April 23, 2010
By Leanne Larmondin
Ecumenical News International
Churches have become a force for change in the environmental movement, but to be more effective they must bridge a “tragic divide” between evangelical Christians and the traditional “mainline” denominations, a conference in Toronto has heard.
“There’s kind of a caricature, which is not entirely inaccurate, that the evangelicals are concerned with getting ‘right’ with God, and the mainline churches are concerned with taking care of the world, and [addressing] social and environmental issues,” said Loren Wilkinson, a philosophy professor at Regent College, an evangelical institution in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Both stereotypes narrow the Christian Gospel, he said.
“So many evangelical Christians are also, in the United States especially, some of the principal climate-change deniers,” said Wilkinson. “We must understand that care for creation is at the heart and centre of our faith, it’s not a peripheral add-on.”
Wilkinson, who has written books about stewardship of natural resources and caring for creation, suggested that evangelicals should recover the “full meaning of creation” and stop arguing about how and when God created the world.
He was referring to a tendency for some Christians to interpret the Bible’s creation story literally, believing that God created the world in six days, just a few thousand years ago.
The April 14-17 conference, entitled Climate Change and Environmental Decline as a Moral Issue, gathered academics, theologians, scientists and climate change experts to examine the spiritual implications of misusing the earth.
The Rev. David MacDonald, a former member of Canadian parliament and a United Church of Canada minister, observed in one speech that environmental activism has changed in Canada.
“One of the things that pleases me most … is it’s a different group than the one I would have talked to 20 years ago when I was talking about climate change,” said MacDonald, who was part of the World Council of Churches delegation to the December 2009 United Nations Climate change conference in Copenhagen. “Then, it was mostly just ‘tree huggers’! There are tree huggers here, but there are others too: people who are interested in development issues.”
While many observers view the Copenhagen conference as a failure, MacDonald called it historically important. Instead of the 15 000 people expected to attend, “50 000 people tried to get in the doors, get in the windows”.
If Christians come to understand the importance of environmental decline, added MacDonald, “most of what we have thought about in terms of faith experiences and theology will change dramatically in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years.”
Some conference participants acknowledged that it is easy to despair and get cynical when dealing with climate change. But one speaker urged churches to express optimism.
“We must choose to hope, because when we hope, we look for solutions,” said Willard Metzger, director of church relations for World Vision Canada. “When we hope, we choose to believe that a different path is possible and we start to explore that path.”