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Environgelicals: reclaiming environmentalism from the New Age movement

The tree-hugging wearer of hemp clothing: it’s an almost-forgotten stereotype.  Joe Ware urges the Church to embrace environmentalism and discard the  New Age associations.   

As American preacher Tony Campolo points out, Christians have ‘allowed the new age movement to highjack the environmental movement and make it their own. The result is the minute we start talking about the environment evangelicals begin to say, “Wait a minute, you sound like a new ager”. The fact that new age people have committed themselves to something that really belongs to the Church does not mean that the Church should not be involved in this’.

This year, Campolo became just one voice among many evangelicals urging the worldwide Church – and society at large – towards a much more considered approach to our environment.

Pope Francis – named after a saint famous for his love of nature – made headlines in spring 2015 on the publication of his encyclical Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), with its clarion call for a radical rethink on how we treat our world. This summer we also saw the Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change, signed by faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, which pointed to the power of faith to change attitudes, called on politicians to act and urged the Church to ‘redouble our efforts to reduce emissions that result from our own institutional and individual activities’.

GODLESS HIPPIES VERSUS AN OUTDATED INSTITUTION

However, history does not tell the story of an easy relationship between Christians and environmentalists. Secular environmentalists have been viewed as a gang of godless hippies, while the Church has been seen as an outdated institution whose disregard for the environment has contributed to the current ecological crisis.

This divide between the Church and the environmental movement has its roots in popular 20th century endtimes theology. American pastor Tri Robinson explains: ‘The evangelical church in the 1970s was rife with a theology known as dispensationalism, which implied—and explicitly stated at times – that “Jesus is returning and the earth is going to burn up anyway, so go ahead and use it up”. During that time, Christians who had once cherished and protected the environment lost this ideal. It didn’t seem to have a place in the Kingdom of God.’

Despite the apparent division, the two groups share a remarkably similar worldview; one that offers hope for a reconciled relationship. Both Christians and environmentalists believe there was once a beautiful, untainted world, but that through human greed and selfishness (sin) this wonderful creation became spoiled. By putting profit before people and planet, creation now cries out. For Christians seeking to share the gospel, anyone angered by environmental destruction will be acutely aware of human fallibility and the need for restored relationships throughout creation. And what of the biblical mandate for taking care of God’s creation? Jesus himself taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ In his book Fingerprints of Fire,

Footprints of Peace (Circle Books), British theologian Noel Moules highlights the righteousness of God’s  biodiversity champion Noah, Daniel unharmed in the lions’ den and Jesus  himself who was ‘with the wild  animals’ in the wilderness. He writes: ‘In the Gospels Jesus walks on water, commands the wind and waves and  rides a donkey. He illustrates his teaching using seeds, flowers, trees, birds and the rain. His spirituality  is constantly expressed using the  elemental images of earth, wind, fire and water. He declares that if people  are silenced in their celebrations even the stones cry out their praises to God.’ 

THE INJUSTICE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 

Probably the greatest environmental challenge of our time is that of  climate change. At its core, it is an issue of injustice. The global poor, those least responsible for creating the problem, are the ones who  are suffering the most. In Jesus’  eschatological story in Matthew  25, he speaks about the people who  haven’t fed the hungry and thirsty,  clothed the naked or cared for the sick and imprisoned. Verse 45  says: ‘Whenever you failed to help  any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed  to do it for me’ (CEV). 

But a biblical sticking point for some has been the interpretation of Genesis 1:28, where God gave humans ‘dominion’ (KJV) to rule  over nature. Whereas some have  misinterpreted this as meaning we can exploit the environment, Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels says that  this is a misreading. He says that Adam and Eve were told to ‘rule over’ creation in the same way  the Bible tells parents to rule over  their children. The New Testament warns parents that if they treat them abusively they will incite rebellion and hatred; Hybels says the same is  coming true for creation. 

And those dispensationalist ideas of Armageddon are addressed by  Simon Ponsonby, pastor of Theology  at St Aldate’s Church, Oxford. He  has written: ‘Some traditions within  the Church have suggested that if  it’s all going to be destroyed and a  new one created in its place, then we  need not bother with what we have  here and now. But the mandate given  to Adam, contained within the very  first command God uttered to us,  was that we husband and steward  the creation. I do not believe this mandate has been revoked.’ 

HISTORY’S CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISTS 

Father of the Reformation, MARTIN  LUTHER (pictured top left), said:  ‘God writes the gospel not in the Bible  alone, but also on trees, and in the  flowers and the clouds and stars.’

 Clergyman CANON HARDWICKE  RAWNSLEY founded the National  Trust in 1895. 

Scottish Presbyterian JOHN MUIR  (pictured top right) had memorised  the entire New Testament by the  age of 11 and went on to establish the  world’s first National Park in Yosemite,  California. 

JRR TOLKIEN’s (pictured bottom left)  Lord of the Rings, which introduces  us to the simple-living Hobbits and  tree-like Ents fighting the naturedestroying  Orcs has proved an  evangelistic text for many Christian  environmentalists. Tolkien and his  friend CS LEWIS discussed the merits  of ‘eating local’ decades before it  became a popular concept. 

