When longtime Biola science professor Rafe Payne first began speaking out four decades ago about caring for the earth’s environment, he thought he would have no trouble winning support from Christians.
After all, if any group of people would understand the need to curb pollution and to be wise with natural resources, he figured it would be those who believed in a God-given mandate to stewardship.
But as he brought his message of what he called “creation care” to churches and other Christian settings, the response was often less-than-enthusiastic. In the years since, as he has continued his own efforts to get people thinking about what it means to be a good steward of God’s creation, he has often been reminded that the issue he cares passionately about is not on the radar of many Christians.
“When I’ve asked my students, ‘How many of you have ever heard a stewardship sermon from the pulpit — not about giving a tithe — but caring for creation?’ very few ever raise their hands,” Payne said.
Lately, though, it appears that a change is underway. Several environmentally focused evangelical organizations have cropped up in recent years. High-profile evangelical groups have adopted major statements calling on Christians to champion biblical stewardship. And polling shows that more evangelicals are identifying the environment as a priority — though they remain less convinced as a whole than the rest of the population.
For Payne, any significant progress on this issue for Christians will have to involve leadership from the pulpit and from the seminaries and Christian colleges, he said, where students have a growing understanding of environmental stewardship — “that it’s not just about climate change, but Christians living responsibly and making wise, creation care choices.”
A Changing Climate
Over the past decade or so, global climate change has become a major concern across the world. But how — or whether — to attempt to counteract it has been the source of hotly contested political and economic debate.
In recent years, Christians — who have historically been skittish about environmental activism — have grown more vocal in the discussion.
Beginning in the early ’90s, several Christian organizations formed to speak out about environmental issues from perspectives of faith. In 1994, the Evangelical Environmental Network released the “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation,” calling for Christians to both recognize how they had degraded creation and proclaim that biblical faith “is essential to the solution of our ecological problems.” More recently, in February 2006, a coalition of 86 evangelical leaders spearheaded the Christians and Climate Initiative, producing a document that called on Christians “to come together with others of like mind to pray and to work to stop global warming.”
Other groups have taken different approaches to the issue. The interfaith Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation was formed with the support of James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson, chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries. This group also acknowledges global warming, but believes it to be a more natural — rather than human-caused — phenomenon that should be approached with caution. Among their arguments is the suggestion that mandated reductions in fossil-fuel use will result in skyrocketing gas prices and slower economic development in poor countries, creating a far worse situation than global warming might cause.
A recent shift on global warming within the large and influential Southern Baptist Convention is perhaps most symptomatic of the changing climate among evangelicals with regard to environmental concerns. In March 2008, a group of more than 250 prominent SBC members did an about-face on a resolution adopted the previous summer, which had urged Baptists to “proceed cautiously” in the global warming fight. In a new document, penned by 25-year-old seminary student Jonathan Merritt, the leaders said, “Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better. … The time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more.”
The SBC shift is but one example of how formerly skeptical Christians have increasingly joined the environmental conversation, often resulting in some rather unexpected alliances. Elsewhere, the National Association of Evangelicals recently teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency for its “Energy Star for Congregations” program. And former Vice President Al Gore has even managed to win endorsements for his nonprofit, The Alliance for Climate Protection, from the likes of evangelical leader Pat Robertson, who appeared in a television commercial last March with the Rev. Al Sharpton, in which the two declared that the one thing they can agree on is the importance of taking care of the planet.
“Using our natural resources more wisely is part of the Genesis mandate to be good stewards.”
Still, despite the apparent shift in evangelicals’ approach to environmental activism, they are still — as a whole — well behind the general population in their level of concern about global warming. A 2007 Barna Research poll indicated that only 33 percent of evangelicals described global warming as a “major issue” — the lowest of any group surveyed. By contrast, 62 percent of those associated with a faith other than Christianity described environmental changes as a major problem.
For all the hype about Christians making strides in environmental action, then, it seems there are still lingering questions in the minds of many evangelicals: Why should we care about global warming? Even if it is a real problem, aren’t there more pressing issues for Christians to be fighting for? Isn’t global warming a natural phenomenon?
