We spoke to six experts about how the church can be a redemptive voice and compassionate presence in front-burner cultural issues. The following article on the topic of the environment is based on a conversation with Steven Bouma-Prediger, Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College. He is author of Earthkeeping and […]
We spoke to six experts about how the church can be a redemptive voice and compassionate presence in front-burner cultural issues.
The following article on the topic of the environment is based on a conversation with Steven Bouma-Prediger, Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College. He is author of Earthkeeping and Character (Baker).
Because this is a fascinating topic of great importance, for about 40 years I have been teaching wilderness courses and writing articles and books on ecological theology and ethics. I spent the summer before my senior year at Hope College working at a church camp. In addition to helping with the in-camp programs, I got to lead a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. I fell in love with that beautiful place, and I subsequently took a number of wilderness leadership training programs. For four summers after that, I led wilderness backpacking, canoeing and rock climbing trips for Wilderness Adventures, a youth ministry program of the Reformed Church in America. Then, for my doctoral research, I explored Christian ecological theology and ethics. My scholarly vocation and nonscholarly avocation merged.
To address the issue of creation care, the first thing the church can do is pay more attention to its sacred texts, creeds, prayers, confessions, hymns, etc. The Bible begins and ends with rivers and trees—Genesis 1–2 and Revelation 21–22. In between these bookend texts the psalmist conducts a symphony of creation (Ps. 104), the apostle John waxes eloquent about the Word becoming flesh (John 1), and Paul speaks of Christ as the maker, sustainer and redeemer of all things (Col. 1). In addition, the Apostles’ Creed opens with a profession of God as maker of heaven and earth. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of God’s will being done on earth. John Calvin spoke of humans as stewards of this beautiful and dazzling theatre of creation. Pope Francis entreats his readers to care for the earth, our common home. The church must learn that earthkeeping is integral to our Christian faith and necessary if we are to live responsibly on our home planet.
The second thing the church can do is get involved in local, regional, national and international efforts to care for God’s good earth. At home, turn the lights off when you leave a room and replace inefficient appliances. At work, be a gadfly for conserving water and an advocate for recycling paper. In your neighborhood, plant a tree. At church, start an earthkeeping group and champion recycling. In your denomination, volunteer to serve on the creation care committee. In your local community, participate in your outdoor discovery center and support a local conservation organization. In your state, contact elected officials and vote for those who support caring for creation. How fitting that we express our gratitude to God by caring for the great gift of our home planet.
Start with one thing that will make your home, workplace, church, neighborhood, city, state, province and/or country a better place. I find that one of the biggest obstacles to caring for the earth is that people say, “What can one person do?” But we need to remember that no one made a greater mistake than the person who did nothing because they could not do everything. No one is called to do everything. We are simply called to do what we can where we are. So start with one thing. Then, pick one more thing and accomplish that. Then pick one more thing.
Also, don’t be just one person. Join or form a group of two or 12 or 20. It’s more effective and more fun. At church enlist a friend to join you in forming a creation care group. At work persuade co-workers to help you set up recycle bins. The list of possible good things we can do is nearly endless.
Finally, don’t choose to not do something because your action might not have a big impact. Who can predict the impact of some seemingly small action? There are many examples in history of people who take action with a small chance of big consequences who nevertheless have significant positive impact. Simply do the right thing. Leave the consequences to God.
My book Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic is a sequel of sorts to my earlier book, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Earthkeeping and Character is an expanded and much more in-depth look at the virtues we need to foster and embody if we are to be better earthkeepers.
What I hope to achieve is greater awareness about the need to develop and cultivate certain habitual dispositions such as wonder and humility, self-control and wisdom, justice and love, courage and hope. We need to pay attention to our duties and the consequences of our actions—the two main traditional ways of thinking about ethics and ethical decision-making. But we need to pay more attention to the kind of people we need to be—the virtues we need in order to be responsible earthkeepers. We need to focus not just on conduct but on character, not only on action but also on attitudes, not just what we do but who we are.
Unfortunately, climate change has become a political issue. But let there be no mistake: The science is clear. Climate change is very real, it is happening now and it is one of the biggest challenges we face in this century. Indeed, a group of religious leaders recently authored Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency to clearly affirm that climate change is not a political issue for a partisan few but a pressing existential reality for all people, regardless of political party affiliation or commitment to religious tradition. So if the church takes seriously its call to love God and love neighbor, then we who follow Jesus and worship the triune God must work to address this challenge wherever we can.
To start a conversation with someone who has a different viewpoint, perhaps the first and most important thing is to ask what your friend believes about and why they believe it. Then listen with attentiveness and humility, two important virtues in today’s world.
At some point, especially for Christians who affirm the importance of the Bible, you could mention Scripture passages that point to our calling to care for creation. Or you could mention people within the church tradition that spoke about creation care (e.g., Irenaeus of Lyon, Athanasius of Alexandria, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I). In Sunday school you could ask for a show of hands of all those who breathe, and then remind everyone that the oxygen in the cells of their body comes from an amazing recycling process involving green plants. At a meeting of your city council you could remind your leaders that they have a civic responsibility to make sure there is clean water and clean air for future generations. You could defuse the politicization of these issues by pointing out that earthkeeping has no official political party affiliation.
Civility will not be possible without certain key virtues or habitual dispositions, such as attentiveness, courage, humility and honesty. Here at Hope College we try to live by what we call our Virtues of Public Discourse: humility to listen, hospitality to welcome, patience to understand, courage to challenge and honesty to speak the truth in love. We do not always practice what we preach, but I think this very fine list succinctly describes the necessary virtues we need to live together in an increasing divisive world.
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