Acton Commentary

A Green Reformation? Saving Faith from the Environmentalists


“Green” thinking has come to pervade many social institutions over the last three decades, and it is now making inroads into our nation’s churches. Just this past fall, for instance, a conference was held at a major seminary on “Greening the Churches.” The conference trained environmental activists and Christian leaders in the most effective ways to integrate the environment into religious belief and practice. One conference speaker explained this was necessary in order to help bring about a new reformation, what she called the “Green Reformation of Christianity.”

A Green Reformation would mean dramatic changes in traditional faith and religious practice. That became quite evident from the religious service held at the seminary. Led by Chief Brian Standing Bear Wilks and Heather Murray Elkins, associate professor of worship and liturgical studies at Drew Theological School, the service integrated Native American spirituality, ecology, and a Gospel reading.

Forced to move indoors because of rain (services had been planned for outdoors around a blazing fire), Chief Standing Bear began by “praising the powers that live in the four different directions” and “the wonderful spirits that live in the sky.” He said these words as he used an eagle feather to guide smoke rising up from a burning urn in all four directions. Then Chief Standing Bear blew a whistle made from an eagle bone which he explained later allowed him to “call to the mother of the earth [and] the benevolent spirits” that arranged for the ceremony.

Following a very short reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Dr. Elkins spoke of Buddhist monks who had visited the school earlier in the year. The monks traditionally teach that one “must always be compassionate because the person [one is dealing with] could be your mother in another life.” The “problem” with this view, said Elkins during her sermon, was not its grounding in a belief in reincarnation and past lives. Nor was it even the suggestion that human dignity is somehow contingent upon fraternal bonds. Rather, the problem was that the monks encountered the ideas of what she derogatorily referred to as “the West.” Such contact had undermined their faith.

Before the service closed, a reading followed from the gospel of ecologist/poet Wendell Berry and a song was sung not in praise of God, but in praise of John Cobb, an “eco-theologian” scheduled to speak at the conference later in the day. The service had very little resemblance to what one would expect to find in a Christian church, let alone in a seminary responsible for educating future Christian leaders. New Age pantheism crept into the ceremony with little negative reaction from the hundreds of pastors and religious leaders who were in attendance. Good things can be learned in conversation with persons of goodwill outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but problems arise when that tradition gets slowly lost in the conversation.

Conferences of this kind and services of this type are becoming increasingly common and frequently go unchallenged. The largest effort underway to transform the way religion is conducted in America involves the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), whose members were key players in the “Greening the Churches” conference. In May of last year the NRPE announced a 10-year, $16 million initiative designed to “assure that the next generation of religious leaders in America advance care for God’s creation as a central priority for organized religion.“ While much of the work of the NRPE remains covert and escapes media attention, Americans can soon expect a much more visible presence for the organization. Across the nation churches are now preparing to celebrate Earth Day Sunday 2000, or what the Evangelical Environmental Network simply calls ”Creation Sunday.“ (Some churches hope to celebrate it on Easter Sunday, others intend to choose a different date this year.)

Earth Day Sunday seeks to formally introduce environmental theology into regular worship services. Sermons that condemn the use of fossil fuels are being distributed to evangelical pastors en masse . Clergy are being instructed to tell the members of their congregation that they have a moral obligation to support the public policies advanced by the environmental movement. Videotapes are also being offered that suggest affluence is, like influenza, a disease (“affluenza”). Thus persons in the more affluent countries of the world are sick; overcoming the poverty and disease that pervades in less affluent nations through economic initiative must then be a contagion rather than a cure.

Last October, the Acton Institute brought together twenty-five prominent clergy, theologians, economists, environmental scientists and policy experts to lay the intellectual groundwork for an environmental stewardship that attends both to the demands of human well being and flourishing and also the integrity of creation. Out of this meeting in West Cornwall, Connecticut came the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship , a short religious statement on the environment. It offers a scientifically sound, economically informed, and theologically coherent vision that stands in marked contrast to that being offered by the burgeoning eco-spirituality movement.

The Cornwall Declaration has already been signed by well over a hundred prominent religious leaders, including Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Dr. Charles W. Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things . Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders are also working with the Acton Institute to develop a series of monographs to more fully articulate the principles laid out in the Cornwall Declaration. Each monograph will draw from its own particular faith tradition and offer a theological as well as prudential course for the reader. Our hope is the Cornwall Declaration and supporting monographs will provide the foundation for a new movement in favor of environmental stewardship that need not come at the cost of our faith.

THE CORNWALL DECLARATION ON ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP

Next week many people will receive a mailing from the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship that asks them to sign the Cornwall Declaration and join the Environmental Stewardship Movement. We encourage you to consider signing the Cornwall Declaration. Your support of this noble defense of traditional faith and sound policy is essential to overcoming the efforts by radicals to take over our faith.