JOHN STOTT (pictured bottom right)  argued successfully for the inclusion  of social and political concern in the  1974 Lausanne Covenant and wrote  about the ‘often neglected’ discipline  of creation care in his final book The  Radical Disciple (IVP). 

ENTER: THE CHURCH 

When the UK Government’s  Environment Agency asked 25  environmental leaders what might  ‘save the planet’, second on the list,  close behind energy efficiency, was a  plea for faiths to get involved. 

Despite its successes, secular  environmentalism has so far failed  to tackle climate change. Years of  public campaigning, ever clearer  scientific evidence and stronger  economic arguments haven’t created  the political will for necessary  action. But it is the Church – not any  New Age movement – that has the  potential to be a powerful force for  social change. 

Theologian Walter Brueggemann  says that three things the Old  Testament prophets do are to  honestly describe the state of  reality, face the grief that comes  from that reality and give hope for  the future. On the issue of climate  change, Christians can bring this  much needed prophetic approach,  says Susan Durber, Christian Aid’s  theology advisor, who wrote the  paper Song of the Prophets: a  global theology of climate change.  ‘Christians are used to being lonely  prophetic voices speaking unpopular  truths and trying to “change the  wind” on important issues. What the  environmental movement sometimes  lacks is a sense of hope. Evangelical  Christians have that to bring.’ 

Alex Evans, co-author of  Tearfund’s recent report The  Restorative Economy, says that the  Christian concept of addressing  guilt and offering forgiveness is also  pertinent in this discussion. Evans  says: ‘Climate campaigners can  sometimes seem to believe that if they  can just make everyone feel guilty  enough about climate change, results  will follow. But people already feel  guilty about climate change, and it’s  part of why they don’t want to think  about it. Guilt is only helpful if we  can do something with it; otherwise it  turns toxic and ultimately debilitates  us.’ 

THE CALL TO MODEL A NEW  WAY 

Surely Christians living in the light  of a restored relationship with God  can model a way of living that turns  this guilt into fruitful action? Across  the world we are beginning to see  this happen. In June, Archbishop  Welby co-authored a New York Times article with Bartholomew, the  Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of the 300 million Christians who make  up the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bartholomew may have a beard but  he’s no trendy Western liberal and  certainly not aligned with New Age thinking. Yet for years he has been testifying that orthodox Christian  faith is about God redeeming creation.  Western Christians are beginning  to agree. In their article, the two archbishops wrote: ‘We have reached  a critical turning point. We are – as  never before – in a position to choose charity over greed and frugality over  wastefulness in order to affirm our moral commitment to our neighbour and our respect for the Earth.’ 

A renewed urge towards caring for our world also becomes a witness to non-believers who care about creation. The Papal Encyclical moved Guardian columnist George Monbiot to write a piece titled ‘The Pope can  see what many atheist greens will  not’. In it he praised Pope Francis for recognising that creation care should come from a motivation of love for others and God’s world rather than just narrow self-interest. As the late evangelist Rob Frost has said, ‘When Christians take the earth seriously, people take the Gospel seriously.’

Guilt is only helpful if we can do something with it 

In January 2016 the Christian conservation charity A Rocha will  re-launch an initiative called Eco  Churches, which aims to encourage  and accredit congregations who  want to demonstrate that the gospel is good news for God’s earth. The organisation’s director of churches and theology, Ruth Valerio, explains: ‘It’s hard to find a church that doesn’t engage in their community or  evangelism at some level, whether it’s Street Pastors, food banks or toddler  groups. Likewise I want to see Church culture change so that it becomes as natural to engage in caring for God’s earth as it is to engage in evangelism and social action. We will provide  the resources churches need to bring about transformation across the corporate life of the Church.’ 

A GREENER ADVENT 

In late November to early December, world leaders will meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to hammer out the first  truly global climate agreement. As  environmental issues hit international headlines once more in the lead up to Christmas, A Rocha is also encouraging Christians to pray and take a more considered approach to the environment. Throughout Advent it will be hosting an online Advent calendar featuring daily ideas for how to celebrate Advent and Christmas in sustainable ways, as well as reflections  on the topic of environmentalism from Christian leaders including botanist explorer Sir Ghillean Prance and vicar of HTB, Nicky Gumbel. 

Gumbel told the charity how his own thinking had changed on the issue of the environment: ‘I’ve done a lot of thinking about the whole subject of the environment: about how this world is in serious trouble and how Christians should be at the forefront of the environmental cause  and movement.

‘This Advent we reflect on a newborn baby who carries within him  hope for the entire world, so what can we do ourselves to reflect that hope? Firstly, and certainly in my case, we need to repent. When I looked at this subject, I realised there are things that we have been doing that we should not have been doing in terms of the environment. And we are trying to put that right. For starters we’ve transferred to a green energy supplier.’ 

Creation care has the potential to unite a divided Church as well as a divided world. Rising temperatures affecting conservative Anglicans in Uganda also affect liberal Episcopalians in Florida and flooded evangelicals in the Somerset Levels. Maybe the common enemy of climate  change will help heal the wounds of a fractured Church. Maybe it will even bring us into relationship with some tree huggers. 

Joe Ware is church and campaigns journalist at Christian Aid 


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