Westminster professor reflects on Christianity and the environment
FULTON - Even if it's not easy being green, for Christians it's an obligation, says Cliff Cain, the Harrod-C.S. Lewis Professor of Religious Studies and department chair at Westminster College.
Cain has studied the relationship between religion and science for more than 20 years and is the author of several books on the subject, including "Many Heavens, One Earth," in 2012, and "Re-vision: A New Look at the Relationship between Science and Religion," due out in April.
"When I read the Bible and I read theology, it seems to me that a non-green Christian is a contradiction in terms if the Bible and if the Christian faith are taken seriously," Cain said. "You've got to be green if you're a Christian."
Cain grew up in a religious family and recalls that even the first Bible verse he learned as a young Baptist boy, John 3:16, had an environmental theme.
"God loved the world," Cain said. "The word in Greek is ‘cosmos.' That basically means the earth and everything in it. So, God sends Jesus, not just because of Homo sapiens, but because of the whole earth. If God loves the whole earth, how could you and I do any less?"
Cain, now a practicing Presbyterian, said the Bible is filled with references to the environment that often go overlooked.
"When I was a kid, I remember getting a copy of the Bible, and every word that Jesus spoke was in red," he said. "Anything Jesus said would stand right out at you on the page because it was rendered in red type."
He said a newer version, "The Green Bible," highlights verses with an environmental focus by displaying them in green type.
"This will blow your mind," Cain said. "When you turn through the Bible, there's scarcely a page that doesn't have something to do about the environment."
The creation story in the Old Testament is a prime example.
"You've got the notion that God created the world, and God at every juncture in Genesis 1 pronounces it good," he said. "It's valued in its own right, and only at the very end does God say it's very good, and that's when human beings and everything have been made."
The story of Noah provides yet another example.
"What pastors have sometimes missed and, therefore, congregations have missed is, when the covenant is established after the flood, it's established between God and human beings and all life on the earth," he said.
One of Cain's favorite psalms, Psalm 24, which reads, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein," also establishes a moral obligation on the part of humans, he said.
"Think about that theologically and environmentally," Cain said. "If one reflects on that, that means the earth doesn't belong to you and me. We can't do with it whatever we want. It belongs to God. And God has allowed us to be God's representatives on Earth to take good care of that which God has made. So, if we screw up the earth, we're actually sinning against God."
Cain, who earned a doctorate in theology from Vanderbilt University in 1981, said the birth of his son and daughter inspired him to take environmental issues more seriously. When his children were born in the 1980s, the nuclear arms race with the Soviets and the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer troubled him.
"It made me more consciously aware of the quality of the world, or the lack therein, into which I'd brought my children," he said. "I started thinking, having children is not just a biological event. It's a moral action. So, I thought, I need to do some things to try to make the world a bit of a better place."
After becoming interested in environmental issues, he discovered that few people saw any connection between religion and the environment.
"They thought either the environment was a new-age kind of phenomenon that had nothing to do with traditional mainstream religion, or they thought that mainstream religion really didn't have much to say about the environment," he said.
Beginning in 1981, Cain worked at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., where he would spent most of his career. He served as professor of philosophy and religion until 2010 as well as dean of the chapel until 2003. In 1990 he took a leave of absence to accept a position as theologian-in-residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in an honors program that focused on environmental issues.
His experience in Alabama left him with a desire to learn more about science.
"You can actually be very well intentioned regarding environmental issues, but if you don't know the science, you could be advocating something that actually would be counterproductive and unhealthy," Cain said.
To explore the science of these issues, he extended his leave of absence from Franklin College to pursue a Ph.D. in religion and ecology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, which he completed in 1994.
The focus of his doctoral research was human population growth, which is projected to increase by 1 billion in little more than a decade, he said. But climate change is the issue that most concerns him today. He said it is a symptom of a larger problem.
"I just think our environmental problems are symptoms of a disease, and the disease is materialism, greed, short-term vision, consumerism," Cain said. "So, it's a spiritual dilemma. It's a values dilemma."
He said religion can help cure that disease.
"If science provides the ecological consciousness through its knowledge, then religion has to provide an ecological conscience - that we take the consciousness and use it well," Cain said. "This is my challenge to religious leaders. I don't care whether they're Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Muslim. We're not going to solve the problems without religion."
Over the past two decades, Cain has spent much of his time researching and writing about what the world's religions have to say about science and the environment.
In 2009 he published two books. In "An Ecological Theology," he examined Christian teachings about the environment, and in "Down to Earth" he explored the teachings of other world religions.
In "Many Heavens, One Earth," in 2012, Cain collected first-person environmental reflections from scholars of nine world religions, including a chapter written by the Dalai Lama from the Buddhist perspective.
Cain's forthcoming book, "Re-vision: A New Look at the Relationship between Science and Religion," examines the Big Bang, genetics, evolution and intelligent design from both scientific and theological perspectives. He said he asked four of his colleagues - three scientists and a philosopher - to write chapters explaining these theories for a general reader. He then wrote a chapter of theological response to each of them.
"I don't pretend for a moment that this book will not be somewhat controversial," Cain said. "I think my science colleagues here and worldwide will probably say, that Cliff Cain is trained as a scientist, but he's probably a little bit too religious. And I think my religious colleagues and people of faith will probably say, you know that Cliff Cain, he's a religious person and he's trained as a theologian, but he's a little bit too scientific."