Tonight I’m a guest speaker at a sustainability class at the University of Arkansas. I’m supposed to spend about 40 minutes giving the students context for Christianity’s (lack of) commitment to ecological issues (creation care), including our local congregation’s sustainability practices.
Count this post as a miniature summary of the presentation, with some links I hope students can access post-class.
First, I will have to confess to the students that Christian communities at least in Western Christianity have much work to do in this area.
We are complicit. I am complicit.
We’ve been far too focused on the human, and getting humans “saved,” and we’ve neglected weighty matters of soil, environment, cosmos. We ignore the first chapter of Genesis, that God created everything good, and hyper-focus on the second chapter of Genesis, where God gets busy with human failings in the garden.
On some levels, this is easy to explain. We naturally want God to be for us, and so we easily slide into assuming that God is only for us. We’re tempted into this myopia. We’re tempted to think Jesus only shares our humanity, and we forget that Jesus also shared participation in creation itself, right down to the atoms in his bones and the water in his flesh.
As an example, I know a Lutheran pastor who really is angry that our denomination, the ELCA, regularly includes in our Sunday worship services prayers for creation. He thinks we shouldn’t pray for the mountains, the birds, the trees, but instead should pray with greater regularity for God to save the lost. I’m going to link to one of his blog posts for context, but it’s important to remember I’m offering this as a negative example, the kind of theology I think got us into our crisis in the first place.
I agree with Catherine Keller, who in her new astounding book on a Political Theology of the Earth, writes, “The planetary time of crisis registers as climate change. Any responsible politics now faces–or denies in plain sight–the effects of a theologically sanctified anthropic exceptionalism.”
Anthropic exceptionalism. That somehow God cares more for humans than, say, the oceans, or the angels, or the many other things making up God’s good creation. And it really is theologically sanctified, as repeatedly it is the loudest Christian voices in the room, at least in North America, who declare that climate change isn’t real, or that a concern for our common home is of little use because “we’re all just passing through.”
Stuff To Read
After making my confession I’m going to walk the class through some things I think they could read.
I’ll start with Pope Francis. “An earth-minded political theology has had no more globally influential a friend than this advocate of ‘care for our common home'” (Keller).
I encourage everyone to take time to sit down with his encyclical, Laudato si, On Care For Our Common Home. The Vatican hosts all of their many encyclicals and other texts at a great site, with translations into many languages.
Pope Francis argues that nothing in this world is indifferent to us. Taking his patron Saint Francis as guide, he argues that climate is a shared good of our common home. When climate is destabilized it undermines our common good and it harms the quality of life of the poor in particular.
Overall, as I’ve already mentioned, Christianity doesn’t have a super strong track record of reflecting on ecological issues. We’ve been hyper-focused on getting souls to heaven (and in fact many Christians wrongly assume their souls escape their bodies at death, so even the human spirit in this false theology is detached from God’s good creation).
Yet there has been a resurgence in recent years, energized in part by the writings of the Southern Agrarians, Wendell Berry in particular.
As a result, you can find recent works by Old Testament scholars like Ellen Davis offering agricultural readings of Scriptureand fantastic new works of theology like Elizabeth Johnson’s Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet In Peril.You can also read a few social statements of my own denomination on creation care, including a mid-90s document on creation care and a more recent focused text on genetics.
In Our Local Congregation
In 2018 our congregation installed a large solar panel array on our roof, dramatically reducing our carbon foot-print and energy consumption. Our mayor kindly came out to do a proclamation the day the panels came on-line, and then our city voted later that year to develop a large solar array to provide electricity in our city.
This was a big and highly visible project, and we’re proud of it.
More generally, though, our congregational habits probably align with the most popular kind of creation care among our neighbors: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We do indeed try to recycle, and over the years we’ve attempted to reduce how much waste we produce at meals, worship services, etc.
But we know we could do much better.
Beyond the 3 Rs, it’s really true that we (and I do not believe we are alone in this) as a congregation struggle with how specifically we should take the charge to care for our common home and implement better ecological practices.
I believe this struggle is rooted in two issues:
First, a failure of imagination. Second, failures of long habit.
The failure from long habit has to do with the way communities are formed when they have practiced long-standing neglect. It’s hard to wake up and actually focus. For so long, Christian proclamation and practice has focused so exclusively on the way the gospel applies to humans and their salvations, and then as a by-product, humans and our care for them, that it is hard to wake up to give our attention to God’s wider concern for all of creation.
Groups like Lutherans Restoring Creation are at work, trying to wake others up, but they often feel like they are voices crying out in the wilderness (literally). I highly recommend taking time at their web site. They offer resources like personal covenants you can complete to commit to new forms of care of creation. They offer worship resources and commentary on Scripture and links out to dozens of other sites related to creation care from a religious perspective.
The other, however, is a failure of imagination, and I would argue that on this point, it is not simply churches but almost all institutions imbricated in neoliberalism who are guilty of this.
Think about it. The university has a class on sustainability, but is the university as a whole really practicing care of our common home?
What about the big corporations who fund this university, like Tyson and Walmart?
The neglect, and often the outright harm, so many of us and our institutions inflict on the environment has a dampening effect on our ability to imagine restorative solutions.
Thinking about our own church building, if I’m going to imaginatively attempt to map those things we really can and should be doing in order to more sustainably live together here in our common home, the following come to mind:
- Watershed: There’s a creek right by our church, and we have a big parking lot
- Energy consumption, like our A/C and lights: we’re not all LED yet
- Faith-based advocacy: Like the Audubon Campaign here in Arkansas
- Doing ecotheology together: what we read together, and how we talk about sacred texts
- Gardening and landscaping: we’ve got a fairly big footprint, how are we living on it?
- Ground ourselves: don’t let the built environment of the sanctuary, or the tech-environment of contemporary life, detach us from a real connection with creation
Our congregation is busy with many good things. But Keller catches my attention again when she writes, “It is so-called civilization that has brought us to this moment of self-contradiction, at which point we are too busy responding politically to immediate threats to vulnerable human populations–of black lives, of immigrant, uninsured, or sexually abused lives–to mind the matter of the earth.”
It’s going to take better imaginations, and more better theology, to get back to minding the matters of the earth and all creation.