“Here, in the present life, it is possible for the Christian to have some share, through sciences and the arts, in returning nature to its proper place.”
Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man
Environmentalism has become a hot issue–global warming or not. Hollywood A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz advance the green cause by driving hybrids and narrating documentaries on environmental responsibility. Rock stars like The Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Alanis Morissette, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers do their part by fueling their massive tour buses with bio-diesel and setting up recycling centers at their concerts.
At the forefront of the ecological charge marches politician-turned-environmentalist, former Vice President Al Gore, who thrust global warming center stage through congressional testimony and his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But it turns out that going green is not just a cause célébre. Today’s environmental co-laborers include evangelical Christians.
Recent newspaper articles and television coverage, including media outlets like Christianity Today and World, tout the rise of the Christian environmentalists who have embraced the eco-friendly movement. Idaho pastor Tri Robinson gained national exposure when he and his church, Vineyard Boise Community Church, were featured for their ecological efforts on Bill Moyers’ series Moyers on America. Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, has established himself in Washington, DC, as one of the most influential evangelical lobbyists and an outspoken proponent for climate change, appearing on such shows as PBS’ Frontline and CNN’s Headline News. Mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren has also thrown his support behind the environmental campaign.
Yet, contrary to the current media portrayal, not all evangelicals are ecological neophytes. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the faith community is finally getting on the green wagon, because we were already there,” said Suellen Lowry, director of the Noah Alliance, an interfaith group of environmental advocates who played a key role in defeating California Republican Richard Pombo’s Endangered Species Act amendments. “Just look at the Noah story and other places in the Bible where God gives specific instruction on caring for creation, like giving rest to the land and animals. No Christian is climbing on anyone else’s wagon because it was really our wagon first.”
David Wright, Ph.D., Azusa Pacific’s dean of the School of Theology, echoes this sentiment. “The first three chapters of Genesis orient us in understanding the cosmos,” said Wright. “God created three primary relationships: the relationship between humans and God, the relationship humans have with each other, and the relationship we have with the earth. Our relationship with the earth is one of dependency and caretaking. God made us to tend and look after the earth, and in turn, the earth and its creatures would provide for us. This relationship between humans and the rest of creation was woven into who we are from the very beginning.”
In fact, there have been many early champions of this biblical environmentalism, which finds its grounding in theological, not humanist moorings. St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order and patron saint of animals and ecology, advocated for the care and appreciation of nature in works like Canticle of the Sun. In 1970, L’Abri founder Francis Schaeffer wrote the seminal Pollution and the Death of Man, which deftly examines man’s erroneous attitude and perception of himself in relation to the Creator and creation as the root of ecological deterioration.
However, for a concentrated, and highly vocal and visible segment of the evangelical community, global warming and soil erosion rank a distant second to more traditional causes like defending the pro-life effort and the sanctity of marriage. Eco-evangelism is viewed as a dangerous detractor, siphoning off energy from the “real issues” the Church is called to pursue.
For creation-care patrons, it is not an issue of either-or. “To say that I’m just going to worry about abortion sounds archaic,” said Calvin DeWitt, Ph.D., founder of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Michigan and author of Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues. “Not that I’m saying abortion is right, but what about the world that the infant will be born into? I’m saying that there must be balance across the subjects.”
Lowry attributes the frigid reception among some evangelicals to human nature. “I think the low participation among some pockets of the Church can be attributed to out of sight, out of mind,” said Lowry. “There’s no immediate, direct impact in our daily lives to remind us of the serious environmental mess we’re in.” Lowry believes that in time there will be more widespread acceptance of creation care.
Leslie Wickman, Ph.D., director of Azusa Pacific’s Center for Research in Science, feels that at least some of the resistance to creation care within the evangelical community stems from centuries of teaching that asserts the supremacy of the incorporeal over the corporeal. “This thinking that matter is bad has led us down a dangerous path in how we relate to the Earth,” said Wickman, who has worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station Programs.
“A lot of Christians grew up with the mentality that all things spiritual are good, but nothing material is good, " said Wickman. "We think that because there will be a new Earth, we can basically trash this one. But Genesis tells us over and over that God saw what He’d created and ‘It was good,’ the ‘it’ referring to all of creation, not just humans. And, in John 3:16, the word ‘world’ is actually translated from the original ‘cosmos,’ but we have a tendency to translate it as ‘man.’ Who, then, are we to contradict what the Bible says? We have a choice before us to either bury our treasure and let it waste away, or cultivate it as the Bible directs us.”
