Sunday, June 01, 2008


My son's church is going to be doing a series on going green. That is discouraging enough in itself, but more so for him, as the church is his employer, and part of his job will be to help get the point of this series across. He has asked what he might say to the pastor about his objections.

Where to begin? If one whispers a word against the green god of this age, one is accused of being in favor of polluting wastefulness. It is considered so obvious that there are enormous environmental problems that even faintheartedness in solving them is regarded as a sin. Nutcase extremists are regarded as a little over-the-top but well-intentioned, while mild skeptics are regarded as little better than Holocaust deniers.

There are decent Christian thinkers on the environment out there, trying to construct a coherent theology, but no one seems to be reading them. I would have some disagreements with those also, as I don't think that stewardship is anything near the highest of Christian virtues, but I can at least see their points in a Christian context. Mainstream denominations seem to like the sharing and Kumbayah aspects of environmentalism. Evangelicals like the self-sufficient/homeschool/gardening/ separate-from-the-world part. Does anyone like recycling for itself, or only for the supposed side benefits it creates?

Most Christian environmentalism is more muddled than heretical, more unfocused than unholy. Yet there are sins of intellect, and lazy, imprecise thinking eventually does more damage than lazy, imprecise gardening, construction, or musicianship. Environmentalism has become the 21st C version of the errors of the 19th C missionaries, insisting that Pacific Islanders wear pants and sit in wooden pews.

Well, that's a lot of complaining. Let's see if I can clearly explain why this particular cause is not part of Christ's.

Whenever an idea rests loosely on many cultural ideas, it becomes difficult to argue against. If you go with focus on one facet, those listening tend to automatically think "well, there's those other things, though." By the time you have moved through the lot of them, there is still a sense that whatever you are not disproving right this minute is still intact.

Christian environmentalists believe that many green interventions are good for society in the long run, or even the nebulous planet itself. As it is part of wisdom to take the long view, it is considered responsible to take the future into consideration. This is usually contrasted with those others who are only interested in short term gain or enjoyment.

Next, it is considered part of stewardship to use any resource wisely. Again, this is not so much thought through as contrasted to those wasteful others who we don't want to be like.

Third, living green and recyclingly is thought to be a spiritual discipline against materialism. You don't want to be one of those selfish people who depends on material goods for your happiness, do you? You want to be one of those spiritual people who live simply.

Coming around the loop back to the first reason again, this living simply is supposed to help poor people somehow, and be good for everyone if you do it.

So if you ask a Methodist pastor who wants to do a series on the environment what the point of it is, you will get shifting answers. God wants us to be responsible stewards of all things he gives us. Well, yeah, but why is this more important than being stewards of certain ideas that actually improve the material condition of the poor - like encouraging innovation, or free markets, or genetic engineering, or medical research? Or being stewards of historical Christianity, instead of jumping from the NT to 1969? Why not stewards of spiritual disciplines, or stewards of the nice things people have said to you? Why not aquifers, or ocean fish, or open highways? What's so special about wilderness and cooler weather?

Well we know the answer: wilderness and cooler weather are very hip now.

We're running out of things, and the church should be a good example. Are we indeed running out of things? Would we be running out of oil if we weren't forbidding drilling in ANWR and the Gulf of Mexico, if we were pursuing oil shale and oil sands? The idea that we are running out of things is more an impression, a worldview, than it is a fact. People feel like it's all going down the tubes somehow, and the church should rescue the people from themselves. Because we take the long view - see above.

Living more simply and thoughtfully can help us focus on the things of God more. Really? Got evidence? I mean, other than looking wistfully over the lake at church camp? Surely you don't think that a life pursuing mere gain and expensive pleasures is godly? Are those our only two choices? We're either looking over the lake quietly with a Bible in our laps or we're screwing up someone's prayer time with our jet-ski? I see no personal evidence that people garden organically have better Christian characters than those who drive chemical fertilizer trucks. There's certainly no data suggesting that people who recycle have better prayer lives than those who don't. Where does this idea of greater spirituality come from? Hint: the idea that God made nature, but we screwed it up with chainsaws and hunting rifles, doesn't hold up real well when you try and define what you mean by nature and intervention. Unless you want to go back 12,000 years and have no crops, no herds, no shelter, just hunter-gatherers.

Are they advocating a particular lifestyle based on fanciful ideas of what village life, or pastoralism, or tribal life was like? Where in the gospels do you find that?

But we use so much in this country, and it's a sin for us to hoard and just protect our own when we should be more generous. So let's feed people. Let's do the things that actually result in hungry people having food, rather than things that make us feel better. Genetic engineering. Europe and North America dropping their trade barriers to poor countries. Getting rid of kleptocracies.

