The biblical truth of God’s love for all of creation is why one of the key values at George Fox is care of the Earth.
by Michael Richeson
The university recently formed the Creation Care Committee, a 10-member group designed to look at how the institution can reduce waste, recycle more, lower its carbon footprint and create positive change on campus.
The committee is looking at everything from buying local fruits and vegetables to taking a closer look at what kind – and how much – of fertilizer is used to keep the lawns looking lush.
Efforts to be more “green” on campus have begun in recent years. Le Shana Hall, the university’s newest residence building, was awarded the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification. A study has also been completed that will show George Fox how to strategically reduce its carbon footprint.
The biggest impacts so far, however, come from two main sources: food and education.
General manager of Bon Appetit at George Fox
“I’ve started to appreciate the need for [creation care] to become a cultural change rather than doing it when it’s convenient,” Lawrence said. “Some people look at sustainability as token changes. It has got to turn into a way of life. Don’t take such a long shower, recycle, turn the lights off. Every little bit you can do helps. It takes education and time.”
Bon Appetit, the food service company at George Fox, places a large emphasis on sustainability, which in many ways boils down to a simple philosophy: buy local. Food in the United States typically travels 1,500 miles before reaching the dinner table. The amount of fossil fuels burned to transport food can be astronomical.
Last year alone, of the $1.1 million Bon Appetit spent on food and beverages to feed George Fox students, about $300,000 went to farmers and ranchers within 100 miles of Newberg.
“We look at who we buy from, how it is grown and how far does it travel,” said Denny Lawrence, general manager for Bon Appetit on campus. “Are we buying mangos that come from South America, or can we get fruit that’s grown 50 miles away? Sometimes it does cost a little more, but it’s good for the local economy. And it’s the right thing to do.”
Farmers and ranchers have noticed that the university looks to buy local.
“They are now calling us and asking what we’d like them to grow,” Lawrence said. “We write our menus on a weekly basis all year round so we can tailor our menus to growing seasons. We struck a deal the other day with a honey producer. It’s a local party.”
Is buying local common for most universities? “Heavens, no,” Lawrence said. “It’s much easier to get on the computer and place one order and have someone ship you everything. We’ve made a philosophical decision that’s unique. We’re willing to take a lesser profit in order to buy more sustainably.”
Associate professor of philosophy and religion
“There is a lot of green guilt out there, but the flipside is green goodness,” Beals said. “The better I relate to the rest of creation, the more I enjoy life. Sticking your hands in soil has been chemically proven to make you less depressed. It releases endorphins in your brain. The best argument for growing organic food is to taste a tomato that’s ripe off the vine. Actuality is the best proof of possibility. People say it’s not possible to live [with a creation care mind-set]. I just say: ‘Look at the people who are doing it. They are smiling. They’re happy, and they’re making it work.’ It totally dispels arguments of it being impossible. There’s no big solution to our big problems. It’s easy to recognize the problems, and the temptation is to look for the silver bullet. Each of us needs to work on small solutions.”
Teaching by example
Education is the second side of the coin. In Corey Beals’ classes, he has his students discuss theories and ethical examples that are affecting the environment.
“Teaching by example is one of the best things,” Beals, associate professor of philosophy and religion, said. “The younger people are getting it. Students don’t have as many entrenched ways of doing things. You can show them new ideas that they are receptive to. We could potentially be a real leader in this. Creation care is part of who we are as Christians, and as a Christ-centered university, everything we do should be rightly related to creation.”
Beals’ interaction with college students became a focal point when he went to Washington D.C. to lobby for Earth Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the environment. One of his messages to top-level government officials: The death knell for single-issue politics is ringing louder every election.
“Yes, students care about abortion, but they also care about clean water and clean air,” Beals said. “It’s an exciting time.”
Daniel Brunner, professor of Christian history and formation at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, uses his classroom to engage students with the implications of creation care. He cites influential scholar Ian Barbour as a model for how evangelicals can move from an antagonistic stance on science to one of dialogue. He then couples that with evangelical theology.
“If the Earth continues in its present degradation, there aren’t going to be people left to save,” he said. “The more we keep creation alive, the more we’ll have to bring into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s become, for me, my justice issue. Leonardo Boff and other theologians make the tie of environmental degradation and the condition of the poor. What are you going to do for those that everyone else has forgotten? We, as followers of Christ, don’t get to forget. In my humble opinion, this is the moral issue of our time.”
If creation care is the moral issue of our time, the subject has been met with some resistance. Ever since the fallout from the Scopes Trial in 1925, the scientific community and many American Christians have squared off as enemies more often than they have worked together, according to Eric Chivian, co-leader of the “Scientist-Evangelical” project at Harvard.
