While many of us in the environmental community literally “rejoice” in the growth and prominence of the creation care within evangelical Christianity, I’d guess we’re still trying to figure this movement out. I think the same probably goes for more traditional evangelicals, who (at least in my experience) often question the adherence of these people to a brand of faith rooted in Biblical literalism.
While Scott Sabin’s new book Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People seems more focused on the latter audience, I think it’s a book mainline environmentalists could gain a lot from, also. Largely devoted to the work of Plant with Purpose, a 25-year-old “Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to helping the rural poor” (of which the author is now the executive director), Sabin’s book also focuses on the growth of his own faith through his work with the organization, and the idea that Creation Care isn’t simply a form of “Christian environmentalism,” but rather an expression of a meaningful understanding of the relationships between human beings, the planet, and the Judeo-Christian God which created the two, and redeemed them through Christ. Sabin himself sums this up aptly towards the end of the book when he claims:
The biblical account is not just the story of God’s love for his people and the redemption of humankind through Christ. It is that, but is also the story of God’s love for everything he has made.We humans are an important part of it, but all of creation is involved.
If you’re coming from either a strict environmental or strict evangelical perspective, that idea may require some work to wrap your head around. Creation care is about both faith and works in Sabin’s view… and both are diminished when not accompanied by the other.
Creation care and effective environmental action
For the environmentalist who doesn’t ground his/her passion, advocacy, and work in faith, Tending to Eden is replete with stories of eco-effectiveness. Plant with Purpose serves rural communities in the developing world, and much of their work focuses on replenishing depleted resources that keep farmers from producing enough to feed their families and communities.
For Sabin and his organization, that often comes down to a focus on deforestation. Whether trees are cut by large, industrial-scale timber operations or by indigenous farmers clearing land for crops, or turning wood into charcoal, the results are the same: degraded soils and watersheds that make even subsistence farming nearly impossible. Various kinds of reforestation activities serve to provide food, expand economic opportunity, and allow local residents to take a longer view towards their own survival.
Creation care and economic empowerment
Sabin makes clear throughout that, while he’s been involved in missionary work for years, he doesn’t think it, or other traditional forms of humanitarian work are ultimately very effective. In Chapter 5, Sabin explains many of the economic empowerment initiatives of Plant with Purpose. From micro-lending to community bank development, the organization’s work has involved “helping people to help themselves”… and to do so in a manner that recognizes cultural differences as well as legal hurdles that could undermine the most well-laid plans. As with environmental challenges, Sabin encourages “upstream thinking” (or “systems thinking,” if you prefer): understanding and appreciating the full scale of short and long-term challenges before taking action. He argues that direct aid aimed at short-term challenges has often created dependency; recognizing the bigger picture, drawing on the knowledge and experience of rural residents themselves, and providing “hands up” rather than “hand outs” creates more sustainable paths to economic independence.
Creation care as an expression of faith
Throughout the book, and especially in Chapters 8 and 9, Sabin discusses his faith, and how the work he does is based in his Biblical belief. Rather than simply listing Biblical edicts to care for creation (though he does do this), Sabin discusses creation care in terms of a believer’s relationship to God. It may surprise a secular environmentalist, but Sabin doesn’t believe that humans are key to environmental restoration: it is in God’s hands. However, he also notes how the work of helping God in that restoration is an act of faith, and an understanding of the Creator’s love for his creation.
One section that particularly caught my eye was Sabin’s direct dismissal of the notion that Christians involved in creation care somehow “worship the planet” (good buddy Bobby B. has described this as “Gaia worship”). Sabin notes
I find this puzzling, because wilderness and nature have the opposite effect on me. My involvement in environmental issues has taught me about the incredible intricacy and complexity of God’s creation, reminding me of God’s attributes and my own humble place in the world. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)… I have met many Christian biologists and ecologists who have helped me to rediscover awe and wonder in creation and to see the signature of the Creator in unexpected places. I was surprised to discover how consistently they employed Scripture in seeking to understand our role in taking care of the earth.
There’s no doubt that both secular environmentalists and traditional evangelicals will find much that challenges (as well as inspires) them in Tending to Eden. Sabin hasn’t tried to gloss over the education it took for him to reconcile his faith with his environmental and humanitarian work, and he never steps back from the notion that he views it all holistically: environmental restoration, economic empowerment, and spiritual inspiration are all integral components of his and Plant with Purpose’s mission.
Members of the above-mentioned groups may not necessarily find themselves converted one way or the other… but they’ll definitely have a clear understanding of the interconnections that exist between the faith and work so lovingly rendered in this book.