This traditionally held perspective, which assigns life to either the material or spiritual world, deeply troubles DeWitt, one of the primary architects of the creation-care movement. “Our thinking is so compartmentalized today,” said DeWitt. “We have take Glendora Conservancyn such a fragmented, reductionist approach to living in general that we think water comes from a faucet. This mentality accounts for part of the reason why the Earth is in such dire straits.”
Modern man’s ability to compartmentalize has conversely led to our inability to enjoy being awestruck by creation, as alluded to in Psalm 5 and 108, according to Ann Croissant, Ph.D., Azusa Pacific professor emeritus of education and founder of the . “Our detachment from and disregard for nature has dulled our ability to feel awe when in the midst of nature and left us poverty-stricken when it comes to feeling impressed by the grandeur of God v ia the created order,” said Croissant. “Ultimately, this results in a diminished capacity to see and experience God in a fuller sense.”
Azusa Pacific’s President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, who joined other prominent evangelical leaders in signing the Evangelical Climate Initiative sent to President Bush, fathoms the role of creation care. “We have students who travel to third- and second-world countries and they want to frame a response to the poverty, to the refugee crisis,” said Wallace. “They want us to respond to Darfur, to speak to the farmland that’s been turned barren because of soil erosion and climate change. Since only humankind is made in God’s image, we’re called to participate in God’s redemptive purposes, and part of that involves meeting the needs of His people as reflected in the world and responding to the evidence that science has so clearly revealed to us about the Earth. We don’t want to repeat some of the historical mistakes the Church has made in light of science, like defending an errant flat Earth perspective. ”
And the scientific evidence is urgent indeed. “It’s not just the Earth that’s warming,” said Wickman, an engineer and scientist by training. “The whole solar system is warming because the sun’s radiation output is increasing. And, not only are our polar ice caps melting, but so are the ice caps on Mars. Venus provides an excellent example of the sobering effect CO2 has on a planet’s atmosphere. Because of the great quantity of carbon dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere and the planet’s proximity to the sun, the surface temp is a whopping 900° F. These facts alone should motivate us to get our environmental act together. Solar system warming is happening whether we acknowledge it or not, so the question is, ‘What are we going to do to lessen its impact on our planet?’”
APU students, as well as faculty and administrators, ask this very question. Through the years, various students have played significant roles in advancing creation care on the APU campus through opportunities like the Community Garden located on West Campus, and partnering with eco-evangelists like Croissant in grass-root educational efforts like the S.E.E.D. Program (Students Experiencing Environmental Discovery).
Hillary Harper ’08 caught green fever when she started working as an intern for APU’s Center for Research in Science two years ago. “Over the last couple of years, and through Professor Wickman’s Earth Science class, I’ve been on an incredible journey that opened my eyes to just how wasteful I’ve been,” said Harper. “I’ve also realized that this is the world that God has allowed us to steward and take care of–that just hits me hard.”
Harper’s environmental perspective was further enhanced through a trip to Tours, France, where she visited family last year. “Tours is a quaint town located in the Loire Valley, and definitely has a slower vibe than Paris,” said Harper. “But what surprised me was how eco-friendly the entire town is. Everyone recycles everything, they only use what they need, and everybody maintains compost piles. I wasn’t expecting this from a small town in the French countryside. So, it got me thinking that if this small town in France can go green, what’s my excuse?”
Such soul-searching has led the theater arts major to make many lifestyle adjustments, including using her bike as her primary means of transportation, refilling a Nalgene bottle instead of using multiple plastic water bottles, and using a tote instead of a store bag when she goes grocery shopping. “I’m so keenly aware of how much I waste, from the amount of gum I chew to the paper towels I use in public bathrooms,” said Harper. “I feel that being so disconnected from nature has played a huge role in how we live our lives. Our attitude is kind of like, ‘No one’s dying because I’m not recycling, so what’s the big deal?’”
This laissez-faire attitude does not sit easily with Harper. “I often wonder what people are going to think of my generation,” said Harper. “Are we going to be known as the generation that wasted the most and tipped the balance in the wrong direction, or are we going to be the ones responsible for helping to turn things around, so that in 50 or 100 years, our great-grandkids will thank us for our efforts? I’m fighting for the latter option.”
Meko Kapchinsky is a freelance writer in Southern California.