The widespread attention to Earth Day is one of the truly encouraging features in a rather bleak picture. I won’t take time to tell you what the discouraging events are, but the annual celebration of the Earth, the whole planet, means that many people are attracted to a form of spirituality that hardly existed in mainstream culture fifty years ago.
I probably need to explain what I mean by “spirituality.” We order our lives around some central beliefs, desires, or habits. For the vast majority of us, these are beliefs, desires, or habits encouraged by our culture. We are socialized into them. One way of reviewing human history is to ask about this aspect of successive cultures. By offering you a brief history of the West based on this question, I hope I’ll enable you to understand my enthusiasm for Earth Day.
Let’s begin with the Roman Empire. Its citizens were expected to give their primary allegiance to Rome, and specifically to whomever was its supreme ruler. Their basic self-identification was as Roman. The “Other” were barbarians. Most free people in the empire adopted this stance. It was representative of most cultures in the world up to that time and has continued in some places to the present. I grew up in Japan, and the self-identification of people there was overwhelmingly as Japanese, and to be Japanese was to be a loyal son or daughter of the emperor.
In the Roman Empire one people resisted giving their primary devotion to the emperor. The Jews understood their God to demand this primary devotion. When their conquerors would not allow them to live in terms of their primary devotion, they rose in revolt – repeatedly. Rome compromised, allowing them not to participate in overt worship of the emperor. However, it finally destroyed Jerusalem and exiled all the Jewish people from the land of Israel.
The problem became more acute for Rome when a branch of Judaism began to attract large numbers of Gentiles, called Christians. Sometimes they were tolerated like the Jews, sometimes they were harshly persecuted. Still they grew in numbers, and, as Rome decayed, their institutions became the most stable and effective. Over a period of a century or so, the empire in the west collapsed and the churches became the dominant institutions.
In this new situation, people as a whole learned to identify themselves as Christians. Obviously as the whole culture became in this way Christianized, the meaning of being Christian changed. When Christianity was counter-cultural, believers were individuals who voluntarily identified at the risk of life. Now it was the product of being socialized by the dominant culture. Accordingly, I will not call this epoch “Christian” but “Christianist.” People did give primary loyalty to Christian culture and Christian institutions.
Whereas Romans were willing to give their lives to preserve the empire from barbarians, Christianists were willing to give their lives to recover the Holy Land from Muslims. They were not fighting for the Christian faith as that was expressed in the New Testament, but for the culture and institutions that were the world in which they lived. Christianism dominated Western Europe at least through the sixteenth century.
Martin Luther played a major role in its ending in several ways. All through the Christianist period there were those who protested against Christianism in the name of authentic Christian faith. Sectarian groups emerged repeatedly. But Luther’s protest was the first to divide the dominant culture in such a way as to make ordinary conformist people think about what true Christianity was.
Luther emphasized the Bible over against what the church had become, and he translated it into German. This turned one particular form of Germanic language into a unifying and excluding German language. In a way that had not been true in the epoch of Christianism, there was now a German nation clearly distinguished from Danes and Dutch and Scandinavians. Whereas for a thousand years Latin had been the one language for literature, now there were national languages expressive of national cultures. Modern nations were formed.
The passion for Christianism was now invested in supporting one form of Christianity against another. In central Europe there was a long period of fighting that we call the Thirty Years War. To bring an end to fighting between Protestants and Catholics, an agreement was reached in 1648 at the Treaty of Westphalia. Secular rulers would decide the religion of their people.
What replaced Christianism was nationalism. During the following three centuries, Western Europeans thought of themselves as French, German, Spanish, and English rather than as denizens of Christendom. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, gave their lives killing people of other nations for the sake of their own.
Competition between nations was as much economic as political. Important ideological conflicts emerged between capitalists and communists on grounds of economic theories and practices. Corporations became powerful actors within nations, but then went on to operate in many countries. Whereas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were often extensions of government power, by the nineteenth century they were often quite independent. Governments sometimes served them more than they served nations. For them, national boundaries and national currencies were a nuisance.
Warfare between European nations culminated in two wars in the twentieth century that drew in countries all over the world. Finally, Europeans realized the very high price they paid for national rivalry. After World War II, Europe re-organized itself, with nations sacrificing some of their sovereignty to the European Economic Community. The changing relationship between national concerns and economic concerns was built into the new structure. Economic issues became dominant. The new era of economism was born. Not only business, but also politics, education, and much of culture were subservient to the economy.
I hope you now understand what I mean by different types of spirituality. Imperialism, Christianism, nationalism, and economism define four epochs of Western European civilization. From a Christian perspective they are all idolatrous. The idolatry that called for emperor worship was the most blatant. Making Christianity itself an idol was theologically the most distressing. Nationalism was the most violent in its destructiveness. Economism is the most violent existentially. It removes all meaning from life, and it is the most destructive of the natural world which is reduced to nothing more than its usefulness in production and consumption.
I hope you see also that change of spirituality at this level does take place. You may notice that when one form of spirituality decays and creates enormous problems, a different form, responsive to those problems can arise. I draw hope from the fact that the failures of economism are apparent to most people. Its treatment of people leads to nihilism. Its treatment of nature imperils the survival of life. How much worse does it have to get before the change comes?
Against this background the anticipatory hints of Earthism are a great relief. Strictly speaking, it is also idolatrous, but it is an idolatry that for now is not harmful. Idolatry is giving devotion to a part at the expense of other parts. Nations are clearly limited parts of the whole, and devotion to one nation leads to wars with devotees of other nations. The economic aspect of the world limits itself to one aspect of human activity omitting a very great deal. Subordinating everything to the pursuit of wealth has impoverished many people and raped the natural world. The Earth is a very limited part of the universe, but as of now limiting ourselves to devotion to its well-being omits very little of significance. If we should encounter creatures from other planets, it would be important to broaden our devotion.
For Christians, Earthism should be readily visible as a great improvement. The Bible begins with the affirmation that God is the Creator of the Earth. God saw that it is good. The human role is to tend it. One of the most popular biblical verses states the God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus Christ.
Of course, the explicit teaching is that we should love and serve God. But, again and again, the Bible makes clear that the expression of our love of God is primarily through our service of God’s creatures. The creatures we can serve constitute the Earth. In one of John’s letters he tells us that those who claim to love God but do not love their fellow creatures are liars. It is true that John’s focus is on our fellow human beings. But already in the Noah story we learned that God cares about all the animals. The Bible offers no justification for our separating ourselves so far from our fellow creatures. The Bible knows of no “nature” omitting humanity. There is only “creation” that includes all. We humans are a very important part of the world God loves. We certainly do not, by ourselves, constitute it.
It is great that many churches now pay attention to Earth Day. The next step, an urgent one, is to shift from the nationalism and economism, still so powerful in our culture, to Earthism. Corporations and nations will then justify themselves in terms of how they benefit the Earth. Serving the Earth, including especially one another, will give rich meaning to our lives.