Evangelicals and the Environment

Thu, 06 Jun 1996 21:01:19 -0400 (EDT)

Jack Haas suggested:

> Those of us who are in touch with conservative Christianity often feel an
> unease when environmental questions are raised. At times it appears that
> evangelical activists are rushing ahead with ideas and courses of action
> without the 'advice and consent' of the troops that they seek to lead.
> I am suggesting that we discuss two PSCF articles that deal with this
> issue.
> First Dick Wright's "Tearing down the Green" in the June 1995 issues and Ed
> Olson's "A Response" in the June 1996 Issue. If you are not a member of ASA
> these articles can be downloaded from the page at ASA's web site that has
> links to on-line papers http://www.calvin.edu/chemistry/ASA/papers.html.
> The Wright article is at http://mcgraytx.calvin.edu/ASA/PSCF6-95Wright.html
> The Olson article is at http://mcgraytx.calvin.edu/ASA/PSCF6-96Olson.html

I whole-heartedly agree with the suggestion in Olson's conclusion:

> From my standpoint, [the] discussion should emphasize papers which focus
> on a single environmental issue and are multidimensional -- including
> scientific, economic, political and theological dimensions.

I believe that what the church primarily needs is _information_.

Information alone does not immediately resolve these issues, because
(1) environmental studies reported in the mass media are
even more "preliminary," even more disputed, and even more difficult to
understand than _medical_ studies reported in the mass media; (2) it
takes years, sometimes and entire generation, for new information to
assimilate into old theology and old thought-patterns. Nevertheless, I
believe that environmental _information_ ultimately wins the day over
political and even theological arguments.

I would like to offer an historical example.

Whenever I hear discussions of environmental issues, I can't help thinking
about this poem by Sietze Buning. Sietze (Stanley Wiersma) wrote a book
of poems to record and celebrate (and just a bit to censure) the attitudes
and states of mind where he grew up -- Sioux County, Iowa, in the
early/mid 1900's.

[From _Purpaleanie_and_other_Permutations_, Sietze Buning (Stanley
Wiersma), (Middleburg Press, 1978) ISBN: 0-931940-00-1]

Calvinist Farming

Our Calvinist fathers wore neckties with their bib-overalls
and straw hats, a touch of glory with their humility. They rode
their horse-drawn corn planters like chariots, planting the corn
in straight rows, each hill of three stalks three feet from each hill
around it, up and over the rises. A field-length wire with a metal knot
every three feet ran through the planter and clicked off three kernels
at each knot. Planted in rows east-west, the rows also ran north-
south for corss-cultivating. Each field was a checkerboard even
to the diagonals. No Calvinist follwed the land's contours.

Contour farmers in surrounding counties
improvised their rows against the slope
of the land. There was no right way.
Before our fathers planted a field,
they knew where each hill of corn
would be. Be ye perfect, God said,
and the trouble with contour farmers
was that, no matter how hard they worked
at getting a perfect contour, they could
never know for sure it was perfect -- and
the didn't even care. At best they
were Arminian, or Lutheran, or Catholic,
or at worst secular. Though they wore bib-
overalls, they wore no neckties, humility
without glory.
Contour field resulted
from free will, nary a conrstalk pre-
determined. The God contour farmers
trusted, if any, was as capricious
as their cornfields. Calvnists knew
the distance between God and people was
even greater than the distance between people
and corn kernels. If we were corn kernels in God's
corn planter, would we want him to plant us at random?
Contour farmers were frivolous about the doctrine of election
simply by being contour farmers.
Contour farmers didn't control
weeds because the couldn't cross-cultivate. Weed control was laid
on farmers by God's curse. Contour farmers tried to escape God's curse.
Sooner or later you could tell it on their children: condoning weeds
they condoned movies and square-skipping. And they wasted land,
for planting around the rises, they left more place between
the rows than if they'd checked it. It was all indecent.

