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If you are a Christian and you’re attentive to God’s earth, it’s likely that you’ve sometimes felt on the fringe of your church. In fact, you can feel downright alone. This is one of the reasons I thought it important to write this piece based on my visit to the Au Sable Institute last month. I thought it important, too, to describe the organization and its people in some detail. I hope you’ll persevere through the odyssey of reading this long piece. For decades an organization of committed Christian scientists has been equipping other Christians for ecological research and for science-based stewardship. 

They were as surprised as I was.

On Friday, August 4th I made the long drive from northeastern Illinois to Mancelona in northern Michigan to take part in the Au Sable Institute’s Reunion. “Reunion,” of course, suggests an event for people who have had some sort of previous and direct relationship with the institution. Almost every attendee I met courteously asked when I had attended as a student or had taught as a professor. They were astonished to hear that this was my first visit.

In the case of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, my only previous interaction had been several donations my wife and I had made in the past after a friend had encouraged me to check out the organization. The Institute’s mission – to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth – resonated with us.

A picture of the sign for the Au Sable Institute just outside the Institute in Mancelona, Michigan.

I decided to visit because I wanted to learn more about Au Sable, and I wanted to be with other Christians who care deeply for the fate of Creation.

Of course, I must be honest that there was a little voice in me wondering if I was going to be in a very awkward situation. I nervously joked with other attendees that I was relieved to hear that there were no secret initiation rites.

One of the things that had tipped the balance toward me attending was a conversation I had had with Fred Van Dyke earlier in the summer. Au Sable’s executive director and co-author of Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred was kind enough to speak with me on the phone and shared the Institute’s mission with sincerity and passion.

Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, speaks during a tour.

From Fred and from the activities of the weekend, I learned that the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies pursues its mission by offering environmental science programs for students and adults of all ages. In addition to its main campus in northern Michigan, the Institute has locations in India, the Pacific Northwest, and Costa Rica that carry out similar activities.

The heart of Au Sable’s education mission has long been university-level courses in environmental studies and environmental science that are primarily taught in the field. These courses are accepted for credit by 60 Christian colleges. College students take the classes on Au Sable’s campuses.

The Institute, I’m happy to say, has also been expanding into field-based research around practical topics related to conservation, ecology, and restoration. One example – researchers at Au Sable have been testing different planting practices for restoring abandoned oil pads back to forest in northern Michigan.

If my memory serves from a conversation I had there, there are approximately 50,000 of these sites where forest was cleared for oil pumping. Oddly, forests have not reclaimed these sites many years after the machines and other vestiges of human activity had been removed.

“The Blogger” Feels At Home

The first event that Friday evening was a dinner in the rec center. I didn’t know anyone. With flashbacks to my freshman year of high school running through my head, I set my things down at an empty table.

When I returned with my food, I found I had a number of table companions, including Dr. Calvin DeWitt, the long-time director of Au Sable. From that point on and through the rest of the weekend, I found myself in fellowship with other Christians who talked passionately about beavers and the cloud forests of Guatemala, who prayed humbly, and who were ready to sing the doxology at the drop of the hat. And, I’m happy to say, the food was very healthy. Careful attention was paid to recycling and composting of waste.

Common meals during the reunion were held in the Rec Center. The sliding doors opened wide so we could take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods just outside. When the campus was being designed, there had been a proposal by a planner to create a typical campus by clearing much of the woods around the buildings. Thankfully, that idea was rejected. The campus is nested in the forest.

What a delight to fully feel at home and in one spirit with other believers!

There was consistently warm hospitality throughout my time there. I wasn’t known by anyone, and yet people came up to me on a regular basis to introduce themselves and learn more about me. I suspect this is what early Christians experienced as they traveled throughout the Roman Empire and visited local churches.

When Cal DeWitt used some of his introductory remarks that first Friday evening to ask for newcomers to introduce themselves, he made a point to ask me to share the name of my blog for everyone to hear. I later learned that from that moment other attendees began to refer to me as “the blogger.” This was done with a mixture of curiosity, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of anxiety.

Calvin DeWitt

A considerable amount of the reunion was spent honoring Calvin DeWitt and for good reason.

Under the lealdership of Dr. Howard Snyder, the Au Sable Institute began as a science camp and field station. It was Cal, as the founding Executive Director from 1979 to 2004, who led Au Sable’s transition to its current identity and wide impact. He did so while serving as Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His curriculum vitae runs over 30 pages, dense with listings of papers and presentations.

He was one of the early articulate voices advocating for Christians to be good stewards of Creation. Through his books and lectures over the past decades, he led the way in articulating the theological underpinnings of why Christians should care and act for God’s earth.

Here’s how an article in Grist summarizes his impact and leadership:

A respected scientist with advanced degrees in biology and zoology, DeWitt spent over 25 years as director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, where he worked to help college students learn the principles of Christian environmental stewardship alongside hard science. He’s been one of the prime movers behind almost every significant collaboration between evangelicals, scientists, and politicians, including the much-discussed Evangelical Climate Initiative, a statement from high-profile evangelicals calling for concerted action to battle global warming.

Interestingly enough, he was appointed to his professorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 without being placed in a department. His mission was to integrate learning across disciplines.