God’s Word and God’s World
Biola professor Garry DeWeese was a skeptic 10 years ago, but today believes that a significant part of global warming is in fact human-caused.
“But it really doesn’t matter what we think of the human causes of global warming,” said DeWeese, a professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at Biola’s seminary, Talbot School of Theology. “Christians have the responsibility to be wise stewards of creation.”
Payne, who retired this year after 38 years of teaching at Biola, echoed this conviction, saying that even if there are natural causes to global warming, there certainly are some human causes, and Christians ought to be the very first to decry that.
“We were given a mandate in Scripture to care for creation, and that never went away,” he said. “When you can measure how many tons of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every day, and then — in a sense — belittle that fact or disregard it as being not much, then I really think it’s like an ostrich with its head in the sand.”
Payne and DeWeese agree that environmental concern ought to be an issue for Christians no matter where they are on the political spectrum — that they have a duty to conserve, preserve and restore creation until Christ returns.
"At the end of the day, the fact that we waste and pollute might be a small matter, but Christ himself said that those who are unfaithful in small things will not be entrusted with big things.”
“Whether Christ comes back tomorrow or in hundreds of years,” said Payne, “it doesn’t excuse us from our ecological responsibility.”
DeWeese agreed, adding that Christians are also responsible to the humans who might suffer because of climate change.
“Whatever the human contribution to global warming is, the ones who are going to bear the worst of it will be the poorest of the poor — the ones who can least afford to mitigate the effects of global warming,” he said.“That ought to concern us.”
DeWeese, a self-proclaimed “green evangelical,” believes Christians should have a “theocentric” approach to the environment, and he outlined his case for this approach in a two-part Faculty Lecture Series in Talbot Chapel last February, titled “It’s Not Easy Being Green (Evangelicals): An Ethic of Stewardship of Creation.”
According to DeWeese, since the 1970 release of Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, Christians have stressed the biblical image of “stewardship” as the proper Christian attitude towards nature. But what exactly does stewardship entail?
DeWeese argued that stewardship is a duty, not an option, for humans made in God’s image. Explicating scriptures such as Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, he stressed that nature belongs to God but was entrusted to man, and thus we are accountable to God for our care of creation.
“At the end of the day,” he noted, “the fact that we waste and pollute might be a small matter, but Christ himself, in the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16, said that those who are unfaithful in small things will not be entrusted with big things.”
He suggested that Christians must start by developing basic conservation habits, such as turning the lights off when exiting a room, recycling plastic bottles or putting computers on standby when they aren’t in use.
“There are numerous small actions Christians can take to live more stewardship-minded lives,” he said. “We can be practical, ‘green’ Christians without becoming environmental wackos.”
Being Green at Biola
In the push to “go green” in America, colleges and universities are playing a significant role. According to the Sustainable Endowment Institute’s 2008 College Sustainability Report Card, 45 percent of colleges are committed to fighting climate change through cutting carbon emissions, 59 percent use green standards to guide new construction, and 70 percent buy food from local farms. Biola finds itself firmly within these trends.
One of the ways Biola exercises energy efficiency is by utilizing a cogeneration power plant. The plant and its underground infrastructure were installed in 1989 and provide electricity to all the buildings on campus. In addition to supplying 83 percent of the campus’ electrical needs annually, the plant repurposes the heat from engine exhaust and uses it to heat the campus hot water loop. This saves Biola well over $1 million each year, in addition to being a more energy-efficient system.
"Whether Christ comes back tomorrow or in hundreds of years, it doesn't excuse us from our ecological responsibility.”
Biola has also recently shifted to more eco-friendly standards for building construction, beginning with the ambitious new “campus within a campus” for Talbot School of Theology.
Bon Appétit, the company that runs Biola’s food services, is also doing its part to be environmentally responsible. It has implemented over 20 initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its operations, including purchasing all meats and vegetables in America (to reduce air-freight emissions) and reducing the amount of beef and cheese purchased and served (because livestock releases 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions). The Café also recently started using biodegradable takeout boxes and utensils made from potatoes.
Many Biolans are finding small ways in their own day-to-day lives to be good stewards of creation. Students involved in Biola’s Granola Club, for which Payne serves as faculty advisor, participate in cleanups around campus and at the beach, and last year planted native, drought-resistant plants around Bardwell Hall to reduce watering costs.
