View unites religion, environment
By LORETTA FULTON
Staff Writer, Abilene Reporter-News
April 1, 2000
Mother Nature and the Heavenly Father aren't at odds with one another even if some environmentalists and Christians are, leaders of a movement to unite the two adversaries say.
Until recently environmentalists and some conservative Christians tended to view each other suspiciously, each thinking the other was misguided in their view of the relationship between heaven and earth. But thanks to a movement known as "creation stewardship" old attitudes are changing on both sides, the movement's leaders believe.
Creation stewardship emphasizes the belief that all of creation is good and that it is the responsibility of humans to care for it, rather than exerting domination. It puts a religious spin on caring for the environment with the expectation that conservation will have a deeper meaning.
"To me something means more when you're doing it as an act of service to God," said David Mahan, associate director of Au Sable Institute for environmental studies who recently visited Abilene. "It means a lot more than if I'm just doing it for a frog."
Nowhere is that attitude more evident than at Christian colleges. This summer at least three local university students - two from McMurry and one from Abilene Christian - will earn credits at Au Sable, an institute located in northern Michigan that took its French name from its sandy location.
Au Sable offers courses in environmental sciences from a Christian standpoint. Last year, the director of the institute, Dr. Calvin DeWitt, led a two-day conference on creation stewardship at Hardin-Simmons University. Just a week ago, associate director Mahan was at ACU speaking at a seminar and visiting with students on all three campuses.
His message fell on receptive ears.
"This is just kind of a reaffirmation of what I really believe," said Renee Crouch, a senior environmental science major at McMurry who will spend five weeks at Au Sable this summer.
Growing up on a ranch near Clarendon in the Texas Panhandle taught Crouch a love of nature. Her Methodist roots instilled a love of Christianity. Now she is finding a way to be committed to both.
"It's turned into something that's going to be very important to me," Crouch said. "I won't have to compartmentalize my faith and my work."
That attitude is exactly what the "creation stewardship" movement is all about.
One aim is to get young people interested in their environment as they prepare to be tomorrow's leaders.
Another goal is to open the eyes of older generations to a global environmental crisis and to help them understand environmentalism and Christianity aren't natural enemies.
A key to bringing seemingly polarized groups together, Mahan said, is to take out the politics.
Mahan doesn't talk about global warming or endangered species when discussing the stewardship of the earth, hot-button topics in some camps. Instead, he talks about responsibility to the earth.
"God asks us to be caretakers of the earth," Mahan said. "We should do that whether there's global warming or not."
In fact, that sentiment is the credo of an organization called the Evangelical Environmental Network. Its "evangelical declaration" includes its reason for being: "Because we worship and honor the Creator, we seek to cherish and care for the creation."
Concern for the natural world is not new to Christians. Nor is it ignored in other religions. World faiths from African traditions to Zen Buddhism stress the relationship between man and nature.
St. Francis of Assisi's love of nature is commemorated in some Christian churches with a blessing of pets on his Feast Day each October. Celtic Christianity is renowned for its view of God in all of nature. John the Baptist was a man of the earth, living on honey and locusts.
Traditional hymns such as "This Is My Father's World" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful" celebrate the natural order. The Bible is filled with praises for God's creation and humankind's responsibility toward it.
But some fundamentalist Christians have come to consider environmentalists nothing more than liberal "tree-huggers" or, even worse, pagans. A part of the problem is the Bible itself, creation stewardship leaders say. The story of creation as recorded in the book of Genesis gives man dominion over all the earth and the creatures in it.
Some people use that scripture as a license for abusing the earth, said Hardin-Simmons' Robert Sellers, who helped stage last year's creation stewardship conference. But that attitude is changing, and nature is seen as having an intrinsic value rather than being created solely for man's use, he said.
"The typical response now is that stewardship means being the trustees of God's good creation," Sellers said.
Before 1967, most mainstream Christians gave little thought to the environment, at least from a religious standpoint, Sellers noted.
But that year, in an article for Science magazine, author Lynn White wrote a scathing critique of the Christian doctrine of creation, Sellers said. White charged that the traditional interpretation of the creation story "fostered a sharp separation of God from the world and of humanity from nature."
Since the publication of that article, Christian ethicists have begun to rethink the Christian theology of creation, Sellers said. Now, 33 years later, creation stewardship is taking root.
Roman Catholic monk Thomas Berry is a frequent writer for the Sierra Club, the nation's most recognizable environmental organization and one that is often vilified by conservatives. He succinctly captured the connection between the environment and religion in a statement often quoted by those in the creation stewardship fold: "If the water is polluted, it can neither be drunk nor used for baptism."
That people of such diverse ideologies are trumpeting the cause of environmentalism comes as no surprise to Sellers. He sees a concern for the environment as an imperative in today's world, not a question of politics or theology.
"It's not a liberal perspective to realize the rivers are polluted" or to be concerned about smog or nuclear waste, Sellers said.
Nowhere is that awareness more evident than in the Dallas offices of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Two years ago, Terri Morgan was named special projects and community ministries coordinator for the BGCT with a focus on environmental justice.
Her mission is to "find a Christian voice to broach environmental degradation," she said.
As a starting point, Morgan looked at the Old Testament idea of stewardship, specifically the book of Genesis.
"God, as he created, pronounced it good and placed humankind in the garden as stewards," Morgan said.
Although the word "dominion," which is found in the creation story, literally means "to place one's foot on the neck," Morgan said that was far from the intent of the biblical writers. Instead, the context of the stories imparts a different understanding.
"It portrays the image of care, nurture and respect, and the attitude of stewardship," she said, "not ruthless domination."
If the creation story of the Old Testament has caused problems, so have prophecies in the New Testament.
Fundamentalists who believe the world will soon end see no reason to take care of it now.
"That's unfortunately an excuse people have used to exploit creation," Morgan said.
The Baptist convention's look at creation stewardship came at the urging of some Baylor University faculty, Baptist clergy and lay people. The support has been heartening, Morgan said, especially because no one knew what to expect.
"We knew it could potentially be controversial," Morgan said.
Locally, the movement has caught hold on all three campuses. Last summer ACU biology professor Dr. Thomas Lee taught at Au Sable Institute, and this summer a McMurry chemistry professor will teach one session.
They will join students from the two universities who will be taking classes.
McMurry's Crouch will join fellow environmental science major Tracey Davenport, a senior from Toledo, Ohio, and their chemistry professor, Dr. Pam Veltkamp. Veltkamp attended Au Sable as a student in the summers of 1982-83. She taught there during summer sessions in the early 1990s and will return for in July.
Initially, Veltkamp, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry, said she was attracted to Au Sable for a specific reason.
"The idea of going out and doing chemistry in the middle of the woods" was appealing, she said.
But soon the spiritual angle began to take hold and Veltkamp began developing a commitment to a Christian concern for the environment.
She sees that same commitment taking root in her students, and she encourages it by incorporating a faith angle into her courses where appropriate. She wants her students to be aware of what the Bible says about the care of creation.
She won't find two more receptive students than Crouch and Davenport. Both are convinced that Christianity and a concern for the environment go hand in hand.
She couldn't believe her good fortune when she learned about Au Sable Institute and the growing interest in creation stewardship. Once an unheard-of discipline, creation stewardship seems to be on everyone's minds, Davenport said.
"It's everywhere I go," she said.
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