Environmentalism and My New Theological Path

Over the last several years, I’ve found myself becoming an increasingly motivated environmentalist. If you’ve read this blog or tracked my Facebook postings, you’ve noticed, perhaps, that I want to motivate you, also, to participate in preserving the environment. This appeal has primarily taken the form of pushing for “sustainability,” the idea that our current rate of consumption and specifically our carbon footprint cannot be sustained without increasing damage to the climate, meaning that we could face natural catastrophes.
Recently, however, I’ve been more deeply exploring my own internal workings in relation to the natural world. I have been discovering a surprisingly theological vision, connecting the significance of my personal encounters with nature with my Christian tradition, and as a result the dots are connecting in new ways for me.
Of course, the science of environmentalism and sustainability should be common sense to most people. Our current situation is akin to living in a small house with a chain smoker and not being concerned about what those thick clouds of second hand smoke will do to your lungs, or demanding that someone prove the causal connection between chain smoking the the lung cancer developing within. Unfortunately, carbon emissions, like nearly all efforts to protect the natural world is an “environmental issue.” As such, it is not an issue that most people are concerned about – not concerned enough to act, that is. Especially in the U.S., there is no political will to make substantive changes, and there are in fact a whole host of conservative Republicans actively working againstthe environment in favor of pollution and destruction, all in the name of free market capitalism. So, over the years, I’ve fallen into this category: I am “an environmentalist.” Or, in its more pejoritave term, “an environmentalist wacko.” That’s my label.I read a very profound piece of writing a few months back, on my train ride from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist in Orion Magazine (Jan/Feb 2012). Paul Kingsnorth, a lifelong environmentalist, talks about stepping away from the movement, frustrated by 1) the lack of substantive progress to save the environment and 2) disenchanted by his own lack of connection to his first love. The first point is self-evident. We, the masses do not care enough to demand that the environment be substantively protected, and our politicians cannot or will not lead. The second, however, was the main point of Kingsnorth’s article. It is personal. Subjective. Kingsnorth became an environmentalist because he believed that the beauty of nature was worth saving for its own sake. Something in the world called him.
That’s my story, also, when you get to my heart level. My life has been forever changed by the sandy dunes of lake Michigan, the stunning majesty of the Grand Canyon, the vast wilderness of Alaska, the stillness of the prairies, and the stark isolation of the deserts. I simply would not be who I am without them. I know this to be a categorical truth. They carved spaces within my soul that enlarged my capacity to feel and to love, and they cleared my mind to think with a lucidity and humility and did not know before. I could spend the rest of my lifetime sorting out the last decade of my life and pondering the gifts which has already been granted to me by the natural world.
My story mirrors Paul Kingsnorth’s story and a million other environmentalists. But it saddens me to have to say that. It is a tragedy that I have to consider myself “an environmentalist.” It is a spiritual disaster that such a term even exists, that those who love nature enough to fight for it must be given a separate category, separate from the concerns of the masses. What is worse is that my feelings and experiences make me “an environmentalist” and not a Christian. That is, I’d feel far more comfortable expressing my heart to a random group of environmentalists than I would to a random group of Christians. There are, to be sure, Christian environmentalists, and there always have been; but a person is just as likely to find a Christian who either stands against the environment or who simply doesn’t care.
At this point in my “environmentalist” journey, however, I’ve felt a different calling, for what might perhaps be a new path for me. Oddly, I’m embarking on what I must call a theological journey. My nights camped along the beaches of Lake Michigan, the scratches on my body as I pushed through the brush of Kodiak in search of raspberries, the day I hiked through those few remaining acres of Indiana swamp to see the nests of blue herons–these have been paths to God, cathedrals of prayer. I haven’t always seen it that way. Like many Christian children of the industrial world, no one taught me that nature was sacred and holy–theoretically, perhaps, but not that nature could move me in such a visceral way and completely recalibrate my life. I was never taken into the world and instructed in the ways of listening to the sound of God’s voice: “in the rustling grass, I see him pass.” I only sang that hymn, like other Christian children, within the walls of a church.
Politically speaking, I am an environmentalist, and so I oppose the kind of no-holds-barred, free market industrial capitalism that permits and encourages corporations and wealthy people to buy and destroy the natural world. I can’t pretend to neutral on this point. I must be political. I must oppose this evil. I must call it evil. But the vision is becoming theological for me: “the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth displays God’s handiwork.” Those who pollute the heavens and destroy the earth are not merely “free market capitalists” working to “expand the economy” and “create more jobs,” they are set against God’s world, destroying it because they do not see it as the purity of the gift of God given so that we might experience wonder and awe. Not a gift given even forus, but because it is the word of God, it is beautiful and worth fighting for. Because it is beautiful, it must be the word, and it is worth saving, even if no one appreciates it as the gift that it could be.
The word of God in nature speaks without a voice, says the Psalmist in Psalm 19. There is no place within creation where God does not speak to us. But what happens when we destroy creation itself? What happens when “creation” becomes limited to a state or national park, a place we drive an RV into every year or two, camp out for a few days of weinie roasts, and say, “Ah, wasn’t that nice. Just what I needed to help us unwind from a stressful year at the office”? I am not suggesting God cannot speak without creation, God speaks in the language of everyday life, in everthing. God speaks in everything because “God is love” and everything contains at least the trace of love. What I am suggesting is that in the absence of the natural world, one of God’s primary languages is lost. As one example, consider that we now lose the voice of God everday, because nearly 200 species of plant, insect, bird, or mammal go extinct, are silenced, every 24 hours, never to return.
I cannot stop my political action, on the contrary, I must invest more time in this arena. But I also want to understand my theological heritage, passed on through the Christian scriptures, the Christian tradition, and the writings of monks and mystics. This is, for me, a new motivation, a new link between faith and activism, the link being something deeply spiritual, embedded within the writings of those who have followed Jesus Christ and listened to the trees.
That’s my newfound path. It excites and motivates me. But what about Paul Kingsnorth? Sure, I might feel a new sense of motivation. Rah. Rah. Good for me. But Kingsworth’s response and the response of other environmentalists make ask an important question: could this newfound theological path of mine possibly have any impact on our world to make any practical difference, to stop the “mass extinction of life,” or cease the panic that drives society to take more risks in drilling and hydrofracking? 
Since this vision is theological and Christian, I have to limit my scope to Christians and ask the question of them. Can this theological vision inspire at least my fellow Christian believers to listen to the natural world or to set aside their loyalties to industrial capitalism, for even a brief period of time? Would it be possible to move Christians to act to preserve the voice of God speaking in the wild spaces?

