As a Unitarian Universalist proud of our liberal religious faith, I’m confident that environmental stewardship is important in my religious community. Our Seventh Principle charges us to “respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” UU churches often seem to grow out of the very ground in which they’re planted, with a preponderance of yurt-like buildings, and an emphasis on union with the environment.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has a Ministry for the Earth, and my own church is actively seeking Green Sanctuary certification through that ministry, working hard to sustainably walk our ecological talk.
But beyond us, within larger religious communities where we often part company on the basis of creed or dogma, a growing stewardship movement appears to herald something of a cosmic shift in mainstream theology.
Can churches succeed where government stalls? Can we connect with an environmental ethic inherent in the lives of all people that would change lifestyles and social structures to positively impact our environment?
In a dissertation titled, “Faith-Based Environmental Groups in the United States and Their Strategies for Change,” written by Angela M. Smith, of the Center for Environmental Studies, at Brown University last May, Smith observes that the modern environmental movement has its roots in the spirituality of its forebears such as Thoreau and Muir.
“Today,” she writes, “that spirituality can be still be seen in the secular, ecofeminist, and environmental justice segments of the present-day environmental movement.” – things we, as UU, recognize and to which we readily respond.
However, she notes three significant reasons for the increase in overall faith based stewardship movements:
1) Increased attention from mainstream press for religious calls to environmental action;
2) A crisis of conscience in the secular environmental movement, which has been criticized for its failure to promote broader ethical principles;
3) Faith-based environmentalism being seen as a way to recapture earlier calls by people like Aldo Leopold for an environmental ethic to guide our relationships with the natural world if widespread degradation is to cease.
“An environmental ethic inherent in the lives of nearly all individuals, “suggests Smith, ” would change lifestyles and social structures in such a way that the number of environmental issues arising would dramatically decrease. In theory, people would simply live justly and responsibly with the earth, and there would be no conflict between whether or not to drill for oil in a national refuge, for example, or to better promote public transportation since one would simply know what the ethically correct solution to such a problem would be.”
Smith notes, too, that: “While the faith-based environmental movement is growing, the proportion of the adult American population that is Christian has declined from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001 . The percentage of non-Christian adults has remained fairly steady, only increasing in ten years by less than half a percent, to reach 3.7%. In addition, there is a trend wherein the percentage of adults who identify themselves with a particular religious denomination has steadily declined from 90% in 1991 to 81% in 2001.
“…Evangelical Christian churches and those that are nondenominational, on the other hand, have seen the most significant increases in membership over the past decade. The Roman Catholic church, bolstered by immigrants, has likewise seen an increase in number of adherents. That being said, an additional group that has witnessed important increases in numbers consists of individuals who profess no religion. This suggests that these changing patterns have as much to do with a rejection of faith as they do with the seeking of different faiths among Americans.”
Might the common search for a sustaining environmental ethic become the engine that drives our theologies in a new direction? There are many religiously driven efforts underway to help people think about the world in new ways, and Smith breaks them down into three categories:
- Christian stewardship
- Creation spiritualists and
- Eco-justice advocates
Within the category of Christian stewardship, which includes aspects of the creation spirituality and eco-justice, divisions occur, even as groups try to move forward in their search for a unifying theory of religious stewardship.
Often, differences hinge on principles of eco-justice, the main difference between Protestant and Catholic environmentalism, notes Smith. “In Protestant environmentalism, eco-justice is only one among many approaches to solving the environmental crisis. Within Catholicism, … it seems to hold greater weight.”
To me, that makes the intensity of faith based environmental efforts, even more poignant.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the foreword to a global effort called the Earth Bible Project, put it this way:
“Planet Earth is in crisis. More and more life systems are being threatened. Scientists estimate that at least half, and perhaps as many as 80% of the world’s animal and plant species, are found in the rainforests. The rainforests are the lungs of the planet producing much of the oxygen that humans and other oxygen-dependent creatures need to survive. The rainforests, alas, are still being destroyed at an alarming rate.
“Resolving the ecological crisis of our planet, however, is no longer a problem we can leave to the scientists. Just as are all part of the problem, we are also part of the solution. We all need to come to terms with the forces that have created this crisis and the resources within our traditions that can motivate us to resolve the crisis. One of those traditions is our biblical heritage.”
The Earth Bible project seeks to “develop a set of principles to re-read the biblical text from an ecojustice perspective.” The project seeks not to defend biblical text blindly, says Tutu, but to “identify those passages which may have contributed to the crisis and to uncover those traditions which have valued Earth but been suppressed.”
