"The World" and Everything in It
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Only after the last tree's cut
And the last river poisoned
Only after the last fish is caught
Will you find that money cannot be eaten
---lyrics from the song "Reclamation," by the metalcore band Lamb of God
The first time I heard a Christian say that something was "of the world,” I was fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school, and a member of a Christian youth group. During one of our meetings, one of the adult leaders was trying to make the point that the music we listened to was morally and spiritually corrupt. The year was 1981, and the music in question was hard rock---Pink Floyd, Styx, Kansas, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin.
According to our youth group leader, our music was of the world?
Which world was he talking about, I wondered? There is only one world, and we all live in it. One rock hurtling through space. But I caught on quickly: "The World" was a code word for everything that causes temptation and sin--your body, your appetites, your sex, your music, "the culture." If you were a Christian---this kind of Christian---The World was a sensaround temptation chamber. Temptation to sin. Temptation to turn away from God and His commandments. Temptation to focus on selfish pursuits at the expense of the Christian community. That year, I was surrounded by evangelical, born again, and Pentecostalist Christians. Christianity was enjoying a renaissance among young people. I knew this because several ad hoc prayer groups had sprung up in my high school. Students were meeting before the first period bell in empty classrooms to read the Bible, pray, and discuss their spiritual lives. It was secretive and vaguely illicit, because everyone knew that public prayer in school was a big taboo. Born again preachers were on the radio late at night and on TV Saturday mornings, pumping out their mesmerizing verbal cadences and blazing sermons. Closer to home, there was a “charismatic renewal” underway in the small suburban New Jersey Catholic church where my family attended Mass every Sunday morning, splitting our church community between the larger group of traditional suburban Catholics and a new group that wanted to return the entire Catholic Church to the First Century, when Jesus’ followers spoke in tongues, healed the sick, and cast out demons. As a spiritually open and intellectually curious young person, I listened carefully to all of it, taking it in, trying to decide what to think and how to respond. What I saw and heard was a strange brew of magical thinking, apocalyptic longing, interwoven conspiracy theories, and biblical passages thrown up to ward off the modern world. Christians would talk longingly about the End Times and speculate about the signs of the Apocalypse. Sometimes I could feel the grievance of perceived persecution and social ostracism embedded in this longing. I once heard a girl my age say that when the Rapture came, she would laugh at the people who had mocked her for being a Christian as she floated up towards heaven (I remember thinking at the time that this attitude was the antithesis of everything that Jesus actually taught his followers in the Gospels). When I was older, my spiritual journey would show me the value of "being present,” but at that time in my life, the most fervently spiritual people I knew were born agains, and they were not living in the present. Their focus toggled between nostalgia for a past that never was and yearning for a terrifying future that sounding like a verse plucked from a Black Sabbath song.
At fifteen, I lacked the life experience or the intellectual development to contextualize any of these experiences. They passed through me--or I through them--on my way to other spiritual pursuits. In my 20s and early 30s, I embraced an open-ended religious pluralism. I was eager to learn what others believed, eager to accept difference, as if difference itself was an overarching value that can mitigate the damage done by any single religious tradition. I earned an M.A. in Jewish-Christian Studies. I studied the world's mystical traditions. I worked with a spiritual director for nine years, beginning in the Catholic Church but then branching off into Buddhism and Taoism. I practiced meditation regularly for nearly a decade. My journey took me far afield of the Catholicism of my youth. Now in my 50s, having travelled further still, I am far better equipped to analyze my teenage encounter with evangelical Christianity.
Of the World. As I turn this phrase over in my mind, I am shocked by the audacity of it. To speak it with a straight face is at once a staggering act of imagination and a steep plunge into self delusion. I can see now that some Christians were trying to create an alternate reality--a community inside of a bubble of rarified air---and then banish from it every form of impurity and corruption. But of course, no such banishment is possible. Humanity is inexorably tied to this planet and each of us to each other, all of us breathing the same air and sharing the same cosmic fate. To live in denial of these truths is a sin against humanity itself.
