'Green Awakenings' and Missing the Point of God's Story
A booklet recently came my way, distributed through the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Titled Green Awakenings, the booklet offers a report from “Renewal”—a movement of “students caring for creation.” Introduced as “stories of stewardship and sustainability” from Christian colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada, Green Awakenings celebrates the quickly growing attention to creation care among the rising generation of Christian students. Before peering at this booklet’s version of creation care in the light of the gospel, let me briefly and straightforwardly affirm the sincere efforts of students to deal responsibly with the God-given gift of the earth. Consider these activities, all described in the booklet: cleaning up local highways and waterways, finding creative uses for discarded clothes and paper products, creating and supporting local organic gardens, restoring prairies, conserving water and electricity, re-using landscape and kitchen organic waste products. . . there’s nothing wrong and a lot right about such stewardship of God’s creation. As one who interacts regularly with college students, I wholeheartedly appreciate their efforts to undo some of the habits of waste and excessive consumption they have observed in the generation before them.
The language of this booklet, however, quickly reveals a view of these efforts as far more than a diligent, worshipful response offered by believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. These efforts are described on a number of pages as gospel enterprises in themselves. Here are four observations, in light of the biblical gospel, concerning the presentation of creation care in Green Awakenings.
(1) This booklet co-opts language of the biblical gospel to articulate the work of creation care.
In the foreword, for example, Matthew Sleeth—executive director of the Blessed Earth organization—celebrates Renewal as a fulfillment of “what God promises us about young people standing up for Christ in the last days.” The foreword begins with Acts 2:17, where Peter quotes the prophet Joel’s promise to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, so that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” It must give us pause, at the least, to see that here is matched the grand promise of Pentecost—the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ who empowers the church for gospel life and witness—with the fulfillment of environmental activism. Sleeth ends his foreword with exalted language: “I pray that God’s Holy Spirit continues to pour out upon this rising generation of leaders, and that they will turn to the Bible for. . . .” How might the Bible itself lead one to end that sentence? Perhaps with “the way to know the Lord Jesus Christ and make him known”? No, Sleeth ends his sentence with: “solutions to today’s most challenging environmental problems.”
In the same foreword, the language of mission and the Great Commission is recruited to describe not sharing the gospel but rather spreading the good news of creation care. It’s a “vital mission,” we read, which “millions more must join.” Today’s Christian young people are commended for not giving in to the temptation to “look at others and see their sins clearly, while remaining blind to our own.” This talk of sin sounds like the gospel—until it hits us that we’re talking about “sins” against the environment. Once we have dealt with “our own use of the earth,” we read, we “can then go into the world and share. . . .” How might the Bible lead one to end that phrase? We might think of the call to go into all the world to preach the gospel. No, the phrase concludes with: “our stories of a simpler life.” The Great Awakenings of gospel history are changing before our eyes into the “Green Awakenings” of environmental progress.
One advertisement in the back of this booklet quotes Genesis 2:15 as saying, “And the Lord God put the human in the garden of Eden to serve and protect it.” That’s an interesting translation. The English Standard Version reads: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Of the several significant differences, the one to which I would point is “serve” vs. “work.” The Hebrew word abad, according to the ESV Study Bible, connotes here the ideas of “preparing and tending.” That same word can be translated serve—particularly in a context like that of the priests serving in the temple. However, work is the more common and seemingly appropriate translation here, especially as that word resonates throughout these early chapters as, first God’s activity, and then man’s—in God’s image. To say that human beings are created to serve the earth suggests a different connotation indeed. That different connotation emerges in a second and related observation:
(2) Green Awakening’s articulation of renewal suggests, at times, a replacement of the transcendent God of the Bible with another god: the earth itself.
One senses indeed a bit of a pull to serve the earth with all one’s heart and soul and mind—as opposed to the Creator God who made the earth.
The term “spiritual retreat” might lead to expectations about closer communion with God through his Word; one university reports on a “spiritual retreat to an organic farm,” with a focus on “students’ connection to the land and each other” (42). The consistent goal seems less to hear or spread God’s voice and God’s Word, and more (as another university reports), to “work toward justice by giving a passionate voice to the planet and its people” (6). Is this simply good and lively imagery—after the manner of Psalm 19? I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether or not we hear the planet declaring the glory of the God of the Scriptures and pointing us into those Scriptures, that perfect law that revives the soul. I suppose it depends on whether or not we define “justice” biblically, i.e., flowing from the very nature of God himself. I suppose it finally depends on whether we believe that God is speaking through his creation, or that we creatures can give the planet its passionate voice, making it say what we think it should say. If we believe the latter, then, in aiming to serve the earth and give it a passionate voice, we are ultimately serving ourselves and listening to our own voices.
When our eyes are on the earth instead of on God who made the earth, our whole perspective changes. Think, for example, of our view of redemption—that work of God to make new his fallen creation, through the perfect life and death and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider one university’s report that, as its students work to create a community garden, “they are taking part in redeeming a broken relationship, between each other, creation, and God" (20). Such an emphasis on humanity’s part in redemption, in giving the planet a voice, and so forth, suggests the third observation:
(3) The renewal presented in this booklet defines the role of human beings differently from the way the Bible defines it.
On the one hand, the Renewal view would raise humanity to quite a high level, as the emphasis is consistently on what we can and must do to restore the planet—not on what God has done to redeem it. Multiple references to our current environmental “crisis” call for repeated human actions to avert this crisis. One wonders whether it would help simply to read just a bit farther in Genesis, to recall why and how all of creation is fallen. We human beings are not the solution; we are the problem—and not because we have misused creation, but because we have disobeyed our Creator.