That focus on integration is one of his most distinctive qualities. He is a dynamic person who delights in bringing together various fields of academic study, especially the sciences, even as he delights in the understanding of the Bible and theology. He loves the pursuit of knowledge and sharing that knowledge with students through teaching.

His breadth of knowledge and the extent of his leadership impact on Au Sable were clear during a tour he led of portions of the campus.

When the tour started at Earth Hall, Cal highlighted the many thoughtful features of its environmentally-minded design that he and the architect worked out together. He rattled off scientific names for most of the living things we saw when the tour then made its way into the woods and along the pond. He stopped to described the construction techniques of a log cabin built for lumberjacks. At a lecture hours earlier, he had lucidly explained the root meanings of Greek words in the New Testament.

He is full of enthusiasm, erudite knowledge, contagious energy, playfulness, and skilled storytelling. What a difference God has made through him.

Cal and Ruth Dewitt were kind enough to share this photo of themselves with me for this post. The background, by the way, is not northern Michigan but northern China. You can see portions of the Great Wall in the background.

It would not do to mention Cal without mentioning his wife Ruth. They share a close bond. She spoke proudly to me at the first dinner of the details of the Agricultural Conservancy Zoning that are part of the Land Use Plan of the Town of Dunn. Cal played a leading role in developing this plan which has kept their home town in Wisconsin from being overwhelmed by unplanned development.

When the weekend’s activities closed and Cal and Ruth were walking together towards their car, I noticed they were holding hands.

From Nearly Changing Majors to Restoring Lake Sturgeon

Au Sable changed the life of Marty Holtgren.

Marty was studying biology at Bethel College in 1991 when Dave Mahan, the director of the Au Sable Institute at that time, came to introduce students there to Au Sable’s educational offerings. This intrigued Marty. Many of his fellow biology majors were headed towards nursing careers, but he wasn’t sure biology was for him. What’s more, Bethel’s small size meant that it had few specialty courses in biology or ecology.

In the winter of 1991, Marty attended a summer term at Au Sable. While there, Marty took a limnology course as well as a fisheries course taught by Fred “Fritz” Erickson. This experience led Marty to stay in biology.

“The passion that Fred brought towards fish and other aquatic creatures,” says Marty, “made it hard not to get incredibly fired up. It was contagious. That contagiousness is something that I’ve really tried to emulate throughout my life and career.”

After graduating from Bethel in 1992, Marty worked at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for about five or six years. During that time, Marty returned to Au Sable to attend a three-week intensive stream ecology classe. Desiring greater challenges and the opportunity to grow professionally, Marty decided to enter graduate school at Michigan Tech University. There he earned a master’s degree while studying lake sturgeon.

Marty Holtgreen and another person hold a lake sturgeon fish while standing in the Big Manistee River.

Marty Holtgren, on the right, helps hold a lake sturgeon along the Big Manistee River. For ten years, Marty helped the Little River Band of the Ottawa Tribe, restore the population of this fish species in the river.

This was the springboard for him to then begin working for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee along the eastern Lake Michigan coast. Marty served as their fisheries biologist. In that role, Marty assisted the Little River Band in carrying out a restoration project for lake sturgeon in the Big Manistee River.

“It’s a fish that looks like a dinosaur,” says Marty, “and lives to be 50 years old and can get to be a hundred pounds. They were almost extirpated at the turn of the century. They were also a key cultural species for the Native Americans across the Great Lakes.”

The Little River Band had one of the few populations of lake sturgeon left.

But they didn’t know how many.

“Because it’s not a sport fish, the sturgeon has gone unnoticed and hasn’t been researched much,” says Marty. “So when I started there, I was charged with helping to understand this population and to also labor to restore it.”

The Little River Band and Marty worked for ten years on the restoration efforts. If you were to reduce the restoration to a simple recipe it would be this:

Step One: Capture the young lake sturgeon fry that had just hatched and were heading out to Lake Michigan. They’ll be about an inch long and vulnerable to being consumed by other fish.

Step Two:  Raise them through the summer in a portable stream-side facility that you’ve designed, rather than moving them to a hatchery somewhere else in the state. (The Little River Band wanted to keep them in their own watershed where they belonged.)

Step Three: Release them back into the river when the fish are now larger and better able to fend for themselves.

What was even more notable is that the release was turned into an annual community event. The tribal community and their non-tribal neighbors would gather together along the river in solidarity for the fish and the restoration. Then many of the attendees were able to release the lake sturgeon into the river by hand.

“It was a very significant and spiritual moment for me,” says Marty. “You had come full circle with this little fish that you had held in your hand in May. Now you’re releasing that fish four months later and it’s eight or nine inches long.”

“It also healed that community. There was a lot of mistrust in tribal and non-tribal people. You saw healing in those communities. It was a beautiful moment.”

This experience prompted Marty to return to Michigan Tech for a PhD that integrated fisheries management with the social sciences. This integrated approach was valuable because fisheries issues are community issues.

Marty became a tribal liaison for the state of Michigan around natural resource issues. Three months ago, he launching his own ecological restoration consulting firm – Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting, LLC.

“The main projects I’m working on now are reconnecting people to their watersheds,” Marty says. “On two of the projects I help with large scale dam removals, making sure the public needs are incorporated into those designs.”

