For two weeks I was detached from the political frenzy dominating U.S. media as I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Being free from the daily news cycle of President Donald Trump’s latest transgressions and the threats of betrayal from his former allies, I began to focus elsewhere — like on the ground I was walking on, step by step. The earth.
Much of this pilgrimage was through Galicia, a region in northern Spain influenced by Celtic culture and faith. John Brierley, author of the much-used guide to the Camino de Santiago, describes Galicia as having a Catholic faith that “overlays an earthly spirituality” where “deep respect, even veneration of the natural elements remains.” Walking on ancient stone paths over hills shrouded in mist, passing stone crosses glazed with green moss, and descending to the ninth-century church in O’Cebreiro, I reflected on how deeply life and faith are intrinsically bound to the creation.
All this is now in peril. I confess it is so easy, and tempting, for me to become exorcised over Donald Trump’s daily deceits, narcissism, and shredding of public virtue. But a deeper threat looms, begun many decades before. Humanity is destroying the integrity of God’s creation. The most flagrant and catastrophic assaults are now altering the globe’s climate in ways that already are impacting the world’s most vulnerable people and threatening us all. President Trump’s policies are aimed at liberating constraints on the burning of more coal and carbon, come hell or high water.
The roots go deep, even centuries old. In my new book Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21 st Century, I recount how the Westminster Assembly, comprising Puritan, reformed theologians, and members of parliament, met 1,163 times between 1643 and 1649, producing the famous Westminster Confession shaping Presbyterian faith for centuries to come. They also wrote the Directory for Public Worship, adopted by the Scottish Parliament. It contains this infamous line: “As no place is capable of any holiness …” This stream of the Reformation drove a wedge between the Spirit and the material world that is felt to this day.
Meanwhile, the Enlightenment and scientific revolution were creating a new cosmology, where “nature” became a utilitarian object for study and exploitation, severed from any intrinsic relationship to God. It was a perfect storm, with certain streams of the Protestant Reformation and the intellectual framework of modernity each depriving the creation of any intrinsic spiritual value. God was segregated from what God had created.
When we fast-forward to the 21st century and witness emboldened fires and floods, we’re reaping the scorched harvest of viewing the creation as the raw, secular material of nature for us to exploit, and nothing more. Only this worldview could sanction the unrestrained burning of carbon even when it seems we’re setting fire to our earthly home. There are policies worth advocating that can mitigate the damage. Some communities and states are committing themselves to the goals of the Paris Accords that were trashed by our president.
But the religious community should lead the way in insisting that far more is at stake. We must, once again, perceive the world as being sacred, intrinsically linked to the Creator. This is one of the 10 serious challenges reshaping Christianity in the 21st century. It’s not new, but ancient, and biblical. When I walked down the misty pathways in Galicia, with its echoes of Celtic culture shaping its appropriation of Christian faith, the evidence of seeing the sacredness of the created world could be found. Other non-Western cultures reflect similar worldviews, as do those emerging from Native American communities.
So, the heart of the debate about climate change, at least for Christian disciples, should not be arguments about whether human activity has altered the integrity of creation. Denying this is like arguing that smoking does not cause cancer. It is disgraceful that such debate has even a veneer of respectability, much less being advanced by officials whose primary injunction is to protect our environment.
Rather, Christian voices in the public square, joined by those of other religious faiths, must assert that creation has its own intrinsic, sacred value because it is linked to the life and breath of the Creator. If you doubt this, you need only read the Psalms, or else select from the bookshelves of works exploring the biblical and theological understandings of God’s creation, and humanity’s proper place. Even better, simply read Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’,” with 184 pages that are one of the best distillations of what it means to see the world with its intrinsic sacred quality given by God.
But what can we then advocate? How do we express our discipleship around creation care? Opportunities for engagement abound, such as the Global Climate Action Summit in September. Initiatives like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action are doing impressive grassroots work and advocacy.
However, our vision must be refocused on how we perceive God’s creation. In 1992, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, gathering the world’s top leaders, including heads of state, to make commitments to sustaining the environment. Discussions about an “Earth Charter” gained momentum. Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. in 1948, declared that every human being has certain intrinsic rights requiring protection, an Earth Charter would declare intrinsic values to the created order, requiring universal recognition and protection.
The idea advanced through countless drafts and global discussions, resulting in agreement on an Earth Charter in 2000, endorsed by more than 2,000 organizations. The Earth Charter Initiative continues as a global movement and is one option for building global recognition of the intrinsic value and “rights” of the creation. For the Christian, the starting point always must be that the creation has inherent value, not because of its utility to humanity, but because of its relationship to God.
And there’s more. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid the groundwork for the subsequent international legal framework for prosecuting crimes against humanity. I believe that the growing threats posed by climate change, and the clear complicity of powerful leaders in accentuating actions eroding the earth’s ability to sustain life for all, means that a discussion must be started about “crimes against creation.” Just as Christian voices were involved in framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, theological and religious leaders today should begin making the case for an international framework that would safeguard creation itself from willful actions which can and must be called criminal.
Political frenzy will continue. But some of us need to take a long walk, gain some detachment, and discern what are the most perilous threats we face, not only as a nation but as a world. The impact of climate change, I think, emerges as primary for the shared future of our common home. Recovering our connection to its sacred quality, given and sustained by God, is our starting point.