What motivates someone to care about the environment and conservation? Is it political ideology or commercial interests, something personal or a broader altruistic concern? Obviously, there can be as many reasons as the number of micro-organisms in a seasonal plankton bloom, but one motivator was recently brought to my attention that, frankly, I have not given much thought about: religion.
I received a copy of Beauty of the Lord, part of a four-volume paperback set of books on environmental theology, written by Richard Austin, a Presbyterian minister. This book - and indeed the entire series - tries to establish a Christian perspective on why we should appreciate and protect the environment. Through detailed biblical references, the author establishes a religious foundation for accepting our need and moral responsibility to be active conservationists.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I do not adhere to any form of organized religion. In fact, I believe that some of the tenants of Judeo-Christian dogma have contributed, perhaps subtly, to our current ecological crisis. For man to have dominion over the earth, I feel, has been subverted over centuries to mean to dominate, taking only for our personal gain - and we are now realizing the price to be paid.
Austin recognizes this viewpoint:
"In Western culture Christianity has been a major interpreter of life's meaning and purpose. Like other social institutions, though, our churches were not prepared for the change in perception of the earth. This lack of foresight has generated resentment among some who are frustrated by our society's sluggish response to this new reality and look for a scapegoat. In his famous essay, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,' Lynn White, Jr. claimed that the primary culprit of the contemporary crisis was the traditional Christian affirmation of the right of humanity to dominate nature. White's view is accepted widely, often uncritically, in the environment movement."
Rather than debate this issue, Austin lays out a path for re-orienting religious thinking, citing biblical passages that support the need for man to actively participate in preserving our natural resources. He makes the argument that man is not truly whole in a religious sense without an appreciation for nature.
"The Christian event of 'awakening' or 'conversion,' characteristic in the American religious tradition, may lead to a more creative personal identity; yet human identity is not complete without an affectionate relationship with nature and a sense of moral purpose that reaches beyond human culture to other life. Regard for nature may contribute to the moral beauty of our faith."
This volume from the four-volume set makes many references to Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian, and in other volumes Austin turns to John Muir and others for support. For myself, in reviewing the book as an agnostic - or to be contemporary and hip, as an adherent to a "personal spiritualism" - I found the book to be impressive (almost overwhelmingly detailed) in its position that a religious foundation exists for conservation.
And Austin brings a positive spin to a situation that often seems mired in doom and gloom: "Campaigns for environmental protection are often built on fear - fear of the disaster which will ensue if we do not, for example, control pollutants or protect genetic diversity. However, I believe that love for the earth is a stronger motive than fear. It is more likely to generate creative action, and it is more likely to persist through the long effort required for change."
I am not too particular as to what motivates a person to embrace conservation - the why is less important to me than the what, what is accomplished. I have said that industry will probably be pulled kicking and screaming until they realize a commercial incentive. And politicians may act for fear of retribution at the voting booth. So, if you are a person of religious faith and you are struggling with, or even just mildly curious, as to where your beliefs and nature intersect, I would suggest you take a look at this environmental theology series of books by Richard Austin.
"We have built our nest in the tree of life; now we must save the tree."
The books are available online individually or as a set at Creekside Press.