Heather Tyndall, a senior human biology major, tries to be conscious of her environmental impact, believing that good stewardship means not being wasteful or destructive with what we’ve been given. She uses her own mug to get coffee and tea, her own Tupperware for to-go food, and rides her bike to do errands whenever possible.
Another student, Jenna England, a senior communications major, said that one way to become more environmentally aware is to just spend more time out in nature, whether hiking, camping or — in her case — working as a summer camp counselor near California’s Yosemite National Park.
“You can’t help but take care of such beauty when you experience it as a place of worship,” said England. “To not take care of this place, to not be concerned with his creation, is to not care for a part of himself.”
Alumna Karen Riddervold (’99) is practicing creation care on an international scale. As Court Scientist for the Norwegian Royal Court in Oslo, Riddervold finds that in Europe, green issues are a much larger part of daily life. She doesn’t own a car, grows many of her own vegetables, produces compost from organic waste and recycles everything she can — all normal practices for the average Norwegian. “I don’t see my fellow Norwegians asking if we should be concerned by green issues,” said Riddervold. “I see them agonizing that we got in the war this late.”
Even the president of Biola, Barry H. Corey, is setting a green example: He recently opted for a Toyota Highlander Hybrid — a small gesture intended to make a statement about the importance of environmental stewardship.
Among the most committed devotees to green living is longtime Biola professor John Bloom. Bloom, an undergraduate physics professor and founding director of the master’s program in science and religion, lives just down the street from Biola in a house that — because of solar panels installed on the roof — generates more energy than it uses. On a typical Southern California 70-degree day, you can actually watch Bloom’s meter spinning backwards.
Bloom also lives green in other ways. He rides an electric bicycle to and from campus every day and uses a battery-powered electric lawnmower. In addition to saving money in the long-term, Bloom said he’s motivated by a desire to be wise with the resources that God has provided.
“We do not have infinite supplies of oil, aluminum, paper and so on,” he said. “So if we can use these things more wisely, that’s part of the Genesis mandate: Be good stewards of what I’ve given to you. Rather than a child in a toy store thinking ‘it’s all mine’ and playing with it until it breaks, we should be good stewards.”
This fall, Bloom and DeWeese are teaming up to teach a graduate course in environmental ethics. The class will look at regional and local environmental issues from scientific and ethical perspectives. Payne, meanwhile, is beginning his first retired semester still teaching: a human biology class for Biola’s BOLD degree completion program. In January he will also lead the Biola in Baja Interterm program, the annual trip he founded 30 years ago to allow students the opportunity to escape the urban landscape of Los Angeles and discover the untamed wilds of Baja, Mexico, learning — among other things — “how we use and abuse natural resources.” These three Biola professors are part of the Christian leadership that will guide the church as it wrestles with environmental activism and stewardship.
But even as it moves higher on the agenda of many Biolans, some caution that the “green” concern is still just one of many issues Christians should be concerned about. Obviously evangelism is a higher-level concern, but as DeWeese pointed out, “just because care of creation is not our primary kingdom duty, it doesn’t follow that it isn’t a duty at all.”
This type of thinking gives hope to someone like Payne, who has endeavored for so many years to raise Christian consciousness about the environment. It’s been a long, cautious road, but the “greening of evangelicals” is finally gaining momentum. Payne is thrilled that Christians are recognizing that there is much more than politics at stake, much more than trendiness, but creation itself —that stewardship is not just about giving our resources back to God, but protecting and preserving those precious resources he’s given us.
Christian Environmental Resources
Off-campus study programs
Biola students have a number of options if they want a green education off-campus. Here are a few they can choose from:
- Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies – This study program offers transferable course credit for more than 75 classes offered in one-month terms on one of four campuses: Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, South Florida and South India.
- Creation Care Study Program – Founded by Chris (Ph.D. ’98) and Tricia Ann (’91) Elisara, this semester-abroad program offers courses in either Belize or the South Pacific (New Zealand and Samoa).
- Biola in Baja – This long-running Interterm program, founded by professor Rafe Payne, combines science, art and sociology classes in a three-week exploration of Baja California, Mexico.