Being completely realistic, probably not. After all, I am certainly not the first to make this theological connection. The theological case for preserving the natural world–advocating to protect the words of God–this case has been made since the beginning of industrialization, for hundreds of years. It hasn’t worked. In many significant ways, things are only getting worse. Secular conservationists like Paul Kingsnorth, mentioned above, are discouraged, discussing their failures in article after article, with Kingsnorth himself saying he needs time away from all things related to “environmentalism” as a movement and expressing antagonism to “sustainability” movements, seeing them as merely consumerism with a shiny green label.

My guess is that Kingsnorth and other environmentalists hear the voice of God in a similar way that I do, regardless of whether they have religious affiliation. Psalm 19 merely says that God is speaking in and through the natural world. Anyone can listen, regardless of creed.

Personally, at this point in my life, my path is different from Kingsnorth’s, but not because I am more hopeful. I share the same realistic pessimism. Rather, my path is different from Kingsnorth’s because my sense is this: I don’t know if it is my business to know whether or not the world will change. God knows that I’m not here to judge Paul Kingsnorth, because he has done more to preserve God’s word than I may ever do. He has laid his body and soul on the line for God’s creation, and I sympathize with how his commitment and dedication could lead to burnout and deep fatigue.

At this point, although I do not necessarily believe that the world will change anytime soon, I resonate with a different voice, the voice of the prophets in the Christian tradition. It is certainly self-aggrandizing of me to make this connection, and I may sound even melodramatic, perhaps even cliche in making this comparison. Bear with me. I am inspired by the prophets because they weep.

I feel something in my gut when I see landscapes being destroyed. Until recent days, I’ve not paid this feeling too much attention, but now I know it is because God’s voice is being silenced, the voice that has helped heal me. It hurts my heart to see the world destroyed because this is happening all over, and it will continue to happen, and there’s nothing I can do right now, at this moment, to stop it. I suspect Kingsnorth feels the same way.

