Caring for Creation

Oct. 27, 1999

When God created the earth and placed man in the Garden of Eden, the Creator intended not that man would abuse creation for selfish gain and purpose, but that man would serve God through faithful stewardship in caring for the earth and its many inhabitants.

That was a common theme among speakers and participants of "Caring for Creation - Christian Stewardship of the Environment," an academic conference on religion and the environment held on the Baylor University campus Oct. 11-12. It was the first-ever such conference at Baylor, and organizers hope to make it a regular event.

Sponsored by Baylor's environmental studies department and the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the conference featured guest speakers from both the environmental and theological perspectives of caring for the earth.

"If you are filled with Jesus, you are an environmentalist," declared Dr. Tony Campolo, popular speaker and noted author of 26 books, including Caring for Creation Without Worshipping Nature. Campolo, an ordained minister who teaches at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., challenged conference attendees to reconsider their attitudes toward creation during the closing plenary session.

Baylor professors who helped organize or participated in the conference were: Dr. Sara Alexander, assistant professor of environmental studies; Dr. Dudley Burton, professor of environmental studies; Larry Lehr, lecturer in environmental studies; Heidi Marcum, lecturer in environmental studies; Dr. Dan McGee, professor of religion; and Dr. Peter van Walsum, assistant professor of environmental studies.

Lehr said the Caring for Creation conference was put together in an effort to bridge the information gap between environmentalists, theologians and the general public. "Every human on the planet has to be concerned about food, air, water and shelter," he said. "The conference provides an opportunity to have a dialogue on stewardship issues, morality, ethics and the way those things relate to environmental issues."

Throughout the two-day event, session mediators and attendees discussed issues ranging from global warming to kinship with creation. Guest speakers from across the state and nation shared insight on everything from saving the rain forests to reading the Bible for confirmation that the earth is filled with God's glory. Groups of between 50 to 200 attendees participated in the various conference sessions.

Dr. Max Oelschlaeger opened the conference with an address at Chapel Forum based on his recent book, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis. He made note of several Bible passages wherein God is celebrated through creation, such as Psalm 104: 24, and where humans are given charge of the earth to love and care for it, as found in Genesis 2:15.

"Christians can see God in the environment - every mountain, every stream, through life, death and renewal," said Oelschlaeger, the Frances B. McAllister Endowed Chair in Community, Culture and Environment at Northern Arizona University. "Moreover, we come back to our faith through our education."

Oelschlaeger also led a plenary session on "The Moral Imperative," where he touched on issues mentioned in his book, as well as his current activities with Native Americans in the Northern Arizona area.

Dr. Mark Waters led a breakout session titled "Kinship with Creation" and discussed five points for relating to and caring for the earth. Waters is assistant professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.

He first touched on rejecting dualism, whereby humans alienate themselves from the rest of creation and set themselves above earth and its inhabitants. This way of thinking often can lead to mistreatment of the environment, Waters explained.

Working for justice for all creatures is another way to care for creation. Waters noted that in the book of Micah in the Bible, justice is interrelated to love and humility, characteristics that Christians are charged to emulate.

For his third point, Waters said humans need to adopt an intrinsic value of creation. "We must take on holistic perspectives and see the God-given value of animals, plants and matter. Humans are not the only ones with value," he said.

Waters next encouraged attendees to celebrate human kinship with God and creation. One example is incorporating creation into the worship of God, such as holding Sunday school classes in outdoor settings or taking nature walks while praying. "We need to appreciate the beauty around us and include it in our worship and devotional time."

Finally, Waters said people can relate to and care for creation by becoming attuned to the revelation of God in all things. "We need to affirm that God is in all things," he said, pointing out the scripture passage in Job 12:7-10 which says that animals, birds and the earth itself can teach people about God.

"In summary, we shouldn't separate the spiritual from creation," Waters said. "We should let creation and spirituality form one another."

Rev. Stan LeQuire, director of continuing education for Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, led a breakout session on the "Spiritual Formation Response."

He began the discussion by inviting participants to share a time when an encounter with nature, particularly being outdoors, made them feel closer to God. Afterward, he spoke about stories from the Bible that touch on humanity and creation, such the story of the Tower of Babel.

"You've got a story here that is full of things that I think we really need to pay attention to: pride, power and a universe that is centered around human reality rather than divine reality," LeQuire explained, adding that issues like these are just as timely today as they were in biblical times.

LeQuire said humans, and Christians in particular, need to be careful that a society centered around ever-improving technology does not become an idol to replace God. "If we can build a tower that reaches up to God, maybe he's not so great," he said. "I'm not saying we should all go out and live in the woods, or that we should give up technology, but we need a bit of humility."

Campolo wrapped up the conference with a call for Christians to open their eyes to the importance of caring for the world around them.

"Dealing with the environment is very important to me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because I'm concerned about the poor," he said, making note of third-world countries in particular. "When we talk about who is going to suffer as a result of environmental degradation, there's little question that it's the poor who are going to take it in the teeth."

Environmentalism, Campolo said, includes missionary work to help eliminate ground erosion and plant trees, as well as helping feed hungry children. "We talk about whether we're going to accept or reject Jesus Christ; that's such an abstract theological concept," he said. "Jesus said, 'If you don't accept the poor, you haven't accepted me.' "

Campolo said followers of Christ should have a broader view of the world, noting the eighth chapter of Romans in the Bible which talks about creation waiting for the sons of God to deliver it from corruption. "Through you, (Jesus) can transform this world into the kingdom of God, the world that God created it to be," he said.

Campolo referred to the 148th Psalm which states that all of creation has been called to praise God. "You see, if there weren't any human beings on the face of the earth, there would still be a reason for whales, for they in and of themselves exist for one purpose and that is, not to provide blubber, but to sing hymns of praise to God," he explained. "You say this is weird theology; no, it's biblical theology. And when we wipe out a species of whales, we have in fact silenced a hymn to God."

Finally, Campolo said that a lack of environmental concern among Christians is in direct conflict with what the Bible teaches about the value of creation itself. "In short, to devastate the environment is not just irresponsible and ecologically dangerous, but it's blasphemous," he said. "We have this idea that God created this wonderful planet and the whole universe just for us. I believe what the Bible says, that the heavens were not created so that we might enjoy them. The heavens were created to declare the glory of God."

A compilation of papers from those who spoke at the conference will be available soon. For more information, call the department of environmental studies at (254) 710-3405 or email Environemntal Studies at envstudies_office@baylor.edu.

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