“After leaving the Au Sable Institute,” Marty says, “I really had a passion for environmental work and that human connection with environmental work, too. I looked at Creation more holistically and saw that as we’re good stewards we’re also helping the human condition. Au Sable really changed my trajectory.”

The Au Sable Instiute in the Anthropocene

How could I not feel complete delight spending time in the quiet, beautiful woods of northern Michigan with faithful, friendly, thoughtful, stewardship-minded Christians?

Leave it to a blogger with some Norwegian lineage raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home whose father frequently reminded his sons not to praise the day until the evening.

Leave it to someone who listened to The Sixth Extinction on the way to the event.

In that book, Elizabeth Kolbert highlights the breadth and astonishing, accelerating pace of species extinction in our world today. She tells the story of how Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen was the first to christen our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. That designation communicates that we are in a new period of life on earth. It is a period defined by massive, geological-scale, human-caused changes. These changes have been largely tragic for the living systems and living beings of God’s earth.

With those kinds of thoughts running through my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the time I spent at Au Sable I hardly heard a note of outrage or collective sorrow about all that is happening around us. All I remember hearing was the phrase “poor earth” in a prayer.

When I shared this reaction with Fred, he had a thoughtful response I want to share with you:

…I thought you were a little hard on the Institute for a perceived lack of expression of outrage over what humans have done to the Earth and what Christians have done. Some of our symposium speakers did express some of these ideas on Thursday at the symposium, and I have expressed this at times in my own writings. However, at the institutional level, we at Au Sable have found little good to come of outrage over a problem once the damage is done. Hence, our response is more intentionally solution oriented, particularly in our research.

One can express outrage over oil-related deforestation, but that won’t bring back any trees. Instead, we are now determining (and at some levels, already have determined) the best treatments on these oil pads and the best species to plant to restore them to becoming again a living part of the forest community. Similarly, we feel deep sorrow that a beautiful fish, the Arctic grayling, was extirpated from Michigan waters by habitat degradation inspired by greed in Michigan’s logging era. Our response now is to work with Michigan Technological Institute (Michigan Tech) in creating a habitat suitability model that will help identify the best sites for grayling reintroduction.

Likewise we have been saddened by the near extirpation of the Kirtland’s warbler through the loss of young jack pine stands, but encouraged by its recovery which will likely soon lead to its delisting. Our contribution here, which is future oriented, is to determine the warbler’s success in red pine habitat (which it also uses) and, if reproductive outputs are similar (initial data show that they are), create plans attractive to the forest products industry to manage red pine (a more economically valuable tree than jack pine) for warblers, filling a void of support that will occur when the delisted Kirtland’s warbler loses federal protection and federal funding for its habitat management, and making the activity of logging, which once contributed to the warbler’s decline, now an agent of its recovery and restoration.

…I do believe it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to solve a problem than complain about the harm and hurt the problem caused.

There is no question in my mind that the Au Sable Institute is indeed a uniquely valuable candle.

As I’ve pondered Fred’s words, however, it occurs to me that the culture of science tends to be largely left-brained. It is a culture of rationality, analysis, and calm logic. Those qualities are certainly powerful.

Yet, the words of Aldo Leopold also ring true to me: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

Leopold was a man of science and a man of action. But in these words you also hear that he was a man, a man of feelings.

Reading the Bible one is struck by the emotional intensity of the people called by God across many centuries. Jesus himself embarked on a path destined to offer a saving way to humanity and ultimate redemption of all Creation. On that path, Jesus taught the “science” of God’s kingdom but also expressed a variety of emotions as he lived out his mission. In fact, his emotions, many of which were not the happy and calm ones, were part and parcel of his compelling nature.

In the Anthropocene, I believe being fully effective in addressing the wounds humanity has inflicted on God’s earth will require an integrated response that is both left-brained and right-brained.

Without question, we must have the left-brained understanding of how the world works and how to restore it. But right-brained responses are needed as well. We must be creative, emotionally open, and ready to engage in culture and art. The tragedy we face is in large part a product of polluted, closed, and misguided hearts. The unfolding tragedy is also taking its toll on people’s hearts. We must be able to understand, restore, inspire, and connect with people as living souls. We need science knowledge and heart knowledge.

Along these lines I was happy to hear from Fred that the Au Sable Institute is developing programs to train students in leadership. I am hopeful that these programs will begin to help Christians attending the Institute to inspire and lead within human communities, human organizations, and human systems.

Preparing to Leave

When the official activities came to a close on Saturday evening, I parked in the Au Sable Institute’s ball field near a few other attendees who had set up their tents. I slept less than well in my van. On Sunday morning, after a light breakfast the Institute provided, tents began to be broken down, and the campers prepared to go their separate ways.

Voices rose and people gathered when one of the campers, an alumnus of the Institute, spotted a large spider. It was crawling on the fabric of her tent that was lying on the ground and about to be packed away.

This striking orbweaver spider appeared on the tent of one the other attendees on Sunday morning. 

We gathered round, children and adults, to take a closer look. There was common curiosity and fascination. When we were done, the orbweaver spider was allowed to go safely along on its way. Once in the dew-flecked grass, it was almost impossible to see.

Fellow attendees check out the orbweaver.

A simple yet profound Sabbath moment at the Au Sable Institute. An example of the culture I’d love to see be the norm in Christian communities.

