Christianity for the Rest of Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us

World Environment Day and Christianity: Retire St. Boniface!

June 5 is World Environment Day.  Similar to Earth Day, WED celebrates the global movement for
environmental activism by commemorating the 1972 United Nations Conference on
the Human Environment, the first such international conference. 

June 5 also marks the Feast Day of St. Boniface
(672-754).  St. Boniface is
remembered as the Apostle of the Germans and is the patron saint of Germany,
and who is credited with establishing Christianity among ancient Germanic tribal

The most famous incident in St. Boniface’s life happened
around 723.  Boniface arrived in
the village of Geismar and began to preach the Christian Gospel at the base of
Thor’s Oak, the sacred tree of the Germans. To prove the superiority of the Christian
God over Thor, Boniface took an axe to the tree beseeching Thor to strike him
dead if he cut the holy oak. 
According to the legend, Thor failed to respond and Boniface fell the
tree, aided by a “great wind” that, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak
over.  The terrified pagans
deserted Thor and embraced the Christian God.   Boniface promptly
took the sacred splinters and made a cross, and eventually used the rest of the
wood to build a church where the tree once stood.

That World Environment Day and a feast day for an
axe-wielding, tree-chopping Christian saint fall on the same date strikes me a
one of history’s sad–if not tragic–ironies. 

In his seminal 1967 paper, “The Historical Roots of Our
Ecological Crisis,”
UCLA professor Lynn White blamed Christianity for the
global environmental crisis:

Especially in
its Western form, Christianity is the
most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.
As early as the 2nd
century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when
God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the
Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to
ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not
only established a dualism of man and
but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature
for his proper ends.


White’s forceful argument has shaped much of the conversation between
Christianity and environmentalism over the last four decades–an uneasy
relationship if ever there has been one. 
Many environmentalists follow White, seeing Christianity as a problem in
the face of global warming and environment crises.  Indeed, studies show that theologically conservative people
reject global warming, animal rights, environmental activism, and species

Despite St. Boniface and his lasting influence of western culture,
Christianity may not be completely lost to the global environmental
movement.  Indeed, even Lynn White
pointed out that some strands of Christian tradition–most notably represented by
St. Francis of Assisi, the nature-embracing saint–spoke to an “alternative
Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it.”  He proposed that St. Francis be the “patron saint of
ecologists.”  In one of the most
provocative passages in his paper, White said:

Both our present science and our present
technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature
that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since
the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be
essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and re
-feel our nature and destiny. The profoundly
religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual
autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a
patron saint for ecologists.


St. Francis is of course, a
better-remembered and more beloved figure than St. Boniface.  But, on this World Environment Day, I
can’t help but think that Christians give lip service to Francis while still
acting like Boniface.  For the sake
of all creation, I think we need to embrace Lynn White’s 1967 suggestion–to
stop cutting down sacred oaks in favor of following the way of St. Francis,
“the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ,” who according to
White, “tried to
depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s

To White’s
proposal, I say:  Amen. Time to retire St. Boniface and instead do as St. Francis would do–give the brown
pelicans in the Gulf a vote.

Comments read comments(65)
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posted June 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm

The church is most definately being called to embrace the attitude of St. Francis…I agree that we are perhaps a little too much like Boniface – ready to tear down that tree to prove a point…given that this is my ordination date 1998 – I will whould love to say that I was ordained on the great Feast of World Environment Day!

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Diana Butler Bass

posted June 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Lovely! You, indeed, were ordained on the Great Feast of Mother Earth! St. Francis is smiling down on you.
Pax, Diana

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Rita Nakashima Brock

posted June 5, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Christianity was not always so human-centric–it originally believed salvation was baptism into paradise in this world and all creation manifested the spirit of God (the Gallican Eucharist Rite prayer of Thanksgiving gives thanks for the whole cosmos before turning to the human body–it’s in my book Saving Paradise, 2008 Beacon).
Charlemagne began deforesting No. Europe in the 9th c. as a strategy for conquering the “pagan” Saxons, whose indigenized Christianity was conducted amongst the sacred groves of Oden. The rest of Europe lost its trees when nobles started deforesting their estates to raise funds for the Crusades. Though only the first crusade succeeded, the centuries of crusading that followed had to be paid for.

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posted June 5, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Hum, well, I don’t know that the notion is specifically Christian. Seems to me that you will find the roots in Hebrew Scripture where Genesis suggests that Adam and Eve originally at least were destined to exercise dominion and control over the earth. As for trees, much as I love them (and I am a tree lover), trees have a natural span of life and will, if not harvested, decay, fall and rot, ultimately returning to the earth as do all living things. Harvesting a tree while it is still useful, say for energy or building, is not necessarily a bad thing. Mindless clearing and burning to create open space is a bad thing. I’ll leave it to others to pass judgment on where the actions of Boniface fall on this spectrum.

