There must be a change of heart and a new commitment to Care for Creation if we are to address humanity’s impact on the global environment, speakers told Mercer’s Caring for Creation conference, held Oct. 29-31 on the Macon campus. There must be comprehensive efforts to sway the evangelical Christian community in the United States, as well as individual efforts to further environmental stewardship in this country and around the world.
In his welcome to conference attendees, Mercer President William D. Underwood referenced an analogy taken from a Time magazine cover article, “God vs. Science.”
“It was as though Time was describing a heavy-weight prize fight between two committed opponents,” Underwood said. “There is equal arrogance on both of these extremes. Implicit in this conference is the idea that faith and science need not be in conflict. On the contrary, faith and science represent two ways of knowing and understanding. They can and should work hand-in-hand, as the title of this conference, Caring for Creation: A Scientific and Theological Response, suggests. What can result from this conference is a powerful call to action.”
Throughout the conference, which was co-sponsored by Mercer and the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, speakers focused their messages on inspiring people of faith to engage with
science, and scientists to engage with the faithful – and for all people to change how they lived, so that others might simply live.
Mercer President William D. Underwood welcomes attendees to the Caring for Creation conference.
Sharon Astyk, a subsistence farmer and author who writes extensively about peak oil and ways to cope, told the audience during her session that we are often presented with two extreme versions of the future with regard to climate change. In the “Star Trek” version all of our problems have been addressed by technology and in the “Cylon” version there has been an apocalypse that has nearly destroyed the Earth. Those are not the only choices, Astyk contends, and we must change our culture to embrace what is important, reducing our energy consumption while we have a choice, and thereby improving rather than diminishing our quality of life.
“We use our energy so lavishly,” Astyk said. Americans need to learn to make better energy choices and to share, to go back to the time of our great grandmothers, when we used one-eighteenth the energy of today, while maintaining a strong standard of living.
Our communities are now sprawling and our homes are twice the size they were just 50 years ago, up to 850 square feet per person. “850 square feet per person is not needed. Get a roommate,” said Astyk. Carpooling, using public transportation or bicycling also provide ways to lower our energy consumption day to day.
People can also be involved in their food in ways they have not previously. Much of agriculture today, including our meat consumption, is damaging, inefficient and fossil-fuel intensive. By localizing our food choices, we can gain stability in price, improve quality and reduce energy use. For those in cities, community gardens are a viable solution, and if you have a back yard, just three chickens can produce all the eggs that the average family would need, as well as eat bugs from the garden. One goat can produce a quart of milk a day. “Everybody can do some of this,” Astyk said.
In addition to saving energy, growing your own food changes your relationship to it. When kids get to grow, pick and plant their food, their relationship with it is very different, said Astyk. “My son’s favorite food is broccoli,” she said.
Most of all, people must make the decision to do with less energy now, to adapt to it while it is not being forced upon them. “Most of low energy is not doing things; not buying things,” Astyk said. There is a sense of community in living a low-energy life and people are interested in doing their part. “There is no reason why you should have to do it alone,” she said.
In a plenary session titled “A Changing Climate” Dr. Judith Curry, a prominent climate scientist at Georgia Tech, discussed the significance of climate change and the effect that humans have on climate change. “We have taken carbon dioxide to levels we haven’t seen in half a million years,” Dr. Curry said.
Climate change is leading to rising atmospheric temperatures and rising sea levels. “The temperatures in the last 50 years are definitely warmer than anything in the last 2,000 years,” Dr. Curry said.
There are some certainties and some uncertainties in regards to the effects of global warming and increase in carbon dioxide emissions, but the climate models indicate that we will definitely see a change in the extremes – extreme storms and heat waves. “The extremes get worse,” Dr. Curry said.
These more frequent extremes have significant health impacts as well, noted Dr. Jeremy Hess of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Hess said that these climate disruptions will lead to significant health impacts, particularly on the poorest people on Earth. The increased frequency in extreme temperatures and precipitation – both from flooding and droughts – are already having a direct impact on human health in both developed and developing worlds.
