Just two months after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, an international evangelical forum sought in August to iron out the wrinkles in their own approach to caring for the planet. Their effort comes on the heels of two other influential gatherings that evangelical leaders attended recently in Washington.
The conference, “Evangelical Christianity and the Environment,” drew 60 people from five continents to the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in northern Michigan. Cosponsored by Au Sable and the World Evangelical Fellowship, the forum was heavy on theologians and scholars. It also included youth workers, a rain forest-restoration volunteer, a forest ranger, and high-ranking government officials from the U.S. and Great Britain.
The leaders said the secular environmental movement reveals a deep spiritual hunger that evangelicals can respond to—if they take a fresh look at the Bible. “The forum was the first worldwide meeting of evangelical Christians to work seriously on the relationship between faith and caring for the creation,” said Calvin DeWitt, Au Sable director.
Reclaiming A Biblical Heritage
Paper after paper noted variations on the same theme: Evangelicals need to reclaim their ancient biblical teaching that God is Creator and Redeemer. “The Earth is the Lord’s. [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” said the summarizing committee report.
Those at Au Sable noted that Rio demonstrated the appeal of such a concept of a force holding all things together. The Gaia hypothesis, a theory many scientists take seriously, goes beyond understanding the Earth, or its living creatures, as forming an interconnected system to say that Earth acts like a “superorganism.” Popularizers who seek to unite the environmental movement have turned this theory into a religion that identifies the Earth as Gaia, the earth goddess, or as God’s body.
But rather than merely recoil from Gaia types, who mistake the creation for the Creator, Regent College professor Loren Wilkinson suggested that evangelicals should welcome scientific evidence concerning cooperation and harmony in what Christians call creation. Evangelicals can take the Gaia hypothesis a step further, said Wilkinson, by seeing these facts not as a random development but “an indication of the intimate care of our Creator and Redeemer.”
Chris Seaton, a British youth pastor, said that churches that fail to embrace a theology of care for creation will lose the post-Gorbachev generation. “We feared the bomb,” he said. “They fear an ecological doomsday.”
The Au Sable forum, like the Earth Summit, evoked some discord between theologians and policymakers. But the evangelical gathering also exhibited distinct differences from the hodgepodge of religious and governmental philosophies seen in Rio.
“What is so different from Rio is our ability to worship together with common faith in Jesus,” said Wilkinson, who attended the Rio summit.
The forum also linked earth keeping with a need for careful, thoughtful missions work. For example, an anthropologist told how infanticide was stopped after Mennonite missionaries converted Paraguayan Indians; but, he said, then a new problem sprung up, as the land couldn’t support everyone. On a positive note, Wayan Mastra, a bishop in Bali, described how his indigenous church avoids Western domination of nature and expresses Christ’s revelation and love by affirming the Balinese respect for creation.
Fred Van Dyk, forest-ranger-cum-professor, urged churches to reject the secular belief that the Christian faith is irrelevant to public-policy debate on the environment. Ron Sider, who heads Evangelicals for Social Action, and Paul Menthe, head of the Christian Environmental Alliance, challenged Christians to get involved politically. Sider said evangelicals must dare to proclaim the full truth about the environmental crisis despite pressures from those who profit from hiding the truth.
Forum participants predict more evangelicals will begin to develop environmental sensitivities. Said DeWitt, “When believing, conservative Christians confront the Scriptures, they turn around.… Soon we’ll see families and churches embracing creation.”
An Evangelical Environmental Esther
In 1989, after several 18-hour-a-day weeks of negotiation, Earth Summit planning talks broke down over North-South and environment-development conflicts. Susan Drake, a UN planning manager, was ready to quit.
“But friends from church gave me a Scripture from Esther,” recalls Drake: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this.” So she chaired a secret meeting with the biggest players and the ones having the most difficulty. “We hid out for three days in the Canadian embassy and hammered out the agreement that all the countries signed on to,” she explains, “UN resolution 44–228 established the Earth Summit and specified the issues and how they would be covered.”
Drake, 29, the U.S. negotiator in Rio on toxic waste and freshwater issues, attended the Ausable meeting.
Once a Buddhist, Drake believes the government needs people with values. “I wàs raised a nominal Roman Catholic and chose Buddhism for myself. A college classmate from Bhutan led me to Christ,” Drake says.
Drake strongly believes environmental values must be pushed higher on the government’s list of priorities. “I’ve been disillusioned by the lack of leadership the U.S. took on such important issues as creation or environment. Many positions deeply conflicted with my faith,” Drake says. “I believe we all have a God-given right to live with air, land, and water free of poison.”
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