By Debra Rienstra.
On September 20, 2019, Dr. Jamie Skillen sat down with Dr. Debra Rienstra to explore concepts of humility and hope and the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism toward the idea of an “eschatological stewardship”.
Check out the conversation here and follow along with the transcript.
DR: Alright, today, I’m talking with Jamie Skillen, my colleague in the Environmental Studies department at Calvin. Jamie’s here today to talk about how Christians have thought about our human role in the creation. So we’ll do a little history and then we’ll consider some ways forward.
Jamie Skillen: Sounds great.
DR: So Jamie, thanks for being here today.
Jamie Skillen: Thanks so much for inviting me.
DR: Where are we? Tell us where we are on Calvin’s campus today.
Jamie Skillen: Well, right now we’re in the Dice Mineral Museum, and this was a generous gift from an alum and I hope people can come to Calvin and walk through the mineral museum. It’s set up, really, organized, around color, around beauty. And so that’ll lure you in and then you’ll learn something about geology along the way.
DR: It is beautiful. It is a beautiful and hidden spot on Calvin’s campus. You have to work a little bit to find it but it’s worth coming to. So you teach in the geology, geography, and environmental studies department.
Also on your webpage on the Calvin page, is listed urban studies, international development studies. So I’m wondering if you have an acronym that puts that, like… what do you people call yourselves these days?
Jamie Skillen: Well, we call ourselves the Geo department, and the latter areas you mentioned are simply… we teach courses that serve those programs.
The bigger challenge is, I’m in an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary department and some people call themselves geographers, others geologists, and then there’s me. I’m an environmental studier. So I don’t have as brief a way of describing what I do.
DR: Very nice. So now we have the classy and concise Geo to cover it all.
Jamie Skillen: Yes.
DR: Great. So would you start with Lynn White’s critique of the Christian tradition, which turns up everywhere I look. Every time you read something about ecology, Lynn White gets mentioned. So we need to know who that is. And then tell us about developments in thinking since then about the Christian tradition and its role in how we think about the environment.
Jamie Skillen: Sure. I’d be happy to. I’m actually going to go back just a little bit further because in the United States, there’s been anxiety about environmental degradation going back a hundred and fifty years, but in the 19th century, it was more concerned about deforestation, about visible despoilation of land. And what happens in the 1950s and 1960s is a new anxiety. And it’s both anxiety about unseen dangers, so we have the atomic testing, we have chemical pollution, and people begin to see that atomic testing in Nevada can cause cancer in New York. They begin to see these connections between what humans are doing on one part of the planet and harm both to humans and the nonhuman world thousands of miles away.
They’re also, at that time, people begin to think ecologically. So instead of just seeing a world of isolated objects or landscapes, thinking about the nonhuman world largely in terms of a web of relationships. And some of the big concerns–atomic testing, chemical pollution, rapid rise of human population–really begin to hit the American consciousness in that period.
And I want to emphasize that Christians were thinking about this. You had someone like Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler, was writing in the 1950s about a theology for Earth. But Lynn White Jr. writing in 1967 an essay in Science magazine, and it’s a very brief essay. But the essay on the ecological roots–I’m sorry, on the Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, he really throws down a gauntlet and challenges Christianity. And his argument in a nutshell is that by destroying pagan animism in Europe, Christianity laid the groundwork for seeing the nonhuman world as pure object to which we had no moral responsibility. And he thinks that that, combined with a certain arrogant reading of Genesis, led to not only the rise of science and technology, but its use in destructive ways to dominate the nonhuman world.
But what’s I think most interesting about his essay is that not only does he blame Christianity, he says Christianity bears, quote, “a huge burden of guilt,” unquote. But he also says since the problem is religious, the solution needs to be religious. And he tries to rehabilitate Christianity by turning to people like Saint Francis and developing a more ecologically friendly Christianity.
And that gauntlet that he threw down had two impacts. One, it led to a massive outpouring of scholarship by Christians but also by non-Christian historians and others, and Christians began to answer this charge: is Christianity really to blame, and if it is, is it true Christianity? Or is Lynn White Jr. identifying real problems, misinterpretations of Genesis and the Christian life?
