Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
Two hours among the giant sequoias of Yosemite, drinking in reams of information from a National Park ranger, will redefine anyone’s interpretation of “a walk in the woods.”
Stick a spade anywhere in the natural world and it comes up teeming with fascination. Did you know, for example, that sequoia bark is inches thick and its sponginess protects the trees from forest fires? That they are the most massive plants, and among the oldest living organisms, on earth? That their seed cones do not drop naturally but depend on gray squirrels to swarm their branches and nibble through the stems?
Any deep dive into nature impresses me with the marvelous variety and particularity of every living species. Each is immutably itself, yet feeds and is fed by its surroundings. Is nature locked in an unending struggle for resources, or does it participate in the great dance? Charles Darwin would have said the first; on lovely autumn days I lean toward the second. The Bible says both.
The day before our walk in the Mariposa Grove, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed world leaders at the UN special session on climate change. Over the last year Thunberg has become what cynics might call the conscience of the elite, speaking to humanity’s desecration of Mother Earth. She is the subject of TED talks and alarmist publications like Our House Is on Fire, a picture book designed to fill preschoolers with dread so they urge their mommies and daddies to do something.
Her emotional speech to the UN, laced with veiled threats like “We are watching you” made no clear prescription about what to do, besides cut global carbon emissions by more than 65 percent. That would send developing nations, only now beginning to see real improvement in their standard of living, spiraling back to the Dark Ages. But rational objections are bad form. The rejection of reason, the outright hysteria of climate activism reminds many observers of a neo-pagan religion.
Interestingly, one of the founding documents of radical environmentalism calls for just that. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” by Lynn White was published in the journal Science all the way back in 1967. As a historian, professor White blamed Christianity, “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” for its supposed view “that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”
The paper is carefully reasoned and makes some interesting connections, like the invention of deep-cutting steel-bladed plows in the Middle Ages reinforcing the view of man as conqueror. Ancient paganism saw every stream, tree, and hill as protected by guardian spirits, but “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
Having proved the Christian roots of clearcutting, surface mining, and industrial pollution, White issued a call to action that may have startled his scientific readers 50 years ago: “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”
The adoration of Greta, the apocalyptic predictions, the self-flagellation, all indicate religious fervor running wild. Take the Union Theological Seminary chapel service in September, in which students were encouraged to confess their ecological sins to an array of potted plants: “the beings who sustain us.” Forgive us, Mother Gaia!
Professor White wasn’t wrong about the religious roots of ecological sin, but he should have consulted his Bible for the full picture. There, over and over, nature rejoices in declaring God’s glory and power. Exploitation, like so much else, stems from the great human sin of refusing to participate in that glorification project and instead wresting glory for ourselves. Creation does indeed groan for our sins (Romans 8:19ff.), but it also anticipates the full redemption, in all its glorious physicality, of Adam’s kin.
Redemption won’t come from 65 percent fewer carbon emissions, or 35 percent fewer people, or any program that diminishes humans in order to elevate houseplants. We are linked together, humanity and nature, and God has bigger, better plans for both of us.