It’s a complex effort, at best, and the Earth Bible Team acknowledges that “much of the Bible does not seem to reflect a religious worldview that was particularly sensitive towards the natural environment.”
Yet they nevertheless hope to uncover “suppressed Earth traditions that resist the dominant patriarchal anthropocentric orientation of the text, “” Readings from the Perspective of the Earth” the first part of the Earth Bible project, lays out six eco-justice principles:
- The Principle of Intrinsic Worth
- The Principle of Interconnectedness
- The Principle of Voice
- The Principle of Purpose
- The Principle of Mutual Custodianship: Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over, Earth to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community.
- The Principle of Resistance: Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustices but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.
This first volume identifies many problematic biblical texts, including an analysis of the Book of Amos, which is full of a lot of God-ordained pummeling of the earth and withholding of vital natural resources, like rain.
It also looks at Psalm 8, which declares that God has made man “little less than a god, crowning him with glory and honor. Thou makest him master over all thy creatures; thou hast put everything under his feet: all sheep and oxen, all the wild beast, the birds in the air and the fish in the sea, and all that moves along the paths of ocean.” — an assertion which leads one Earth Bible Project author to conclude that “the Earth’s interests are certainly not central.”
And then there’s Hebrews 6:7-8, which reads, “When the earth drinks in the rain that falls upon it from time to time, and yields a useful crop to those for whom it is cultivated, it is receiving its share of blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and God’s curse hangs over it; the end of that is burning.” Now there’s some hefty heavenly precedent for slashing and burning.
Most mainstream religious environmental movements, though, are driven by basic relational and ethical questions like the one Rev. Dr. David Pickering of the UK, “What on Earth has the environment got to do with church?” (Bible Society, 2003)
“…Many in the church categorize environmental issues as the preserve of civil society – ,” writes Rev. Pickering. “They do their bit at such places as the recycling bank, or put the environment on the busy church agenda along with a range of issues competing for their attention. However, it is increasingly recognized that good stewardship of the environment or creation care is a core part of discipleship; it is undertaken as part of a Christian response to the God of creation, rather than as an optional extra within church life. Churches also report that environmental initiatives are an effective mechanism for Christian mission because they can help the church engage with society on what is arguably one of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century.”
There, in a nutshell, you have it: Faith based sustainability helps churches engage with society on one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, the common ground of our increasingly ravaged planet and our hopes for staying alive on it.
Pickering has a different perspective on questions of Biblical precedence for caring for the Earth.
“Whilst the word “environment” is not found in the Bible,” he writes, ” – the importance of environmental care is implicit in many texts. Genesis 1-2 records two different creation stories, each of which set out aspects of a proper relationship between God, humanity and the rest of the created order.
“Rather than being an ordered or scientific account of the origins of the cosmos the story of creation in six days conveys the message that everything is dependent for its existence and meaning upon the sovereign God. The culmination of creation, with the Sabbath as a day of rest and celebration, reminds us that worship is the first response to God the creator.
“Christian environmental care should naturally flow from this,” writes Pickering. ” The creation story includes a refrain “and God saw that it was good”, which indicates that creation does not exist just for what humanity can get out of it, but has value in God’s eyes. The refrain reminds humanity that the whole created order is to be respected with integrity rather than relentlessly exploited.”
Adding man to the mix, says Pickering, and in “God’s image” no less, “reflects the privilege and responsibility we are given. …the privilege to enjoy the gift of creation and a responsibility for those made in the image of God to live according to his teaching.”
An entirely new discipline has arisen here: An Eco-theology. Some have been at the leading edge of this trend for years – Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, come to mind immediately, with their traveling ‘Great Story” , which they’ve brought to Spirit of Life a couple of times now, and which meshes evolution with spirituality.
But only recently has ecotheology really come into the common religious vernacular.
In, “Eco-Congregation: A successful blend of theology and ecology?” a dissertation published just this past May by Catherine Harmer, Harmer writes, ” The academic discipline of ‘ecotheology’ is still relatively new and some scholars find it difficult to reconcile the relationship between theology and ecology.
“Christianity has been, and is still often, accused of being a major contributory factor of the global ecological crisis. Although it generally advocates caring for creation, Christianity has frequently been rebuked for not always practicing what it preaches. In addition to Christianity’s supposed lack of positive action, some Christian doctrines are also perceived to be detrimental influences on humanity’s treatment of the planet.”
Harmer, however, like Pickering before her, believes that Christianity is not intrinsically averse to ecological issues and that positive actions are being taken within the Church to improve ecological circumstances.
“… It is understandable that the misinterpretation and abuse of theological concepts such as ‘dominion’, ‘free-will’ and ‘eternal life’, for example, have led to the accusation that Christianity is a major contributory factor of the world’s ecological crisis, ” notes Harmer.