We warmly wished each other well, and I departed.

I was glad I had come.

Sometimes you come upon a book or an article or even just a quotation that captures a truth or insight that you’ve long been sensing but have been unable to put your finger on exactly.

I came upon an interview with Ken Myers on The Christian Post website that did just that.

Here’s how the introductory text to the interview describes Myers: “Myers is the founder and host of MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine featuring interviews with some of today’s foremost Christian thought leaders in academics, politics, and the arts. The mission: “To assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.” Myers, a former NPR reporter, is himself a thoughtful social critic who thinks deeply about the interplay between the church and the larger world.”

Another good profile of Ken Myers can be found here.

Here’s one section of the interview that especially stood out:

CP: What is the biggest challenge facing the church today?

Myers: It’s not “the culture,” as we often hear, that poses the most significant challenge for the church today. It’s the culture of the church.

What I mean is, we have reduced the Gospel to an abstract message of salvation that can be believed without having any necessary consequences for how we live. In contrast, the redemption announced in the Bible is clearly understood as restoring human thriving in creation.

Redemption is not just a restoration of our status before God through the life and work of Jesus Christ, but a restoration of our relationship with God as well. And our relationship with God is expressed in how we live. Salvation is about God’s restoring our whole life, not just one invisible aspect of our being (our soul), but our life as lived out in the world in ways that are in keeping with how God made us. The goal of salvation is blessedness for us as human beings. In other words, we are saved so that our way of life can be fully in keeping with God’s ordering of reality.

Here’s another:

If congregations in America were deeply and creatively committed to nurturing the culture of the city of God in their life together, I think it would have an inexorable effect on the lives of our neighbors. But I fear that too many churches are shaping people to be what Kenda Creasy Dean calls being “Christianish” – or not deeply Christian at all. The more faithful we are in living out the ramifications of a Christian understanding of all things, the more out-of-synch we will be in American culture. But why should we wish for anything else? What can we offer the world if we are just like the world?

Interestingly enough, many top businesses view the culture of their organizations as a vital factor in whether they will be ultimately successful or not. One article even calls on business leaders to be “cultural warriors.”

A great example of the difference a distinct and dynamic organization culture can make is Southwest Airlines. Here’s an insightful interview with Dave Ridley, a former executive at Southwest Airlines and a Christian, who talks about the dynamic, employee-focused culture of Southwest Airlines. At one point Ridley highlights the fact that Southwest Airlines is obviously not a Christian organization, and “Yet the culture (of Southwest Airlines) is very reflective of what one would hope to see – but often is not seen – in organizations that claim to have the gospel at their core (including lots of churches unfortunately).”

I’ve come away more convinced than ever that church leaders need to be energetically, thoughtfully, and artfully shaping the culture of their churches. Designing worship services to reflect a whole faith is just one step that needs to be taken.

Where are the Stories?

Nathan Aaberg —  September 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

I just had a powerful literary experience.

I listened to James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown read by Will Patton.

This crime/mystery novel is set in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina and features Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and a cast of many other unique characters.


It is harsh, brutal, and shattering. There were days when I could only listen to about 30 seconds and then had to wait until the next day to listen to a bit more because some of the scenes were so life-like in their rawness and so full of potential for tragic violence.

Yet, the story, especially with Will Patton’s skillful reading, is simultaneously eloquent, poetic, and richly layered. It is filled with wonderful evocations of the beauty of New Orleans’ bayous and live oaks. And there is a deft Christian sensibility to it as well.

Through the book, the tragedy of the impact of Hurrican Katrina on New Orleans, particularly on the most vulnerable, went from being abstractions that I had carefully inventoried away in back shelves of my mind to tangible, heartfelt wounds painfully etched in my imagination through details and characters and subplots of the story.

Where are the stories like this of our destruction of God’s world and the communities that depend on it?

Where are the stories of Christians perpetrating this?

Where are the stories of Christians trying to heal and shepherd God’s living world?

I want to read those kinds of stories. I realize I want to write them.

Would they make a difference?

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak at length on the phone with a Christian I had met at a gathering of conservationists and other community members in central Illinois. He and his wife are active members of their church. They also happen to care deeply for God’s earth.

This wasn’t always the case.

The turning point came in 2005 when he had back surgery while living in Ohio and couldn’t walk for some time. When he began to recover, he made it a goal to walk all 16 Metro parks in Columbus. The experience renewed his love of nature. Later, when he retired and returned with his wife to Illinois, he completed a Master Naturalist program. This, in turn, led him to get further involved with conservation through a local non-profit organization that preserves and restores natural areas. As part of their desire to live as simply as they could, they bought a seven-acre property, built a passive solar home, and have been restoring the land to native natural habitat.

Yet, he has found that not everyone at their church sees the connection between the Christian faith and the his and wife’s attentiveness to Creation.

He vividly remembers being asked by a fellow church member, “Why do you waste your time with that?”

In Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for CreationEdward Brown recounts a similar experience. He was having a conversation over coffee with a friend he deeply respected who had been the principal of a missionary school that both Brown and his wife had attended early in their lives. When Brown describes the mission organization he had founded (Care of Creation) and his personal commitment to environmental missions, he could tell this friend was distressed by all that he was saying. Here’s how Brown recounts his friends’ words to him: “He finally put down his cup of coffee, looked me in the eye and said, “Ed, what in the world does this have to with the Great Commission?””Our Fathers World #3484 IVP FINALOur Fathers World #3484 IVP Version

If you’re Christian and you’ve expressed a concern for God’s earth, you’ve probably faced something like this moment yourself. So how do you answer those questions?

The following excerpt from Our Father’s World, published by InterVarsity Press, will be helpful for you to read. You’ll see that Brown places a commitment to preserving God’s earth within the context of a whole Christian life.

He also pushes back. He highlights the negative consequences that unfold when Christian missions don’t present a complete faith that includes a commitment to shepherding God’s living world.

Here is the excerpt:

If you’ve stayed with me this long, you have a pretty good idea of why I believe caring for God’s creation has everything to do with that final command that Jesus gave his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). I’ve made a case for full, creation-restoring redemption. But my friend’s question is a serious one. He has seen the primary message of the gospel of Jesus Christ diluted by various kinds of “social gospel,” and he believes he has some reasons to be nervous. Is this just one effort to make a timeless gospel relevant, focusing on human needs but cutting out the essential heart of redemption and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross? The history of Christian ministry is littered with the carcasses of organizations that attempted to adapt to the needs of the moment and in the process lost the spiritual power that made them unique.

So how is caring for creation different? The first part of the answer requires a review of the foundation laid in the first part of this book. Christian missions is the effort of the whole church to extend Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-21) to all nations and all peoples, making disciples and “teaching them to observe” all of Jesus’ teachings and commandments (Matthew 28:20), in effect teaching them to live in ways that will reverse the curse of sin throughout all of God’s creation.

We’ve seen that this process involves a restoration of each of the relationships broken at the time of Adam and Eve’s sin: our relationship with God is restored in salvation; our relationship with ourselves in sanctification; our relationship with each other in koinonia, the restored community of the church; and our relationship with nonhuman creation in learning to live in harmony with it again, a process reflected in the ancient Hebrew word shalom….. If, then, the purpose of Christian missions or ministry is the accomplishment of this kind of full redemption, including creation care is not a distraction from the main goal. It is the goal.

Countries like Kenya have experienced more than one hundred years of missionary presence, but their current state shows no improvement. Depending on what you want to measure, Kenya is possibly a great deal worse off than before the gospel arrived. Is there a correlation between this and the truncated view of the Christian missions we’ve promoted for the last century? If the biblical goal is shalom, but we thought we were finished when we delivered a simple message of salvation, it’s no wonder things haven’t worked out quite as well as we might have expected. Bad theology – or at least incomplete theology – will always give bad results.

Jesus warned his disciples of the dangers of casting out a demon and leaving the “house” swept, cleaned but unguarded. That demon returns with seven others more powerful than itself (see Luke 11:24-25). We have driven out the demons of paganism with a lightweight gospel of personal salvation. Today the churches in these countries are reaping the harvest. If we’re honest, the results of this are evident not just in the daughter churches of missionary-receiving countries, but also in many of the mother churches that sent missionaries out in the first place. Bringing creation care and missions together will restore the theological integrity of the missionary enterprise.

Before I began reading his book Pollution and the Death of Man, I had only heard of Francis A. Schaeffer in reference to the Christian pro-life movement. He is one of the founding fathers of the intense conviction that abortion is profoundly wrong and that Christians should do all they can to stop it.

In light of the fact that there are many fellow Christians who are zealously pro-life when it comes to abortion and yet are completely sanguine about the destruction of the rest of life on God’s earth, I couldn’t help assuming that Schaeffer had a similar theological incoherence. This impression was reinforced by the fact that I first heard of the book from listening to Christian radio talk show host Janet Parshall. She regularly refers to Pollution and the Death of Man when she talks in alarm about the growing concern people have for the environment. She reminds her audience that Schaeffer had warned that human dignity would be compromised if humanity was presumed to have anything in common with nature and if humanity’s freedom to use the world in any way was questioned.

Pollution_rnd1 5 book cover

Forty-five years since its publication this book’s arguments still resonate.

Nevertheless, out of curiousity, I ordered the book and read it. I was floored. It certainly conveys a fierce love of God and commitment to the ideas that come from the Bible. But it also fiercely asserts that those ideas uniquely give real value to nature and that Christians have for too long been AWOL in caring for nature the way they should. It contains powerful ideas about what the true relationship should be between humanity and the rest of nature. And these ideas challenge the way Christians have thought about nature and acted towards it for centuries.

Because the book’s essential ideas have been misrepresented and because those ideas are still relevant today, I am using this blog post to share 10 key points about the book. I am including Scheaffer’s own words as much as possible because of their passion and power.

I would also encourage you to learn more about Francis Schaeffer. He was a complex person who led a complex life and challenged, in some way or other, almost everyone.  He was a relentless warrior on behalf of Biblical truth in the world of theology and philosophy. There are, in fact, elements of what he wrote and spoke that I profoundly disagree with. He was also a person who desired to bring people together and engage with them in conversation, fellowship, and mutual learning. He and his wife Edith founded the L’Abri community in Switzerland in 1955 which has become a network of learning centers around the world where people can ask honest questions about the Christian faith while enjoying fellowship and hospitality. He also believed that Christians should be compassionate and engaged with the culture around them even as they hold tightly to Biblical truths. Along those lines, he wrote this startling sentence: “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.”

