Those who embrace creation recognize the importance of our relationships with earth’s lowliest creatures. Photo: Guccio_55
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. [Proverbs 6:6]
The Anglican Communion’s fifth mark of mission urges us to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth and all its forms. This is an issue that greatly concerns Dr. Stephen Scharper, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Environment, department of the study of religion and department of anthropology.
In his promotion of planetary stewardship, the Connecticut-born expert in ecological theology often goes back to U.S. marine biologist Rachel Carson and her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring. “This was a turning point in the environmental movement,” he says. Carson challenged the modern world’s domineering approach to nature and humankind’s need to control everything in it, especially insects, with increasingly potent chemicals.
‘This was a question of worldview as much as a question of science and data,” says Scharper. “What Carson helped people see was that this world view was at odds with the growing ecological understanding of integration and webs of relationships…” In other words, we must respect even with the creepers and crawlers of the earth.
Highlighting this dichotomy in an address at last November’s synod of the diocese of Toronto, Scharper juxtaposed film clips of Carson explaining her critique with clips of her adversary, biochemist Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a researcher for the chemical company American Cyanamid, who said her proposals would take society back to a dark age overrun by pests and vermin.
Scharper, however, sees Carson’s wakeup call as an invitation to the Christian imagination and community to embrace this worldview of integration with creation and a refusal to adopt a view of control and capitalistic exploitation. “The invitation is to reflect on a larger Christian worldview that embraces creation in a radical relationship,” he says.
And he sees his current role more as laying the theological groundwork for using resources from a Christian perspective than making practical recommendations for greening. “There’s already a lot of excellent material out there.”
Lest people be hesitant to embrace stewardship, Scharper says that adopting a responsible, theologically founded approach to creation is “not all hair shirts and sackcloth. Like any new relationship, it can be full of wonder and joy and discovery.”
He recalls how he and his wife gave up the family car a decade ago. His wife was unsure but after a 30-day trial said, “Let’s not go back.” The experiment resulted in less stress (no getting stuck in traffic jams) and less consumerism (no trunk to haul purchased goods in), and more family bonding. The couple and their son told stories while riding public transit to daycare, then he and his wife walked to work together, getting caught up and reacquainted in the process. “So there was a real silver lining to what was originally framed as a sacrifice,” he says.
In this context, the fifth mark of mission comes as an invitation to fall in love with creation as people of faith. “And there’s a real need for the faith perspective,” says Scharper. “Scientists and policymakers are turning to religious leaders and saying, ‘We need you to step up to the plate because this is matter of habits of the heart.”
So should Christians also be vegetarian? “Vegetarianism is a legitimate Christian response to the environmental movement, particularly when you realize the amount of grain and water needed to raise cattle and the impact on the environment,” he says. But’s there’s another issue that relates to the chain of production and that concerns the treatment of animals raised for human consumption. “We have to revisit the source of the meat we eat and see if the animals have been treated humanely as in Jewish kashrut dietary law and Islamic halal law,” insists Scharper. “This is another horizon for Christian ethics.”