DR: So I’m going to interrupt just a moment, before you go on here, and say that I’ve been reading a book on… it’s called something very politically correct: Man and Nature: 1500 to 1800, and it’s one of these amazing works of scholarship where somebody sat in the British library and read every single thing that was printed in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and it’s beautifully written, it’s humorous, it’s extremely learned. And I’ve read a big chunk of it now and it’s all these treatises from the 17th and 18th centuries saying exactly what Lynn White was accusing Christianity of, from a Christian point of view. All this defense of beasts as merely mechanical and…
Jamie Skillen: Sure.
DR: The world as being there all for our exploitation, and this is how God designed it. And I thought, oh my gosh, Lynn White was right. But I haven’t gotten to the part where this particular author says, on the other hand there were people thinking in other ways about Genesis.
Jamie Skillen: Right.
DR: But the ideology that you’re describing doesn’t just come out of nowhere, nor does it come directly out of Genesis.
Jamie Skillen: Correct.
DR: It comes out of this long tradition. And it’s just useful to see that our interpretations of scripture are also influenced by long traditions of thought and that that can be changed.
Jamie Skillen: It’s true.
DR: So go on.
Jamie Skillen: Sure. Well if we look at the responses to Lynn White Jr., I think you can put those responses into different categories.
There’s another Lutheran pastor, theologian Paul Santmire. And I like his categorization. He says, some of what we read and what we’d call environmental theology, he categorizes as apology, he calls them the apologists. And these are the people writing who say, listen, there’s nothing wrong with Christianity. Either Lynn White Jr. is just wrong, or listen, you know, sure, a few people have misinterpreted, but we don’t really need to do any work. We just need to do what God commanded and care for the Earth.
There’s a… on the opposite end of the continuum are the people he calls reconstructionists. And these are the people who take that critique from Lynn White Jr. and others so seriously that they say Christianity is utterly broken. What we have to do is rebuild religion from the ground, literally from the earth up and produce a new version of Christianity that is, well, eco-friendly. Some of the eco-feminist literature falls into this category, and you see a lot of Christians who are reaching to Eastern religions or to Native American spirituality, trying to find something that’s earth-friendly.
Jamie Skillen: And really pushing well beyond what I would think of as orthodoxy. The third category–and you see rhetorically I’ve saved it for last–the third category of the revisionist, and these are people who say, no, we don’t need to scrap Christianity, but the problems we see are serious enough that we need to do some hard work and really examine our theology and our lives critically and we might need to make some significant changes in the way we interpret the Bible, in the way we do our theology. Because if we are continuing to degrade Earth at the current pace, then really that can’t be the proper expression of God’s love.
I mentioned there were two responses or two impacts of the Lynn White Jr. essay. One of the other ones, though, that’s unfortunate is that that essay, along with a lot of the rhetoric from environmentalism about overpopulation really–I don’t know if it created, but it widened a divide between sort of conservative Christianity and environmentalism, really creating a pretty hostile relationship in some quarters, and that’s continued today. And maybe we can talk about that a little bit later, but it is a… I think one of the really unfortunate impacts of the sort of environmental critique of Christianity.
DR: Yeah, so tell us a little bit now about the response here at Calvin–the original Christian environmental stewardship book and then the project that we worked on together last summer.
Jamie Skillen: I’m really proud of the fact that Calvin is an institution that produced one of the early comprehensive responses to environmental degradation coming out of a Reformed or Calvinist tradition.
And I also think it’s significant that Calvin created something called The Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship in 1977, and its first major funded project was this project on Earth and natural resources. And it brought together people like Loren Wilkinson, who came out of the humanities, out of literature. He was teaching at a quirky program in Oregon at the time. Also Cal DeWitt from University of Wisconsin. And then a number of Calvin faculty including the late Vern Ehlers. And they went through and the book that they produced–Earthkeeping–it’s pretty impressive. I mean, they address the sort of current state of the environment. They provide some history, how we got here, and then they really seek to build a Christian view of stewardship.
DR: Yeah, so that was the key word at that point–that that word was thought to be the key that would kind of unlock a proper and healthful Christian response.
Jamie Skillen: Yes. I think it came out of–if we think about Lynn White Jr.’s essay–an attempt to move an interpretation of Genesis beyond the idea of dominion as domination, and really recover the idea that humans are stewards or vicegerents. It’s– Earth is not here just for us to use, Earth is here for God’s glory and therefore human care of the earth–and Earth can be used for our betterment–but that care of Earth really has to reflect love of God.
