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Kearns-Saving the Creation

Kearns-Saving the Creation - Sociology ofReligion 1996 57:1...

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Unformatted text preview: Sociology ofReligion 1996, 57:1 55—70 Saving the Creation: Christian Environmentalism in the United States* Laurel Kearns Drew University In the nu'd 19805, religious environmental activism in the United States increased dramatically. Based on field study of this emerging movement, this paper proposes three models or ethics of Chris— tian/related eco—theology: Christian stewardship, ecoejustice, and creation spirituality. As a portrait of the boundaries of this movement, the paper focuses in detail on Christian stewardship and creation spirituality. It then examines religious environmentalism through the cultural shift/change frameworks of McLaughlin, Swidler. Inglehart, Beckford, and Robertson “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for the ecological crisis, historian Lynn White charged in an infamous (at least to religious ecologists) 1966 ad— dress to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1967:1206). The response to this crisrs, White went on to argue, must have a religious grounding since its roots were religious. Despite the scholarly controversy over the validity of White’s thesis (e.g., Dubos 1973), to many observers, White’s verdict seemed to be empirically con— firmed. In a period both of church declarations on social issues and of growing secular environmental concern, religious ecological voices were few. Thus it be came common wisdom that the environment was a secular concern. The little sociological survey literature that exists on the subject seems to agree, arguing that the more “Christian” or biblically oriented one is, the less one is concerned about the environment (Hand and Van Liere 1984; Shaiko 1987; Eckberg and Blocker 1989). Certainly, the other—worldly environmental disregard displayed by Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt and by religious conservatives awaiting the coming of a New Heaven and Earth has lent popular credence to the idea that there are only secular saviors of the earth. Although there were scattered statements made in the 19705, it was against the backdrop of the anti—environmentalism of the Reagan administration that church and religious organizational activ1ty focused on the environment began to increase dramatically. Based on field study of the emerging Christian ecologi— cal movement at both the national and local levels over the period of 1987— 1992, there are three broadly defined “ethics” or “models” emerging among or— * Thanks to Nancy Ammerman, Catherine Keller, Steve Tipwn, Rhys William, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earher versrons of this paper An earher verSIon of this paper was presented at the Society for the Sczenufrc Study of Religion meetmgs in Albuquerque, November, 1994 Direct correspondence in Laurel Keams, The Theological School, Drew Unwersny, Madison, N J 07040. 55 56 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION ganizational proponents of Christian eco—theology in the United States. Using the language of each “group,” these three models are “Christian stewardship,” “eco—justice," and “creation spirituality.” TABLE 1 Christian‘related Eco—theological Ethics among Organizational Proponents in the US. Characteristic. Starting Pomt Theological Appeal Images of God Images of Nature Human—Nature Relationship Roots of EnVironmental CriSis Enwronmental Issues Prescribed Response SOCiaI Change Orientation Intellectual Tools R = religion S = seience Worldview Christian stewardship ethic biblical mandate evangelical transcendent authoritative Old Testament Land; fecundity; God’s Creation gardener/caretaker aesthetic human sinfulness 6L disobedience to God resource depletion; degradation of land 61 culture; agriculture correct doctrine; restore Christianity as guide; balance Bible and biology hOmocentric = change indiViduals R = Bible S = biology anthropocentric; prermodem a religion as sacred canopy Eco'justice ethic soaal Justice mainline Christian social Justice transcendent God of liberation human enVironment natural resources sustainable use of natural resources for human betterment injustice] inequality; economic systems toxic/hazardous wastes; health; pollution; agriculture correct praxis; government regulation; grass roots organizing socrocentric = change socrety R = libertation theology S = social sciences anthropocentric; modern = most at home focus on rights Sr justice Creation spirituality ethic cosmological physics liberal/unchurched ecumenical immanent panentheistic eco‘system; creation as cosmos; universe proper human place in bio—system dualism; anthropocentnsm; human alienation from nature Wilderness preservation; speCies extinction correct being] spirituality; new worldview homocentric = change individuals R = medieval mysticism S - evolution; phySics biocentric; post—modem monism SAVING THE CREATION: CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISM