March 2, 2009
Evangelicals and the Environment
— Martin E. Marty
This one needs an introduction: Years ago at scholarly evangelical gatherings I would be introduced as "this year's non-evangelical speaker", to which I'd respond with a reminder, "I'm the only person in this room who even belongs to a church body named 'Evangelical'." Chuckles would follow, and then we would get down to business, not reducing evangelicalism(s) to the over-noticed "Radical Christian Right".
End of introduction. This week I stumbled upon a little book which prompts a sighting of one way some evangelicals are dealing with the environmental crisis and the future. It's Lindy Scott, ed., Christians, the Care of Creation, and Global Climate Change (Pickwick), based on a conference at Illinois' Wheaton College, often called the flagship evangelical liberal arts college-one of several flagships. The only "known" contributors are Wheaton President A. Duane Litfin and super-scientist and up-front evangelical, ex-Oxonian Sir John Houghton, who spoke and wrote on "Big Science, Big God." The rest of the essays, reports, and proposals are from students and graduates of Wheaton and its kin and kind.
Wheaton-type evangelicals enjoy "born again" conversion stories, and President Litfin describes briefly how he came out of apathy to sign on with the "Care of Creation" front. He had been an original signatory to the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), for which he was criticized by some college board members and evangelicals at a distance from the school and the cause. Student Ben Lowe, who made the mistake of reading the Bible and responding to some of his professors, was converted to become "An Unlikely Tree Hugger." With charming naivete he tells how he knocked on Litfin's door and began the process of getting the administration to back a conference (which drew participants from numerous evangelical colleges) and to encourage initiatives for academic and activist moves at the college toward "The Greening of Wheaton."
I am not a public relations agent for the school, would find any number of its positions and policies uncongenial-just as I would find many congenial-and am simply reporting on what I read. Readers who are more "non-evangelical" than I may feel ill at ease or not at home with many of the book's concerns, but I think it is important to see how Lowe faces what the index enters as "evangelicals, shying away from environmental movements, 99ff." Many shied away and pushed off such movements, and many still do. Here are some of the old deterrents, and hints at Lowe's responses:
1) "The environment isn't really in crisis." Lowe lists seven patent "degradations" of the climate, and agrees with Calvin De Witt that "the common agent...is human action."
2) "Everything's going to burn up anyway." This is the word of the "Eschatology determines ethics" apocalypticists, whom he counters effectively.
3) "Fear of paganism, nature worship and panentheism." This case is a bit blurry, and demands more careful examination than he gives it, but his report is accurate.
4) "Higher priorities: save souls, not whales." This is the oldest standard evangelical put-down; Lowe and others in the book really take that one on, and down.
I think campuses, agencies, and parishes in—ahem! again—“non-evangelical” camps can learn something of the how and why of “creation care” from works like this, be they Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Marginal, or Ecumenical, because this has come to be an ecumenical cause open to alliances in a pluralistic world. The “care of creation” tree huggers may have arrived late, but they come on strong.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.