DR: So that book came out in the 80s …
Jamie Skillen: Came out in 1980 and there was another addition, second edition in 1991.
DR: Okay, and our colleagues last summer–you and I were part of this project that addressed what some people have felt has been the inadequacy of the concept of stewardship. And so we explored, last summer, from a number of different disciplinary perspectives ways to think about that term and ways to perhaps improve upon it. So I reread your chapter last night. So tell us a little bit about your chapter and then I’ll ask you a couple questions about what I found in it.
Jamie Skillen: Oh, okay. Sounds dangerous. The chapter I wrote really came out of my experience of teaching and I would say also my own experience. And it’s the experience of discouragement. We’re looking at the problems we face, at their scale and wondering, you know, should I keep working at this? Can we even make a difference?
And I do find in the classroom, often students come in and their goal is to save the world. And anything that falls short of that just feels discouraging. And I relate. And so the chapter that I wrote, which began with one of my favorite Wendell Berry essays, is about what I would call eschatological stewardship, which is pursuing the work of caring for God’s creation, but always with the view of what God is doing and will do finally in a new heavens and new earth.
And to me the power of that is twofold. First, it means a kind of backcasting. It means we don’t have to start with reality as we know it, we can begin with a future that is fundamentally different and ask how do we work back from that so that we’re working towards shalom for humans, but also for the whole non-human creation.
And then the second piece is just as important, and that is the fact that when we don’t see complete success, we can maintain hope knowing that God is faithful and that God will fulfill and finish the work that we’re trying to do and doing only imperfectly.
DR: And that’s what we see in the vision in Revelation, the new heavens and the new Earth.
Jamie Skillen: Right.
DR: Yeah. Your chapter emphasizes the role of humility very strongly. So maybe you could describe a little bit about how you see the role of humility, and how you teach that to students or how you talk about that with students.
Jamie Skillen: Well, I certainly don’t model it. But you know, I like the idea. Yeah, I’ll back up and say, you know, I always begin with sort of questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. And if we go back to Genesis and we see that human beings were made–actually first human beings are made in the image of the earth. We’re animals among animals, we’re created from the dust. We have the same biophysical needs as all the other animals and that part seems pretty clear.
DR: Soil creatures.
Jamie Skillen: Exactly. But the second piece–that we’re made in the image of God–not only has that led to thousands of pages of reflection over the years, just trying to define that. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? And I think of that less in terms of a characteristic or a possession of ours–our intellect or some other just human capacity. I think about it both as a relationship–being made in the image of God is first and foremost a choice that God makes about relationship that God is in with us, and the second is, I think of the image of God as a verb, so we are to image God. There’s imaging that we need to do. And so reading Genesis that way and thinking about environmental issues, we are called to reflect, represent, image–actually in some limited sense be God to the rest of creation.
Some theologians I like use the metaphor we’re priests to Creation. Now when you begin to think about the magnitude of that responsibility and you realize that we are limited in our capacity to do that and we’re limited by our finitude. We simply don’t know enough. We don’t understand creation well enough.
And we’re also limited by sin. The fact that we do that which we don’t want to do. And I think when we look at both the magnitude of the responsibility and we take a clear-eyed view of our limitations, that automatically ought to generate a sense of humility.
I also think it ought to generate, really, a sense of wonder that God nonetheless is using us. And so I think humility in the Christian sense should always be connected to hope because a proper sense of our limitations in our place before God should lead us immediately into that wonder, joy, and hope that God is at work.
There’s a phrase that the author Frederick Buechner uses. And I won’t tell the longer context, but he says when we’re genuinely struck by Christian faith, by the Yes that God says to us, Buechner writes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession, tears, and great laughter.
Jamie Skillen: I love those three and I think that I associate those three words with humility. Christian humility is not just about taking a dim view of ourselves. We should be practicing confession. There should be tears, both tears of sorrow at our failure, but tears of joy. And then the great laughter that God nonetheless is accomplishing things through us.