The tragedies of these climatic disruptions fall squarely into ethical and religious imperatives. In a breakout session titled “the Spirituality of Creation Care,” Mercer assistant professor Dr. John Hintermaier noted that spirituality requires prayer, fasting and alms-giving, all aspects applicable to environmentalism, particularly in making wise decisions about personal consumption that might take from the poor – or disrupt their environment.
“Caring for creation is not just caring for the environment, but caring for people, too,” Dr. Hintermaier said. “The conviction of the notion of the title is that we are to fulfill the job we were supposed to do here on Earth.”
To encourage a change of heart among evangelical Christians in America, one of the groups most opposed to changing sentiments of caring for creation, Christians must be moved from a theology of “me” to a theology of “we,” suggested prominent evangelicals Dr. David P. Gushee, Mercer Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, and Jonathan Merritt, a faith and culture writer and author of the forthcoming book Green Like God.
Current American evangelical’s theological narratives are almost entirely personal “God and I,” Dr. Gushee noted. However, this must be expanded through a close examination and renewed theology of creation care. Christians must be persuaded to move from the current fall-redemption narrative of their personal faith, to a creation-fall-redemption narrative.
Using a fictional Billy Christian, a typical faithful, white evangelical Christian, Dr. Gushee highlighted the obstacle in moving Billy from his personal faith in Jesus and God to a more cosmic and holistic view of faith. “God’s redemptive purposes go beyond human beings. They extend to the whole created order,” Dr. Gushee said, and Billy must be swayed from his fall-redemption theology by the realization that “the God who made the whole world has intentions for the whole world.”
“We must help Billy transition to a social and global moral vision, not just a personal or interpersonal one,” Dr. Gushee said. “Maybe when the other theological work is done, Billy will come to see that what God is looking for in followers of Christ is a global kingdom-of-God vision, a vision of comprehensive love of neighbors and of self, a vision of doing unto others as we would have ourselves done by. And if you think about the world as it is, this is about more than being a nice person and being honest at work. It’s about caring that others can’t breathe clean air, can’t drink clean water, can’t eat safe food, and can’t feed their babies safe breast milk because we have been bad stewards of God’s creation. There is a whole tradition in Christianity that talks about the social demands involved, not just the personal demands involved, and we need to communicate this tradition to our good friend Billy Christian.”
Merritt began his quest to do just that while still in seminary, inspired by the realization that God’s Creation is a part of a general revelation, and the idea that the destruction of Creation was akin to tearing pages from God’s specific revelation, the Bible. Merritt had a change of heart. He began to change his habits, and felt called to change his faith. He worked with others to draft the “Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change.” The release of the document was followed immediately by strong denunciations from prominent Southern Baptists, as well as personal attacks, Merritt said. The criticism was stunning, he said, but it also confirmed that he was doing the work he was supposed to do.
Merritt has set out to examine the obstacles to creating a more creation-focused evangelical message, he said. Among the three most prominent barriers are misguided theology, a misinformed constituency and misplaced hope. A new generation of young evangelicals is realizing the paradoxes of the past, Merritt said, and taking these challenges head on. He encouraged the audience to take this challenge on as well.
“At the intersection of faith and facts we sit at the feet of a Green God who has placed the burden of action squarely on our shoulders,” Merritt said. “So don’t give in to the temptation to get angry or haughty. Stay humble, constantly confess the intellectual and theological arrogance in your heart, open up your mind to these conversations, rest assured that inside each of us, beginning with me, there is a bulbous cyst of egotism yet to be brought under the lance of God’s grace. Don’t become callous or bitter because of those who disagree with you. Don’t be discouraged. I can tell you because I’ve traveled around the country and talked to people about it. God is on the move, God’s people are on the move, transition is occurring, people are waking up to these issues, we are engaging them, and in some cases now leading these conversations.”