian theology I was struck by the story of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio as I had just been astonished by the role of the wolf in restoring an ecological web. In the story Francis confronts a wolf who is terrorizing a local community and he reconciles the two – making peace between the local villagers and the hungry wolf.  In this story the wolf has abandoned his proper role in the local ecology and he is restored to his rightful place as Francis extends hospitality and calls him to repentance.

What can we learn from all this? Are we the wolf or are we Francis? Should we take leadership in the economy of Creation? I believe through the ancient Biblical story of Creation our Creator calls us to emulate His loving leadership today – but not as transcendent masters who are far removed and too haughty to be involved in such things as soil and animals and rivers – but as incarnational ambassadors, who like Francis, represent a Kingdom coming – who work to maintain and repair the covenant of love that GOD extends to all creatures. We too are interwoven into Creation and our trophic cascades fill the earth with either healing or destruction. Which side of the cascade will we be on? Eventually it all comes back around.

J. Fowler

J. Fowler is the website editor and co-founder, along with his wife Pamela, of the Sustainable Traditions project. The Fowlers live with their seven children on a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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