DR: We’ve been exploring the idea of refugia, the biological concept of refugia. So in the context of that humility and of that call to be the images of God, to imitate the attributes of God in relationship to Creation, how would you describe the role of refugia? What could that mean?
Jamie Skillen: I think the first association for me is almost, it’s something that I take almost as a synonym. A synonym for refugia would be Sabbath.
DR: Oh, I’m so glad you brought that up, yes.
Jamie Skillen: So, it’s this idea that if we think about either time or space refugia–the geographic location or a time within our week, within our day when we set aside our six days work and we rest, not just for relaxation, but we rest in God’s providence, love, and care–
DR: Maybe rest into that eschatological stewardship.
Jamie Skillen: Yeah. And that’s also then a kind of rest that energizes us and equips us for the next six days’ labor.
DR: I’vebeen thinking about how refugia is not an escape and it’s not permanent. So that Sabbath model is perfect, right, because it’s about living into that eschatological hope but then returning to the work.
So I’ve also been thinking about that tension in the reformed tradition between this kind of abject humility that perhaps overemphasizes our sinfulness and underemphasizes our being made in the image of God. And there’s an appropriate role for that. It does throw us on to the sovereignty and grace of God, that humility, but there’s also this very vigorous energetic–around here we would call it Kuyperian charge to transform culture. And it sounds like that’s where you would put a caution and say, yes, that’s good, but remember, we’re not only simple but we’re finite. And we need that rest. So the Sabbath idea for refugia is a way perhaps of balancing the triumphalism with the humility. At least maybe that’s one way to think about it.
Jamie Skillen: And I think the other thing I like in thinking about it in Sabbath terms is that we can think about it individually, right? It’s an experience that I have. It’s a time I set aside. It’s a place I go to. But it also, I think, in the context of Sabbath and the context of God, seventh day.
It also emphasizes that this has to be corporate, right? That it’s not just about the individual. It’s about communities of people. It’s about communities of creatures who experience this together.
DR: How are we doing on that one?
Jamie Skillen: Well… not well. But.
Jamie Skillen: But, you know, we can work at that.
DR: Okay, what should we do?
Jamie Skillen: Oh, now you’re asking the hard questions.
DR: Well, yeah.
Jamie Skillen: Yeah. Well, I do think it begins in the formal Christian settings of worship, right, in the way we talk about what it means to experience Sabbath and what it means to work together in it. But I think like a lot of virtues as well, I do think it’s harder to practice that in isolation. It’s harder to practice that in a culture and in a community that doesn’t value it. This is true of humility. It’s true of courage. Yeah, it’s true of the rest to which we are called. And so I think one of the things to do is think about ways in which our formal Christian communities are encouraging, which we’re encouraging one another to seek this out, and to seek it out together.
DR: We had a scholar called Julia Lupton on campus last fall in the English Department. She’s a Shakespearean and a brilliant scholar and she describes the concept of virtue ecologies, which is a great way to combine a biological term with a virtue and ethics term.
Jamie Skillen: What does she mean?
DR: She means exactly what you were describing, I think, which is context in which we practice virtues together and it makes it easier to practice those virtues.
The opposite would be a toxic virtue ecology where it’s much more difficult to practice those virtues. So I wonder what a healthy virtue ecology would look like for environmental stewardship.
Jamie Skillen: Yeah.
DR: I suppose we all wonder that.
Jamie Skillen: Yeah, I think… I wish I did have an answer for that. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is… here on Calvin’s campus you think about the ecosystem preserve and you think well, so, you know, what is it that we’re trying to do there. I don’t think what we’re trying to do in the ecosystem preserve is model how human beings should live all of their lives in relation to the nonhuman world. It is a place that’s set apart.
I think recently, I was in Yosemite National Park talking to the head of wilderness management. And this guy, Mark Fincher, who… I was struck. He–just in the flow of his conversation–he described wilderness areas, these places formally designated by Congress, he described them as geographic sabbath.
DR: Oh, yes.
Jamie Skillen: And I think that’s… one of the things which is… we have to create the contexts that predispose us to rest. We also, I think, by things like the ecosystem preserve, like wilderness areas, we are demonstrating a kind of collective restraint, a kind of communal humility that says, there will be places that we don’t develop and that we don’t use to the full extent that we could.
DR: That don’t exist only for us.
