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If God created the whole world, why is treating plants as holy so crazy?

The furor over #PlantGate may help explain why it’s so difficult to make progress in responding to climate change.

A service at Union Theological Seminary involving plants. Photo via @UnionSeminary/Twitter

(RNS) — For the past two weeks, my life has been consumed by #PlantGate — the name the internet bestowed upon furor surrounding a chapel service at Union Theological Seminary, where I work.

In the service, participants were encouraged to speak directly to plants and confess the harm we have caused the natural world, our ingratitude for its bounteous gifts. A tweet summarizing the chapel quickly went viral: We were called idolaters, pagans and just plain crazy. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, devoted an entire 25-minute podcast to decrying our “heresy.”

Within days, dozens of conservative outlets wrote hit pieces, including Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, InfoWars and Breitbart. While the service has been endlessly rehashed online — and I have little interest in repeating breathlessly that we were not, in fact, worshipping plants — I’ve found myself ruminating about why this particular service caused such an uproar. I think the answer helps explain one reason it’s so difficult to make progress in responding to climate change.

Twitter responses often returned to a common theme: As one representative tweet put it, “My relationship to plants is that I have dominion over them and can use them in any way that benefits the crowning glory of God’s creation, mankind.”

Now, obviously, this is nothing new. For centuries, strains of Christianity have propagated the notion that God created the natural world for humanity’s use, often citing the first chapter of the Bible’s Book of Genesis: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”

“Earthrise” is a photograph of the Earth and parts of the moon’s surface taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. Photo by Bill Anders/NASA/Creative Commons

Christians have erroneously used this verse  to argue that it is our divine right to dominate and subdue the natural world. This belief is inextricably tied to a cosmology that sees human beings as the apotheosis of creation, and understands other life solely in relation to ourselves. Evangelicals’ outrage about Union’s plant chapel was so vociferous precisely because they correctly identified the Rev. Cláudio Carvalhaes’ rationale behind the service — treating plants as divinely created beings.

It would be a mistake, however, to understand this conflict as solely an intra-Christian struggle. The truth is, plenty of folks who don’t identify as Christians still believe it is our right as humans to dominate the natural world.

Even environmentalists’ defense is often anthropocentric. Folks argue that we must change in order to save our society, because sea-level rise threatens cities, or to preserve natural parks for human enjoyment. While these sentiments are understandable — and more virtuous than ignoring this reality — they still reinforce a worldview that understands nature first and foremost as a function of what it provides humanity.

Our refusal to see the natural world as holy and sacred in its own right — worthy of honor, dignity and respect — is at the heart of our ecological abuse. Portraying the Earth as a collection of resources to be consumed is a pernicious lie, and one that must be uprooted if we want to heal.

Activists who oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, who prefer the term “protectors,” perform traditional Hawaiian dances at the base of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

It’s telling that the volume of climate denial has increased precisely as activists began to address this false anthropocentrism. Indigenous protesters at Standing Rock proclaimed the holiness of water to fight pipeline expansion. Leilani Kaapuni, a Hawaiian elder fighting telescope construction on Mauna Kea, told The New York Times, “This mountain is sacred.” In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Greta Thunberg put it bluntly: “Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.

To make true progress in addressing climate change, we’ll have to get past this human-centered idea of creation. People talk about climate change as an “existential threat,” meaning that it imperils humanity’s survival. It’s also an existential threat because addressing it requires us to unlearn our supposed place within creation.

Underneath the mockery of Union’s chapel service lies genuine, and not unfounded, fear — that we’ll be forced to abandon closely held beliefs, but also fear that entering into deep relationship with nature will open us to a being that is suffering and dying.

The unfortunate truth about religious belief, however, is that it rarely changes unless addressed directly. Making an economic or scientific argument for Earth care is unlikely to convince someone who believes that God created the world exclusively for human benefit, nor motivate that person to do the painful work of understanding what we are losing, what we have lost.

Horses graze early on the morning of Sept. 14, 2016, at the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of people are camped in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline project. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Instead, we need to supplant destructive traditional theology with life-sustaining replacements. Apologizing directly to the wondrous creation whose survival we endanger is a start. It might feel odd or strange to say “I’m sorry” to a sparrow, tree or river, but that’s because we have become accustomed to treating only humans as worthy of heartfelt interaction. 

It’s obvious that we are capable of forming deep, personal relationships with nonhuman life. Think about how deeply we care for our pets or personal gardens. If a bill proposed killing your dog or cat, or the tomato plant you spent all summer growing, you’d be understandably outraged.

We should, collectively, be more enraged when legislation passes that will kill entire ecosystems. The fact that we aren’t bespeaks our deplorable alienation from nature. 

Earlier in Genesis, God looks at water teeming with living creatures, birds flying across the sky, and lush vegetation and pronounces them “good.” God blesses every one them, asking each to be fruitful and prosper.

That is the future God desires for our planet: one in which the fullness of life can flourish. It’s time for Christians to loudly proclaim: Any theology that contributes to defiling what God made good is not of God. 

(The Rev. Benjamin Perry is a Presbyterian minister and deputy director of communications and marketing for Union Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)