What if developers had mined the Grand Canyon? What if in years gone by, they had turned the beaches of Lake Michigan into resorts for wealthy patrons? What if they develop technology to mine, drill, and hydrofrack the entire state of Alaska?

I also cry. Real tears. Like the prophets, there is nothing I can do. Or so it seems. Like the prophets, like Paul Kingsnorth, I sometimes see the cycle of the world spiraling downward toward apocalypse, toward not only a world without God’s voice in nature but a world where we have to reap extreme natural consequences for consumeristic avarice and apathy.

The prophets, however, were not motivated solely by whether or not they could change the hearts of the people, although they tried with everything in them to alter their people’s perspective. The prophets must have stuck with it to the end because of love. “Love never comes to an end,” as the Apostle Paul writes. As such, it continues to motivate, regardless of the outcome. This, I think, is the deeper point I want to get at in this post, why I risk sounding melodrama or cliche. Love is not melodramatic because it cannot be reduced to emotional response. It is never other than emotional, but it is not only an emotion.

I imagine the prophets quit sometimes. Maybe there are countless would-be prophets who just never came back. Most of the ones we read of certainly wanted to quit. Moses wanted to quit before he had even started. I don’t want to pretend that I would never quit, either, overwhelmed, not merely by the destruction to the environment, but also by the nearly 1 billion people who, at this moment, are hungry, starving or undernourished. And by a million more sad truths about the world. Still, at this point, I have to go deeper into these sad things, deeper into them because I am falling deeper in love with God’s world and its people. This is the theological turn, the sense of newness in my path.

I also know that the voice of God in the natural world can bring healing, if people will listen to it, and this healing only comes by the experience of directly listening. There is nothing I can do, nothing I can say or write, that will subsitute for directly hearing God’s word. That is the way it has always been, and until people hear it for themselves, it is difficult to imagine that significant change will occur.

The words of God in the trees, the oceans, the wind, the song birds, the moss covered Sitka spruce, the dunes of Lake Michigan–they call us out of the world so that we can return from it healed and as healers. This is the theological vision.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

11 thoughts on “Environmentalism and My New Theological Path”

  1. Sometimes I feel like you’re really hard on Christians. Keep in mind that there are a lot of people saying they’re Christians and not acting like one. I’m not God, so I can’t judge whether they are or not, but I have some wonderful Christians who embrace this God-given home of ours and bask in the awesome beauty of it. There are some really great Christian songs that show how much this beautiful world means to us. I love “This is My Father’s World” and the song below is one of the best-loved of all Christians.

    O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
    Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
    I see the stars; I hear the rolling thunder;
    Thy power throughout the universe displayed!

    When through the woods and forest glades I wander
    And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
    Then I look down from lofty mountain’s grandeur
    And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze;

    And when I think that God – His son not sparing-
    sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in!
    That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing-
    He bled and died to take away my sin!

    Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee!
    How great Thou art!
    How GREAT thou art!
    Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee!
    How great Thou art!
    How great Thou art!


  2. Hi Joy,

    Thanks for reading my post. I appreciate it so much.

    Yes. It is true that I’m hard on Christians. And if I overstep, if I’m inappropriate, I would apologize. I would love to take it all back, quite frankly. The reality as I see it, however, is that there are many Christians who do not want to protect the natural world. They are eager to support politicians who will strip away protections and allow companies to drill or frack or mine or whatever else with no virtually no accountability. Also, while there may be Christians who love the natural world and see God in the natural world, they do not connect the dots and see the natural world as something that desperately needs to be protected. In other words, they do not want to be considered “environmentalist extremists” nor do they think there is a need to protect the environment. I sense this comes from the view that “the free market” will always magically work things out.

    Also, isn’t it fair to say that the Republican Party, to which many many Christians either belong to or vote regularly for–haven’t all Republicans candidates denied that there is human caused global warming? Haven’t they all committed to drill as much as possible? To roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations (which are already quite flimsy)?

    There are certainly Christians who are active in trying to protect the environment, but I think they are a minority. Do you think that will change? Anytime soon?

    I’m certainly open to being corrected in my analysis, and I am also deeply appreciative that you took the time to read these thoughts of mine, which I hope have come from a deeply sincere place within me.


