The following excerpt is from the Concordia Journal (Summer 2010, pp. 220-233)
So, why have conservative Christians been skeptical about embracing environmental issues, and become much less active in supporting measures designed to lessen our negative impact upon the earth? … There might be two reasons why many hesitate to embrace environmental causes.
The first is political. Environmental issues are often framed as a debate between liberals and conservatives … In the process they become debates about the benefits or dangers of big government verses big corporations. …
The second reason might be the fear that environmentalism borders on being a kind of religion itself. In April 22, 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial by Paul Rubin (“Environmentalism as Religion”) argued precisely that point, especially with the way it is promoted on college campuses (in his case, Rutgers University). Rubin noted that environmentalism provides people with an identity (defining themselves as Green rather than Christian or Jewish), has its own holy days (Earth Day), and its own food regulations (organic). It has no temples of churches but does have sacred structures (universities), and shrines (recycling bins), and its own rituals. It also proselytizes and will treat others as sinners if they don’t recycle, etc. There is some truth to this. Environmentalism can lead to a kind of secular piety that can become pietistic and legalistic.
But we should not that environmentalism is not alone in becoming a form of religion that is adopted and practiced by people. Consumerism can also (and probably more frequently) become a religion itself. It provides people with identity (I shop therefore I am. I am what I buy). It has its own cathedrals (shopping malls), its own rituals (getting up early on sales days), its own holy days (“black Friday”), and its promises of utopia (leisure and pleasure). It has priests telling you what to wear (fashion designers and magazines) and its evangelists (sales people in commercials). It has a form of piety in terms of the way one looks and dresses. It also has its own form of fellowship by virtue of where one shops and the brands one purchases. Indeed, others may well exclude someone from their company if that person doesn’t have the right clothing with the right designer label.
So it is not as if environmentalism is the only activity that can become religion for people. The problem is not environmentalism or for that matter, consumerism. The problem is idolatry. The genius of Luther’s insight into the first commandment lies in his insight into the nature of our creaturely existence. As human creatures we need something on which to center our lives. If it is not the creator then it will be the creature. Of course, the doctrine of creation provides the basis for affirming the distinction between the creator and creature. Without the creator, one is only left with the creation. The answer is not to ignore or reject environmental concerns because they can lead to pantheism, but to locate them within the Christian story and the Christian vision of life as God created it.
Next week: Part 2 – “Creation within the Christian Story”