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Religion, Science and the Weakening Quest to Save Creation

 

by David P. Gushee
This article has been edited for the web. A link to the full-length article is below.

[I] E.O. Wilson Writes a Letter
“Dear Pastor: We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy I too answered the altar call; I went under the water. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and good will…I write to you now for your counsel and help…you have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order the save the Creation.”

 

This 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” from one of our nation’s leading secular scientists, was intended for people like me. I once answered the altar call; I once went under the water; I am an ordained Baptist pastor and ethics professor. For five years I have been involved in an initiative triggered by E.O. Wilson’s open letter.

The place to begin is with E.O (“Ed”) Wilson’s book. Wilson called this book, which may be the capstone achievement of his illustrious career as one of the world’s most eminent biologists, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.

In calling his book “The Creation,” Wilson reached back to the religious language of his Southern Baptist childhood in Alabama. He did not call the book “The Environment” or “The Natural World.” He called it “The Creation.” And it was not the first time he had chosen to use this language—so familiar and comforting to religious folks, so alien and disturbing to many secularists.

[II] Creation’s Distress

 

In this political silly season, when Republican politicians score cheap points by attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, and leading presidential candidates speak of a global warming “hoax” perpetrated on the suffering American taxpayer by grant-hungry scientists, it is worth spending a few more moments in Ed Wilson’s company hearing his description of the major dimensions of the Creation’s distress.

Wilson traces human alienation from Creation to the founding days of human civilization:

We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth. It nourished the belief that that the human spirit can be molded into something new to fit changes in the environment and culture, and as a result the timetables of history desynchronized. A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival.
 
For Wilson, we are creatures of nature, of Creation, of Earth. We are in every way dependent upon Creation’s good gifts—such as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we farm, and the billions of other species who share this planet with us. We are therefore totally vulnerable to any degradation, depletion or destruction of the Creation. Wilson wrote his book hoping to engage influential Christian leaders and those they lead with this disturbing news and to entice our involvement in addressing Creation’s distress. Five decades of warnings from the world’s scientists, naturalists, and environmentalists had not been enough to stop the runaway train of ecological degradation. But, argued Wilson, “Religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today, including especially the United States. If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved.”
[III] Scientists and Evangelicals Unite

 

And so we met.

In late 2005, through intermediaries a meeting was arranged between Eric Chivian, a Nobel Laureate physician who directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and Rich Cizik, then Vice-President for Governmental Affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals.

The idea was counterintuitive and thus extraordinarily appealing. Getting elite, mainly secular, scientists together with contemporary leaders of evangelical Protestantism would be a historic achievement in itself.

Thirty of us met in late November 2006, at the lovely Melhana Plantation in southern Georgia. Our ranks included, besides Cizik, such notables as Duane Litfin, then president of Wheaton College; Joel Hunter, an influential megachurch pastor in Florida; Ken Wilson, a leading Vineyard Church pastor in Michigan; James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool; Jim Ball, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network; and Cal DeWitt of the University of Wisconsin, for decades the leading environmental scientist in US evangelicalism.

It was a strong evangelical contingent, but on the other side the roster was simply stunning. Besides Chivian and Wilson, they included Jim McCarthy of Harvard, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with other leaders of the IPCC; Carl Safina, a marine biologist at the Blue Ocean Institute; Gus Speth and Peter Raven, two of our nation’s leading conservationists: Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control; Judith Curry, one of our nation’s leading atmospheric scientists; Jim Hansen, still our nation’s leading government scientist on climate, working from the NASA Institute for Space Studies; and Rita Colwell, a specialist on global infectious diseases from University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins and a former president of the National Science Foundation. It was a scientific all-star team.

The meeting proved to be quite extraordinary for all concerned. For the nonscientist evangelicals in the room, the scientific presentations painted a far more devastating picture of the distress of the Creation than I had yet encountered. It wasn’t just the issue of human-induced climate change; it was a broad pattern of human damage to the Creation leading to a burgeoning degradation of the natural world. And that degradation was already affecting human health and well-being, especially the poorest and most vulnerable around the world.

Such facts on the ground required a moral response. We agreed that working together we might surprise some people and make some progress that we could not have made on our own. At the very end of the meeting we agreed on a joint “urgent call to action” to “protect creation.”

We went public with a January 2007 press event at the National Press Club. We sent the “Call to Action” to the White House, all congressional leaders, and major figures in religion and science. The press conference received massive coverage.

Over the ensuing four years we have indeed worked together, pretty much as promised. Teams have visited multiple secular and Christian colleges. A quite thoughtful “Creation Care” booklet was developed by Ken Wilson and Joel Hunter and has been distributed to 20,000 evangelical pastors and churches. An expedition to Alaska was arranged for summer 2007 that brought together new leaders from both sides to see both Alaska’s natural wonders and encroaching dangers. Time magazine honored the partnership between Cizik and Chivian in 2008 by describing them as among the world’s 100 most influential people.  Our team’s activism for climate legislation climaxed in November 2009 with a Senate breifing and a visit to the White House. Along the way friendships have developed that are cherished by all concerned.

In the ensuing five years creation care has gotten a much firmer foothold in the evangelical world, especially among students and young graduates of evangelical colleges. Our initiative surely had something to do with that. Even the most corrosive conservative evangelical skeptics, feel it necessary to frame their delay-deny-derail efforts as in fact creation care or ecological stewardship, just with a more theologically conservative and market-friendly approach. And, despite their removal of Rich Cizik from his role in 2008, the National Association of Evangelicals retains a commitment to creation care, though the removal of Cizik seems to have taken much of the energy out of that NAE effort.

[IV] Deeper Levels of Resistance

 

Five years have passed. Despite glimpses of progress, it is hard to overstate the contrast between the optimism our partnership felt in November 2006 and where we find ourselves as a nation today.

