Unearthing the Numinous is Faith and Climate History

Last week, Blessed Tomorrow Program Director, Kara Ball penned a powerful response to the misconception that climate change is a new issue for people of faith. Highlighting decades of advocacy for creation, Ball outlined the many ways in which faith leaders have and continue to be the moral compass for an issue that impacts everyone. Similarly, Newsweek's Tik Root examined faith and climate's long history, championing our partner organization, Interfaith Power and Light for their national effort to elevate climate to the forefront of faith-based, moral issues.

Conjuring the religious writings of John Muir, who once marveled over the 'great delight' that California forests must have given God; Root reviews the various paths creation care has taken. While Muir is perhaps speaking to the mysterium tremendum of natural wonders, often expressed as 'Taqwa' or 'Awe' for people of organized traditions, his legacy unearths a deep reverence for the numinous.

Proceeding Muir (and arguably prior), faith leaders have taken creation care down various paths, some revisited but all with a clear and salient message to protect God's gift and those that inhabit it. Climate solutions have become more than marveling with delight over the magnanimous glory of a towering tree (though that is powerful). It is, unquestionably, a concern for you. 

In the 1970s, faith leaders began raising their collective voice to illuminate the impact climate change, and related environmental issues were having on less affluent communities across America, predominately in black neighborhoods often situated near factories and harmful industrial manufacturing. 

Why is this important to the current discussion (apart from it still occurring)? While these impacts fall in and out of focus, making room for new discoveries in public discourse, they offer a historical trajectory that is often lost in popular dialogue – one that faith leaders have been spearheading for over a century. Moreover, faith leaders can best determine where we are going given their keen sense of where we have been. At times when climate issues fall from the limelight, faith leaders are a consistent voice in raising awareness about the issue of climate, largely because they have to. 

Faith leaders are the backbone of every community, a guiding voice for a fellowship's most challenging issues. They do not take breaks because they cannot – it is not an option. Just as climate change does not take a break from impacting the least of these, faith leaders are unable to rest from answering the call of their moral responsibility. 

Faith leaders manage what may be understood as a cosmic history, exemplified with idioms such as, 'can't see the forest for the trees.' Faith leaders keep a firm grip on a thread of moral thought that transcends time, region and trend. They are the driving force that brings us back to the issues that matter most, reminding us that both marveling in delight and caring for the 'least of these' are not mutually exclusive. 

Can Christianity Make the U.S. Care About Climate Change?

Tik Root | Newsweek

John Muir was a fervent believer. Not just in science or conservation or the National Park Service, which he championed. The founder of the Sierra Club and father of American environmentalism also believed in God. “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God,” Muir wrote in his 1897 essay “The American Forests.” “[For centuries] God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.”

This sort of religious language was “very much present in early conservation movements,” says Evan Berry, an associate professor at American University and author of Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism. George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, also invoked faith, and many of the environmentalist leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century were Congregationalists, a traditional Protestant sect, says Berry.

But then God abandoned the forest. During the Great Depression and two world wars, environmentalism took a backseat to what felt like more pressing issues, only to re-emerge in the 1960s in more secular forms, like Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The new wave, Berry says, “wanted to build practical, policy-driven solutions to environmental problems without getting caught up in the messiness of religious ethics.”

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