Stagnancy; or, Cleaning the Closet of Christianity
Perhaps you’ve noticed it in the news or in print media: Earth is changing, or maybe it’s weeping, or maybe it’s mourning. However you slice it, the consistency of the oceans, the dry lands, the very climate–all of it–is entering a new geological age. But Christianity, or mainstream Christianity, is remaining relatively stagnate.
Stagnancy, especially in aquatic terms, implies that there is no flow, which results in an unpleasant smell. Christianity and its inability to help the larger culture think through global climate change, is mephitic. But there is an opportunity here to get rid of mothball-ridden Christianity and replace it with one that, as Larry Rasmussen would say, brings about an Earth-honoring faith.
The very first pages in the Bible tell a story of how the world came into being, invoking such beautiful language as firmament, domes, dry land, creeping things–words that help paint a patchwork of imagery in the mind’s eye. In Genesis 2 the story of Adam and Eve is recounted, and the mystery of the Garden of Eden takes shape. But lately I have been wondering if the Garden of Eden is perhaps the reality of the here and now.
During my life, I have not believed that the Garden of Eden existed; I did not believe it as historical fact. To me, and maybe only to me, it did not matter if the world was created in this way or that these two people, the first human prototypes, actually historically existed. The importance to me rested in the story of the Garden of Eden. And as I’ve gotten older I have come to see that the Garden of Eden is not some historical, faraway account, but that it is the world we currently live in the 21st century.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it,” says Psalm 21. The earth is certainly a wonder–a tapestry of animals, plants, rivers and streams, oceans and mountains, valleys and deserts. In 2011, it was estimated that there are roughly 8.7 million species, many of which we have yet to name or observe; and in that estimation are many that we will never come to know in all their wonder and complexity. According to the United Nation’s Environment Programme, scientists estimate that every day 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct, and that this is nearly 1,000 times the natural rate of extinction. Derek Tittensor, who is based at the UN Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Microsoft Research in Cambridge, United Kingdom, says that about 1.2 million–or 14%–of the world’s species have yet to be identified.
The Implications of the Anthropocene
And yet we are living during a period of massive species loss, now labeled the Anthropocene. While the Anthropocene sounds like a fun catch-phrase, making us sound educated, it is a term that reveals the foolishness of humanity: The Anthropocene is the geological era we currently live in, having recently pushed us out of the Holocene and into an era where humans have affected the entirety of creation. The Anthropocene was coined by the chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000 and reflects the incredible human activity of the last 250 years, or roughly around the early beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. During this time of mass consumption, the Anthropocene brings a sobering reality: We may very well be responsible for our own demise.
Religion, and faith more specifically, though, does not allow us to wallow only in despair. Religious traditions allow us to infuse our lives with meaning and soldier on in the face of difficulty. The increasing acidification of the oceans, shifting crop belts, and increasing wetness and aridity of regions are just a few of the increased difficulties in the oncoming decades.
With the change in global temperatures and the increased die-off of species, it seems to me that we might be getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden right now. For millennia, the planet has been rarely impacted by one species–yes, dinosaurs trampled the land and great fish swam the seas, but one species has not had such far-reaching impacts as Homo sapiens. We have literally created a new planet, a new world. And in this new world we have new knowledge; we have bit into the fruits of oil and coal from the modern Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and now we stand naked in a new way. In this new nakedness this idea from John Muir becomes even more true: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We, like the rest of the creatures in the modern Garden of Eden, are hitched to everything else in the universe–we depend upon corn and wheat, freshwater for drinking, stones for pigments for painting, cowhide for leather, and fish for Omega 3. We are not the stewards of God’s good creation, we are a part of it.
The Modern Garden
Stepping out of the Garden of Eden–because we have no other choice–might provide us with new eyes and new insights into how we are to better behave. We all, whether we use this term or not, are environmentalists. All of us depend on the basic needs of clean air, pure water, and safe food. It has been a hallmark of our species’ development that we have changed every environment we have encountered, and it seems to me that it might be time to dig deeper into religion and realize the last great, unchanged landscape is ourselves. It’s time to create clean hearts and renew right spirits for the commitment of addressing global climate change.
There is a story that Karl Barth is rumored to have said that a good preacher carries a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If we take this seriously, it means that the Bible can be a lens through which we see the rest of the world, it can help strengthen our resolve to change our foolish ways. So what might we do? We might learn to try to stay calm in an emergency, like Wendell Berry says. We might learn to lobby for new leadership, creating a political system that caps the amount of money contributed to political campaigns so that our leaders are representatives of the people and not corporations. It means that we would not drain aquifers for fracking in the Interior West and instead use water to better manage productive, small-scale farms. We might take conscious efforts to reduce our own amount of travel, opting to live well in our places rather than escaping from them.
With a new approach to Christianity we can redesign our lives to be regenerative. In this way we can help honor the bountiful biodiversity of God’s good creation and our place in it.