To accompany our singing, the student planners had arranged a slide show (no PowerPoint in those days!) of pictures of natural beauty contrasted with pictures of degradation. As we walked out at the end of the service, one of my colleagues observed that all the "nice" scenes were of rural settings, while all the ugly ones were from urban life.
The motives of those who chose the photos were, of course, noble. They wanted to make us aware of the horrible things we humans were doing to God's creation while pointing to signs of God's original purposes for the world. But the visuals were nonetheless misleading, subtly advocating a back-to-nature approach to life—not surprising at a time when many college students still romanticized the "simple life" of the rural hippie commune.
From a biblical perspective, there are real problems with the back-to-nature scenario. As many commentators have pointed out, the Bible begins with God creating a beautiful garden. But at the end of the Bible, we are told that a splendid City—golden streets and all—will descend from the heavens.
The God who designs gardens is also an urban planner. And while the Creator does want us to care deeply about fields and forests and ice caps and woodpeckers, he also urges us to promote signs of beauty and well-being in humanity's crowded places.
Perhaps these monks knew that the ancient mystics had a wonderful saying: ubi amor, ibi oculus—roughly, "where there is love, there is seeing." They insisted that our seeing must be guided by love, and that when we look at things in love, we will see things that we would otherwise miss.
It is easy to see the Creator's handiwork in nature's displays of beauty. "The heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the firmament showeth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). It is more difficult, however, to see God's handiwork displayed in the faces of a hungry child in Calcutta or a homeless cart-pusher on a street in Los Angeles. It takes a little more love to see the potential beauty there. But God wants us to make the effort.
I am pleased that we continue to celebrate Earth Day, and grateful to see that a group of my fellow evangelicals recently expressed concern about the phenomenon of global warming. My kind of Christians have too long focused almost exclusively on evangelizing people. And when we have taken a step beyond that, we have typically expanded our vision to address social issues having to do with urgent human needs. Seldom have we thought about the non-human creation; environmental issues have not been on our radar screens. So I am happy that we have begun to sound more like Earth Day people.
But I also think a lot about God's love of cities. And I will be thinking about that—along with my concern for polar bears and baby seals and bird sanctuaries—on this Earth Day. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," the Psalmist says (Ps. 24:1). But he quickly adds, "the world, and they that dwell therein"—including, I am sure he had in mind, the people who live in cities.