You can learn more about him here. The best article I read was by Michael Hamilton in a 1997 issue of Christianity Today (you must, sadly, be a subscriber to read the whole thing). Here is an excellent quotation from that article about Scheaffer:

“Ideas were to him literally matters of life and death. History, thought Schaeffer, taught that the intellectual base on which a people build their society will determine that society’s laws and character: “There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people.” His singular message was that a society cannot hope for righteousness and justice without thinking the thoughts of God from the bottom up.”

francis_schaeffer image II

This gives you a sense of his intensity and intellectual energy. It also helps you understand a bit why in his view the unmooring of Western civilization from Christian foundations and its movement towards cultural relativism alarmed him.

That same intensity and intellect is displayed in Pollution and the Death of Man. I don’t necessarily agree with every single point he makes.  Yet, there is much treasure and truth here. It makes one wonder what would the world would be like if Christians and the Church had been living out the principles Schaeffer presents in this book over the last two millennia. Above all, this book shows that taking the Bible seriously and reading it carefully leads to a profound commitment to being a good shepherd of the earth who finds wonder and beauty in it.

1. Schaeffer wrote in the context of a growing consciousness that humanity is destroying the world that led some to blame Christianity: Published in 1970, Pollution and the Death of Man was Schaeffer’s effort to insert Christianity into the battle of ideas surrounding the realization that nature was being destroyed. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published and caused America to rethink its relationship with chemicals. In 1966, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released plans to build two dams in the Grand Canyon (can you imagine that?), but the Sierra Club and others vociferously fought those plans and were ultimately successful. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the thirteenth time in its history, a brutal symbol for all that was wrong with America’s use of technology and relationship with nature (check out this article about how local responses to the problem of industrial pollution, not necessarily the Clean Water Act, resulted in the 1969 fire being the last on the Cuyahoga).

Thinkers grappled with the ultimate causes of this environmental destruction. In 1967, Lynn White, Jr.’s article “The Historical Roots of Our Environmental Crisis” was published. In it, he centered the blame for Western civilization’s unrelenting exploitation of nature on Christianity. An expert in Medieval technology, White argued that the paradigm-shifting triumph of Christianity had squashed the notion that there was spirit and sacredness in nature. Instead, it established humanity’s proper role as harsh, exploitative dominators. Nature, in other words, existed solely for the use of humanity. This assumption, White insists, has always made Christianity the most anthropocentric religion in the world.

Another key thesis of White’s was that the tsunami of negative impacts brought by science and technology can’t be addressed by applying science and technology in new ways. Christianity is at the root of the marriage of science and technology and is at the root of the idea that a tree is just a tree and is there for our exploitation. If we don’t change how we think of nature morally and ethically, nothing else will change. And because Western civilization’s great moral ideas come from Christianity, Christianity must be part of any solution. White pointed to Saint Francis as offering a better Christian path of faith and life.

2. Neither polytheism nor modern science are the answers, and both threaten the true nature of humanity: In Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer wholeheartedly agrees that there is an environmental crisis. He also agrees with White that the destruction of nature is, at heart, a religious and moral problem. But he asserts that neither pantheism nor a modern, science-based philosophy are good answers either.

A morality based on either results in only a pragmatic concern for nature. “The only reason we are called upon to treat nature well is because of its effects on man and our children and the generations to come. So in reality,….man is left with a completely egoistic position in regard to nature. No reason is given – moral or logical – for regarding nature as something in itself.”

Schaeffer asserts, too, that pantheism and modernism undercut man’s dignity and will indeed bring the death of man in a metaphorical sense because all is reduced to particles and particles have no meaning. When humanity is merely another part of nature, which both pantheism and modern science suggest, then people can be treated like any other element of nature.

3. The wrong kind of Christianity will lead to wrong views of nature: Listen to these words by Schaeffer:

“It is well to stress, then, that Christianity does not automatically have an answer; it has to be the right kind of Christianity. Any Christianity that rests upon a dichotomy – some sort of Platonic concept – does not have an answer to nature; and we must say with sorrow that much orthodoxy, much evangelical Christianity, is rooted in Platonic concept. In this kind of Christianity there is only interest in the “upper story,” in the heavenly things – only in “saving the soul” and getting it to Heaven.”

In one of the best stories of the book, Schaeffer relates how he walked over to a pagan community across a ravine from a Christian school he was visiting. He was told that he was the first person from the school to ever have visited them. What especially struck Schaeffer was that the Christian school was ugly while the pagan community’s landscape and buildings were beautiful. Schaeffer considers this situation and writes: “Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility and proper relationship to nature.”

Later, Schaeffer writes: “God is interested in creation. He does not despise it. There is no reason whatsoever, and it is absolutely false Biblically, for the Christian to have a Platonic view of nature. What God has made, I, who am also a creature, must not despise.”

4. We should respect what God has created: For Schaeffer, understanding nature properly rests on the fundamental truth that God created the world and the cosmos. God is not part of nature. Nature is separate from God. This, Schaeffer asserts, is the basis for science.