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Diana Butler Bass

posted June 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

For those of you who don’t know Rita Nakashima Brock’s book, Saving Paradise (co-author Rebecca Parker), you should! It is one of the best books about Christian history written in the last decade. Highly recommended!

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Janet L. Bohren

posted June 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Thank you for this illuminating bit of Christian history tied to World Environment Day. Lynn White’s 1967 comments bear discussion by all of us who call ourselves part of the Judeo/Christian tradition. Pictures of the gulf oil spill are chilling – a reminder of how fragile our “blue marble” space raft is in God’s great universe and how important it is to rethink a St. Francis approach to creation.
And to Rita N. Brock, thank you too for your comments. I had often wondered how Europe lost its forests as I studied both history and science over the years. I have your book — now I must read it. : )

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Nora McKenna

posted June 5, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Aha — thanks for the link to Rita Nakashima Brock’s book — I was looking for something to add to my kindle today before I headed out to Golden Gate to relax among the beautiful gardens and trees in the lovely city of St. Francis!

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posted June 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I think your point is well taken, Diana, but I also think we need to be careful not to over-analyze Boniface’s act or judge by today’s standards something done in the eighth century. After all, Boniface did not live in the wake of three hundred years of industrialism, characterized as it has been by wanton exploitation and ravaging of the natural world.
And I’m sure Boniface did not consider his act one of human domination over nature; rather, he saw it as Christ demonstrating that he and the Triune God were worthy of worship rather than Thor. He probably thought he was standing in the tradition of the prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel.
And he did build an edifice with the wood, so it wasn’t exactly wanton destruction of the tree.
Even considering the tree-chopping incident, I’m absolutely sure that Boniface left a far smaller footprint on the earth in his entire lifetime than most of us leave in a single year.

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Lord Nixon

posted June 5, 2010 at 3:37 pm

If you want to help the environment, why bother with religion? Join the Sierra Club or some other organization.
“Mother Earth” will be here until the sun expands and absorbs the inner planets millions of years from now. Sentimental anthropomorphing is pointless, another way the Mainline Protestant churches are trying to stay “relevant” while they slide into oblivion-and maintain very expensive consumerist lifestyles.

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted June 5, 2010 at 9:48 pm

The trouble with seeing what you want to see to excoriate and damn something in this modern world is that someone else might want to excoriate and damn something else in our modern world–as well as totally take something out of historical context–to the point of absurdity– to damn and excoriate such as St. Boniface’s actions.
Should we ground all airplanes because of how they crash and kill hundreds of innocent people a year minding their own business below
as the planes send them to an early grave. I’ve seen statistics that indicate that among the worst offenders of the environment are all the famous pro-environmentalists who tool around on their private planes. And along with the air pollution comes the infernal noise pollution. I live near a flight path to Logan Airport and the noise can be maddening at times. So I hope all those writing the most radically pro-nature stuff here will never fly in a plane again–or admit their utter hypocrisy.
And of course how about all those animals who have rights. The next time someone you love, like your child or wife, comes down with a deadly disease make sure you order the doctors not to use any treatments that were developed and tested on animals. Tell your little boy with leukemia or wife with breast cancer–“Sorry, I believe your life is worth less than a laboratory rat’s.”
If the environmental extremists had been around a few generations ago–and given the power they would like to have today–our life expectancy would probably still be only 20 or 30 years.
And as far as trees go–our, rich, elitist country is repeatedly looking down its arrogant noses at poorer countries like Brazil which are daring to damage the precious forests there to create farms. Of course, we can lecture and berate them all the while forgetting how much of the farmland here was once forestland and that is now used to make us the best fed and fat people on the planet.

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posted June 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Why don’t you retire, you liberal know it all? We don’t need another made up day where people whine about the envirnoment. We need more good role models like Saint Boniface.

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Appalachian Prof

posted June 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I love how people who know nothing about St. Francis invoke the hippie stereotype of him.

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posted June 8, 2010 at 9:51 am

I don’t know anything about Lynn White but if she thinks that Oriental religons have fostered a “tree hugging”, non-polluting spirit, she simply has not done much travelling over there. She needs to bathe in the “Sacred Ganges” and see how she likes all of the pollution in it. Traveller’s “stomach upset” may be the least of her problems.
Christians who promote secular environmentalism are bereft of true spirituality. Witness the mainline Protestant churches which are dying.

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posted June 11, 2010 at 9:01 pm

If you insult the environment, you insult that which God has created. That’s a shameful thing to do.

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