Green Discipleship: What Makes a Christian Live Ecologically?
A. J. Swoboda
In recent weeks, our book Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology has been published with hopes of helping Evangelicals enter into the ecological dialogue more faithfully. As Evangelicals, we are not interested in mere theological reflection or rhetorical nuance. We are interested in theological action. One of the consistent questions with which we’ve wrestled is: How do we actually get people to do this stuff? What motivates, awakens, and helps Christians begin to act ecologically?
As Jonathan Merritt, author of Green Like God, has written, one must cautiously learn to steward the knowledge that has been received with an appropriate response of mindful action; as knowledge increases, so does responsibility.1 Mindfulness simply isn’t enough. Thus, any form of knowledge that is liberated from the trappings of that pesky little thing called responsible action will lead to nothing more than a good deal of head knowledge. But head knowledge, no matter how brilliant, clever, or novel, does not directly move the sands of time. Action moves the world. For the Christ-follower, the endgame will never lie in the shallow waters of head knowledge. Rather, the endgame will be in foot knowledge. And hand knowledge. Or, we might say, green thumb knowledge.
As pastors and theologians deeply invested in the good news of Jesus Christ for all of God’s creation, we’ve come to hold unswervingly to the idea that Christian faith is a faith of lived knowledge, not head knowledge. Knowledge minus life isn’t knowledge; it’s conjecture. Knowledge must have legs.
It is in the experience of doing belief that we enter into true belief. As it turns out, this resonates deeply with what environmental philosophers have been suggesting for years. In the emerging field of eco-psychology—a field that has examined the dynamic relationship between human cognitive processes and ecological realities since the mid-1970s—many have gone on to argue that there remains little to no traceable connection between formal Western education and living an environmentally friendly existence.2 In short: environmental knowledge simply isn’t enough. In fact, one might forcibly argue that the least educated—the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised—live the most environmentally friendly lives on our planet today.
Only the rich drive Hummers.
If education and head knowledge are not the main keys to green living, what is? While there certainly remain many, we would like to stress that actual experience and personal interaction with God’s creation is the key to green discipleship. Experiencing creation is tantamount. As John Stackhouse has lucidly expressed in his book Need to Know, it was the Nazi bureaucrat with no experience of real Jewish people who could sit quietly in his office sending the masses to their death with every smooth stroke of the typewriter. It is without the experience of the real person that a sociopath can sit behind a computer screen and write hateful blog posts that do not lovingly take into account the individual at whom they are aimed. It is the lack of lived experience in the real church that leads academics and theologians to do work that has absolutely no bearing on real life.3
And it is those who lack a real experience of creation who will be most likely to destroy it—knowingly or not. When we know creation, we are more likely to love it and tend it.
As a group of writers we’ve come to confess that while theology, Scripture, Christian history, and environmental philosophy have affected us deeply, nothing, save the mercy of Jesus Christ, has caused us to have a deeper love for God’s creation and a passion to care for it than the lived experience of having known it personally. Our desire to serve God’s creation was birthed during hikes, camping trips, fishing adventures, days in the hammock, and awe-inspiring moments on the mountain.
One can offer promises that they will do better to care for God’s creation while doing nothing about it. Another can stay silent and do it bravely. Which is better? In the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28–32), we find Jesus’s teaching put in similar terms. Jesus contrasts two sons of a vineyard owner. To one, the owner commands to go to work. The son says no but eventually goes. Then the father says the same thing to the other son. He says yes but never makes it to his place of work. Jesus asks his audience who it is “that did the Father’s will?” Of course, it is the son who did what was asked, not the son who only said he would.
In the words of St. Augustine, love is action. Love isn’t talk. Love isn’t promises. Love isn’t a treaty. Love is action, personal action. While one son over-promises and under-delivers, the other under-promises and over-delivers. In this framework of discipleship, love never stops short of action. It always enters into it. Lesslie Newbigin loved to say that discipleship was the single act of believing and standing up to follow Jesus, to leave nets, boats, families, and homes. Knowledge is knowledge so long as it has caloric implications. The disciples’ knowledge became true knowledge the moment it was metabolized by their actual following.
Discipleship happens as it is being done. And the truth is the same for tending the garden. Green discipleship takes place as we do it. Not in our promises to do it. Not in our commitments. Not in our guilt and shame. Green discipleship happens as we stand up and follow Jesus. It happens as we learn to recycle. It happens as we enter into sabbath. It happens as we begin to pay attention to where our chocolate comes from. It happens when our knowledge and action are wed.
1 Jonathan Merritt, Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (NY: FaithWords, 2010), 113.
2 One such study is found at Anja Kollmuss and Julian Agyman, “Mind the Gap: Why Do People Act Environmentally and What Are the Barriers to pro-Environmental Behavior?,” Environmental Education Research 8, no. 3 (2002): 239–60. They are explicitly clear: environmental knowledge alone does not necessarily lead to ecological living.
3 John G. Stackhouse Jr., Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 97.