Earth Day is here. Why Christians Should Be the *Most* Enthusiastic
April 21, 2023
[Note: This story was first printed in Common Good at Made to Flourish on April 21, 2023.]
The 53rd celebration of Earth Day is Saturday, April 22, 2023. But most congregations — and most evangelicals by extension — will hardly notice. Why? Because they don’t know how to unleash Earth Day’s spiritual significance for the life of the church.
Too many Christians refuse to acknowledge that our biosphere is ailing. Deforestation, air and water pollution, and global warming are just a few of the onerous environmental challenges we face. Almost all scientists agree we’re facing ecological tipping points that will lead to irreversible changes to plant and animal life, and humanity itself.
To many in the church, Earth Day is another pagan festival, displacing the worship of God for the worship of the earth. And changing Christians’ perceptions about Earth Day can seem insurmountable. As Andrew Spencer observes, “Like many good social causes, Earth Day and the environmental movement became identified with misanthropic and overtly anti-Christian ideologies.”
Could a different story be written? What if the church worked to unlock Earth Day’s potential and opportunity for collective renewal and spiritual growth? What if Earth Day became to Christians a day of stewardship or guardianship, serving as an annual reminder of God’s first decree to humanity: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take Charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of the Earth” (Gen 1:28)?
Celebrating the Movement Already Begun
Earth Day, celebrated annually every April 22 since 1970, marks the birth of the modern-day environmental movement. In response to America’s mid-20th-century belching of leaded gasoline, industrial smoke and sludge, rampant oil spills, burning fires on rivers, and growing environmental awareness through exposés such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, Sen. Gaylord Nelson persuaded the conservative Rep. Pete McCloskey to cochair Earth Day’s first campaign. The crusade activated nearly 20 million Americans, or 10 percent of the American population at the time.
Momentum from the early movement gained traction, inspiring the development of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and early landmark environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), and the Clean Air Act (1972).
In 1990, Earth Day went global, marshaling 200 million people in over 140 countries to raise awareness about ecological degradation. The United Nations Earth Summit followed in 1992, then other mega conferences such as the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Sustainable Development in 1997 and the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.
Today, according to earthday.org, over one billion people — “disillusioned by the low level of ambition following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and frustrated with international environmental lethargy” — participate in what is “widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world.”
Guarding the Biosphere Renews Our Relationship with God
T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society writes, “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.” Eliot’s wisdom rings true as we consider the full scope of humanity’s fall from grace. Eating from Eden’s Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil severed the relational and creational wholeness God intended from the outset, the wholeness he promises to fully restore in the New Jerusalem. As a result of original disobedience, bonds fracture throughout creation:
- Man and woman’s relationship with God (Gen 3:8, 10)
- Humanity’s relationship with oneself: shame (Gen 3:7, 10-11)
- Man and woman’s relationship with their bodies: pain and death (Gen 3:16, 19)
- Man and woman’s relationship with one another (Gen 3:12-13)
- Humanity’s relationship with work: toil (Gen 3:17-19)
- Man and woman’s relationship with creation (Gen 3:15, 23-24)
- Creation’s relationship to God (Gen 3:14)
Celebrating God’s command to steward the earth serves as a needed reminder of the universality of sin. Alongside our suffering, and at our own doing, creation, too, groans for restoration (see Rom 8:22-23).
But this earth guardianship points us to God’s provision and care. As the psalmist proclaims, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). As such, Christians are invited into a two-book theology, captured poignantly in Article Two of the Belgic Confession, which says we know God by two means:
First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse.
Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.
By celebrating Earth Day, we can more fully unlock God’s revelation to us through his ecological order, whereby we rise to our high calling as stewards in cultural and creational renewal, and absorb fully “nature’s manifold witness,” as expressed by Thomas O. Chisholm in his 1923 hymn, “Great is thy Faithfulness.”
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
join with all nature in manifold witness
to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
Caring for Creation Calls Us Into a Different Cultural Narrative
As Christians, celebrating Earth Day invites us into a different cultural narrative. Christopher Watkin in Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture writes that the predominant storyline of Western politics today is “Exodus-shaped:”
Both the left and right are searching for ever-new oppressions from which we will be liberated. On the right this takes the form of a regularly refreshed list of bogey taxes and regulations that are supposedly stifling innovation and enterprise. On the left it is an ever-renewed string of identities that are labeled as oppressed and in need of emancipation.
As such, emancipation becomes a narrow, self-focused lens “through which to view the whole of society and all social progress.” Liberation is always more nuanced, calling us both from and to. As Watkin observes, seven times in the book of Exodus Moses commands Pharoah in God’s name “to let my people go” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). On each occasion, the directive is followed by a “so that” the Israelites may serve or worship the Lord. In Watkin’s view, “The point of the Exodus is not freedom in the sense of self-determination, but service, the service of the loving, redeeming, and delivering God of Israel…”
Grounded in the Ground
Finally, celebrating Earth Day reminds us that we are inextricably bound to the ground — in both life and death. We are formed from dust and to dust we return (See Gen 2:7, 3:19; Job 34:15; Eccl 12:7). As grounded people, we affirm creation with all of its interdependencies, possibilities, and vulnerabilities. We don’t incite its demise or, seeking to play God, build a temple for ourselves to transcend creation’s ultimate limitations.
Many declare “the end of humanity’s reign on Earth is imminent, and that we should welcome it,” according to poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch, author of The Revolt against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us. These turns against humanity take two unfortunate forms. The first is “Anthropocene antihumanism,” a rallying cry for those repelled by humanity’s role in destroying the natural environment. As a form of retaliation, they invite the Earth to get back at us by accelerating our demise. The second turn is transhumanism, a declaration that “the only way forward for humanity is to create new forms of intelligent life that will no longer be Homo sapiens,” to escape God’s original creation design. Kirsch observes that both schemes serve as growing temptations.
Both temptations are misguided and far removed from the biblical arc, because the earth is to be celebrated, stewarded, and cultivated. We are dependent upon it for nourishment and sustenance, and it is dependent upon us for care and cultivation.
We have an opportunity to commemorate Earth Day as an act of worship — first, a confession that we’ve failed to honor God’s ecological home for his creation, and second, a commitment to daily caretaking for the ways we can make the biosphere more hospitable to God’s ever-present breath of life. Caring for our home is not incidental, but integral to who we are as God’s image-bearers.
Note to readers: earthday.org and Creation Justice Ministries are two organizations that offer ideas and resources for engaging Earth Day from a Christian perspective.