Jamie Skillen: Right.
DR: Yeah. One of the phrases you use in your chapter is that the kingdom is a truly comprehensive economy. Explain what you mean by that.
Jamie Skillen: Well, I’ll… that came out of a Wendell Berry essay, and it’s worth just explaining that the context–Wendell Berry is talking with a friend, Wes Jackson, and they’re lamenting that what they call the industrial economy is causing so much environmental degradation.
And so they begin to ask, what kind of economy do we need? They say, we need one that’s comprehensive, that doesn’t discount, you know, flowers of no ecological, economic value. And Berry offers the idea of an energy economy, because energy runs through everything, maybe that would be enough. And Jackson smiles and says, no, we need the kingdom of God. And I love this because it… right, it suggests that the kingdom of God is an economy, meaning it is a set of relationships, and it’s this reminder that God the king actually sees all of those.
I mean, this is a remarkable kind of picture that we’re… that we see in the Bible a God who knows the fall of every sparrow, that knows the number of hairs on our heads that… and what’s really important there is God also, we think, sees the proper value of all things, and that’s something that we can’t do.
As I said earlier, both because we’re finite–we can’t know enough–but also because we don’t … because we’re sinful, because we don’t look at the world through the same kind of pure love, we always look at the world through our own desires and our own kind of broken needs. So the task that Berry and Jackson set forth, and this has always struck me, is our task then is to try to develop a model of the kingdom of God.
And if you think about the work in science in other places, I mean, a model should never be confused with the thing itself. The model is a representation. We accept that it always has limits, that it doesn’t accurately depict, let’s say, the model of an atom that you use in a chemistry class. Well, that is not an actual one-to-one corresponding reality, but it has value and it captures some of the things that are most important about the way an atom works. So I think creating models of an economy that we think, to the best of our abilities, reflects right relationship before God, I think that’s the challenge.
DR: Yeah, maybe that’s what refugia can be, is a micro-model that in some ways is limited and is not meant to be forever, but can create those capacities within us to spread those ways of thinking, that economy into larger spaces.
Jamie Skillen: And I think refugia… I think that’s particularly true if we imagine many different kinds of refugia. So one of the fallacies or one of the faults we could fall into is thinking that, you know, Yosemite National Park’s backcountry, that’s the real kingdom of God. Yeah, and admittedly, it feels like that to me, but we have to have, sure, wilderness-type refugia, but we also have to have, you know, places, whether they’re gardens, whether they are, you know, downtown social spaces in a city, there have to be different, many different models because we’re going to need many in order to capture the complexity and the diversity of God’s kingdom.
DR: That comprehensive economy of the Kingdom. Where are those most beautiful places of refugia for you right now?
Jamie Skillen: I have an unreasonable attachment to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and it’s not only because John Muir says that the Sierras open ten thousand windows onto God, but there is something about the scale of those mountains.
There’s something about the light there. And I think there’s a kind of joyful humility I feel hiking in a landscape like that with a Bible–actually I don’t carry a whole Bible; it’s too heavy for backpacking. But with what I’ve learned from…the Bible
DR: You have the lightweight camper’s Bible.
Jamie Skillen: It’s just John 3:16. But this idea that I’m in this space where I can both feel my insignificance, but also through what’s revealed in scripture, know that I am significant before God.
I think another… in that same part of the country there’s an area in southern Oregon and northern California called the Cascade Siskiyou ecoregion. Sorry, the Klamath Siskiyou ecoregion, and it’s a place that’s become refugia for me in part because I’ve moved so often through school jobs, and that’s a place to which I’ve always returned.
And even the places that I grew up, I no longer have family. The family is all moved. So it’s become this constant. And there are a couple of beautiful places–Pilot Rock the… well, the Coast Ranges, the redwoods. And so it’s both a place of beauty but also it’s become a constant in my life. Or with all the moves I keep going back to that one area.
DR: And that’s what builds affection.
Jamie Skillen: Yeah.
DR: Which is key. Jamie, thank you so much for talking with me today. Really appreciate it.
Jamie Skillen: Thanks so much for the invitation. I’ve enjoyed it.
This article originally appeared on https://debrarienstra.com/episode-2-the-great-laughter-jamie-skillen-on-humility-and-hope/