  3. Hi Jon,
    Really liked this post! I think i can agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote, and unfortunately the parts about not expecting change soon. It is a bit discouraging. I think i have always felt some connection with the ocean, and since meeting Julia have felt more of a connection with the terrestrial environment as well. I think you are right in going after Christians the way you do– there are plenty who are ‘really christians’ but don’t make the connections you make here: The earth being a gift from God we should protect. Many also dont make the connection between environmental concerns and human concerns and how closely related these two are


    1. Thanks, Ryan. For reading through my post. It is true that we live in an era where we do not connect the dots and realize that harming the environment harms humans. We simply do not realize the power that industrialization has granted us. For example, there was an argument being floated around by anti-environmentalist conservatives a while back that environmentalists were arrogant to think that humans could cause climate change. Actually it really isn’t an argument, but it serves to illustrate the point that people not only fail to connect the dots but also sometimes condemn those who do via a strange twist of (il)logic.

      So, yeah. Lots of dots not being connected. I think for me, it is important to continue to realize that the peace and joy that comes to me via nature (via God) is important to protect, because when it is destroyed, in some cases, that habitat (or that species of plant/animal) will never return.

      Thanks again, Ryan, for reading and for commenting.


    2. Apropos: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/the-social-science-explaining-why-more-climate-science-hasnt-led-to-greenhouse-action/?smid=tw-share&_r=0

      The article discusses the social science behind the disparity between us realizing what we’re doing and why we are not acting on it. And while this can be discouraging, it is helpful (I think) to keep in mind as a basis for understanding. After all, it was <100 years ago that we thought we could put a bunch of mercury into people as magical cures. We're (collectively) still pretty ignorant about stuff we do.


  4. Farmers versus the environment in the latest farm subsidy bill:

    Every five years or so, Congress promises a new, improved farm bill that will end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help small farmers and small towns. But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayers dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America.

    The new five-year farm bill that could hit the Senate floor as early as this week promises more of the same — excessively generous handouts, combined with a serious erosion of environmental protections…

    Beyond enshrining that status quo, the bill seriously threatens the environment. Because the committee insisted on generous insurance subsidies, it did not meet the reductions required by the 2011 Budget Control Act even after cutting the direct payments. So it trimmed $6 billion over 10 years from environmental programs, chiefly the Conservation Reserve Program, which rewards farmers for converting erodible farmland to grass and other vegetation. However flawed, the old subsidy programs required farmers to act as responsible stewards of the land — promising, among other things, not to drain wetlands. The crop insurance subsidies impose no such obligations.

    Enriched by high prices (at least for now), cosseted by inexpensive insurance, relieved of their environmental obligations, farmers could well be inclined to start planting from fence line to fence line. That would be a severe blow to the American landscape.

    – from this NYTimes article.


  5. In putting up the prior link I forgot the purpose of this post: “Since this vision is theological and Christian, I have to limit my scope to Christians and ask the question of them.” So feel free to delete the comment, Jon, since it doesn’t really fit here.


    1. Not all. For one thing, I would never delete one of you comments. For another, your article illustrates the consequences of the theology of dominance and destruction that competes with the theology I outlined in this post.

      It was only within the last few months that Rick Santorum, speaking the perspective of a significant number of conservatives (so-called “conservatives” though when it comes to the environment, it is hard to see what they are conserving), S said that Obama held to a “phony theology,” not a theology of the Bible. Now Obama is no environmentalist. Not too long ago he backed off of his promise to put into place more regulations for cleaner air. So, if Obama is a radical environmentalist, what might that tell us about Santorum?

      Following a conveniently capitalist reading of Genesis, modern Christendom has justified a reducing the natural world to an objective, non living, non feeling, resource. Even many sympathetic to “sustainability” are primarily motivated to conserve the natural world for fear that we will run out of resources. Those like myself, who believe that nature should be preserved for nature’s own sake (and not merely for human consumption) are on the political fringe. Still, I find most people respond positively to a positive vision of the natural world. Its part of our multiple personality complex. People might support Santorum’s polarizing, fearful rhetoric during an election year, but they still appreciate a cool breeze on their summer porch, they work gardens, and take vacations to relax in nature. I like to think that an environmental theology of cooperation and communion appeals more to “the better angels of our nature” rather than to our tribal instincts of fear of the other. The farm politics you mention seem to me to be the obvious consequences of the latter theology.


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