Christian Ecology

The emergence of Christian ecology shows a growing number of the faithful view environmental preservation as a matter worthy of spiritual attention.
By Pat Stone
January/February 1989
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The Christian Church has not been an active force in environmentalism, but the emergence of Christian ecology is slowly changing that.
PHOTO: VIVIANE HOLBROOKE/THE STOCK MARKET
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Rockcastle County in Kentucky is a land both beautiful and ugly. The beauty is in the tightly bunched hills, the forests flecked with spring dogwoods. The ugliness is in the wounds scarring these same hills, open sores of raw earth left by unclaimed strip mines.

There's another form of ugliness here, too: poverty. It's the kind that leads people to deadly feuds over the area's most reliable cash crop — marijuana. The kind that produces a sense of utter helplessness in many residents. The kind that leads to vandalism, petty theft, and a "burnout" different from the bane of busy executives: people torching each other out of their homes.

This disheartening backdrop would seem to provide poor soil for Christian ecology, a new stream of thought in the environmental movement.

Christian ecology? To many people, the words combine awkwardly, are perhaps even mutually contradictory. And yet one solemn middle-aged man works to make them meaningful even as he works to restore both property and pride. For almost a decade, Father Al Fritsch — a Jesuit Priest — has holed up along the steep banks of Rockcastle Creek, quietly running Appalachian Science in the Public Interest (ASPI), a nonprofit environmental and service organization dedicated to "making science and technology responsive to the needs of poor people."

Fritsch's soft-spoken, gentle manner only slightly mutes his intense, almost Spartan, dedication. His office is a small, circular cordwood building — one he constructed out of firewood and cement. (His personal living quarters? One room in that building.) His staff consists of student volunteers and local Indians whose modest wages are paid through a government employment program.

This third-generation Kentuckian faces tough odds: "I cannot possibly convey an intellectual appreciation of the suffering of our region .... It's like the South Bronx in the woods."

Al attacks the problems on several fronts at once. "We combine environmental work with the presentation of positive alternatives — primarily helping to restore land and showing what good land looks like." ASPI itself demonstrates careful land use. Nestled along its steep, wooded hillside are a two-story solar house, a small yurt, a wooden dome, and that main cordwood office. Compost toilets, solar greenhouses, and more dot the landscape. This array of alternative energy-efficient technologies attracts 1,000 visitors a year. "When a passing logger looks over our cordwood building and says, `Hey, I could build this,' that's a victory," Fritsch says proudly.

On the environmental-action front, Fritsch works to "create citizen monitors." Mountain Stream Monitors, a water-testing laboratory, provides the expertise necessary for checking stream and household water quality. ASPI staffers also publish, among other things, manuals for building insulated windows shades and for using nonviolent direct action to save forests.

Watching Al toil, passing used clothing on to poor families here, writing another environmental manual there, an observer has to wonder at the combination of spiritual faith and commitment to environmentalism that gives him the strength to persevere against such odds.  As Father Fritsch himself puts it, he is "trying to help build harmony between God ... and the world itself."

Most of us have never heard Christians voicing religious reasons for planetary caretaking before, nor environmentalists claiming any higher motives than survival of some thing, be it snail darters or ecosystems.

In fact, until little over a year ago, most ecological Christians hadn't heard about others of their kind, either. They worked, like Al Fritsch, in isolation. That changed, though, at the first North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (NACCE) in North Webster, Indiana. There, beside a forested lake at the geographic center of the North American continent, a widespread, but heretofore unconnected, collection of individuals and groups were astonished to find themselves part of a large gathering of Christians concerned with saving the earth.

And what a collection it was — over 500 priests, farmers, ministers, lobbyists, Mennonites, bioregionalists, fundamentalists, liberals, academics, homesteaders, Eastern Orthodox Christians, social workers, animal rights activists, Catholic nuns, Audubon Society leaders and more. Christian feminists danced in honor of Ruah (the original—and feminine—Hebrew word for the Holy Spirit). A Christian Lummi Indian led a nighttime ceremonial fire where people offered sacred tobacco with their prayers. Mainstream Methodists held morning earthcare devotionals. Atlanta's Providence String Band crooned, "All God's creatures got a place in the choir/Some sing low and some sing higher." Representatives from groups like the 11th Commandment Fellowship and The Land Stewardship Project promoted voluntary simplicity or sustainable agriculture.

