Church people often wonder why spiritual but not religious people (SBNRs) consider the church irrelevant. Here’s a recent experience that may help explain one of the reasons. I recently attended the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto. At one session, the Union of Concerned Scientists urged religious leaders to enlist congregations to become part of a world-wide effort to heal the earth. They gave many practical tips on how we can become part of the solution to climate instability.
Encouraged by their sensible suggestions, I approached three leaders in the area where I live to see if we could start a local effort to reduce our carbon footprint. One is a female pastor of a large church, the other is the female founder of a successful interfaith organization, and the third is a church-going male trustee for a well-funded city library system. I asked each if they could direct some of their organizational efforts toward educating people on climate change. I said I was willing to come and speak on this topic, or help in some other way. All answered the same: “Oh no, we don’t want to get involved in anything political!”
Have we become so prey to ideology that we shrink back from rescuing our earthly home? We can’t afford this distraction. We may have little more than a decade to avoid even more severe catastrophes than we are already seeing. We need a response akin to the dramatic effort made in the U.S. once Pearl Harbor was bombed. Whole industries were converted to the war effort. Children collected scrap metal. Home-makers planted “victory gardens.” Women became Rosie the Riveters. It was, no doubt, a difficult time – but people realized the severity of the situation and they acted. It was amazing how much they could accomplish when everyone pitched in.
Our crisis today is equally – or even more – severe than that posed by a world war. Yet most of us are trapped by fear, despair, or disbelief. As one Columbus, Ohio, newspaper columnist said, “A good portion of the U.S. populace lolls on the lido deck [of the Titanic]. Peering through their rose-colored sunglasses, they ask, ‘How can you worry about it being too warm when the daiquiris are frozen?’”
No matter how partisan we have become, the earth is not a political football. Christianity claims, instead, that the round and verdant globe we call home is given to us by God. The Bible is filled with images of an earth that blesses us, groans under our carelessness, and will be delighted when we finally wake up.
The SBNRs I encounter are universally in love with this earth.
The SBNRs I encounter are universally in love with this earth. They expect to have spiritual experiences there, rather than in religious buildings. They feel themselves part of the environment and want both it and them to be whole, healthy, and vibrant. They don’t worship the earth, but they see it as a place where ultimate reality can be encountered best. Their spirituality is very this-worldly and their understanding of transcendence is “horizontal.”
Most are concerned with environmental degradation. Many champion organic farming and try to buy locally sourced produce. They want things that are “natural” and healthy. Many read food labels closely and watch what they eat. Some reduce their meat intake or become vegan or vegetarian. Many enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking and biking. They worry about fracking and strip-mining, and they join environmental organizations as the Sierra Club.
But when religious leaders consider the growing SBNR phenomenon, they often focus on what SBNR spirituality lacks. It is true that SBNRs often lack a belief in more traditional understandings of divine transcendence, and don’t see the earth as God’s creation. It is accurate to observe that they lack a unifying center and a consistent set of beliefs. But by focusing on the deficits of SBNR spirituality, religious people often miss the urgent message inchoately indicated by SBNR interests. Is it surprising, then, when SBNRs see religion as irrelevant to their very real concerns?
It is irresponsible to sideline as “political” the very credible scientific reports that indicate humans are largely responsible both for climate change and for preventing further damage.
Religious leaders should not get distracted by worries about declining membership. They are still important influencers. It is irresponsible to sideline as “political” the very credible scientific reports that indicate humans are largely responsible both for climate change and for preventing further damage. Unfortunately, this attitude toward science is nothing new. Galileo’s findings, safer childbirth methods, vaccines, fluoridation of water, all were seen by many religious people as dangerous and against God’s ways. Many later changed their minds.
Christians believe that the earth belongs to God (Ps. 95:4-5). We are meant to be stewards, not rapists, of it. It is true that we await God’s restoration of the earth and of humans – a time when we “shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; (when) the mountains and hills …shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” But until then, we are instructed to take care of this gift. (Is. 55:12) The earth groans while we waste precious time. Saying “God won’t let this happen” – or rely on apocalyptic theological formulations that ignore earth care because the end is near, or because believers will be raptured before the ultimate catastrophe – sound foolish and callous to SBNRs.
A few years ago, the seminary where I teach converted much of our lovely but largely unused rural land into an organic farm, complete with hoop houses for winter growing, farm-to-table meals, free range chickens and earth-friendly methods. The rest of the campus was outfitted with geothermal heat, low energy motion sensitive lights, a windmill and solar panels.
We now offer internship programs where students learn to work the land and prepare healthy food. But they also study classical seminary courses like Bible, history, theology, and ethics. As they bring body, mind, and spirit together, they learn transcendence is both vertical (toward God) and horizontal (toward earth). I often speak with SBNRs outside the seminary. Whenever I mention this enterprise to them, I notice immediate excitement. Some want a tour, some decide to stay and study, many are impressed that a religious institution cares so deeply.
If a church can afford a new organ, how about solar panels and more trees around the building?
Churches can do some similar things to help the earth and to show SBNRs that we care about this God-given globe. If a church can afford a new organ, how about solar panels and more trees around the building? What about using Christian education classes to show how to reduce our carbon footprint? How about organizing a rally or an interfaith march for Earth Day? There are so many things religious people can do to show that we know “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.” (Ps. 24:1) In the meantime, we may also show SBNRs that religion is not irrelevant but, instead, a force for good – and that the loving care of God’s earth cannot be dismissed as just a political issue.