Creation care is a hot topic among Christians, but it is nothing new for longtime friends Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris. Peterson's recent memoir The Pastor (HarperOne) is saturated with environmental themes and metaphors, grounded in his annual visits to the family cabin in the highlands of Montana, where he now resides. In 1983, Peter and Miranda Harris and a few friends founded a Christian ecological study center in Portugal called A Rocha (Portuguese for "the rock"). It is now an international conservation organization that has recently expanded its work in the United States. Christianity Today editor at large Andy Crouch spoke with Peterson and Harris on the banks of the Frio River in Texas at a conference on faith and technology at Laity Lodge.
Eugene, how did you come to be so involved in conservation and environmental issues?
I grew up in a very sectarian world. There was no explicit care for creation. My parents were indifferent to it, and my church was indifferent. Hunting was the closest my family or my church ever came to being involved in the world around us. But after they killed their deer or their elk, they were done.
In some ways, that indifference was good for me and for our family, because our kids discovered environmental concerns as we hiked, fished, gardened, harvested, and canned fruits. It was more of a discovery and enjoyment. When I met Peter and saw him at work and listened to him, I realized this really was something significant and biblical.
Peter Harris: It's important to understand that A Rocha, as a movement, is driven by biblical theology. It's not a Christian attempt to "save the planet." It's a response to who God is. Therefore, the role of people like Eugene has been to help us lay that foundation.
Many people—and many Christians—would be happy just to say they are "saving the planet." How would you distinguish a biblically formed movement?
Harris: We may do many of the same things as do secular environmental organizations, but we do them for very different reasons. One question for any kind of activism is, how long are you going to be able to keep doing it? If you believe you're going to be able, by technology, by political force, by whatever means, to save the planet, you may well get exhausted and disillusioned and depressed. These are genuine problems within the environmental movement.
If, on the other hand, you do what you do because you believe it pleases the living God, who is the Creator and whose handiwork this is, your perspective is very different. I don't think there is any guarantee we will save the planet. I don't think the Bible gives us much reassurance about that. But I do believe it gives God tremendous pleasure when his people do what they were created to do, which is care for what he made.
There are some obvious biblical texts to which Christians tend to turn when they think about creation—Genesis 1 and 2, and maybe Romans 8:22. Are there any others?
Peterson: The book of Exodus and the Egyptian plagues. Those 10 plagues are all exorcisms of specific aspects of Pharaoh's control over the world. For eight months, the whole country of Egypt was turned into a theater of exorcism, item by item by item. Pharaoh was unable to do what he had done to creation, and the evil was exorcised by the command of God.
It's extraordinary, taking away the authority of the powers that be and demonstrating that to the whole nation, maybe most of all to the Hebrews, who themselves had been under Pharaoh's power. Here is a huge wrecking ball: smash, smash, smash, smash, and after eight months there's nothing left of Pharaoh's power.
Then out of this highly technologized world of Egypt—the pyramids, the statuary, the temples—they go into the wilderness, which is supposed to be empty. Yet they are all provided for, and they live by the providence of God in a most unlikely place. You can bet that they gained an appreciation for the fertility of the world they were living in—that they did not need all of Pharaoh's technology to be provided for. That's a great environmental text, even though I don't think it's ever been used that way.
Harris: Our job in reading Scripture is not primarily to find proof texts about creatures with wings or legs. Our job is to discover: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What do they care about? And how does the Spirit enable us to live that life?
Look at Hosea 4. In the first three verses, we have moral problems: adultery and murder, bloodshed following bloodshed. But then, "Therefore the land mourns," and "the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away" (v. 3, ESV). That's a prophecy three millennia before we have the words for a marine crisis. Who would have thought that the fish of the sea would die? Until modern times, the fish of the sea seemed like an inexhaustible resource.
You get those ecological consequences of the broken relationship with God all the way through Scripture. But at the same time, there's the phenomenal hope that as people are restored in Christ to a right relationship with God, there will be a restoration of our relationship to creation and healing for the creation.
How do these themes connect with Americans, who mostly live in either suburban or urban environments?
Harris: That's one distinction between a Christian take on creation and a secular romanticism about wilderness. Think about Psalm 104. In that psalm, which echoes Genesis, you don't just have "the sea and everything in it"; you have ships on it, working. You don't just have the land; you have people, working. There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet. That's not the biblical view at all. A Rocha in the United Kingdom actually works in the most polluted, urban borough of the country, because creation isn't absent just because people are there. The challenge is how to restore a right way of life, rather than escaping to some wilderness paradise. Fifty percent of the planet now lives in cities. That is where we live out our relationship with creation.
As Christian conservationists, do you see urbanization as a good thing, a bad thing, or something neutral?