Professor of Christian history and formation at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, GreenFaith Fellow
“More and more Christians are being called to a new aestheticism, a new simplicity of life,” Brunner said. “The Earth is in trouble, but the people who will suffer the most will be the poor. Christians need to be on the front edge of this. Look at Jesus. Do we imagine him accumulating like we do in this country? Do we imagine his life as individualistic? He cared for the least of these, and all of those things are marching orders for the Christian community today. Evangelicals should be living life more simply. It will require more community and interdependence. We have all the reasons biblically for doing that. We have no choice but to simplify ourselves.”
“The almost universal reaction to evangelicals from the scientific community is that we don’t care,” Brunner said.
Scientists, and those labeled as environmentalists, have in large part clung to very public blunders to point out that the religious community just “doesn’t get it” when it comes to environmental protection. In 1981, United States Interior Secretary, James G. Watt, once told Congress: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”
Even within the last few years, a handful of well-known Christian leaders have fought against embracing creation care issues. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has stated that the environmentally conscious Christian risks becoming “blinded by the green light and losing your sense of direction.” In other words, beware the environmental path because God may not be on it with you.
“This is an area, in broad, sweeping terms, that evangelicals have been weaker on,” Brunner said. “Other parts of Christendom are way ahead.”
A Barna Group poll in 2007 showed that 33 percent of evangelicals viewed global warming as a major challenge, which made them the least concerned segment of more than 50 population groups. Sixty percent of Catholics and other faith groups said it was a major challenge; atheists and agnostics came in around 70 percent. Evangelicals have taken a more skeptical stance at what they perceive to be media hype surrounding environmental issues.
The tepid response by evangelicals may have more to do with politics than science or biblical truth. The battle lines over the environment have been split down partisan lines. The issue, in general, has been championed by liberals and mocked by conservatives.
“I’m saddened that evangelicals are sometimes Republican or Democrat before they are biblical and evangelical,” Brunner said.
People or trees?
At the national level, the divide over creation care often comes down to creating a choice between people or trees.
“Should we care for the Earth, or should we care for humans?” Beals said. “Do we save babies or save whales? If you back up and approach it like Jesus did, he usually changed the question. We are now starting to change the question. How does the way I treat whales affect the way I treat babies? All these things are connected.”
Beals isn’t the only one tying creation care to people care. Four years ago, the Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, said that the way to get evangelicals interested in environmental issues is to show how global warming and mercury poisoning impact family health and the health of unborn children.
Lisa Graham McMinn
Professor of Sociology, author of upcoming book Walking Gently
“Climate change is irrefutable now,” McMinn said. “The scientific community is not divided on this. It will require some sacrifice, but Christians will be more ahead of the curve because sacrifice is something we are familiar with. Some things are as simple as using efficient light bulbs or using less air conditioning.”
Other steps may require more effort.
“We need to rethink our diet,” she said. “People don’t often make that connection. That pound of beef – how many acres of grain did it take to support that? Eat lower on the food chain. And we need to think about population. A new way to look at the Genesis passage “Be fruitful and multiply,” is to bring Earth to its flourishing potential.”
As scientific evidence grows about threats to the environment, and as the biblical message of creation care spreads, more Christians are convinced that “going green” is an important cause.
“It’s becoming more and more of a central spirituality for me,” Beals said. “How we relate to God, to others and to creation affects who we are as human beings. The third one gets cut off a lot.”
Beals, who has a love for getting his hands into soil, said that the theme of interacting with nature is scattered throughout the pages of the Bible.
“Gardening is one of the deepest metaphors,” he said. “Abide in me. It’s God’s deepest metaphor for intimacy. Gardening teaches you things that are very concrete. They are very humbling.”
Brunner can quickly rattle off numerous passages in the Bible to show that although people are the pinnacle of God’s creation, dominion shouldn’t equate to destruction.
“Everything Jesus taught us about dominion is about servanthood,” he said. “We’ve taken the Imago Dei as something that is a privilege, that the Earth and its resources are here to make us better, to serve us. Take Colossians 1:15-20. God has reconciled the world through Christ. We almost always think of the reconciliation for the person, but there is a biblical understanding that says that redemption is not just for humankind. There is a way in which the whole of creation will participate.”
The professors know that if large numbers of young evangelicals push for more environmentally friendly lifestyles, real change may be a possibility. Christians, no matter how marginalized they’ve become in the scientific realm, still make up large enough voting blocs for politicians to care about. Education about creation care in churches and classrooms may lead to a science-religion dialogue not seen since before the Scopes Trial.
“The environmental community knows that if faith communities are mobilized, change can happen,” Brunner said. “There is a power there that transcends anything their meager organizations can do.”