IN THE US. 57 Briefly described, these three eco—theologies reflect the differences and ten— sions among conservative, mainline, and liberal Christian theologies.1 Christian stewardship focuses on an evangelical interpretation of the biblical mandate for humans to take care of the earth. The eco—justice pOSition focuses on linking en— vironmental concerns with church perspectives on justice issues such as the just sharing of limited resources and the real cost of environmental problems. It thus combines an already present Christian social justice framework with environ— mental concerns — particularly those that center on the effects of environmenv tal degradation on peoples of color and the poor. Creation spirituality, broadly characterized, focuses on reorienting humans to see their place as one part of a larger, panentheistic creation. From this proper ecological place, humans must recognize the need to preserve the whole. Ecofeminism is a significant perspective that represents a possible fourth cat— egory in that many of its proponents see themselves as Christian (Ruether 1992; Keller 1990). Many, however, explicitly reject Christianity (e.g., Spretnak 1986), while still others understand ecofeminism apart from any religious grounding (Diamond and Orenstein 1990). Furthermore, ecofeminist perspec— tives have influenced all three of the models proposed, and explicitly inform creation spirituality and eco—justice. For these reasons, I do not treat it as one of the models I am proposing; ecofeminism is both within and outside of the world of Christian ecological activism. This paper focuses on Christian stewardship and creation spirituality, whose proponents work from para—church groups outside of potentially related denomi— nations. As Wuthnow (1988) points out, religious influences in American life are increasingly channeled through such special purpose groups. By focusing on a specific issue or set of issues, these renewal and activist groups are often able to elicit stronger religious commitment from their members than do diverse and complex denominations, or even local churches. Eco—justice advocates, in con— trast, are firmly located in the mainline denominations and denomination—spe— cific special purpose groups. The following portraits of Christian stewardship and creation spirituality are based on partiCipant observation, in—depth interviews, and extensive tape and literature review. These models are best seen as ideal de— scriptions, with much diversity and overlap found among adherents. Christian stewardship and creation spirituality share a common focus. They concentrate most on changing ideas and thus share a homocentric view of change: The earth will be saved through the combined effects of converted indi— viduals (Gelber and Cook 1990). In contrast, eco—justice places more emphasis on bringing about structural and institutional change, or a sociocentric view of change. Eco—justice advocates direct their energy toward correcting environmen— tal injustices. By comparison, Christian stewardship and creation spirituality are thus more oriented toward recovering God in the creation than in realizing the 1 What little survey literature exists indicates a similar divrsion in attitudes (Hand and Van Liere 1984; Eckberg and Blocker 1989). However, adherence to a particular theological position cannot be predicted based solely on denommational belonging, even among those actively concerned about the envrronment (Greeley 1993). 58 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION kingdom of God on earth; more concerned With preaching the implications of seience than those Of economic and social injustice. For both Christian stewardship and creation spirituality, this need to change ideas reflects their discontent with the secularization and differentiation of modern socrety. This critique, though, has qu1te different meanings: Proponents of Christian stewardship deSire to return to an early modern world where they think biblical values were more central, and the proponents Of Christian spiritu— ality seek to create a postmodern world where the dualism and rationalism of the modern world are overcome through an integrated spirituality. Adherents of both ethics are particularly disturbed by the separation between religion and sei— ence. Neither I‘CJCCtS scrence, though both critiCize the screntific worldView. Both seek to make aspects of what sc1ence has to teach us about the current situ— ation more accesSible, and to incorporate that knowledge Within a religious worldView as a key way to address the enVironrnental crisis. In addition, both Christian stewardship and creation spirituality argue that a large part of the problem is the lack of a more immanent sense of God in cre' ation, in part due to an over—emphaSis on redemption in western Christianity. Creation, for both, is a key term and concept. As both McLoughlin (1978) and Albanese (1990) pOint out in their historical overViews of US. religion, diVine transcendence is often problematic in times of cultural stress. God is seen as