person standing in woods as sun rises
For many Christians, the call to save the planet has been transformative. (Photo: iStock/kyrczka)

Topics: Faith | Environment

God + Nature = Ecotheology, a powerful, convincing Canadian trend

Scholars, citizens scouring the Bible for advice on whether God is green


At West Vancouver United, Rev. Ross Lockhart doesn’t have a problem convincing his congregation that nature and spirituality go together just like peas and carrots. People move here, he says, for the rainforest. They kayak after work. Hike the Grouse Grind on weekends. Garden in the salty sea air with a view of the Gulf Islands. After four years of living here, he’s convinced that environmentalism is the area’s spiritual touchstone.

“This is post-Christendom Vancouver. You can’t start with theology here. You have to start with action,” Lockhart says. His community, the wealthiest suburb in British Columbia, was also home to the most internationally reported environmental protests in recent Canadian history. In 2006, 23 people — mostly seniors — were arrested for occupying Eagleridge Bluffs, an environmentally sensitive zone under threat of demolition for the new Sea-to-Sky Highway. “The danger here is, we start with David Suzuki, not Christ,” he says. “It’s a beautiful, weird place to do ministry.”

In often placing nature before God, the community of West Vancouver isn’t unique. Vancouver Sun religion writer Douglas Todd explains the West Coast phenomenon in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. The intense individualism of those who live between Oregon and Alaska, coupled with distrust of institutions generally, causes them to shun formal religion, he argues. Instead, there’s nature, and environmental activism.

“It’s a West Coast cliché, but when many residents of Cascadia want to find God, peace of mind, or just release from stress, they go for a walk in the forest or on the beach,” Todd writes. He notes that religious trends on the West Coast can often predict general trends across the continent. “However loosely, spirituality and nature are inextricably linked in the public’s mind. . . . Call it a civil religion.”

The blurring of religion and environmentalism was a long time coming. Half a century ago, American religious historian Lynn White placed the blame for the coming environmental crisis squarely on the shoulders of the Judeo-Christian world view, which holds that humans can use the earth for their own ends — people are on top and in charge. As he argued in his critical 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” published in the journal Science, the future of the human species depends on a reinterpretation of scripture. “What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship,” White wrote. “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”

Since then, the rethinking has been intense. Filling the chasm between nature and spirituality, and environmentalism and Christianity is the fast-emerging field of ecotheology — interpreting scripture to discern God’s movement at a time of ecological emergency. Starting with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (published posthumously in 1955), through Sallie McFague’s game-changing Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (1987), to Shane Claiborne’s Another World Is Possible: Creation (a 2011 DVD), library shelves overflow with the conviction that God is green.

Today ecotheology is almost an industry, with its own captains, must-have products, lecture circuits and themed retreats. It has helped to change the language of Christianity, as well as the content and look of worship. For growing numbers of Christians, ecotheology’s inherent call to action has been transformative. But the popularity of the movement also raises questions: Is ecotheology evolving into a faith unto itself? Are we approaching a tipping point where ecotheology becomes less an arm of Christianity and more an arm of secular environmentalism?

Not all Christians, of course, agree that God is green. Since the 1960s, environmentalism has polarized the faithful in North America. On the one side are the “caretakers of Creation,” who believe that God gave humans responsibility for the well-being of the Earth, rather than ownership of it. On the other side are the dominionists or “wise use” advocates, whose environmental interpretation of the Bible rests on Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” In other words, according to this view, God gave humans the Earth for human benefit and, ultimately, human disposal.

The dispute isn’t merely theoretical. It’s war. In mid-February, for example, then Republican leadership hopeful Rick Santorum slammed President Barack Obama’s environmental policy, saying it is based on a “phony theology.” Santorum later explained to CBS, “This idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth . . . I think that is a phony ideal. . . . The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”

The conservative Catholic Santorum, while not an academic, is undoubtedly the loudest voice weighing in on faith and the environment today. Some dominionists even believe that hastening ecological collapse will hurry along the Second Coming. Journalist Stephenie Hendricks’s excellent little book Divine Destruction: Wise Use, Dominion Theology and the Making of American Environmental Policy traces a chilling link between the Christian right and the deregulation of industry. In fact, it may explain why BP’s vision often appears to trump Al Gore’s.

Even in Canada, faith talk legitimizes industry. This spring, Financial Post reporter Mike De Souza broke the story that the Harper government’s pro-oil sands marketing campaign, which began in 2009, was internally nicknamed “God’s work.”

Outside the extreme Christian right, on the other hand, most progressive theologians are contorting themselves to apply a millennia-old document to climate change — a 40-year-old concern. What does Deuteronomy have to say about melting glaciers? Not much, according to Australian ecotheologian Noel Preston. Even he admits scripture alone is a shaky basis for looking for direction from God.

“Certainly there are directions about stewardship,” he said at a recent conference, “and while Jesus does call us to consider the lilies and reminds us that God cares for sparrows, the Bible as a whole doesn’t read like a manifesto for eco-justice, though the Gospels and the prophets are full of social justice indicators.”

At Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, Norman Wirzba is a professor of theology, ecology and rural life. His most recent book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, connects scripture with modern agriculture, groceries and mealtimes. “The difficulty is that the ancient world of the writers and readers of scripture could not have anticipated the scale of ecological degradation and destruction we are witnessing today,” he says. “That makes it hard to make direct appeals to scripture to address contemporary concerns. This difficulty, however, does not mean that we are lost or adrift. Scripture does provide a deep and profound set of teachings about creation, justice, compassion and salvation, and these can be deployed in a variety of helpful ways today.”