On the other hand, this Renewal view lowers humanity, often failing to distinguish human beings in any way from the rest of creation. Page after page describes efforts of students to reclaim valuable waste products and to put them to good use—all this to “show how much we value God’s creation” (24). What shall we think when we see our college students devoting such a huge output of energy to save non-human waste, when there is no such movement in an organization like the CCCU to save human waste?
Let me explain. As many have noted, and as this booklet reflects, the environmental issue has become the cause du jour on college campuses in general. On Christian college campuses, this rise in popularity for the color green has corresponded with a plummet in concern about abortion. That hot issue belonged to the previous generation of believers, who argued it to death without solving it, and who also willfully participated in messing up the planet. That issue has cooled and been set aside—not because many Christian young people do not believe abortion is a grievous evil, but because their passion has been channeled to a seemingly more urgent and addressable need.
And they’re off to meet it—not looking back often enough to see the connection, to realize the significance of the transfer that has been made: from a concern to save human beings, to a concern to save the planet. Granted, the stated goal is to preserve future generations of human beings by saving the planet. However, ultimate goals often justify immediate mistakes. Does it make sense to preserve future generations, while at the same time killing them and throwing them away by the millions? This is the human waste to which I refer and which is receiving relatively little attention on college campuses.
At the center of the booklet, where one finds a chart which marks 45 different institutions of higher education in 18 different categories of stewardship and sustainability (recycling, gardening, earth day events, etc.), wouldn’t it be amazing to see a column reporting initiatives to save unborn babies? The point is that many students are being led by various shapers of the environmentalist agenda to value the preservation and potential of what is not human, as much as or even more than what is human. In fact, as we all know, many radical environmentalists view human beings as the problem to be eliminated so that the creation can flourish.
A biblical perspective sees human beings as the special creation of God, uniquely made in his image—fallen and broken, yes, but offered redemption through the Lord Jesus Christ. Creation care advocates often mention creation’s groaning, referencing Romans 8. However, not often enough do such references acknowledge that, according to Romans 8:19, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” Yes, all of creation will be made new, but the pinnacle of that renewal is found in those redeemed human beings who in Adam died but who in Christ have been made alive. Some current voices would almost seem to turn this truth on its head, urging Christians to believe the real story is all about the sons of God waiting with eager longing for the revealing of creation in all its perfected beauty. This glance toward the end of redemptive history leads to the final, summary observation:
(4) This articulation of Renewal skews the whole biblical story, from beginning to end—because it misses the central point.
These voices celebrate creation, but the central subject and actor in that first passage (even the first sentence) of the Bible is too quickly passed over, in favor of the beauties of his visible creation. A lack of emphasis on the personal God connects inevitably to a similar lack of emphasis on the persons of Adam and Eve as God’s special creations. In light of all this, it does not seem surprising to find this headline in a recent Wall Street Journal article: “Why God Did Not Create the Universe." Authors Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow are simply taking us to the logical conclusion of this train of thought—a train speeded by the influence of evolutionary theory, in which the emphasis lies on the material processes of the universe.
That train is perceived by many to be on a collision course, headed for that impending environmental crisis about which so many are warning the next generation. It makes perfect sense that a view looking back and focusing on the material aspect of creation should look ahead and focus on the material aspect of the end of the world. “The planet is in crisis,” cry the voices in this booklet, and we need to save it. The pressing future goal is that “the generation reached by the powerful ministry of Renewal will inherit the earth” (3) . . . that this new generation will “restore God’s creation” (3) . . . “that all God’s creatures, as well as future generations, can have a healthy environment in which to live” (51).
We might be led to think of the many instances in the Gospel of John in which Jesus points to visible material reality in order to connect it to invisible, spiritual reality—and of the many instances in which people don’t get the connection. “Sir, give me that water,” the Samaritan woman says. “Enter again into the womb and be born?” Nicodemus asks. “Give us this bread always,” demands the crowd for whom Jesus had multiplied the loaves. Jesus was revealing creation’s witness to the Creator, but the people couldn’t hear it. Jesus was revealing creation’s witness to himself, but the people couldn’t see him. Oh how we all must pray to have eyes to see him.
Ultimately, what is missing in a vision of renewal such as we find in Green Awakenings is a clear, openly stated understanding of the centrality of Jesus Christ. Such a vision can never clearly articulate the beginning of the story without the starting point of the second person of the Trinity as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. Such a vision can never clearly articulate the story’s climax of redemption without celebrating the Redeemer promised from the beginning, the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. Such a vision cannot conceive of the true crisis looming ahead, which is the coming of Jesus Christ to judge the world. That coming will indeed bring an environmental crisis, as “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). That coming will also bring the eternal realities of both the new heaven and earth . . . and hell.
The whole story of Scripture tells us what to do about this coming crisis. The biblical gospel, with Jesus Christ at the center, must be at the heart of everything we do—even at the heart of our loving care for the world God made and gave to us to fill and subdue and work, until Christ comes again. There are indeed young people who believe the biblical gospel and who aim to offer their environmental efforts as one of the many ways they serve the Creator God as his redeemed sons and daughters, all for Christ’s glory and for the advancement of his kingdom. As we communicate this gospel perspective to the next generation, may we communicate it clearly and biblically.
UPDATE: Kathleen Nielson considers the power of words and response to this article.