The New Religion of Environmentalism

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship academic institution, is one of America’s leading and most respected Christian intellectuals on matters of faith, culture, and politics. It’s interesting, then, that Mohler turned to a Buddhist scholar for insight into the modern environmental movement. He was inspired by Buddhist Stephen Asma’s article from the Chronicle of Higher Education to write about the religious nature of environmentalism.

I often hear the claim that environmentalism is a kind of new religion, usually from folks who are trying to disparage the movement.

I think it’s partly right. The human bent toward legalism, finger-pointing, self-righteousness and meddling finds its expression in various forms of fundamentalism, whether in churches, mosques, or environmental circles. Part of our sin nature is a desire to find some weapon to wield over others whom we deem less worthy than ourselves.

If you don’t believe there are environmental fundamentalists, try throwing way an aluminum can at a Sierra Club event. Or talking about the joys of Southern barbecue, or the happiness that comes with having three kids (or two, or more than none) in certain environmental circles. There can be a little venom in those green fangs. It can feel like a religion, with all its rules and finger-pointing.

But if our “critique” of environmentalism stops with its own finger-pointing and doesn’t provide a springboard for salty encounters with the world, we are missing a huge opportunity. It’s not enough to claim that environmentalism seems like a religion. We have to provide some answers for what to do about that.

After all, Jesus didn’t come to offer a new religion, or a new set of standards, or a new ethic. He came to offer himself–to us, and for us. Through his death on the cross, he offers us a restored relationship, first with our Creator, but also with our fellow man, and with the rest of Creation.

Thoughtful environmentalists are often racked by guilt, but so are non-environmentalists, who realize that in almost every dimension of life they don’t live up to their own standards, much less the standards of a holy and righteous God. Christians should be bold in proclaiming that the answers to today’s crises, whether political, social, moral, or environmental, are not found in Law but in Grace.

It’s no surprise that folks outside the church who perceive a crisis would want to find religious answers to it. The shame is that most Christians don’t even have a vocabulary for talking about the environment in Christian terms. Letting a Biblical worldview infuse our consciousness would allow us to cultivate conversations about how God’s grace operates in every sphere of life.

(1) God’s common grace operates to reveal his awesome power and divine nature through the created order (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19). Why do we fail to use this gracious revelation in our communications with environmentalists? I think part of the reason is that we Christans have failed to allow ourselves to encounter the incredible witness of Creation–we’re committed indoorsmen. Environmentalists may know more of the awesome nature of God than Christians do in this regard. If we aren’t humble enough to admit this, we won’t be very good at pointing people to Jesus.

(2) God’s common grace provides for our needs through the operation of the earth’s ecosystems. We may mouth the words about the rain falling on the just and the unjust, and the sun rising on the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45), but we too often leave rigorous learning about the operation and management of the planet to secular scientists and secular environmentalists. Because so few churches teach about this, we find ourselves unable to provide answers to secularists who understand something of how the world works, and want to offer thanks to someone or some thing. This is a travesty.

(3) God’s common grace restrains evil in the world, often through the hand of civil governments (Romans 13). Yet it is environmentalists who often have a better diagnosis of evil in the world, of how misuse and mistreatment of creation affects innocent people through pollution or wasteful resource use. They don’t usually find support in the church, especially in the evangelical church. Rather, they too often find Christians denying the very possibility of environmental problems through unsound prooftexting. And they find an anti-government, anti-regulatory streak that verges on rejecting the role of civil governments in the restraint of evil.

(4) Finally, and most to the point, God’s common grace operates through the human conscience, convicting the world of sin. Paul writes, “they [the Gentiles] show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14-15; NASB). Isn’t this guilty conscience what Asma and Mohler are writing about?

It’s one thing for a Buddhist to complain about the operation of the conscience, but it is quite another for one of America’s best living theologians to seem to lament the operation of the conscience in non-Christians.

If people are convicted about their waste, their poor stewardship, their ignorance of the side-effects of their actions, shouldn’t we praise God for his grace by which this occurs, and point people to the answer offered by Jesus’ life and death on the cross? Awareness of sin is something we can share with the rest of the world; the disorder wreaked on the world by human ignorance is perceptible even to those outside the faith, and we can use this as common ground to communicate the gospel and to work for the common good.

God’s special grace, redeeming, sanctifying, and glorifying those who put their trust in Jesus, is the ultimate answer to today’s environmental crises. But we do a disservice to God, and to those he died to save, if we don’t use people’s awareness of creation and the disorder they find in it and in their own lives, to communicate the whole gospel story.

3 thoughts on “The New Religion of Environmentalism

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