For thinkers like Sallie McFague, the imagery of the Christian story needs to be reimagined. “Once we realize that how we think of nature and ourselves in relation to the natural world is a convention, a way of seeing that is implicit in our culture but not absolute, not eternal, and not ‘natural,’ then we realize that change is possible,” she writes in Super, Natural Christians (1997). “Change of this sort, a change of sensibility, occurs by changing metaphors.” Rather than viewing the Earth as a machine, McFague conceives it as a body on which other bodies depend.

Does it matter if some of ecotheology’s Christian credibility is contentious? After all, progressive churches can only benefit from aligning themselves with the popular environmental movement. And the Earth can only benefit from the green buy-in of 2.2 billion Christians — especially if they’re able to force environmentalism on their political and corporate leaders.

Indeed, back in the 1970s, before academic ecotheology had established itself, progressive churches were already lifting their skirts and wading into the coming ecological crisis. In 1974, for example, the United, Anglican and Catholic churches joined forces to support Aboriginal groups resisting the Mackenzie gas pipeline project for environmental reasons. The pipeline was stopped, and the faith coalition went on to become what is now KAIROS.

More recently, United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal reports that when she attends international climate conferences, secular scientists often approach her for a quiet word. “They say, ‘We are counting on you, because you speak to people’s hearts and souls.’ Logic and reason have not motivated the changes [in society] that are necessary,” Tindal says. “Everything begins in the soul.”

David Hallman, who co-ordinated the climate change program for the World Council of Churches, says he’s had similar encounters with scientists, hoping the churches will provide a miracle cure for secular environmental negligence. But Hallman says ecotheology and environmental action have never been the top issue for the United Church. When he began working on climate change issues at the General Council Office in 1976, “I fielded a lot of questions about why we were doing Greenpeace’s work,” he recalls. In the 1980s, the church was focused on sexual orientation. In the 1990s, it was globalization and free trade. In the 2000s, the church is, more or less, focused on its own survival.

When it comes to addressing the environmental crisis, however, he believes religion is critical. “Churches and all faith communities are a huge constituency. Yes, they’re diminishing, but they’re still huge,” he says. “We can be a significant partner in public education and the social reformation that’s needed.”

Near the end of Lynn White’s 1967 essay, he again exhorts theologians to lead the world out of its ecological mess — recognizing that eight centuries earlier, St. Francis of Assisi tried to do so and failed. “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.”

Half a century later, the rethinking has been done. But the refeeling –– the faith and the action –– that’s just begun.

In the cedar-scented rainforest of B.C.’s lush Gambier Island, Neil Carrodus, 34, and Ana-Luz Cobon, 24, are not reading about ecotheology. Instead, Carrodus and Cobon are living it. This month, the young duo will deliver their first weekend-long sustainable food workshop at Camp Fircom’s Farm to Fork project. Participants can expect to plant, harvest, cook, eat and compost.

Carrodus, Camp Fircom’s land and farm co-ordinator, is learning soil science and permaculture. He dropped out of Highlands United in North Vancouver at 13 but found a new congregation at the United Church camp the next year, working there on and off ever since. To him, the tie between environmentalism and faith is so obvious it needs no complex theological explanation. “To see a kid pull a carrot out of the ground, to see them surprised, in awe, that’s what keeps me going,” he says.

For Cobon, already an accomplished chef and now Fircom’s cook and catering co-ordinator, the link between social justice and her kitchen is also obvious, thanks to her strong youth group roots in Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Heights United.

Simple and small, Farm to Fork is a common engagement model; it’s replicated on faith-owned lands throughout Canada and the world. For Carrodus and Cobon — and, they hope, many more — it’s where young lives saturated with environmental fear can come to meet God. Transformation in the mud.

Similarly, in White Rock, B.C., 26-year-old Luke Wilson manages a 40-acre farm and education centre for the evangelical non-profit A Rocha, where “transformative engagement” is the goal. A former Sierra Club employee and graduate of Simon Fraser University’s sustainable community development program, Wilson credits digging in the dirt with transforming his own theology, from the conservative Plymouth Brethren of his childhood to something both green and Godly.

“Some people really need to engage with theology before they can move forward on this stuff, and others say, ‘Ah, let’s just do something,’” he says. “For me, this is how I got thinking about the Genesis story. Working the land helped me unpack the text with new eyes, not in a prescriptive, proof-texting way, but in a living-on-the-land, getting-my-hands-dirty way.”

The challenge for the church is to make sure the connection between dirt, God and scripture is made. Slipping into an environmentalist “spiritual but not religious” practice is too easy — and it comes with its own baggage. In Cascadia, Oregon-based writer Gail Wells slams the emerging nature-based, environmentalist spirituality at the extreme end of ecotheology, dismissing it as a shallow, trendy shadow of more rooted religions. Ultimately, though, she concedes that “what bothers me about nature-based spirituality is the same thing that bothers me, often, about conventional religion: the lack of historical memory, the hostility to science, the faddishness, the tendency towards self-absorption and extremism, the denominational squabbling.”

To Lockhart, in the heart of Canada’s eco-spiritual vortex, the relationship between church and nature seems less potent than it should be. “With ecotheology, I worry that it’s the kind of theology that takes nice Canadians and makes them nicer,” he says. “It should be totally radical.” At a time when 20,000 species go extinct each year, that means moving beyond niceness, faddishness and the lure of secular popularity. As Lockhart points out, the ecotheology movement isn’t our saviour; Jesus is.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s June 2012 issue with the title How Green is Thy Faith?”


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