A crowd of about 35,000 had gathered near the Washington Monument during a cold blustery Presidents Day weekend in the midst of an unusually mild winter to prod the Obama administration to take actions against climate change. The largest climate action rally in American history had been scheduled for noon on a Sunday, not exactly a time chosen with regular church-goers in mind—though, undoubtedly, for some present the environmental cause would be the closest thing to a religion in their lives.
I carried a sign that declared “Jesus is Pro-Planet” in 175-point type. I have no hesitation about the truth of the statement. Paul makes it clear in Colossians 1 that, through Christ, God is indeed reconciling to himself “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven,” and that this is good news for “every creature under heaven.”
As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, the true cosmic nature of Christ’s atonement is difficult for our inwardly focused minds to fathom but “there are strange, exciting hints in the Bible that when we are drawn in [to Christ], a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right.”
Francis Schaeffer made a similar point in his important Pollution and the Death of Man, a neglected manifesto for Evangelical environmentalism:
The blood of the Lamb will redeem man and nature together. . . . But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now.
In 1970, Schaeffer spoke against the “greed and haste” that was destroying creation and called for the Church to be a “pilot plant” demonstrating the healing of man and nature. The failure to do so would, to Schaeffer, be both disobedient and bring the loss of a great evangelistic opportunity, with pantheism filling the vacuum as long as the Church practiced this “sub-Christianity.”
While Evangelical leaders enthusiastically embraced Schaeffer’s push to engage on abortion and other cultural issues in the 1980s, his words and actions about the darkness of environmental degradation and the beauty of nature have largely been forgotten. He agreed with the 1960s countercultural critique of a “plastic culture” with its overreliance on “the machine” of technology and a diminished concept of nature.
The counterculture’s diagnosis was largely correct, Schaeffer thought, but the favored prescription—implicit or explicit pantheism—reduced man to “no more than grass,” after which he feared that “impersonal technology will reign even more securely.”
Also problematic was the popular but “perverted” form of Christianity that embraced a type of Platonic dualism, focused exclusively on the soul and getting it to the higher state of Heaven. For such Christians, the realm of nature might, at best, serve as an apologetic tool, but it had no real intrinsic value to them or their version of God, despite his having proclaimed it “good” from the start.
Pollution and the Death of Man illustrates this point with the true story of a Christian institution run with its eyes solely on the sky. This austere school campus sits across a large ravine from what, despite its lushness, was derisively labeled as just a “hippie community” by the Christians. Schaeffer, after speaking at the school, visited the neighbors. He spoke with their leadership about ecological issues, saw the lovely fields, trees, gardens and even the site of their communal grape stomps.
Schaeffer realized that the Christians, with their unbiblical and cavalier attitude towards nature, were offering little to draw the sincere but lost pagans toward a true vision of creation and redemption. “When I stood on Christian ground and looked at the Bohemian people’s place,” wrote Schaeffer, “it was beautiful. Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness.” Schaeffer took it as a sad compliment when his hippie host said he was the first to come from “across the ravine” in such a manner.
Indeed, Schaeffer (who loved to hike the Alps and did not own a car after 1948) believed that only a return to orthodox Christianity could effectively bridge this chasm. He countered Platonic Christianity by emphasizing that all of creation, from the human body on down to a tree or a stone, has inherent value stemming from its association with the Creator. “What God has made, I, who am also a creature, must not despise.”
Schaeffer insisted that man is finite, as separated from the infinite God, as are our kin, the animals and the grass. But, lest we slide into pantheism, he also emphasized the separation from nature brought about by our special creation in the image of God. Here, the rest of creation lies below us, and in this regard we are much more than grass.
Maintaining these two truths in proper tension allows us to engage the environment with an appropriate respect for its order and worth. It is not a plaything, designed solely for our hedonistic enjoyment. We may use it, yes, but we should exercise dominion without utter destruction, always avoid disdain for what God has made, and delights in it independent of its utility to us. In practice, the Christian community should be a people that have learned “to say ‘Stop!’” and “refuse men the right to ravish our land, just as we refuse them the right to ravish our women.”
As I approached the D.C. throng calling for a “Stop!” of its own, I felt a bit as though I was taking the name of Jesus across a green ravine similar to the one Schaeffer walked. Looking over the crowd, I was reminded, though, that God has not been without his witnesses in this realm. The ringleader of the event, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, has regularly referenced his Methodist faith, and multiple Earth Flags—first created in 1969 by faithful believers John and Anna McConnell (who, incidentally, met with a little help from Richard John Neuhaus)—were taut in the stiff breeze.
Nevertheless, forty-three years after Schaeffer wrote his little treatise, plenty of pantheistic Mother Earth spirituality was on display as well as the secular humanism that Schaeffer famously warned against elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Evangelical Church did not step into the breach and much of its leadership instead now treats the small creation care movement as a theological leper, unclean because it engages with a green movement viewed as beyond redemption.
Yet the name of Jesus was surprisingly well received on the National Mall. I saw not one glare or frown; instead dozens of people made positive comments and requested photographs. A self-described agnostic hawking The Socialist Worker newspaper engaged with me about mankind’s relationship to God and closed by saying of Jesus with a smile, “Well, if he got you out here, he can’t be all bad.”
A small group of banner-wielding Evangelical college students, who allowed me to join them despite my relatively advanced years, also drew thanks from fellow believers in the crowd and inquiries from the curious. One secular liberal couple stood with us for quite a while asking questions about what it meant to be an Evangelical, honestly discussing their own negative associations of the term with George W. Bush and SUVs. They eventually were comfortable enough—in deliciously appropriate clichéd fashion— to share their granola bars, even with an openly pro-life Bush voter like me.
Plenty of work remains to be done, both to bandage God’s wounded creation and reach his most precious creatures. “We’ve got the whole world in our hands,” a gaggle of green-clad marchers sang to a familiar Sunday School tune. “I think they’ve got the lyrics wrong,” I remarked with a wink to the students. We set about to sing the song correctly.
John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C., and is a member of The Falls Church Anglican in northern Virginia. He has written on environmental matters for numerous outlets including The New Atlantis.
“Earth Day’s Forgotten Founder,” Flourish
“Crowd marches to voice opposition to Keystone pipeline,” Washington Post
“Is Good Friday Good for the Earth?,” Patheos
“The Climate of Climate Change,” The New Atlantis
“The Genesis of Pixar,” The New Atlantis
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