But the distinctness of God from nature does not mean nature is of no value. Because God made nature, all of nature deserves our “high respect.” Listen to what Schaeffer writes:

“But while we should not romanticize the tree, we must realize God made it and it deserves respect because He made it as a tree. Christians who do not believe in the complete evolutionary scale have reason to respect nature as the total evolutionist never can, because we believe God made these things specifically in their own areas. So if we are going to argue against the evolutionists intellectually, we should show the results of our beliefs in our attitudes. The Christian is a man who has a reason for dealing with each created thing with a high level of respect.”

To consider the things of this world as worthless or low, Schaeffer asserts, is to insult God.

In addition, we have God’s own example to follow. Schaeffer writes, “… God treats His creation with integrity: each thing in its own order, each thing the way He made it. If God treats His creation in that way, should we not treat our fellow-creatures with similar integrity? If God treats the tree like a tree, the machine like a machine, the man like a man, shouldn’t I, as a fellow-creature, do the same – treating each thing in integrity in its own order? And for the highest reason: because I love God – I love the One who has made it! Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the things He has made.”

5. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension remind us that all things spiritual and material have value and will be redeemed: The things in front of us are sometimes the hardest to see. Schaeffer looks directly at the historic center of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension – and sees an affirmation of a principle that is too often overlooked by Christians. He writes: “The resurrection and ascension prove there is no reason to make false dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. That is a totally non-Biblical concept.” In other words, matter matters. Nature matters.

Schaeffer pays attention, too, to the eighth chapter of the book of Romans. “As Christ’s death redeems men, including their bodies, from the consequences of the Fall, so His death will redeem all nature from the Fall’s evil consequences at the time when we are raised from the dead.” In other words, nature is an essential part of the Biblical story of the world from the beginning to the end.

6. Separate from yet united with nature: A core theological concept for Schaeffer is that the God of Christians is unique “in being both infinite and personal.” All of matter is separated from God who is the Creator and who is infinite and who has always been. Yet, God created people in God’s image, which makes them unique. This means that people have a unique relationship with God that the rest of nature does not.

While many Christians stop right there, Schaeffer doesn’t. He asserts that we simultaneously have two different relationships with nature. Yes, we are unique, we are separate, and we do have dominion (the right kind of dominion). But we also have fellowship with everything else in nature. Why? Because we collectively share the same status – we are all creations of God.

“This is the true Christian mentality. It rests upon the reality of creation out of nothing by God. But it also follows that all things are equally created by God. All things were equally created out of nothing. All things, including man, are equal in their origin, as far as creation is concerned.” (Those italics are Schaeffer’s.)

Schaeffer emphasizes this point throughout the book. Here is a startling line in the context of the balance Schaeffer advocates between our right to use nature wisely for our ends and our fellowship with the rest of nature. “Even the moss has a right to live. It is equal with man as a creature of God.”

Humans, especially Christians, however, are quick to assert that we are distinct and separate from the rest of nature. Schaeffer would agree that we are distinct and different and would argue that our ability to have consciousness, choice, and will power are key elements of our uniqueness. This presents a fundamental and spiritual challenge to us. We as humans do have options. We have choices. One of our fundamental choices is whether we do all to nature that we have the capacity to do.

Unthinkingly using all of our unique capacities to manipulate the rest of the created order for our satisfaction and convenience at the cost of nature’s vitality lowers us to the state of the rest of the natural order. Conversely, making the conscious choice to limit ourselves for nature’s prosperity affirms our own humanity.

This is where Schaeffer is making, I believe, a subtle argument that people like Janet Parshall are not picking up. It is easy to conclude that Schaeffer’s title refers only to the idea that pantheism and modern materialism, as reactions to the ongoing destruction of nature, will lead to the death of man. But Schaeffer is also all but saying explicitly that if we do not exercise conscious and moral choices in relation to nature than we are also denying human uniqueness. In fact, if we do that, we are acting with exactly the same values that would flow naturally from an evolutionary, materialist perspective. In other words, not limiting ourselves in how we use our creative powers to extract from nature what we want and not opening ourselves to a psychological relationship with nature leads also to the spiritual death of man even if we have some theologically correct ideas of God.

7. Christians have acted badly: Christianity has, in Schaeffer’s estimation, the answer to the environmental crisis. This is because “It is the Biblical view of nature that gives nature a value in itself…” Nature, in other words, is not just valuable for its practical benefit to us but has its own ethical and spiritual standing. And if we give ourselves to God and allow God to guide our values and actions, then we will treat nature as it should be treated.

But despite having a clear basis for acting rightly toward nature, Christians haven’t. In fact, Schaeffer’s story of the pagan community across from the Christian school captures the sense that Christians have done far worse than many non-Christians in how they treat nature.

“The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but to exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having a value in itself, exercising dominion without being destructive. The church should always have taught and done this, but it has generally failed to do so, and we need to confess our failures. Francis Bacon understood this, and so have other Christians at different times; but by and large we must say that for a long, long time Christian teachers, including the best orthodox theologians, has shown a real poverty here.”

And Christians have committed sins of omission throughout history by not defending nature.

“They (hippies) were right in fighting the plastic culture, and the church should have been fighting it, too, a long, long time ago before the counterculture ever came onto the scene.”

