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A religious climate

By Wen Stephenson
October 16, 2011

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CLIMATE SCIENCE, despite what you may have heard from your friendly neighborhood fossil-fuel lobbyist, is not a religion. Last I checked, NASA and the National Academy of Sciences weren’t faith-based organizations.

But it’s fair to say that people of faith, all across the theological spectrum, are an important part of the grass-roots movement for climate action — a fact easily overlooked at a moment when science and environmentalism are often assumed to be at odds with religion, especially the more traditional kinds.

So it’s refreshing to see that on Oct. 20, PEN New England will honor Wendell Berry - the Kentucky farmer, environmental hero, and Christian poet, essayist, and novelist - with its Howard Zinn/People Speak Award in Cambridge. Berry will be joined by Bill McKibben, the environmental scholar (and Methodist Sunday school teacher) who, as founder of and a leader of the campaign to stop the Keystone XL “tar sands’’ pipeline, is probably the most influential climate activist in the world today.

Although Berry is often linked with the environmental movement, he transcends any narrow idea of what environmentalism means. For Berry, it’s as much about preserving the wildness in a handful of good topsoil as any pristine wilderness. Above all, it’s about community and love of neighbor, which means finding the right balance between human culture and the rest of creation.

Yes, creation is a word that comes naturally to Berry. In fact, Berry’s true importance for us now may be his “crossover’’ appeal. You don’t have to be a secular-left enviro to love Wendell Berry - according to Christianity Today, some of his most avid readers in recent years have been young evangelicals. Indeed, he was making the Biblical case for environmental “stewardship,’’ now known as “creation care,’’ long before it became a buzzword.

Berry manages to be an unapologetically spiritual writer even as he bridges the religious-secular divide - no mean feat for a Kentuckian steeped in Bible Belt Christianity. He’s also been a forthright critic of modern Christianity’s complicity in our environmental crises, as in “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,’’ his 1992 lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. And yet, speaking there, he held out the possibility that Christianity “should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.’’

Strikingly, the climate movement that McKibben is helping to build embodies the sort of broad-mindedness and deep spiritual engagement that Berry represents. One of the most impressive things about the movement is the way it brings secular and religious activists together - much as the civil rights and antiwar movements did - finding a key base of support in progressive churches and interfaith groups. This will be on display on Nov. 6, when the Tar Sands Action campaign (to which Berry was one of the original signatories) forms a human circle around the White House exactly one year from election day.

The question remains whether the more theologically conservative Christians Berry knows so well will come on board in a meaningful way. There are clear signs that a new generation of moderate evangelicals are far more engaged on climate - especially as a humanitarian and social-justice issue - than their elders. They could be game-changers in the years ahead.

But global warming won’t wait. If young evangelicals are to feel welcome in the climate movement, progressive activists - secular and religious - need to reach out their hands. That’s precisely what McKibben has done, speaking on evangelical college campuses. More should follow his lead.

It’s been almost 20 years since Berry addressed his fellow Baptists in Louisville, bearing prophetic witness to the need for his faith’s renewal. “On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion,’’ he said, “may depend the survival of the Creation that is its subject.’’

Or as he wrote in 1991, in his poem “The Farm’’:

That is the vision, seen As on a Sabbath walk: The possibility Of human life whose terms Are Heaven’s and this earth’s. You don’t have to believe in Heaven to grasp the urgency of that vision.

Wen Stephenson, a freelance writer, is a former editor of the Globe’s Ideas section. Follow him on Twitter @wenstephenson.