Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More on "Gardening Eden" - an interview with author Michael Abbate

Is faith and environmentalism make a good fit together? I think this is a fascinating question and I think about it even more after reading and reviewing "Gardening Eden" by Michael Abbate.

So is there anyone better to figure it out with than the author itself? I got in touch with Michael Abbate and conducted an interview with him about faith, environmentalism, hope and of course guilt..

Since Michael knows this issue better than anyone else I know, I decided it's time for an interview to learn more from him and interviewed him over the mail. Here's the interview:

Firstly I'm curious what feedback you get so far on the book, especially from the faith community?
The reaction has been great. There seem to be two groups of people from the faith community that I have spoken with. The first are those who have previously had their interest piqued in the topic of ecological stewardship and conservation. These folks seem to appreciate the biblical background and personal stories included in Gardening Eden.

The other group are those who happen to be gathered when I am speaking, but don’t come with any particular interest in the subject of Creation Care. I spoke at a group like this a few weeks ago at Praise Assembly in
Springfield, MO. There, most people came because it was Wednesday night service, not necessarily to hear me.

They were initially skeptical, but after I discussed the primary themes in Gardening Eden, many seemed to come to a new understanding and willingness to make personal lifestyle changes to protect the environment. A frequent comment I hear is that “this seems not much different than practicing faithful stewardship of my money or my time – it all belongs to God; my time, my money and the planet.”

When I spoke last week at Flourish 09, the first national conference on Creation Care for pastors and church leaders in
Atlanta (www.flourishonline.org), the audience was much more in tune with the spiritual mandate to protect the planet. There, I was invited to discuss steps churches could take to model this conservation ethic. Overall, there has been a lot of interest and enthusiasm on the topic.

However, it is not just those in the faith community who have explored Gardening Eden. In fact, since the book has come out, I have been honored to have many deep spiritual conversations with people who would not identify themselves with any type of organized faith community.

These discussions have been rich, meaningful and profound. I believe that these discussions have encouraged many of these folks to reevaluate their personal world-view and spiritual beliefs. If nothing more, it has shown to them that not all evangelical Christians are right-wing hate-mongers, just like I tell my faith-filled friends that not all environmentalists are left-wing human-haters!

What brought you to write this book?
I have tried to use words to reconcile the discordant voices in my head. For nearly 25 years, I have felt like I have had my feet in two different worlds. My professional world is filled with good people who are concerned about environmental degradation, but are much less interested in (or willing to talk about) a spiritual life. On the other hand, when I have talked to friends in my church, very few of them seem to care much about environmental stewardship. I believe that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the person of faith has a more clear and rational mandate to protect nature than the secularist.

The more I thought, the more I studied, and the more I prayed, the more I was convinced that these are not mutually exclusive points of view. In fact, they are fully compatible, and I contend, both necessary to fulfill the other.

What you find as the main obstacles of believers to go green and combine environmentalism with their faith?
Here’s a common refrain I have heard: “Mike, I don’t know WHO to believe or WHAT to do.” Many people are “eco-curious”, that is, they have a vague feeling that they should care about the environment, but they don’t know how to make the first step. They also wonder if they have to buy in to a political agenda to live green.

Sometimes, we have allowed politics to blind us to the commonalities between us. If I can label an idea or person as right-wing or left wing, it allows me to dismiss their ideas without giving them any real intellectual consideration. Many believers have done this with the issue of environmental stewardship. But environmental conservation is not fundamentally a political issue, it’s a spiritual one. At what point did conservation cease being a conservative issue? And isn’t living conservatively a good thing, a sustainable thing, an admirable thing?

Gardening Eden helps people to sort out the fact from opinion, theology from scientific theory, and provides some very practical ways we can all live to be called “good and faithful stewards.”

You say that "conservation is a conservative issue" - why is that and if so, how come it became so identified with liberals?
Conservatives are people who think that it is wise to be careful how we expend resources, whether financial or environmental. They tend to want to be careful, to ensure that there are enough resources for future needs. Therefore, conservation of our planet with its remarkable resources and wildlife is a wise and conservative way to live.

In fact, in 1989 the United Nations Brundtland Commission came up with this definition of “sustainability”, which has continued to this day: "The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Doesn’t that sound like an idea rooted in the concept of conservation?

During the Reagan Administration, a few notable strides were made on behalf of the environment. However, the greatest impact was probably made by James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior. His combative, attacking style tended to polarize the discussion. With Watt, individual property rights were seen as trumping the needs of the collective. In 1968, Hardin had described the results of this mindset as the "Tragedy of the Commons". When the environment and personal property rights were linked with abortion and other socially conservative issues, it became almost exclusively partisan, and impossible to discuss the alliance between "conservative" and "conservation".

Because the church did not step forward in the 1960s and 1970s and provide leadership in insisting that environmental protection was critical for both people and the planet, other champions stepped forward. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife stepped into the breach and began to organize and lobby for environmental protection. This is not a bad thing at all. I just wish the church could have been in the vanguard of the movement, and doing it for the best possible reasons – out of love and adoration for the Creator of it all.