Please note: Plant with Purpose provided me with a free electronic review copy of Tending to Eden, as well as the images in this post. They’ve created a page on their website dedicated to the book — if you buy via their Amazon link,
Tending your own garden? Take a look at our eco gardening supplies in the Green Choices store.
Jeff, This is a book I definitely want to read. Thanks for the review.
Hey, I got mentioned in parentheses! That’s like being in the phone book! “I’m a real person!”
First, I have a minor complaint about the title of the book being reviewed. The world is not Eden and Adam was not created within the confines of the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:7 has God forming “man [of] the dust of the ground” in an unknown location. Genesis 2:8 says, “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” This indicates that Adam traveled some distance from the place of his creation to the garden. If we continue to Genesis 2:9 we read, “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” However, we are given no insight regarding the state of the rest of the planet. Was it pristine like the Garden of Eden? Was it a vast wasteland? Or was it something in between the two extremes and dependent upon one’s location? If we continue reading, we learn that God through the garden provided Adam and Eve with sustenance absent much effort on their part. In Genesis 2:15, God only asks man “to dress it and keep it.” It was Adam’s disobedience (sin) that got him expelled from the garden and driven back to the place of his creation, which is found in Genesis 3:23 as follows, “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” His disobedience also yielded a curse upon that ground and sentenced mankind to gain sustenance through hard work (Genesis 3:17-19). So, in my humble opinion, it is not Scriptural to imply that creation care has the ability to restore the whole planet to an Eden-like state. Eden was a place, but the whole world was never Eden.
Second, I do not recall ever making a blanket statement that creation care equaled Gaia worship. In the truest sense, Christians can only worship the Lord. However, I do see a risk in muddying the Message. The Bible teaches that salvation is the gift of God’s grace. A person becomes a Christian by having faith that God through His grace provided a means for him/her to attain salvation (i.e. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross). The creation care movement often wanders into the doctrine of works, which can be a confusing and contentious area for many believers. The New Testament is replete with verses indicating that good works cannot save a single soul. However, when we get to the second chapter of James, we find that a faith without works is dead. Is this a contradiction? No, it is not. Works as stated in most of the Bible are those that were required by Jewish Law. Since it was impossible for anyone to satisfy every aspect of the law, God provided other means of atonement for those living under the law (i.e. penance and sacrifices). However, it was still by grace that any of them reached Heaven. For Christians, Christ’s sacrifice of Himself is considered sufficient and one need only believe to be saved. In the Book of James the only works referenced are those that satisfy Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-34, and John 13:34-35 and 15:12, where Jesus reveals the two greatest commandments. These commandments state how individuals are to relate: (1) to God and (2) to each other. So, here lies the slippery slope. From the book review, it appears that the author does good works because they flow from his faith, which are of the type discussed in James. No Christian should have a problem with those types of works. However, the risk of being led astray – and possibly into Gaia worship – exists when the message of creation care is presented as a requirement for salvation. Anytime a laundry list of works is presented as a pathway to salvation, Christians should be wary. Additionally, while one can see the hand of God in all creation, care must be taken not to equate creation with God. That is pantheism.
Well, that is my two cents on this topic. I am after all just a layperson.
@Bobby Well, of course I mentioned you…
Sabin speaks to James’ claim that faith without works is dead, and uses Scriptural evidence from across the Old and New Testaments… certainly Genesis is in there, but so are the Psalms, Isaiah, Leviticus, Job, Luke, Romans, Colossians, and even the Revelation.
But, beyond that, he speaks very eloquently about his efforts being work “that flows from his faith” (quoting you there)… though raised as an evangelical, he makes clear that his faith really wasn’t cemented until he started doing humanitarian missionary work. And even after that, it took him a while to come around to the notion that work involving environmental restoration went hand-in-hand with his concept of faith.
And there’s definitely a missionary angle to all of this… he devotes a chapter to that, but notes that Plant with Purpose doesn’t push the spiritual angle on the people with whom they work…. they make opportunities for spirituality readily available, use established churches as base points for their projects… but no attempts to “push” faith on others. He readily admits this is one of the most controversial aspects of their work: both secular environmentalists and traditional missionaries can have problems with their approach.
“And there’s definitely a missionary angle to all of this… he devotes a chapter to that, but notes that Plant with Purpose doesn’t push the spiritual angle on the people with whom they work…”
Most religions – with some notable exceptions – have abandoned attempts to “push the spiritual angle.” Brute force or coercion do little to connect people to God. If Plant with Purpose provided food or taught others to generate their own food on the condition that they accept a particular religious creed, it would only breed resentment; and eventually religious conflict. The saying “actions speaking louder than words” very much applies to evangelism.