Unnatural affections

By Phyllis Strupp
Posted Apr 19, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Six years ago, our district’s state representative granted my request for a meeting. Waiting in his office, I noticed that the walls were covered with pictures of smiling people receiving awards, celebrating birthdays, and holding babies. As he settled in behind his desk with a cup of coffee, he asked what was on my mind. On behalf of the Diocese of Arizona’s Nature and Spirituality Program, I urged him to give careful consideration to ecological consequences when deciding how to vote on several pending bills. Leaning forward, he looked intently at me and said, “I hate environmentalists. I hate them because they like trees more than people.”

There is a shred of truth to his harsh words. I have met some environmentalists who have an unnatural affection for nature, embracing it as an escape from destructive human relationships. But far more common is my representative’s unnatural affection for people above everything else.

This human-centric perspective is especially common in the Episcopal Church, underlying the anemic response to the bishops’ pastoral teaching on the environment issued in September 2011. This theologically profound work indicates the time has come for reconciling the broken relationship between the church and creation.

Based on my experience with green ministry, four widespread attitudes in the church are hindering the Holy Spirit’s work in this area. First and foremost is the view that people come first and nature comes second—as if they are separate entities. Human needs for air, food, water, clothing, shelter, and other necessities are met by resources drawn from the natural world. Even manmade products depend on natural resources. Creation can live without people, but people can’t live without creation. If you don’t care about creation, you don’t really care about people.

Secondly, is the attitude that environmentalism is a political issue that should not come up in the church. This concern has kept many clergy from preaching about creation, less they step on the political toes of well-heeled parishioners during tough economic times. Creation as a spiritual issue can be addressed in ways that build bridges between liberals and conservatives. We were able to do this among the members of the Nature and Spirituality Program. However, this bridge building requires spiritual formation on creation that the church is not currently providing to clergy and lay leaders.

Thirdly, is the belief that money matters more than natural resources or just about anything else. Perhaps this is an unconscious defense to avoid the unpleasant truth that many Episcopalians’ wallets and the Episcopal Church’s coffers are filled with dirty money that was earned by exploiting the creation.

Fourthly, is the view that creation has nothing to do with the gospel and Christ. Perhaps this attitude persists because there is so little preaching and liturgy that includes Creation. However, the Bible confirms that God has a glorious plan for all of creation, not just people. The first two chapters of Genesis reveal that a human being is defined by his or her relationships with God, creation, others and self. The New Testament builds on this spiritual foundation. Jesus refers to his second coming as “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28) and commands, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

We are joined at the hip with creation, physically and spiritually.

Earth Day, April 22, provides a convenient opportunity to get behind the Holy Spirit’s green work in the church. Is there someone you know who has a passion for environmental advocacy or animal welfare? Take the time to learn more about their work, and how they came to be concerned about the issue. Affirm their willingness to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of an indifferent church and a hostile society. Ask your clergy to preach and teach more about how God is at work in our relationship with creation. Ask the prayer group to pray for the healing of creation and all people and species who have been harmed by ecological distress. Resolve to be just as careful with natural resources as you are with money. Give thanks to God for this good earth—and delight in a natural affection for all that God has made in nature and humanity.

— Phyllis Strupp is the author of the award-winning book “The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert” and Church Publishing’s companion curriculum “Faith and Nature: The Divine Adventure of Life on Earth.”


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Comments (6)

  1. Jerry Cappel says:

    Hear! Hear! Well said, Phyllis. Each of your points are very well taken, and speak directly to the most difficult and deepest work the church has to be about doing. Thank you for saying it.

  2. I think that absence of proper attentiveness to and appreciation for environmental matters is pretty ubiquitous, and not the exclusive purview of the wealthy. I’m surprised the author described it as such.

    Or was she saying that clergy have been willing to annoy poor and middle-class parishioners, but not the rich, lest they retaliate by withholding their sizable contributions? That’s certainly a discussion worth having — but it’s not the same discussion.

    1. Phyllis Strupp says:

      Thanks Scott and everyone else for the insightful comments and affirmations. To clarify, I did not mean to suggest that the wealthy are the only ones that lack concern for the environment, but are the main reason why it is not more integrated into worship and liturgy. I had not thought about what you said Scott–that they’re willing to stepon less wealthy toes. In the name of avoiding conflict, I think this does happen. Some clergy have told me that after the dealing with the conflicts over gay ordination and marriage, they just don’t want to have more. As I mention in the commentary, I have found ways to engage people on nature and spirituality that build bridges rather than stir conflict, but one must be spiritually formed on the issue. Happy Earth Day!

  3. I must say I find your e-mail refreshing. As a owner of a small recycling company in the middle of Wyoming I find myself often speaking with members of all faiths about the importance of taking care of God’s gifts to us. Stewardship is a word I find coming out of my mouth a lot these days and it seems that is falls on deaf ears sometimes but for the most part I think you are correct and that most folks just need a reminder that when we were all created God told us humans that we are responsible for taking care of all of his creations…

    Thanks for writing about this.

  4. Dr. Lo Sprague says:

    This is such an important discussion on so many levels.

    The disregard we show for the earth is disregard for our children.

    We are missing a precious opportunity to engage with the best in our God-given creativity to find ways to work in harmony with the sanctity of the earth.

    A whole generation of bright, creative, think-outside-the-box, young people could find a deeply meaningful place of leadership here if we would only invite and encourage them.

    Thank you for your clear voice.

  5. Lucy Germany says:

    The core of the problem is the way we treat it as an elephant or some other large unwieldy creature on our property…it is soo identified with money, with power, with politics. with complex structures and organization that we forget where it all begins — where you live, where you walk, where you breathe. The interest in nature precedes the love of nature — when you acquire some understanding of it, you can hardly help but love the nature around you and to appreciate its importance as a setting for human activity. True — there are mishaps — storms and drought, but often the passing of these can not only increase your admiration for human flexibility and recovery of human structure but also admiration for the tenacity of nature and for the confidence in its mix of gift and grief — one of which makes us happy and the other which makes us stronger.

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