I believe that religion can have a significant role in unifying humanity under the green flag and pushing the green movement into mainstream. Do you think it's possible? will it ever happen?
Not only do I believe it is possible, but I think it is likely. As people grasp the spiritual implications of environmental stewardship, a new personal motivation will come into play. Spiritual faith has a profound ability to inspire people to do right, to deny oneself, and to make sacrifices for others. When this is practiced in the nation’s churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities, tremendous environmental successes will be inevitable. More important than that, I believe the Creator of all will be pleased.

How do you explain the fact that the Pope and the Vatican are going green so fast while the Christian leadership in the U.S. is lagging behind?
There are many pastors from around the country who are leading the effort to reestablish the church's responsibility to protect the planet. Tri Robinson of Boise Vineyard, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek in
Chicago and Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Orlando have been incredibly effective and courageous Christian leaders in the movement.

Two new organizations have sprouted to help carry the message across the pews: Flourish, is a national network that inspires and equips churches to better love God by reviving human lives and the landscapes on which they depend (www.Flourishonline.org). Another group is Creation Care for Pastors, an organization committed to “serving pastors who are interested in a growing emphasis within the Christian community called Creation Care.” (www.creationcareforpastors.com). One of the first and foremost organizations is the Evangelical Environmental Network, led by Rev. Jim Ball (www.creationcare.org).

However, having said this, I would agree that the church is just in its infancy of being involved in this issue. As I talk to people around the country, particularly committed Christians 20- 40 years of age, I have become convinced that it is inevitable that creation care will transform faith communities: Evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. It is a movement that will be from the bottom up – truly grass roots, if you’ll forgive the pun. Younger believers are not willing to let some of the polarized politics of the past prevent a thorough discussion and action on this issue.

Do you feel that it will be easier now for liberals and conservatives to work together with the leadership of President Obama?
The election of President Obama also points to a potential shift in the public's desire to see some real environmental leadership by the federal government. Whether or not conservatives and liberals work together for environmental legislation remains to be seen, but if the past is any indicator, I am doubtful. But to be honest, I am more interested in how my countrymen and women will respond, rather than our political leaders.

In particular, I am more interested in talking to some of the folks who did not vote Obama, are suspicious of environmentalists and dismiss the issue as driven by left-wing secular humanists.

Some things are right for an individual to do, regardless of politics. Helping your neighbor, feeding the hungry, loving your enemy, nurturing a child, stewarding creation. These are good and right for an individual to do, and must be driven by an inner conviction that is more profoundly personal than a party platform. Too often, I believe that good, loving and sacrificial people have lumped all environmental issues and programs together, then dismissed them as politically untenable. I have been told by many readers of Gardening Eden that reading it has caused them to rethink their personal beliefs and to implement different lifestyles and behaviors. This is not because of a political awakening, but rather a spiritual one.

Is it only the faith community that should take a step forward, or the green movement need also to do something to gain their trust?
I think this is already beginning to happen, and will likely continue. The Sierra Club, in particular, has reached out to people of faith in meaningful ways. I think everyone understand that faith is a tremendous force for good, and should no longer be discounted or seen as irrelevant in our “sophisticated” age.

As a Jew I find the concept of guilt connecting between my religious identity (we always feel guilty about something) and my green values. Can it also work for Christians?
Ah…guilt, the “feel-bad” motivator! With no disrespect to Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or Evangelical Christianity, I am not a fan of guilt as a motivator. The most effective motivator I know of is love, not guilt.

The entire bible and certainly the gospel of Jesus was paradigm-shattering in this regard. Jesus was not impressed with those whose outward appearances were beautiful, but inside, they were something else entirely. Likewise, God will not be impressed if we live according to some green check-list, but do so with the wrong motives. He doesn’t allow us to have an attitude of self-righteousness. Rather, he wants us to do the right things for the right reason.

He is as concerned with our heart as he is with our actions. He doesn’t use guilt to motivate us; rather he demonstrates love and hopes this will turn our hearts toward him. I have come to believe that we must “go green, guilt-free.”

Just like I can’t tell you how to best steward your financial or time resources, I can’t tell you how to live. You must seek direction from the God you serve. It is He, through his Holy Spirit that will call you to make sacrifices, not other mortals. I can give you ideas on what is effective, but I can’t tell you what is your responsibility.

What are your plans now? Will the book lead you to become more involved with the dialogue between the faith and the environmental community?
I certainly hope so! I thoroughly enjoy discussing these issues with people both inside and outside faith communities. I have been honored to speak for audiences in many parts of the country and I very much hope to continue doing this, along with media interviews of various types.

In addition, I am learning the power of the internet and social networking. People can now follow me through my GardeningEden Twitter feed, Gardening Eden blog (www.gardeningeden.wordpress.com), or my website www.michaelabbate.com.

I am inspired by hearing stories about how others have made decisions to better the environmental condition of the planet. I also love to dialogue back and forth on questions of both faith and creation care. I believe that our efforts will make the planet a better place, to be sure, but even more importantly, we will be drawn into a closer relationship with the God who created it all.

Thank you Michael!

Raz @ Godelnik