We could drive a horse cultivator -- it was harder
with a tractor cultivator -- through our checked rows
without uprooting any corn at all, but contour farmers
could never quite recapture the arbitrary angle, cultivating,
that they used, planting. They uprooted corn and killed it. All
of it was indecent and untidy.
We youngsters pointed out that the tops
of our rises were turning clay-brown, that bushels of black dirt
washed into creeks and ditches every time it rained, and that
in the non-Calvinist counties the tops of the rises were
black. We were told we were arguing by results, not
by principles. Why, God could replenish the black
dirt overnight. The tops of the rises were God's
Our business was to farm on Biblical principles.
Like, Let everything be done decently and in good order; that is
keep weeds down, plant every square inch, do not waste crops, and be tidy.
Countour farmers were unkingly because they were untidy. They could not be
prophetic, could not explain from the Bible how to farm. Being neither kings
nor prophets, they could not be proper priests; their humilty lacked defi-
nition. They prayed for crops privately. Our whole county prayed
for crops the second Wednesday of every March.
God's cosmic planter
has planted thirty year's worth of people since then,
all checked and on the diagonal if we could see
as God sees. All third-generation Calvinists
now plant corn on the contour. They have the word
from the State College of Agriculture. And so the clay-
brown has stopped spreading farther down the rises
and life has not turned secular, but broken.
God still plants people on the predetermined check
even though Calvinists plant corn on the contour. God's
check doesn't mean a kernel in the Calvinist's cornfield.
There's no easy way to tell the difference between Calvinists
and non-Calvinists: now all plant on the contour; all tolerate
weeds; between rows, all waste space; all uproot corn, cultivating;
all consider erosion their own business, not God's; all wear
overalls without ties; all their children go to the same
movies and dances; the county's prayer meetings
in March are badly attended; and I am improvising
this poem on the contour, no checking it in rhyme.

Glad for the new freedom, I miss the old freedom of choice
between Calvinist and non-Calvinist farming. Only in religion
are Calvinist and non-Calvinist distinguishable now. When different
ideas of God produced different methods of farming, God mattered more.
Was the old freedom worth giving up for the new? Did stopping the old
erosion of earth start a new erosion of the spirit? Was stopping old
eroision worth the pain of the new brokenness? The old Calvinists
insisted that the only hope for unbrokenness between the ways
of God and the ways of farmers is God.
A priest, God wears
infinite humility; a king, he wears infinite glory. He is even
less influenced by his upward-mobile children's notions of what not
to wear with what than our Calvinist fathers were in neckties with bib-
overalls. Moreover, a prophet, he wears the infinite truth our Calvinist
fathers hankered after to vindicate themselves, not only their farming.
Just wait, some dark night God will ride over the rises on his chariot-
corn planter. It will be too dark to tell his crown from a straw hat,
to dark to tell his apocalyptic horses from our buckskin horses or
from unicorns. No matter, just so the wheels of that chariot-corn
planter, dropping fatness, churn up all those clay-brown rises
and turn them all black, jsut as the old Calvinists predicted.

Lord Jesus, come quickly.


Besides being a wonderful folk poem, that is, I trust, an instructive
example. In the end, the undeniable fact of erosion (combined with the
theology of stewardship -- which almost goes without saying and _did_ go
without saying in the poem) was decisive, but it took a generation for
practices to change --- a generation for the new information to be
factually confirmed as well as assimilated.

Wright's article included a good deal of sociological and theological
analysis of the environmental debate (I found it very instructive), and
his conclusion emphasized the need for a Christian world-view. As much as
I may agree with his analysis and the importance of having a Christian
world-view, I do not know how _useful_ this will be for developing a
Christian concensus.

My personal sympathies lie mostly on the "green" side, but the agenda we
ALL want to pursue is the truth. Echoing Olson's conclusion, I believe
that a potentially _effective_ tactic for building Christian consensus
would be to emphasize single-issue discussions (rather than lumping all
environmental issues together) which present:
--the best recent scientific measurements of what is really happening,
--scientific projections of the effectiveness
of various proposed "solutions,"
--estimated economic costs those proposed "solutions,"
--political factors involved in each proposed "solution."

With the help of the Spirit, consensus, IMO, will follow --- though it may
take a few years.

"I like maxims that don't |
encourage behavior modification." | Loren Haarsma
--Calvin (_Calvin_and_Hobbes_) | lhaarsma@opal.tufts.edu