Schaeffer even poses this powerful question: “…what would have happened if the church at the time of the Industrial Revolution had spoken out against the economic abuses which arose from it?”

And listen to this critique of Christians and their selective interest in nature that is, 45 years later, as trenchant and stinging as ever.

“Nature has become merely an academic proof of the existence of the Creator, with little value in itself. Christians of this outlook do not show an interest in nature itself. They use it simply as an apologetic weapon, rather than thinking or talking about the real value of nature.”

Amen. AMEN.

Schaeffer takes that line of argument a step further.

“We must confess that we missed our opportunity. We have spoken loudly against materialistic science, but we have done little to show that in practice we ourselves as Christians are not dominated by a technological orientation in regard either to man or nature. We should have been stressing and practicing for a long time that there is a basic reason why we should not do all that with our technology we can do. We have missed the opportunity to help man save his earth. Not only that, but in our generation we are losing an evangelistic opportunity because when modern people have a real sensitivity to nature, many of them turn to the pantheistic mentality. They have seen that most Christians simply do not care about nature as such.”

This is one of the reasons why Schaeffer believes the church has become “irrelevant and helpless in our generation.”

“We are living in and practicing a sub-Christianity.”

In other words, when Christians articulate and live out a faith that is not whole, that does not give proper emphasis to the earth and cosmos, then people are not to be blamed if they find the Christian faith unappealing, inauthentic, and inadequately challenging and so decide not to become disciples of Jesus.

Ultimately, Schaeffer levels a damning suggestion about the impact of a wrong view of nature as well. He suggests, in the form of questions, that our faith in God is not real, that we don’t truly love God (the ultimate Lover), that our faith is not whole and complete and alive in us, if we don’t care for nature.

“If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Christians feel an unreality in their Christian lives. If I don’t love what the Lover has made – in the area of man, in the area of nature – and really love it because He made it, do I really love the Lover?”

8. The Church should bring substantial healing to nature: Schaeffer believes that the Fall caused many divisions – man from God, man from himself, man from other people, man from nature, and even nature from nature. These divisions will eventually be completely healed when Christ returns to earth. But we are not simply to wait passively until then. Christians are to believe that with God’s help “substantial healing can be a reality here and now.” “God’s calling to the Christian now, and to the Christian community in the area of nature (just as it is in the area of personal Christian living in true spirituality) is that we should exhibit a substantial healing here and now, between man and nature and nature and itself, as far as Christians can bring it to pass.” In short, the Church and the local church are to do their best within their sphere of influence to live out God’s healing of all relationships as a sign of what God’s kingdom will look like when fully established in all dimensions of life.

What are some characteristics of the substantial healing the Church and the local church should bring?

One is an emphasis on Creation. It is important and not some secondary, optional, tertiary concern.

Another is the right idea of dominion. Dominion is not sovereignty. “It (nature) belongs to God, and we are to exercise our dominion over these things not as though entitled to exploit them, but as things borrowed or held in trust.”

And at the heart of the correct understanding of dominion is the concept of conscious, self-imposed limitations in light of the fact that our dominion is under God’s dominion and that nature is something God values. We will accept limits to our freedom for the sake of what is good and holy. We will not do all that we can do with science and technology. We will be patient.

9. The Christian who gets the relationship with nature right will have a psychological bond with it: Schaeffer is careful not to condone a romanticization of nature but in a nuanced way he repeatedly declares that we can and should have a psychological bond with nature because we know that we are distinct from nature and yet part of it.

“Psychologically, I ought to “feel” a relationship to the tree as my fellow-creature. It is not simply that we ought to feel a relationship intellectually to the tree, and then turn this into just another argument for apologetics, but that we should realize, and train people in our churches to realize, that on the side of creation and on the side of God’s infinity and our finiteness we really are one with the trees!”

Elsewhere Schaeffer writes, “In this sense Saint Francis’s use of the term “brothers to the birds” is not only theologically correct, but a thing to be intellectually thought of and practically practiced. More, it is to be psychologically felt as I face the tree, the bird, the ant.”

He also writes, “Because it is right, on the basis of the whole Christian system – which is strong enough to stand it all because it is true – as I face the buttercup, I say: “Fellow-creature, fellow-creature, I won’t walk on you. We are both creatures together.””

10. Making the choice to accept limits and treat nature rightly brings many benefits: When Christians and the Church act toward nature and relate with nature in the way they should, Schaeffer asserts there will be substantial healing. This healing will be seen in a “new sense of beauty.”The aesthetic values are not to be despised. God has made man with a sense of beauty that no animal has; no animal has ever produced a work of art. Man as made in the image of God has an aesthetic quality, and as soon as he begins to deal with nature as he should, beauty is preserved in nature.”

And the resulting improvement in the ecological condition of the world will benefit the long-term health of our economy as well as the value of humanity.

We will also experience a renewed sense of wonder. I love this line from Schaeffer in connection with this them: “Life begins to breathe.” And, provocatively, he calls attention to the fact that Charles Darwin shared in his notes that as he got older he lost his joy in the arts and in nature. By contrast, people who believe in God’s creative force behind the world’s creation can and should find that nature inspires joy and wonder.

Finally, choosing to relate to the nature as God intended will endow us with psychological freedom and open up an enhanced relationship with God.

My guess is that you already knew that.