We who live in Cascadia are graced with some of the most spectacular geography in the world. There are few places where one can ski in the morning, run a forest trail in Cascade foothills in the afternoon, and finish the day sailing on Shilshole Bay as the sun drops beneath the Olympic mountains.
In our hyper mobile society, people move cross-country, largely for reasons limited to variations on themes around vocation or family. The Pacific Northwest, though, is different.
I lead a church in the heart of Seattle filled with people who have chosen to live here for aesthetic and recreational reasons, preferring this space as their priority rather than finding “the best possible job”. These are people whose passion for the beauty of this space is the trump card that often outweighs all other considerations.
This geography, and the many reasons people love it, can be a foundational basis for both declaring the gospel and calling Christ followers to fuller discipleship. As evidenced in Athens in Acts 17, Paul’s public ministry was incarnational in that he offered a message that began with an understanding of the culture in which he spoke. For Athens, it was a hillside of statues and an inscription to an unknown God. For the Pacific Northwest it’s our profound love of creation, and environmental ethics.
This line of thinking, though, is a fork in the road dividing Christ followers. Some people view our culture’s love of outdoor recreation as a form of idolatrous pantheism, secretly resenting the lukewarm among us who are out sailing on sunny Sundays. In a similar vein, environmentalism is seen as either misguided romanticism or worse, a veiled attempt to control our lives by imposing Carbon taxes and recycling on all of us, stripping us of our freedom.
When we say these things we’re saying that the environment is a backdrop in God’s story, a stage prop that could as easily be landfill as garden. That the drama of transformation has to do with spirits mostly, if not wholly. That worship in spirit and truth, the kind Jesus sought, happens best in climate-controlled buildings, singing, praying, and listening to someone talk about the Bible.
It’s time to consider a different approach. What if we embrace people’s love of creation and recreation? What if we see longings for beauty and wholeness in these things? What if we share their love, and go with them into the mountains? If we do that, something entirely different happens to us. Our openness to meeting people in the great wild will create affection for creation in our own hearts. That little spark will become a fire of full-blown environmental theology, challenging our priorities both individually and as churches.
That’s what’s happened to me these past 30 years, living in the San Juan Islands, at the gates of North Cascades National Park, and most recently Seattle. Years spent reading the text of scripture and the text of creation have shaped some convictions that need to be recovered if our gospel is to be good news for all people and this groaning earth. What follows (in three parts) is “An Evangelical Eco-Manifesto.” Each declaration could, itself, be an essay. (Expect the book in 18 months.) These brief declarations are hopefully enough to stimulate each of our minds and hearts and begin a collective discussion about next steps for Christ followers. This first section deals with:
God loves all of God’s creation
Lynn White wrote an essay in the 60’s entitled “The Historical roots of our Environmental Crisis” which placed the blame for our crisis squarely at the feet of Christianity. The bases for this were the prevailing dispensational theologies, which eschewed care for the earth based on the notion that heaven is our ultimate destination. We who are old enough remember hearing “it’s all going to burn anyway” as a common response whenever we heard of polluted water tables, species extinction, health threats from pesticides, or nuclear reactor meltdowns. An unhealthy anthropocentrism grew naturally in that theology. The effects were, at the least, a passive disregard for our calling to steward the earth.
Though oversimplified and highly generalized, White’s article had merit because the dualism that relegated this earth to a holding tank where decisions were made for our eternal spirits was all too common during the 60’s and 70’s and is still very present among Christ followers. Paul, though, had a different view. He offers a little phrase which reveals the ultimate goal of history in Ephesians 1:10, which is “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is a way of saying that history is headed in the direction of everything in the universe, including earth, saturated with the glory of Christ. Isaiah spoke of this poetically when he foresaw the day when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb” (11:6), a description of a day when the present order of creation would be, not destroyed, but reordered and renewed.
In this new reign of Christ, “all things” will be affected because God has deep regard for all elements of God’s creation. This is evident, of course, in the Old Testament law, as God makes careful provision for the well being of land and animals. Recovery of the notion that God loves “the world” and cares for “all things”, not just humans, is the starting point for the right environmental ethic. Our common language about “stewarding resources” betrays the reality that we often view the earth as nothing more than a storehouse of wealth to be harvested.
God is revealed through creation
When I’m out hiking, skiing, or climbing on my day off, I’m rarely alone. On weekends tens of thousands spill out of their climate-controlled, urbanized, pixelated lives in search of nature, but of course what they’re really searching for is God.
G. K. Chesterton wrote that when a man knocks on the door of a brothel, he’s looking for God. Our longings for intimacy, justice, joy, and beauty set most of us searching, seeking these realities. If we keep searching honestly enough and long enough, our quest will bring us to our creator.
“…that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them.” Who are the “them” to which this text in Romans refers? Everyone everywhere! And how is it that they know about God? God’s eternal nature, divine nature, and invisible attributes are known through creation. Humans have pondered the heavens and wrestled with infinity. They’ve examined cycles of seasons and not only found explanations, but kindness and provision. They’ve gained perspective by pondering the age of rocks and trees, and their own relative smallness and temporality. Creation is God’s sermon, as Psalm 19 reminds us that the heavens are “preaching” or “exegeting” or “declaring” the nature, character, and glory, of God.
In Job’s 38th chapter God asks questions about creation, rhetorical questions intended to remind us of two simple truths. 1) There is a God. 2) It’s not you. I was on a flight once to California and discovered my seatmate was an astronomer studying the origins of the universe. I asked two hours of questions, and just as we were descending to land he asked me what I did. I blushed, embarrassed at the sometimes anti-science posture of my profession, as well as how we’re sometimes viewed in academia. Still, I said, “I’m a pastor, and I’m very interested in how science and the Bible fit together.”
I waited for I don’t know what, but his response surprised me. He smiled and touched my arm. “Delightful,” he said. “We need each other! Science can only take us so far.” We spent the brief remainder of the flight talking about faith, the ways in which creation points to creator, and the why of creation. These kinds of conversations are gospel, too, if gospel means good news. That’s because the cosmos this scientist cares deeply about is revealing, wooing, and inviting, especially if we pay attention. God is revealing Godself through every sunrise, season, and eco-circle of life.
Creation is God’s means of provision
Soil, sunshine, rain—this holy trinity is the means by which God sustains all life. David understood this: “…(God) sends forth springs in the valleys. They flow between the mountains; they give drink to every beast of the field. The wild donkeys quench their thirst….(God) causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes his heart glad so that he may make his face glisten with oil.” (Psalm 104:10-15)
Such lavish provision is an example of God’s plan that “the kindness of God might lead you to repentance.” When, instead, we become utterly disconnected from our relationship with the soil, our food becomes an exchange of cash for a slab of plastic wrapped meat or quick frozen vegetables. We move from our climate controlled car to our climate controlled house. Turning on the tap to bathe our hands in clean water before cooking our new prize, subtly if not directly seeing our purchase as nothing more than the fruit of our education and willingness to show up at our job every day.
Take away the soil though, or the water table, or the stability of the seasons, and all the money in the world won’t buy the stuff you need to stay alive, because the source of provision for you isn’t money, or your job. It’s the soil, the sun, and the water.
Soil? Deforestation and industrial agriculture are destroying it.
Water? It’s the next shortage, just around the corner.
Sun? It’s too far away to wreck, thank the Lord.
Dr. Paul Brand once said, “I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.”
These foundational truths alone enable me (and I hope you) to see that environmental stewardship is a vital part of discipleship.