The real question, Harmer quotes UK environmentalist Jonathon Porritt as saying, is “not so much whether or not Christ would vote Green, but whether or not the Church would have him declared a heretic for so doing!”
Harmer underscores that Green Christianity is not new, only newly popular, and she points to ‘An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation’ issued in 1994 ‘to assert and emphasize that this Earth belongs to God and that we are responsible to him for it”.
“Since this declaration,”Harmer says, “considerable efforts have been made to move away from ecologically detrimental Christian theological concepts and towards an inclusive theology that embraces the whole of creation; the intention of this revised theology is to encourage all Christians to become communally more practically involved in efforts to resolve ecological concerns.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the growing religious drive toward sustainability is divided along similar lines as general scientific thought on climate change issues, and often hinges on Third World poverty concerns.
A 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled, “Environmentalism splits Evangelical Community,” observes:
“The National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president for governmental affairs, Richard Cizik, has … been a prominent supporter for “creation care.” Nervous about associating themselves with scientists or big-government environmentalists, they broadly argue that Christians have a duty to nurture God’s creation, and to fight global warming due to the harm it would cause the poor. The green evangelicals have come under attack from their peers for bad theology, bad science and distracting people from more pressing campaigns. “
The rift manifests itself in two camps: The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISE) and the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI)
The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance who’s slogan features the unlikely combination of words “Dominion, Stewardship, Conservation,” is an evangelical organization that questions the scientific consensus on global warming.
The ISA wants, “a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development.” It takes as its unifying statement, the Cornwall Declaration, a document published by the Acton Institute in 2000 . The Acton Institute is a think tank and advocacy institute “Integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles.”
The Cornwall Declaration sets the stage thusly:
“The past millennium brought unprecedented improvements in human health, nutrition, and life expectancy, especially among those most blessed by political and economic liberty and advances in science and technology. At the dawn of a new millennium, the opportunity exists to build on these advances and to extend them to more of the earth’s people.
“At the same time, many are concerned that liberty, science, and technology are more a threat to the environment than a blessing to humanity and nature. Out of shared reverence for God and His creation and love for our neighbors, we Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, speaking for ourselves and not officially on behalf of our respective communities, joined by others of good will, and committed to justice and compassion, unite in this declaration of our common concerns, beliefs, and aspirations.”
The Cornwall Declaration identifies three areas of “common misunderstanding”:
1. Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards. And “ignore our potential, as bearers of God’s image, to add to the earth’s abundance.” causing, “…The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”
2. Many people believe that “nature knows best,” or that the earth-untouched by human hands-is the ideal. Such romanticism leads some to deify nature or oppose human dominion over creation. Our position, informed by revelation and confirmed by reason and experience, views human stewardship that unlocks the potential in creation for all the earth’s inhabitants as good. …. Human life, says this doctrine, “must be cherished and allowed to flourish. The alternative-denying the possibility of beneficial human management of the earth-removes all rationale for environmental stewardship.
3. While some environmental concerns are well founded and serious, others are without foundation or greatly exaggerated.
Among the concluding goals of the document:
- We aspire to a world in which human beings care wisely and humbly for all creatures, first and foremost for their fellow human beings, recognizing their proper place in the created order.
- We aspire to a world in which liberty as a condition of moral action is preferred over government-initiated management of the environment as a means to common goals.
- We aspire to a world in which the relationships between stewardship and private property are fully appreciated, allowing people’s natural incentive to care for their own property to reduce the need for collective ownership and control of resources and enterprises, and in which collective action, when deemed necessary, takes place at the most local level possible.
- We aspire to a world in which widespread economic freedom-which is integral to private, market economies-makes sound ecological stewardship available to ever greater numbers.
- We aspire to a world in which advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.
Signers of the doctrine include the American Baptist Association, the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church , the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Mennonites, the Presbyterian Church , Seventh Day Adventists, and the United Methodist Church.
The Evangelical Climate Initiative takes a different tack, stating, “The same love for God and neighbor that compels us to preach salvation through Jesus Christ, protect the unborn, preserve the family and the sanctity of marriage, and take the whole Gospel to a hurting world, also compels us to recognize that human-induced climate change is a serious Christian issue requiring action now.”
The ECI has issued their own statement, called “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action1: Human-Induced Climate Change is Real
2: The Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Significant, and Will Hit the Poor the Hardest
3: Christian Moral Convictions Demand Our Response to the Climate Change Problem
4: The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change starting now.