ab, sent from the churches in particular and the human world in general. This ab; sence is Offset by searching for a spiritual presence in nature. Finally, their common history and organizational tensions also prOVide a Window into the process of cultural retooling, as SWidler (1986) would call it, or rev1talization, in McLoughlin’s and Wallace’s (1956) theory. Proponents of both ethics initially tried to work together With the common goal of promoting an ecologically senSitive worldView among Christians, and formed the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (NACCE) in 1985. As we will see later, it was a coalition that lasted longer in concept than in practice. THE CHRISTIAN STEWARDSHIP ETHIC The Christian stewardship ethic begins With the Bible, espeCially the Genesis commandment ( 1:26—28) which gives humans dominion over the earth. They reinterpret it as a diVine charge to be good stewards and to take care of and protect (but not rule or perfect, as in older interpretations of the passage) the Creator’s creation. They pOint out that stewardship is one of the first coma mandments given to humans by God. Calvm DeWitt, a key spokesperson active in the leadership of related organizations, describes the ideal of Christian stew— ardship as a caring keeping of the Earth that works to preserve and restore the integrity of the created order, domg the Will of the Creator, and seeking for the Creator's kingdom of integrity and peace ~— a kingdom devord of human arrogance, ignorance, and greed. Christian Stewardship is so livmg on Earth that heaven Will not be a shock to us (DeWitt 1987a22) SAVING THE CREATION: CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISM IN THE US. 59 The ecological crisis thus arises from human sinfulness. One advocate pro— claims that it is the result of the “deadly sins of antiquity.” Another author ex— plains, “the ecological problem is not first a problem concerning the environ— ment. It is a problem concerning the way we think. We are treating our planet in an anti—human, god—forsaken manner” (Sherrard 1990a35). In this light, Christians are as guilty as “secularism.” Nevertheless, secularism as a whole is es— peCially at fault for reducing the impact of Christian values. The ecological crisis is not a problem brought about by Christianity as Lynn White suggested. DeWitt argues, “it is not the Judeo—Christian scriptures which lie at the root of this crisis, rather it is what these scriptures warn against: arrogance, ignorance, and greed” (1987bzl). In a variation of a familiar conservative refrain, the problem is that we have not been Christian enough; we have all sinned and not repented (Ammerman 1987). The problem is not with Christianity, but With not being true to Christianity. Two organizations, the Au Sable Institute in northern Michigan and the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (NACCE), are repre— sentative of Christian stewardship.2 Au Sable is an enVironmental biological training institute designed to teach the Bible and biology to Christian college students, whereas the goal of NACCE, a broad—based para—church organization for Christian ecology that began in 1985, is to “eluCidate Christianity’s ecologi— cal dimension.” The unoffiCial mottoes of Christian stewardship reflect its evangelical orien— tation: “to be Christian is to be ecologist” and “to be saved means saVing the creation.” This message of indiVidual and earthly salvation is aimed at both Christians and environmentalists. It is particularly aimed at an evangelical world more focused on individual redemption than on redeeming the earth. Many of the initial proponents, however, did not come from high profile conservative groups.3 Rather they came from the Reformed Church of America and a new re— ligious movement group, the Holy Order of MANS (see Lucas 1995 for a de— tailed portrait of the HOOM) that converted to Eastern Orthodoxy (Eastern Orthodoxy has much less difficulty “elucidating” its ecological dimensions than western Christianity).4 The Reformed and Orthodox influences combine to pro— duce a heavy stress on asceticism. The Eleventh Commandment Fellowship (ECF) participants (the speCifically ecological group Within the HOOM that then merged into NACCE) tend to be more apocalyptic, and more nostalgic for Z In the mid—1990‘s. the Evangelical EnVironmental Network was formed. It works With the National Religious Partnership for the EnVironment. which also has Catholic. JeWish. and mainline Protestant components and was formed in the fall of 1993. 3 Although this may be changing. Many indIVIdual Southern Baptists partiCIpate in local NACCE groups In addition. several Assemblies of God churches and members have become involved wrth NACCE. 