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Christianity for the Rest of Us

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
peoples. 

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
nature
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
protection.

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
creatures.

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.

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