by Anthony Siegrist
We could see the green copper roof of the Parliament building through the wide glass windows surrounding us. We were on the top floor of the University of Ottawa’s business building, just a few blocks from the center of Canada’s federal government. It was day one of our orientation to a program of studies in environmental sustainability. We had to introduce ourselves: I described myself as a pastor and a theologian. I felt entirely out of place.
According to a recent book by Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, the second largest ‘religious group’ in Canada is now the non-religious. The country has undergone a massive shift in the last half-century. While vibrant faith communities still exist in Canada, it was unlikely that many of my classmates belonged to one.
Theology and the common good
Even as these downward trends in religious identity continue, concern for environmental matters is flourishing in Canada. One of the possibilities under discussion here in Ottawa is what it would mean for the Green Party to hold the swing vote in a minority government. Declaring my ecclesial identity in the context of such discussions has been a way of committing myself to thinking about the implications of these matters for faith communities. How can churches, for instance, contribute to the common good in environmental terms? What does theology have to offer in a conversation dominated by the hard edges of policy, economics and ecosystem science?
Faith communities don’t have much of a voice in the shaping of environmental policy in Canada. At times, church life can seem almost irrelevant to these concerns. Yet what I’ve begun to notice is that the environmental conversation is rife with theological words, words like humility, value, attitude, transformation, reverence, desire, behavior, care, justice, and so on. The frequency with which these words show up reassures me that environmental concerns and church life aren’t as distinct as they felt on the day I introduced myself to the group.
Roles for churches
There are still significant roles for churches. First, churches and their related organizations still serve an important symbolic role. Churches represent concerns held by a diverse collective, not simply that of a special interest group. As far as the net effect on the accumulation of greenhouses gases, it doesn’t really matter if a few congregations put solar panels on their roofs. The amount of volunteers we bring to a cleanup might not be overwhelming. However, the fact that we do these things collectively as a church makes a statement. Many churches and faith-based organizations have sat on the sidelines of this issue for a long time. If that were to change, it would send a powerful message about a shift in cultural norms.
In addition, churches and the theological teaching they embody have something serious to offer in the determination of what has “value.”I’m convinced that more environmental progress will be made by working with the market than by working against it. But this depends on what we think is valuable. Many products are worth something in the market, not because they have any concrete power, but because we believe they are valuable.
Does buying from a company with good environmental practice have extra value or does it not? The answer to that question depends on what our communities teach us to love and desire. And this is precisely the lane churches run in. Ancient monastics described their communities as “schools of love.” Surely part of what we would learn in such a school is what to value. Enlivened by God’s grace, Christian practices and language can be deeply transformative. Churches hold the potential of presenting a total way of life that reflects, among other things, the value of non-human creation and the goodness of living less consumptive lives.
Finally, one of the things environmental leaders regularly bemoan is their inability to preach to anyone outside the choir. Many of them spend their time among people just as convinced as they are. Churches are different. When it comes to environmental issues, lots of churches provide mixed company. This gives all of us opportunities to engage people who see environmental matters differently than we do. This is significant, and it happens because our churches are concerned broadly with the life of faith and not simply with one issue.
The lawn signs are out and the Canadian election will happen in less than a month. After that we’ll know a lot more about the relative importance of environmental issues to Canadians. Until that time . . . and after that time, our churches have the opportunity to engage in work that has deep significance for the care of God’s good creation.
Anthony Siegrist is a pastor and theologian who serves at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ontario. He is currently studying environmental sustainability during a sabbatical. His most recent book project, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, will be published this fall by Herald Press.