4 Not all of the Views expressed by Eleventh Commandment Fellowship members represent Eastern Orthodox thinking on ecology. Although the HOOM proclaimed themselves Eastern Orthodox. they were under no other Orthodox Jurisdiction to substantiate those claims until 1991. However, two of the leaders, Vincent RosSi and Fred Krueget, were active participants in a 1990 Orthodox national conference on ecology. “For the Transfiguration of Nature." which leads me to interpret their positions as acceptable to other Eastern Orthodox thinkers 6O SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION a Simpler time. It is the ECF component of NACCE that contributed a strong anti—modernity current within NACCE publications and some local affiliates (see Sherrard l990b). Christian stewards try to counter the heavy conservative emphaSIs on indi— vidual redemption and the other—worldliness Of conservative Christians that has Often led to a disdain for the physical world and a mastery—over—nature stance. Not surprisingly, for the Orthodox and Reformed traditions, Christian steward— ship is not only a matter of reforming indiVIduals and changing their hearts, but it is also a matter of ultimately bringing change through God’s ordained presence on the earth — the church. Christian stewards propose that churches should become “creation awareness centers” instead of barren edifices surrounded by parking lots. They are leery, though, of what they see as the newaage worship of creation (Campolo 1992), although they do not go as far as many fundamentalv ists, who suspect all enVironmentalism is paganism. Christian stewards are Just as leery of conservative creationism. They see the overcoming of the conservative religious bias against science as key to the suc— cess of Christian ecology. They fear that creationism has eroded the appeal of an enVIronmental ethic to conservative Christians. They also worry that an anti— seience bias means that wellvmeaning Christians do not have the scientific knowledge necessary to respond to the ecological crisis. Thus the Au Sable Institute has been quietly training enVIronmental biology students from conser— vative Christian colleges since the early eighties while the current creation—ver— sus—evolution debate has raged in the headlines. As their handbook states: [tlhe miss10n of Au Sable Institute is the integration of knowledge of the creation With bibli— cal principles for the purpose of bringing the Christian community and the general public to a better understanding of the Creator and the stewardship of God’s creation (198921). DeWitt sums up Christian stewardship nicely: “It is (only) when you give either sc1ence or the scriptures short shrift that you run into problems” (personal inter— View). THE CREATION SPIRITUALITY ETHIC Creation spirituality advocates also start with a genesis story — for them the awe—inspiring story Of the evolution of the universe. According to Thomas Berry, 3 Passionist priest and a primary spokesperson, this “new story” (a key phrase for Berry) provides, for the first time, a common origin story for all peoples. The story tells us: We are all one, we all come from the same origins and are all a part of the same story (including its potential ending). The culturally speCific story Of Genesis, transformed by modern science, becomes a universal story. It is a new revelation. 5 The lack of response from conservatives. especxally the high profile New Christian Right, may be-in part due to ten5ions between the indiVidualism of many of the conservatives and the more churched tradition and orientation of both the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox. Neither of these denominations supplied many of the mobilized evangelicals of the late 1970's and 1980’s. SAVING THE CREATION: CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISM IN THE US. 61 One of the key elements of this “new story” is that it replaces the Genesis understanding of the privileged place of humans in the cosmos. We are just one part of a whole, different only in the potential for destruction which we have shown, and in our capacity for self—reflection. This forms the sixth of Berry’s “Twelve Principles”: “The human is that being in whom the universe activates, reflects upon and celebrates itself in conscious self—awareness" (Berry 1987c: 216). Thus, humanity should use that reflective capability to return to our right— ful place in the overall scheme of things (Berry 1987c:217). Whereas the stewardship model emphasizes the biblical basis for an ecologi— cal ethic and uses science as a tool to carry out the task, creation spirituality uses religion to understand the significance of the revelations of science as shaped by the evolutionary story of the universe. As Berry states in the first of his “Twelve Principles”: the universe, the solar system, and the planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mysr tery whence all things emerge into bemg (Berry 1987cz216). For creation spirituality, the chief obstacle to an ecological world is not human sin or injustice, but overcoming the dualisms of the western worldview so that we can see the creation as a whole. The tools for this task are the new physics and medieval mysticism, as suggested by the founder of creation spirituality, Matthew Fox. This new “postmodern” spirituality [5 not necessarily only a Christian spiri— ...
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