Sierra Club founder John Muir, raised a Scots Calvinist, learned to see the natural world as “the hospitable, Godful wilderness,” rather than a fallen state where evil and darkness reside (as the doctrines of his Christian upbringing had taught). Other followers of orthodox Christianity also have wrestled with a perceived conflict between the doctrines of their faith and their relationship with the natural world.
Closer to home, Brian Cole — a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church — has taken up the challenge of reconciling his orthodox, Christian heritage with his longing for the church to return to “honoring the goodness and holiness of creation.”
I met Cole recently, and he told me that he credits his reading of Wendell Berry with giving him “the profound ‘aha!’ moment,” a life-changing revelation he experienced while serving as a rural minister in eastern Kentucky, after graduating from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. While ministering in the countryside, Cole says he came to an awareness of the “environmental degradation perpetrated by strip mining, poor forestry management, and polluted water.” He concurs with Berry’s conviction that, “It is possible — as our experience in this good land shows — to exile ourselves from Creation, and to ally ourselves with the principle of destruction.”
What to do? Cole, in conjunction with Brownie Newman and the WNC Alliance, has formed the Sabbath Project, which seeks to address our ecological crisis by bridging the gap between the church and the environmental movement. Brian is issuing a “call for thoughtful living that considers and cares for all of creation,” exhorting both environmentalists and church folk to “pay attention to the connections between our lives of faith and the natural world that surrounds us.”
Why the name Sabbath Project? “I suppose I’m rather orthodox in theology, yet orthodox theology still calls us to do, at times, rather radical things,” says Cole, an articulate man and a talented preacher. The concept of the sabbath, he says, is one such radical idea. The Hebraic tradition, he notes, called for not only a day of rest from all labor each week, but a year of rest every seven years (when the fields would lie fallow), and a “sabbath of sabbaths” every 50 years, called the Year of Jubilee — a special celebration of the “goodness of God and the abundant provision of the earth.”
Cole sees the ancient tradition of the sabbath as a practical way to heal “our illness of consumption.” Even apart from any religious connotations, he believes, “It’s a matter of saying we need special time to see ourselves, not just as potential consumers, but … as humans with limits.” In his own experience, Brian has found the wilderness to be “a sacred place of solace, a place of solitude and rest to contemplate the holy.” We need wilderness, he argues, if we are “to be in right relationship with the divine.”
Cole traces much of the church’s confusion over humanity’s place in the chain of being to “poor interpretations of the creation story in Genesis.” For centuries, he notes, many orthodox churches have clung to the belief that man, “the lord of creation … is commanded to subdue the earth in its fallen state of corruption.” This anthropocentric principle of domination, he believes, has served to alienate some Christians from a healthy respect for nature. “That is tragic. That is one of the things the church needs to confess. We have attempted to talk about faith apart from God’s creation. If we confess God as the creator, then creation is good — period.”
Here, too, Cole echoes Muir, who concluded that there “is no sin in nature,” finding “only divine love, as opposed to the wrath depicted in the Bible.” Even deadly alligators and snakes, declared Muir, are “part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels or saints on earth.” In another account, Muir also challenged the anthropocentric view: “Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.”
At a recent conference sponsored by the Sabbath Project and the Environmental Leadership Center at Warren Wilson College, Cole used the simple example of baptism to illustrate how cut off the church has become from nature. Instead of the living waters of an actual river, “We now perform baptisms indoors, in a water tank, with murals and paintings overhead of a wilderness scene, with Jesus baptizing in the Jordan River.” In the same context, the Rev. Canon Jeff Golliher of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City went so far as to say: “The water of baptism means we cannot love God and, at the same time, destroy the Creation that God made. The sacrament of baptism demonstrates, in concrete form, that the spiritual and ecological foundations of life are one.”
In a more secular vein, Carolina McCready of the Environmmental Leadership Center opened a session with a story emphasizing the delicate balance of nature and the repercussions of even well-intentioned human interference. The World Health Organization sprayed DDT to kill malaria-bearing mosquitoes, which were threatening the Dayak people of Borneo. The malaria declined — but not without serious side effects. “The roofs of peoples’ houses began to fall down on their heads. It seemed that the DDT was killing a parasitic wasp that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The cats died, the rats flourished, and the people were threatened by outbreaks of sylvatic plague and typhus.”
And, addressing the theme of limits, McCready noted that Americans — 5 percent of the world’s population — consume 25 percent of the world’s energy. She then suggested simple conservation measures churches could take, from investing in energy-efficient light bulbs to creating meditation gardens instead of large, expensive buildings.
But it isn’t just a matter of humans helping to heal nature, either. Cole — preaching with energy and conviction — exhorted everyone “to go to nature for healing. Nature isn’t a demonic and chaotic entity that needs us to control it. The modern age needs wilderness more than ever. The church needs wilderness.” The Bible, he observed, is ”filled with nature imagery like the seed, wind, mountains, trees, water, good soil, the way of the path and the cycles of birth, death and new birth.” Cole concluded his message with a prayer for all people to “wake up and see that the need for clean air, clean water, healthy forests, a good environment [is] a given, not something we can make theological or political hay of.”
I asked Brian if he is optimistic about the earth’s future, quoting a sobering statement by Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic: “Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity will probably have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten he is not God.”
After a few contemplative moments, Cole said he was reminded of the street preacher in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who talks about “being a member of the church without Christ, where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.” In that light, Cole went on to say: “I’m enough of a realist to be distressed that steps toward a better future only happen after we’ve mucked it all up. But I believe the future is hopeful. I believe there can be repentance, that we — as individuals and as a church — can make better choices in our care for creation. I believe, ultimately, the Christian message is one of good news and hope.”
For more information about the Sabbath Project, contact Brian Cole at 298-3325, ext. 414.