“How will the legend of the Age of Trees
Feel when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s Heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where the farm has faded…” C.S. Lewis
Environmental concern defines much of this generation. However, many Christian traditions —including some that we grew up in—present environmentalism and faith as mutually exclusive. Lynn White’s influential paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” was published in the mid-1960s as the environmental movement was quickly gaining traction across the US. White contended that the West carelessly abused the natural world precisely because of its foundational Judeo-Christian values. As Christians at Cornell University studying environmental topics across multiple colleges and disciplines, we felt compelled to move beyond White’s writings and grapple with Christian views on the environment from diverse, nuanced perspectives. How might environmentalism and the Christian faith interact, and what takeaways can we apply both to our academic work and day-to-day lives? The following words are intended to capture the intentionality of Christianity in addressing environmental challenges among graduate students and, more importantly, to foster better communication by building bridges between faith and environmental advocacy.
HOW DID IT START?
About a year and a half ago, two of us began to discuss the need to link faith and the environment. Can we connect our Christian beliefs with ecological worldviews? What is our calling as both Christians and environmentalists within the academe? And what role do we as Christians play in response to events like the climate crisis? We thought that these questions could be the basis for broader discussions among students and faculty. Thus, in October 2022, with the support of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Chesterton House, and especially Hannah Eagleson, we inaugurated the Cornell Faith & Environment Collective.
MEETINGS AND REFLECTIONS
The Faith & Environment Collective’s inaugural event was a 5-week reading group in which 8 graduate students from disciplines as diverse as mathematics, economics, law, natural resources, entomology, and plant science met over lunch at the Cornell Dairy Bar. There, we centered conversations around the book Religion and New Ecology: Environmental Responsibility in a World in Flux. Dr. David M. Lodge, a Cornell Professor of Ecology and the Director of the Atkinson Center for Sustainability, is one of the editors and participated in most of our sessions.
During our initial meetings, we sought to understand the essence of Nature. While many scholars have idealized Nature in line with Romantics like Emerson, Muir, and Thoreau, we found that such views often prioritized the value of Nature over concern for people. We also grappled with ecologists’ contention that nature is chaotic, uncontrollable, and changing. We wondered: how do we connect our relationship with God to our appreciation for the imminent beauty of Nature? And does a romantic conception of Nature allow us to exert care and concern for people?
Building off our initial success, the Faith & Environment Collective rekindled in spring 2023 with a new twist: graduate student members would lead discussions on topics of their choosing. One of us headed a discussion on Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, which calls for Christian concern and action in the wake of the climate crisis. We asked: if the “Invisible Hand” is a benevolent, sovereign God, how might it compel us to solve environmental challenges? What role does technology play in “solving” our ecological crisis? And how could a changed heart—reflecting the character of God—help address environmental injustices?
Later, we applied ethicists’ wisdom to compare Christianity with other religious environmental perspectives, partly through the help of Dr. Jim Tantillo, Cornell environmental ethicist and lecturer. Then we turned to theology, justice, and colonization. As Christians and Westerners, how do we explain our beliefs and communicate with those in other societies? And how might Christians profess a universalistic faith while respecting other cultures? Closing out the semester, Dr. Kristen Page, Wheaton College Professor of Biology, contributed a refreshing lesson about how Narnia and Middle-Earth give us a glimpse of Christian stewardship and care for creation.
Before officially putting one year in the books, the Faith & Environment Collective held its inaugural public event for Cornell at-large. On May 5, we co-hosted “Faith, Race, and Environmental Justice: The Lead Water Crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan.” As a pastor and civil rights activist representing the hometown of one of our co-founders, Reverend Edward Pinkney demonstrated how environmental crises generate disproportionate impacts on impoverished communities, particularly people of color. He reminded us that the purpose of the church is to serve the world around it and that our academic work has practical applications.
As we begin 2024, we have many things to be grateful for. We have not only continued meeting this academic year but also have broadened our scope to welcome people of other faiths or spiritual beliefs and discover our collective responsibility to creation. Additionally, we are now being formalized into an official Cornell student organization. As environmental needs widen and students’ hunger for faith and work connections deepens, this big step forward helps us light the torch for future Cornellians.
While the environmental studies field has often been notorious for its dearth of Christians, we as the Faith and Environment Collective are leading the next generation of scholars and practitioners to change that narrative. Thus, we will continue to ask big questions about environmentalism and the Christian faith. As we become better stewards in our scholarship, applied work, and personal lives, we’re reminded that God’s fingerprints are all around us. Romans 1:20 states: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Special thanks go to Hannah Eagleson (Chesterton House Director of Graduate Student and Faculty Engagement/Director of Partnerships and Innovation for the American Scientific Affiliation), Vivek Matthew (Director of Chesterton House), and David Lodge (Director of Atkinson Center for Sustainability) for their invaluable direction, guidance, and support. We also acknowledge and thank all the students, faculty, and guests who have contributed and participated in our group so far!