What happens to a society when so many people blithely accept the theology of a fallen world, believing that the body is corrupt and transitory and the soul will live forever; that the Earth itself is a spiritually dangerous weigh station on the way to an eternity somewhere else; that the ultimate fate of this planet is to be destroyed in a battle between good and evil, hopefully sooner than later? While I take a few minutes to contemplate these questions, the planet on which I live continues to hurtle towards an unrecoverable environmental abyss. This reality does not square with the evangelical "Apocalypse" of angels blowing trumpets and Four Horseman and stars falling from the sky, a vision conjured up 2,000 years ago by a lonely Christian living in exile who spent many hours staring at shadows on a cave wall. No, the lived reality of our species suggests another finale to the human story---one that ends with rising oceans, catastrophic storms, deadly heat waves, and coastal cities inundated as the cost of continuing to pump carbon into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.
I choose neither planetary fate as inevitable, but I know that the latter one is at least possible.
It is difficult to pinpoint when American society took the ideological wrong turn that led us to the 2018 Camp Fire and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Can we heap more blame on the already often-vilified Puritans who thought the new continent was a "howling wilderness," demonic and full of spiritual danger, or was the die cast later by the European and Euro-American wars of physical and cultural extermination against Native peoples, who lived lives that were far more integrated into the biosphere than ours? Was it our failure to learn the right lessons from the land itself? Do we simply blame capitalism and call it a day?
Certainly we cannot blame Christianity writ large. Many people who call themselves followers of Christ are also fervent lovers of Creation; some are passionately committed to environmental causes. Neither can we condemn the Bible outright as an anti-environmental text. Poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry has written in "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" defending the Bible as a proto-environmental text. "The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world," he observes. "We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not."
I am willing to assign some blame to the evangelical religious imagination, which has penetrated the culture much further afield than its church congregations. A study conducted in 2014 by the Public Religion Research Institute reports that nearly half of Americans and 77% of evangelicals believe that recent severe natural disasters are a sign of the biblical end times. A 2006 Pew Research study reported that one fifth of Americans believe that Jesus will return during their lifetime. The religious pluralist in me wants to believe that these beliefs do not necessarily desensitize a person to species extinction and global warming, but I also know better.
There is plentiful evidence that evangelicals as a group are more callous towards the environment. In an article presenting their research into the reasons why evangelicals oppose spending on environmental protection, sociologists Philip Schwadel and Erik Johnson cite at least seven other major studies on the subject when they write:
Evangelical Protestants are less likely than other Americans to practice environmentally conscious behaviors, to express a willingness to sacrifice for the environment, to attribute climate change to human actions...to worry about the consequences of climate change... [and] are less likely than other Americans to support spending to protect and improve the environment.
They specifically call out biblical literalism as a cause.
Researchers who study the environmental attitudes of evangelicals have encountered difficulty as they try to isolate the religious beliefs underpinning these attitudes. In a 1993 article published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Andrew Greeley called the link between religion and environmental attitudes "spurious." Biblical literalists are more likely to oppose environmental reforms, he said, but once you adjust for their likely political conservatism and other factors, their attitudes are consistent with other religious groups. This finding seems to be supported by a 2015 Pew Research Center study that says white evangelical Protestants are less likely than other religionists to support the claim that the planet is warming because of human activity, but political party identification, race, and ethnicity are more predictive of one's opinion about climate change than religious beliefs.
Nevertheless, something in the confluence of religion, political affiliation, and cultural identity makes many evangelicals recoil at the idea of protecting the environment. A 2012 study in Political Research Quarterly assessed the reasoning behind evangelical callousness towards the fate of the planet. "End-times believers might think a little bit like actuaries," the authors suggest. "But instead of calculating the life expectancy of individuals, they calculate it for the entire planet. And they calculate that the planetary life expectancy will be much shorter than do nonbelievers." Former missionary and ex-Christian William Bradford Nichols states the problem more bluntly in his piece in The Humanist, "What's Really Behind Evangelical's Climate Denial":
"I thought I had insider information about the end of the world," he says, "and it had nothing to do with climate change."
My religious pluralism remains intact after all these years, but I am no longer convinced that a healthy diversity of beliefs alone will necessarily produce a good outcome for the future of the human race. Christians of all kinds will have to decide which side they stand on: Who will be allies in the fight to save this planet from the environmental Apocalypse? Who is standing in the way?