Most of the conference consisted of presentations, speeches, and workshops on the religious imperative to care for the earth. Gradually, as the days went by, many of the attendees became polarized. On one end were scriptural theologians concerned with examining and following the Bible's environmental statements. These scholars presented strong Biblical arguments for planetary stewardship.

At the other end of the theological spectrum were the adherents of Creation Spirituality, a liberal contemporary interpretation of Christianity founded by Dominican priest Matthew Fox. To Fox, not the Bible but "the universe itself, blessed and graced, is the proper starting point for spirituality. [Indeed,] the primary sacrament is creation itself." He feels Creation Spirituality combines scientific and religious discoveries including evolution and a cosmic Christ to create "a Copernican revolution in religion." Since it does put the physical universe at the center of its religious focus, Creation Spirituality is very concerned with the environmental crisis. It's beginning to spread, too: Fox's primer, Original Blessing, has sold 100,000 copies.

Thin, dry-humored Thomas Berry went even further than Fox. Called "the world's first geologian," this 74-year-old Passionist priest (founder of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in New York City) announced that religion should adopt a "new story" based on "the spirituality of the earth."

Berry wanted to "put the Bible on the shelf for the next 20 years" and "reinvent the human" in keeping with science's growing knowledge of evolution and the interconnectedness of reality.

As you might suspect, Bible-shelving didn't go over too well with the scriptural Christians at the North American Conference. But limiting one's spirituality to the boundaries of traditional religion wasn't very popular with the creation centered crowd, either. As a result, a series of meetings intended to produce a conference document for church action turned instead into a battleground for religious disputes. Sparks flew — and the conference ended in open conflict.

Yet, despite the split at that NACCE meeting, the groundswell has continued. Quakers now publish environmental manifestoes. Evangelist Billy Graham pronounces that "we Christians have a responsibility to take a lead in trying to take care of the earth." Pastors build solar and superinsulated churches to be better "stewards of God's resources." One reverend, Vincent Rossi of the Holy Order of Mans, finds faith and "earthkeeping" so closely linked in the scriptures that he even states, "To be Christian is to be an ecologist."

At the same time, scholars and theologians of Christianity's sister religion, Judaism, are asserting their religion's environmental heritage. As Richard H. Schwartz states in his book, Judaism and Global Survival, "It is essential that Jews work with others for radical changes ... based on the important Biblical mandate to work with God in preserving the earth."

There are signs that Christian ecology is poised on the verge of becoming a national force. Wall Street megatrend analyst Dan Blum forecasts that church-led environmentalism will become a major trend in the 1990s. The polled readers of Amicus, the respected journal of the Environmental Policy Institute, state that their number one concern is no longer pollution or conservation — but environmental ethics. Dr. Noel Brown, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, has been so struck by the "essential role" the religious community must have in solving our global problems that he's organized the Environmental Sabbath, an annual global weekend to focus on faith and the planet.

Meanwhile, what did happen to the NACCE, the group that held that Indiana eco-confab? Since that meeting's inconclusive conclusion, a third faction of its membership has come to the fore, led, in part, by that hard-working Kentucky Jesuit, Al Fritsch. Al noted that doctrinal infighting was pointless: the NACCE coalition should work on saving the earth, not debating theology. Besides, "the majority [of the NACCE] are not on either end of the poles of conflict, but are Christocentric, meaning they easily embrace both poles at the same time."

This middle-ground group seems to have tamed the beast of internal squabbling, and so NACCE is marching on. Its goal? To reach every local church in America, drawing them all toward Christian environmental consciousness and action. To that end, NACCE is running a slate of regional training workshops and staging national forums for each denominational path. The group is also working, in conjunction with the U.N., on finding common cause and creed with earth-conscious Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American groups.

