CHERRY HILL, NJ -- Standing next to my Dad under the watchful eyes of the sculpted Jesus I remembered well from childhood church services, I resolutely censored a mental curse. I hadn't attended Catholic mass regularly in years, and while I was embarrassed by my stumbling responses to some recently-reworded portions of the service, I was still absolutely certain of profanity's sacrilege during this particular Sunday hour.
Whenever I'm home for a visit, I'm reminded of religion's formative importance during a childhood that included attending weekly mass and religion classes, singing in the children's choir, and, later, lectoring during services.
Although my parents are very spiritual people, both are scientists by training and liberals by nature. Their beliefs often diverged from the Church's teachings when reason suggested a more logical alternative. Perhaps because my Dad is Lutheran, I never believed the Pope was infallible. As a family, we agreed that the Church shouldn’t refuse to distribute condoms that could slow the spread of AIDS in Africa. And my mother always bit back the urge to confront the Pro-Life campaigners that periodically fundraised after Sunday services.
For the most part, though, I identified myself as a Catholic.
That is, until I became acutely aware of the role of conservative Christianity in politics. Could I, now a young adult, stand with a religion whose conservative social tenets I more often rejected than accepted?
Probably not. And after leaving home for college, I found myself drifting farther and farther away from religious practice.
If anything, though, my spirituality grew stronger. I worked for a summer in the Pacific Northwest, finding new cathedrals atop glaciers and amid towering Sitka Spruce. I frequented New Jersey's cedar swamps and winter coastline when I needed a quiet respite to gain perspective. I realized that, whatever I might believe about the existence of God or the rightness of any one religion, the works of evolution would always inspire my sense of awe, leaving me with a sense of being encompassed, absorbed, by something mysterious, something greater than myself.
Simultaneously, I learned about the myriad threats human activity poses to the natural world. Some threats, like the production of smog or poisoning of waterways, are obvious -- and have been, to some extent, controlled. Others, though, are longer-term, and therefore harder to detect and address. And it’s these problems -- like climate change, ocean acidification, and nutrient pollution -- that will be left in the hands of our generation.
Back in the 1960s, a scientist named Lynn White argued that, in part, our penchant for environmental degradation stemmed from a sense of entitlement promoted by the very religions that shaped the Western world -- and shaped my own childhood. Christianity -- and its sister monotheistic religions -- set humankind apart from the rest of Creation, White wrote, authorizing us to exploit any and all of the Earth's resources that could be useful to us.
In a way, even traditional descriptions of environmental issues -- as negative human impacts on a world that is most “natural” in our absence -- promote this dichotomy. And by seeing ourselves as separate from the natural world, we both lose sight of the very natural biological drivers behind our behavior, and distance ourselves from the idea of living "in tune" with nature.
Perhaps, though, there may be something to that old Christian separation between man and beast. Biology is full of examples -- E. coli
on the Petri dish; lemmings on the tundra – in which organisms over-exploit their resources, leading to catastrophic population crashes. Depending on your reading of the data, humanity is on the brink of, or is already, exceeding sustainable consumption rates, though we have yet to hit our catastrophic breaking point. If being human means circumventing that crash by choosing
to scale back before we reach the point of no return, then I'm happy to draw the line between humans and "beasts".
So, too, are a growing number of Christian environmentalists. Sometimes led by local leaders like pastors and bishops, sometimes organized into national campaigns like the Evangelical Environmental Network, even members of the otherwise ultra-conservative Religious Right are citing biblical passages in which God charges humanity with stewardship over the planet. And the Christian bible is certainly not the only holy text to carry such a call.
As religious groups increasingly partner with environmental activists to call for action on climate change, biodiversity loss, and other global issues, I can't help but fantasize about a day when all 2.2 billion Christians take up their God-given mantle to protect the Earth. Not only could such a global phenomenon transform our hopes -- and fears -- about the future, but for me, it could also bring a reunion, on new ground, with a family from which I've long been estranged.