Caring for Creation Today: Dialogue, Debate and Discipleship

[1] At the beginning of our task force’s work on what became Caring for Creation I hoped that the result of our efforts would be a fundamentally theological statement on the environment. This was not a foregone conclusion. A serious treatment of ecological issues had to take into account scientific, technological, economic, and political realities as well as theological and ethical concerns. The gravity of earth’s environmental crisis could have led us to focus on problems and proposed solutions in a way that differed little from essentially secular studies of these matters.

[2] Fortunately, my initial hope was realized. While the statement looked at the actual condition of the environment in the real world and urged some specific actions, all of that was set in a matrix of reflection on Lutheran understandings of God’s creation, salvation, and hallowing of the world.1 Our scientific, political, and economic assessments of environmental issues may change (and today they are not identical with those of ten years ago), but Caring for Creation will have permanent value.

[3] Of course the ELCA has not been alone in this work. Our contacts with the Presbyterian Eco-Justice Task Force were helpful and the resources they had developed were helpful,2 and other mainline churches have made statements and taken actions for environmental stewardship.

[4] That is now ten years in the past. How do things look now? In some ways they seem worse than they did a decade ago, and therein lies a tale of special significance for our church. I would like to point out two important tasks for the church in the years ahead.

[5] Policies advocated by the present administration in Washington, and by leaders in Congress, have caused a great deal of concern to environmentalists. Proposals for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, weakening of clean air standards and modification of rules for logging in national forests (under the “Healthy Forests” rubric) followed abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. There is some irony in the fact that the Northwest Forest Plan, which was adopted at the time that the ELCA approved Caring for Creation, now seems at the tenth anniversary of that statement to be in danger.3

[6] Those who have a genuine concern for creation will, of course, not all have exactly the same views about the wisdom of each of these or other environmental matters, but the general pattern is disturbing. Attitudes seem very different than they did in 1970 when President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act.

[7] One reason for pursuing policies which damage the environment and deplete natural resources is obvious – short-term economic gain. This is a human, and not merely a capitalist, failing. (The environmental record of the former Soviet Union was dreadful.4) But in the United States the problem has to be addressed in a capitalist context. I’ll return to this issue shortly.

[8] What is of special interest in the present context is the religious background of these problematic attitudes toward the environment. President Bush is a Christian who wants to be known as a “compassionate conservative,” and other members of his administration and leaders in Congress are conservative Christians of various sorts. We can be happy that these leaders hold the Christian faith, but types of theology by which they have been influenced exhibit some serious defects, especially when it comes to environmental issues.5 Benefits for humanity and extraction of resources seem always to take precedence over the long-term welfare of the natural world. Some Christians not only minimize the need for environmental stewardship but are downright hostile to the environmental movement, seeing it as an expression of New Age paganism.6

[9] To some this will seem just another illustration of Lynn White’s well-known thesis that the idea of human “dominion” over the earth in Genesis 1:28 is largely to blame for the ecological crisis. There is a good deal of truth in this – we should emphasize that the problem arises out of the failure of Christians to reach an adequate theological understanding of what “dominion” should mean. But there are other aspects of the problem as well. Rejecting of biological evolution and maintaining a belief that the earth is only a few thousand (instead of a few billion) years old require that science be distorted, and this can play into the hands of those who want to believe that there is no environmental crisis.

[10] Over the past ten years Caring for Creation has helped to conscientize members of the ELCA about environmental stewardship, as statements by other Christian communities have done in those bodies. We should note in particular that there are strong statements from the Evangelical tradition about care for creation.7 But it’s clear that we have to do more than simply influence members of mainline churches.

[11] Some of our effort needs to be directed toward discussion with Christians who have been indifferent or hostile to environmental concerns. This would be a different type of ecumenical work from that which has had, as its long-term goal, the reunion of the churches. That ought to remain the larger context of such discussions, but there is some urgency about changing the attitudes of Christians who influence and make public policy.

[12] At the same time, the ELCA and other churches which have taken responsible environmental positions must continue to present those positions in the public arena. We must make it clear that they are positions grounded in fundamental Christian convictions about God and the world. And we should not hesitate to say that some popular religious beliefs, like the idea that God will always make sure we have the resources we want, no matter what we do, are sub-Christian.8

[13] This type of theological discussion and – to be blunt – polemic is necessary. At the same time, I believe the church has another important task. I already noted the powerful economic factors involved in the environmental crisis. While there is not a simple tradeoff between economic benefits and environmental protection, we have to be straightforward about the fact that care for creation will cost people something. That shouldn’t be surprising to Christians, who are called to be willing to lose their lives for the Christ’s sake. If that is the case then we certainly have to be willing to forego some profits for the sake of the world for which Christ died. “The cost of discipleship” is a phrase familiar to many people as the English title given to the Macmillan edition of Bohhoeffer’s Nachfolge. Christians need to realize that, in particular, there will be a cost of environmental discipleship.

End Notes

1 An abbreviated version of a theological background paper for Caring for Creation prepared by a sub-group composed of Peter Bakken, Diane Jacobson, George L. Murphy and Paul Santmire was published as “A Theological Basis for Earthcare” in Lutheran Forum 27.2, Pentecost 1993, 24.

2 Keeping and Healing the Creation (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], 1989).

3 A study by the Gifford Pinchot Task Force is available at

4 John Massey Stewart (ed.), The Soviet Environment (Cambridge, 1992).

5 Glenn Scherer, “Religious Wrong,” E Magazine XIV.3, May/June 2003, 35, is a political rather than a theological study but some of the religious ideas about the environment described here are alarming.

6 E.g., Constance Cumbey, Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow (Huntington House, 1983).

7 E.g., Fred Van Dyke et al., Redeeming Creation (InterVarsity, 1996).

8 Some ideas of this sort are cited in Scherer, “Religious Wrong,” p.37.