And that's just the beginning. In 1990, NACCE will stage its second national conference. Then, at the dedication of the new National Cathedral in Washington, it will hold an international conference on religion and the environment. According to NACCE co-director Donald Conroy, these last two events will kick off the '90s as "the decade of ecological values."

Perhaps one of the upcoming NACCE events will turn into a Christian version of Earth Day, that 1970 gathering that pushed environmental issues into national consciousness. If so, can the eco-Christian movement have a significant impact on our planet's health? Potentially, yes. In the 18th century, the American Revolution was preached from the pulpits. A hundred years later, churches helped teach people to address slavery as a moral and religious issue instead of simply an economic one. And two decades ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., used religious arguments and aid to motivate the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.

Such instances remind us all that the church, though slow to stir, can make a mighty impact when wakened into action.

The Dominion Debate

“And God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply and replenish
the earth and subdue it; and have dominion
over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over
every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ “

— (Genesis 1:28)

America’s largest religion is more often blamed for creating our environmental problems than credited with helping to solve them. Indeed, ever since historian Lynn White, Jr., published "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (Science magazine) in 1967, the anti-earth nature of Christianity has become standard doctrine in environmental circles. (Our own magazine repeated this truism just last issue — in our "Open Road" column.)

The quote above from the first chapter of Genesis forms the backbone of White's — and others' — arguments that Christianity is an anti-ecological religion. And certainly, the notion of subdiung the earth and taking dominion over its creatures does sound exploitative. But eco-Christians say that reading past that one verse will reveal a very different picture of humanity's role in the creation.

As Loren Wilkinson (a fellow of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and author of Earthkeeping) notes, the very next chapter of Genesis puts limits on those apparent free reins: "Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). This last phrase can also be translated "to serve and preserve it" and points up a lesson environmental theologians find prominent throughout the scriptures: Dominion is servitude. Abraham, Joshua, David and Jesus himself were successful leaders precisely because they obeyed and served the Lord.

Wilkinson thus concludes that if humans are, in one sense, the rulers of the earth, they are as equally much servants in it, whose job is that of tending a garden that actually belongs to another — God.

Book have been written concerning the other scriptural arguments for earth ethics. But perhaps the Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry has summed them all up best with these simple words: "The ecological teaching of the Bible is inescapable. God made the world. He thinks the world is good. He loves it. It's his world. He has never relinquished title to it. And he has never revoked the conditions that oblige us to take excellent care of it."

Access and Info

North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology. The umbrella group for Christian environmentalism offers the published proceedings of last summer's conference for $12 postpaid and its central document for $2.

Appalachian Science in the Public Interest. ASPI publishes a quarterly newsletter ($5 a year), various helpful manuals (write for a listing), the popular "Simple Lifestyle Calendar"($7 each) and "Earthen Vessels: An Environmental Action Manual for Churches" ($10).

11th Commandment Fellowship. Small local groups follow what founder Vincent Rossi calls the 11th Commandment: "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; Thou shalt not despoil the Earth, nor destroy the life thereon." Free brochure.

New Creation Institute. This center runs programs "to convert the church by its own gospel for saving God's creation and building human wholeness." It offers a free introductory brochure and, for $12.95 postpaid,  A Worldly Spirituality, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson's fine, Bible-based analysis of the case for Christian environmentalism.

Epiphany. Three issues, Fall 1985, Fall 1987 and Winter 1988, of this theologically conservative Christian journal contain Vincent Rossi's clear explanations of eco-Christianity (along with various writers' attacks on Creation Spirituality). Back issues are $6 each plus $1 shipping for one copy and 25¢ for each additional one.

Institute for Creation-Centered Spirituality. Matthew Fox's program offers several classes in Creation Spirituality. Original Blessing, Fox's basic explanatory book, is available for $12.95 postpaid from Bear & Co. His group also publishes a bimonthly magazine, Creation. A one-year subscription is $17. The November issue ($5 postpaid) contains Fox's defense against his recent silencing by the Catholic Church.

Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. This introduction to "earth's first geologian" costs $9.20 postpaid.


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