Harris: My biblical theology means I cannot see it as a bad thing. The ultimate biblical vision is the heavenly city. Our challenge is the redemption of the urban, not the consecration of wilderness.
Peterson: I agree, and I don't think we realize how much of our view of wilderness comes to us through the Romantic movement. Romantic literature was written at the height of the industrial city, with its exploitation, poverty, and child labor. In reaction to all that, they gave us the concept of nature as romantic. But it's not romantic.
Harris: It may not even be natural. Sir Ghillean Prance, who has studied the Amazon rainforest for decades, believes that the very diversity of the rainforest is a result of gardening. The human beings who lived there selectively used it and tended it, and that is the best way to account for its extraordinary botanical diversity.
Even biologically, the idea of a pristine, teeming world without human beings probably isn't accurate. Britain is certainly a case in point. The original British form of vegetation was a pretty monocultural oak forest. It was only as farming came and we had a diversity of habitats that we had the biodiversity that we cherish on the British Isles today.
So we should understand the human presence on the planet in God's purposes as a blessing.
A Rocha focuses on conservation. In a biblical sense, what is it that we are to conserve?
Peterson: For me and for my family, our primary entry point to conservation—to keeping—was keeping the Sabbath. At one point we decided we were going to keep the Sabbath. We kept a regular Monday Sabbath because as a pastor, Sunday was a work day. We're still doing that. Our kids grew up doing that. If you keep the Sabbath, you start to see creation not as somewhere to get away from your ordinary life, but a place to frame an attentiveness to your life. And it doesn't necessarily have to do with seeing birds or foxes or whatever. Sometimes it is your own kids—putting them in a different setting and bringing them home refreshed.
Harris: It's important to recognize that we are losing species on the planet at an unprecedented rate since industrialization. Now, if in Psalm 104 it says, "In wisdom [God] made them all," and if God gave us the work of caring for creation, then clearly, we aren't fulfilling the biblical vision.
But I think the Christian vision of conservation is exactly as Eugene framed it. It's a wider one that has to do with human flourishing, that has to do with recognizing that a ravaged creation has wrecked not just species but God's intention for time, for Sabbath, and that in turn wrecks families and whole societies.
Some Christians believe that prioritizing environmental concerns limits economic growth and consequently the prospects of the poor. Increasingly, one hears the charge that environmentalists care more about birds than people, but more pointedly that they care more about species than about human beings who are poor.
Harris: Every Christian leader I've ever met in poor parts of the world understands that they live an unmediated relationship with the creation. That means that if there is damage done to the creation, there is damage done to the human community. I would argue that the economic possibilities lie now in the building of a sustainable economy; that's where the smart money is today. In any case, an economy founded on degrading the creation is theologically incoherent. The old model that you can make your money any which way and then give some of it away when you're rich enough is lacking biblical warrant. A much better way is to make money in a way that impacts the poor and the planet beneficially.
Clearly there is a growing enthusiasm among Christians for creation care. But enthusiasm can go wrong. What do you see as the deepest risks in our current interest in environmental concerns?
Harris: I think eco-judgmentalism is a real danger. This is not a matter of finding another five quick rules to keep you on the right side of God. This is not about what we do; this is a change or a development in the depth of our relationship with God himself. It's about everything, not just about a narrow slice of topics. It would be disastrous if we turn the biblical vision into a code that "good" Christians follow—something like, thou shalt eat muesli, wear sandals, and look miserable.
I think the environmental movement has been perceived as judgmental and angry, claiming moral high ground and issuing rules with disapproval. Recently a social scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology told me that studies have shown one of the marker personality traits among environmentalists is anxiety. The Christian approach is very different: it is celebratory and grateful and hopeful.
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Eugene Peterson's memoir The Pastor (HarperOne) is available at Christianbook.com and other retailers.
A Rocha, the international conservation organization co-founded by Peter Harris, maintains a website with environmental news, videos, and audio.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of global warming, creation care, and the environment includes:
A Covenant with the Earth | Why the work of Christ makes all the difference in our care of creation. (October 14, 2010)
Creation Care: No Less Than Stewards | How concerned Christians should be about environmental care. (June 30, 2010)
Why We Love the Earth | "Our belief in a Creator, not crisis scenarios, drives our environmental concerns." (June 1, 2001)
Previous reviews of Eugene Peterson's books include:
Eugene Peterson: A Pastor's Journey | The memoirist reads the text of his life, and addresses the parlous state of the pastoral calling. (March 18, 2011)
Letting Words Do Their Work | Why the care of language is more important than ever. (September 22, 2009)
Everyday Lord | Jesus' language shows the mundane is where faith is fleshed out. (January 12, 2009)
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