Oil profits, Halliburton, Iraq, health care, and people-hate-America-so-it's-a-bad-witness! Yeah, the post-Christian European nations, the few remaining communist nations, and the Islamic nations don't like us much, especially if you only talk to their journalists and diplomats. The Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and even animist peoples seem to like us much better. What does that tell you?

God calls us to be good stewards... An irrelevant truth. No one, not even evil multinational corporations like Walmart and Monsanto, is advocating poisoning the wells.

Ben, I think my advice is that it's hopeless. The best I can think of is to ask questions "What exactly do we hope to accomplish? What is the spiritual outcome we desire? Are we hoping that the newspapers, denominational magazines, and local buzz will say nice things about us as good advertising, or do we hope that there is a direct spiritual benefit to this?" Then let it go and hope that this blows over and doesn't come up every year. Maybe you can get them to read about the Copenhagen Consensus if they want to focus on helping the world.

You might also come up with an angle that is compatible with both your ideas and the staff's ideas and put good work and energy into that.


Anonymous said...

Churches in the Southern part of the country have a VERY obvious way to go green. Open the windows and turn off the air conditioning during church services.

I practice what I preach, as I haven't turned on my AC this year, and I live in Texas. Last year I used my AC maybe six hours.
However, I am not a churchgoer. Perhaps I would need the AC to avoid falling asleep during sermons.

Jerub-Baal said...

Well, first thing I can point out is the obvious one.

Environmentalism is materialism, of necessity. The point of the whole green movement is to focus on the creation. (In fact, I think I can safely say that not many members of ELF focus on the Creator).

That being said, I agree. Best Ben can do is keep his head down, or maybe suggest something practical, like a bottle and can drive to raise money for the poor in Africa, or getting the congregation to go out for a weekend and pick up trash along the local roads...

Ben Wyman said...

I hope to appeal to the pastor for logistic reasons - no one is gonna want to come back for Week 3 of our sermon series on Not Buying SUVs - but my deeper concerns are spiritual ones.

The environmental movement has an undercurrent of one-upmanship that the church is no stranger to. It's a works-based philosophy, so whoever's record is cleaner, that person gets the highest available moral ground. That's a scary thing to bring into church.

"Come just as you are, but you can expect some pretty nasty looks if you drive a Hummer."
"We're all sinners saved by grace, equal in God's eyes, but bear in mind that I ran in the Right to Recycle 5K last month."
"There's no need to feel embarrassed about who you are or what you've done, we've all made mistakes, but I gotta admit, I never talk to anyone who keeps their AC below 74."

More importantly, as a church in our culture, we don't live together in community, working together for common environmental goals. We're separate people with separate lives, and we should spend as little time trying to figure out where we rank among our brothers as possible.

The church gets to preach a little over 50 sermons each year. Why spend them on using recycled paper? Let's talk about loving our neighbor. Let's talk about seeking God in all we do. Let's talk about how Jesus died for our sins. Let's talk about faith.

We only get so many chances. We shouldn't waste them.

Kelly said...

When Christianity first moved into pagan Europe, the more successful missionaries were the ones who used the existing religious infrastructure to spread the new faith: baptizing pagan gods under new names, reconsecrating holy places to the new Lord, adapting local practices under a new rubric.
It amazes me that contemporary Christians can't recognize when the same tactic is being used against them centuries later.

terri said...

I agree with wyman.

Nothing wrong with being green, but it's not the point of Sunday Worship.

Have extra-curricular programs or seminars that people can attend if they are interested.

Anonymous said...

Wow, AVI, you're scaring me. Step back from the straw man ledge a bit and then let's talk. It's not all black & white (err, green & white).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

fred, I hope you are right. There are indeed wiser voices. I am thinking of a church conversation this week and the week before, with two separate individuals, each of which included part of this. Secondly, I see it on websites. But perhaps my sample is not representative.

karrde said...

You could always encourage the men of church to start pursuing free-range, organically fed, non-domesticated meat.

The project can dovetail well with an exploration of the works of our Creator away from the noise of large cities...

As long as there is good hunting or fishing within ~100 miles.

In all seriousness, hunting and fishing involve an immersion into nature that is hard for most members of the Religion of the Environment to match.

Engaging in hunting taught me many of the balances that exist in nature. It also taught me the dynamic way in which animals, forest, prairie and river change in response to events both natural and human-caused. Sorting out the human causation is hard; reversing it is well-nigh impossible.

But the plants and animals live on in the new environment, often adapting in unexpected ways.