Whether you believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis or are the staunchest atheist, the story of our origin is the same. We are made of stardust.
Religion was a mixed bag for me growing up. The first church that I remember attending was a very small Assembly of God church housed in an old restaurant and I remember only goodness and peace there. When I was a little older, we began to attend a United Methodist Church that was more intellectual, but also filled with light, love and plenty of "the good donuts". I attended a non-denominational Christian school for Kindergarten through Twelfth grade that even then, always felt decidedly denominational. At that time, the administration came from what I now understand to be a fairly far-right Evangelical church. I don't remember any message other than the need for salvation ever being presented to us. I brought all of these things home in the form of constant worry about eternal damnation, fear that I might die without having confessed the smallest of sins and a certainty that I would never be quite good enough. My parents, always moderate, always level-headed, and far more laid-back than me, tried in vain to assure me that I was just fine and I should probably chill out a little.
Time, life, a college education and the Catholic church have mellowed me. My Catholic friends think it is just hilarious when I say that what I love about Catholicism is its laid-back approach to Christianity. But compared to Evangelicalism, that is exactly what it is, a peaceful spirituality. Over the last several months, I have watched people that I have known since childhood promote and support ideas about environmental policy and social justice that confound me. At first, I found their viewpoints shocking and I wondered how they could have changed so much in the twenty years that have passed. But, when I really think back to my Christian school days, when I really remember what we were taught, I find myself less surprised.
I remember, very distinctly, being taught that any sort of great love of the earth, the environment or nature was dabbling dangerously close to new-age thinking and opened the door to paganism. It was OK to like flowers and trees and animals -but not too much. We weren't allowed to even think on fairies, gnomes, myth, mysticism or even angels. I was the only kid in my class that was allowed to watch The Smurfs and I am sure that my classmates prayed for my soul.
As an adult, I began to feel drawn to nature and almost felt a sense of guilt because of it, as if I was somehow thumbing my nose at my true Creator. Yet it never seemed quite right because I felt the fullness of God in the green cathedral of Mill Creek Park far more than I felt him in any brick and mortar church or school. The wind, the grass and trees all gave a peace that passes all understanding. Something that no condemnation-shouting evangelical pastor had ever accomplished and they had more 520 chances before I graduated.
I also remember being taught that globalism was evil. That a new world order with muddied borders signaled the end times. World-wide connectedness, global currency, and international agencies were just steps along the path to Armageddon. I remember being confused by this. If this earth was temporary and Heaven was the real goal, then who cares? Why stand in the way of it? Let it come. I still think of that now when I see people staunchly defend America First policies as if they can somehow stave off the end times by isolating nations. Why? Isn't the apocalypse your end game anyway?
When I first read Wendell Berry's essays and Gene Stratton Porter's fiction, I remember being profoundly struck by the idea that one could love God and still love and treasure the earth. But, in truth, early environmentalists were men and women of faith. Farmers were men and women of faith. Scientists were men and women of faith. Missionaries that crossed borders every day were men and women of faith. Pre-Christian pagan ritual is literally a celebration of the connection between earth and spirit. The Christian Bible is filled to overflowing with a celebration of God's creation.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy...
So why were we taught something so very different? Why did we learn that a love for nature was a threat to our soul? Environmental awareness was growing as we were growing. My husband and I were talking just the other day about the TV ad campaigns of our youth. When we were growing up, someone still had to tell us not to throw our trash in a river, or off a boat, or out of a car window. My children think it is astounding that we didn't just KNOW this!?!
I also remember being taught that we were all God's children -sort of. God made us. God loves us. But, he also really doesn't want us to mix together. He doesn't want us to be led astray. He doesn't want us to be in the world, but apart from it. We should stay away from those different from us, lest they lead us on a path of wickedness. What was the real agenda there?
At the same time that we were growing up, American conservatism in its modern form was developing. The leaders of the American evangelical church were decidedly conservative and definitely not on the side of the environmentalists and social crusaders. Did they teach us these things because they believed them or did they teach us these things because it promoted their political agenda? It's easy to strip mine a mountain or run a pipeline through a town if you teach your people that their knee-jerk environmental concerns are a sign that they have their earthly and heavenly priorities out of order. It's easy to drop bombs on another country or deny aid to refugees, if you can convince your critics that these heathens would have separated you from God anyway. Regardless of their motives, most of these leaders turned out to disappointing at best and massive frauds at worst.
I know that many of my childhood friends feel the way that I do now. I also know that many others grew up to believe everything we were taught and are now teaching their children likewise and voting accordingly. I hope that if you are in the latter group, that you take the time to reflect on what you believe and why. Don't be afraid to dig into our history. I have.
I believe that scientific inquiry is a gift from God as is the wisdom of Solomon. I believe in biological evolution. I also believe that Christians, Jews, Muslims and every other person on the face of the earth is a beloved child of God. I have knelt in the chapel of Villa Marie and felt the light God radiate through my very pores. Even if I never experience it again, the memory of the presence of God in that moment was so profound and so undeniable that it will sustain me throughout the rest of my life. There is room for science and God. There is room for a love of humanity and a love of God. Neither diminishes the other.