The preamble to “An Evangelical Call to Action” asserts:
“As American evangelical Christian leaders, we recognize both our opportunity and our responsibility to offer a biblically based moral witness that can help shape public policy in the most powerful nation on earth, and therefore contribute to the well-being of the entire world. Whether we will enter the public square and offer our witness there is no longer an open question. We are in that square, and we will not withdraw.”
ECI says, “Poor nations and poor individuals have fewer resources available to cope with major challenges and threats. The consequences of global warming will therefore hit the poor the hardest, in part because those areas likely to be significantly affected first are in the poorest regions of the world. Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”
“The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.”
Signatories include “Rick Warren, author of “A Purpose-Driven Life”, and the founder of the Lake Forest, Ca.-based Saddleback Church, a megachurch of 20,000 to 25,000; Rich Stearns, the president of World Vision; Todd Bassett, the Salvation Army national commander, David Neff and Timothy George; the editor and executive editors respectively of Christianity Today; Duane Litfin, the president of Wheaton College; and Leith Anderson, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) . “
“We believe the problem is serious,” says ECI, ” but that cost-effective solutions are available that will also create jobs, clean up our environment, make us more efficient, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, thereby enhancing our national security. Working together, and with God’s help, we can make a difference.”
ISA argues back :”With the general assertions that Christians must care about climate change because we love God and are called to love our neighbors and that God has given us stewardship over the earth, we agree. But these address motive. They do not specify action.
“The specific actions demanded by the ECI are “to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change” and to “help the poor adapt to the significant harm that global warming will cause.” But (we believe), the harms caused by mandatory CO2 emissions reductions will almost certainly outweigh the benefits, especially to the poor, for whom the marginal increases in prices will be a much greater burden than for the rich.
“The world’s poor are much better served by enhancing their wealth through economic development than by whatever minute reductions might be achieved in future global warming by reducing CO2 emissions. It is difficult to imagine how it could possibly be that, as the ECI claims, “The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.”
“Millions of poor people in developing countries die every year because they lack clean water and indoor plumbing, electricity (forcing them to burn wood and dung for cooking and heating and to live without refrigeration and air conditioning), sewage treatment, jobs, access to affordable medical care, and adequate nutrition-not to mention just and orderly legal and economic systems. Not only will the policies proposed by the ECI not solve any of these real, present, and vast problems, but instead they will slow down and in some cases prevent their being solved-
“…It is immoral and harmful to Earth’s poorest citizens,” says ISA, ” to deny them the benefits of abundant, reliable, affordable electricity and other forms of energy … merely because it is produced by using fossil fuels. Foreseeable forms of renewable energy … won’t provide reliable, affordable electricity at least for many years, in amounts that are adequate and necessary for modern hospitals, factories, homes, communities and nations. To tell poor families, communities, and nations that they can’t develop hydroelectric or nuclear energy either, because some people disapprove of them, is unconscionable.
“…We agree that it is wise to pursue increasing energy efficiency through the development of new technologies. But a program that can only be done by government mandate is by definition not a program that the market deems cost effective. We believe the market is a better judge of cost effectiveness than bureaucrats and politicians. What are needed are prudent policies that reflect actual risks, costs, and benefits; an honest evaluation of sound scientific, economic, and technological data; and unbiased application of moral, ethical, and theological principles.”
So who’s right? Do the nuances of position even matter so much as the fact that positions are actually being taken on environmental stewardship by mainstream denominations?
When I first began exploring the differing camps of ecotheology, I was inclined to side with ECI – we must do drastic and difficult things now to save the earth. But as I read on, I began to see the logic, as well, of ISAs implications that we shouldn’t throw the Third World babies out with the contaminated bath water. How do we balance environmental stewardship with economic and social justice ? How do we find a common language from which to proceed?
“In spite of their limited capacity and difficulty in finding a common language, however” notes Angela Smith, ” … faith-based environmental groups … bring something novel and important to the table of the broader environmental movement. Their skill in joining together diverse groups of people, their sense of hope and optimism that change is possible, the strength of their convictions, and their work on changing values complement and improve upon the work of mainstream environmental organizations. On the whole, because of characteristics such as these, the religious-environmental movement has great potential to bring about lasting environmental change in a large number of people and institutions. It has just to convince others of that potential to realize what it is capable of accomplishing.”
“…Every prescription is likely to have both positive and negative consequences-for different aspects of the environment, different species, different regions, and different groups of people,” observes ECI. “…and we hope our evangelical brothers and sisters, and all who are concerned not just about global warming but about other threats to human and planetary well being, will study it carefully.”
Perhaps,in the long run, seriously studying the issues will, in fact, become the common ground on which we can all sustainably stand.