If we made real progress in bridging the historic gap between mainly secular scientists and Bible-centered evangelicals, and if we worked together in advocacy, why have we not been able to get any kind of climate bill passed? Does anybody even remember the Climate Stewardship Act? Why have the climate “hoaxers” gained momentum? Why, in short, are we now moving backward rather than forward?

I want to propose three hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: Ed Wilson was wrong in one very important assumption. Religion and science are not in fact “the two most powerful forces in the world today.”

I asked several of the participants in our initiative how Wilson’s claim looks five years later. Most thought that he was right, but that the potential of a religion-science partnership had not yet been fully realized. But in the cold light of 2012, it seems more accurate to suggest that corporate power, allied with the political power that it buys, combined with popular economic fears, together with a loss of confidence in scientific research, are collectively far more powerful than religion and science, even were they to achieve a miraculous reconciliation.

Follow the money—it’s one of the oldest truisms in politics. It is also a pretty significant theological claim as well, when we take the form of human sin known as greed into account—or, for that matter, the enduring power of simple economic self-interest.  

Distressed scientist Carl Safina put it this way to me: “Big business…has enshrined an ethic of greed that brought us everything from the BP blowout to the bank bailouts to a frighteningly shaky national and world economy.”

This massive corporate power means, among other things, that the federal government, for now at least, will move more sluggishly than it should to take any steps that might reduce somebody’s shareholder value or curtail profit margins at influential corporations. It means regulations will be weaker than they should be and will be under attack as entirely too strict. It means that corporations will have the right to use the runoff of their massive fossil fuel profits to set up “thinktanks” and to fund “research” that raises questions about the seriousness of ecological problems like, say, climate change. This money will dwarf the resources available on the other side.

The seemingly chronic weakness of the American economy also seems to have trumped the power of religion and science. When our rapacious laissez-faire capitalist system goes bonkers, throwing people out of work and out of their homes and out of their retirements, as ours has recently done, a fearful and exhausted and impoverished populace will be all the more unresponsive to governmental actions to protect the Creation—if they cost the taxpayer anything, or can be accused of costing us anything, especially jobs.

Hypothesis #2: Christianity, still the dominant religion in the United States, is not easily turned to care of the Creation.

Few pastors regularly teach or preach on ecological issues or creation care. For those Christian communities in which the Bible remains the central source of authority and the sacred text studied and preached each week, the inherent limits of the Bible’s creation-care resources are significant.

Yes, I and others have done what we can to extract and lift up for attention those biblical teachings and texts that are most instructive and helpful for learning to care for creation, but—though this point is disputed by Christian environmentalists like Bouma-Prediger—it is hard to claim that creation care is the or even a central narrative strand of the Bible.

The Bible primarily tells a story about God’s relationship with humanity. And that is still what people come to church to hear. Most who step into a church on a Sunday do so in order to hear the good news that God loves them. They seek resources for thriving or at least surviving their daily lives. They come broken and beaten down, weary and stressed, hoping for enough “spiritual food” to get through the week. They don’t want to hear about biodiversity. They want to hear that they are okay, that God is on their side, that all will be well.

So far, creation care is a boutique issue in American Christianity. However much the leaders of any sector of Christianity try to change this, it does not seem to be changing fast enough. We have to acknowledge the deep unlikelihood that, absent severe and overwhelmingly obvious ecological crisis, the concerns of most churches and Christians will re-center toward creation care any time soon.   

Hypothesis #3: Human beings are deeply alienated from the Creation. We do not love it.

Ed Wilson tells us that alienation from creation is a civilizational problem that began with the very first agricultural settlements and certainly the first cities. This human alienation from creation is therefore a 10,000 year-old problem.

But it is perhaps better understood as an acutely modern problem. Fewer human beings live in any significant organic contact with the Creation than at any time in human history. The family farm is a distant memory for most. We live in near-total disconnection from nature. We are creatures entirely of civilization and its barely comprehensible technical and bureaucratic processes and structures.

Let me practice my religion and do some painful Christian confession here. I now see how much I have been a full-on nature-alienated suburbanite. Ed Wilson says “every child is a beginning explorer naturalist.” But my closest connection to nature was the Little League baseball field.

I went fishing once. I caught a boot. I only recently started learning the names of the flowers my wife grows. The author Richard Louv has worried that this generation of children has “nature-deficit disorder.” I am nearly fifty, and I am now mortified to have to acknowledge that I have had such a condition since childhood.

As a Christian, I love God. Theologically, I love the Creation. But I haven’t loved it deeply, not from the heart. Ed Wilson is a self-proclaimed secular humanist, but he loves God’s actual physical Creation, as a secular humanist, better than I have loved it, as a Christian. I say this with deep sorrow.  

In 2006, Wilson reached out to me and others and proposed that together our scientific expertise coupled with our kind of Christian values would be enough to save Creation.

I hope he was right. But I wonder. Most of us do not make sacrifices for people or causes that we do not really love. I will sacrifice all kinds of things to pay for my child’s college tuition, but not your child’s tuition, because though I love your child in theory, I love my child in reality. It may be that the ultimate reason why good science and humane religion may not succeed in saving the Creation is because there are not enough human beings who actually love this good yet distressed world.

It may be that from a long-term ecological perspective the most important line that divides human beings is not that between religious believers and unbelievers, but between those who love the Creation and those who do not. This line cuts across religious traditions and goes right to the human heart. And many Christians are among those who need to be converted. This is what I have learned from Ed Wilson and his scientific friends--so reticent to speak of God, so devoted in their love of God’s Creation. 

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Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, a Christian scholar, teacher, activist, and churchman, serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University where he also chairs the Mercer Lyceum initiative on rebuilding democracy.

David P. Gushee

May 4, 2012