The modern ecological movement as most of us know it began with the publishing in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Less known is that the calls for care for the earth have their roots in mainline Protestant religious traditions.
In a recent webinar hosted by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith, environmental studies professor Lisa Sideris outlined what led up to Silent Spring and how Carson’s upbringing informed her approach.
“The two main tributaries to Carson’s wonder-centered worldview were her Scotch/Irish Presbyterian upbringing and the nature study lessons that she received from her mother from a very early age,” Sideris said as she briefly displayed an image of Carson in Maine with her binoculars. Sideris, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, is also the co-editor of a collection of interdisciplinary essays on the life and work of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, titled Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge.
Sideris discussed some of the inspiration behind Carson’s work, spending a good deal of time unpacking how curiosity naturally leads to wonder. She also highlighted how the concepts of wonder and awe may have been corrupted by some of our modern ideas of cultivating awe as a way to improve our lives.
“Wonder is not just a fleeting experience of something novel,” Sideris said during the webinar. “It becomes part of who you are, it becomes part of how you look at the world and, in that sense, not only is it good for you but it can be good for the natural world and for pro-social and pro-environmental kinds of tendencies as well. This is what Carson believed that there was with a sort of lifelong cultivation of wonder.”
Of course, Carson’s Silent Spring is known for its criticism of the use of the pesticide DDT and the impact it had on the environment. Carson wrote: “This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.”
DDT was banned a decade after Carson’s book was published due to its impact on wildlife as well as humans.
Prior to the groundbreaking work of Silent Spring, Carson wrote another book on the natural world in 1951 called The Sea Around Us. In it, Sideris pointed out that the word mystery appears on nearly every other page. There are also elements of enchantment with the magic of the ocean and the sort of fairy-like nature of some of these creatures that live in what Carson saw as a miniature universe.
“It’s all about magic and mystery and wonder and the alien in sort of ancient nature of the sea and that everything comes from the sea, and everything goes back to the sea,” Sideris said. “So, this is the way in which she talks about these things.”
Carson’s upbringing as the granddaughter and niece of Presbyterian ministers is thought to have been part of the reason that she focused so much on awe and wonder in nature and spent time trying to encourage parents to foster that same awe in their children in the 1960s.
The Sea Around Us also gained acclaim from theologians too. “What sets this book apart from and above similar descriptions is a quality of wonder in the manner of it,” wrote Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler of the book. “The lady writes of plankton and the turning of the times with a positive spiritual grace.”
Carson is one of a handful of writers that is said to have inspired Sittler to develop a theology of ecology. In the 1940s and 50s, Sittler was part of a group of theologians that saw environmental degradation as a spiritual matter, according to Peter Bakken, who edited a collection of Sittler’s essays following his passing in 1987.
In 1954, Sittler wrote of a theology for earth. Much of his work was to focus the intersection of Christian theology, ethics and the natural world. He taught seminarians at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. His contributions to what was to become environmental ethics is not something that is lifted up outside theological circles, although he was one to point out the role theology has to play in society and its potential impact on social justice. He was outspoken on a number of issues of the day and encouraged others to speak out as well.
By the 1960’s, Sittler was teaching a class at the University of Chicago, where he told seminarians, “We give you all the instruments for being relevant, for getting into society’s ear. And when you get it, you haven’t the faintest what to say into it.” This story was told by Martin Marty, whom he co-taught the course with, and who wrote the foreword to Sittler’s well-known book of essays, Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology and Ethics that was edited by Bakken.
Today, there are numerous courses taught relating to faith and ecology at seminaries across the U.S. and across multiple denominations. And yet, the prevailing wisdom would seem to allow many to believe that care for the earth is a new pre-occupation of clergy and theologians as part of a late comer’s response to climate change.
Sittler would become known for his theology of ecology that centered on the nature of grace. In 1964, he wrote that when the world is received “as a gift, a grace, an astounding wonder” it can be enjoyed and justly used. He also became an early advocate of eco-justice, writing of that ‘nature’ that not only includes the creation but also the ‘artificial’ world of art, architecture, technology and social structures.
In the 1970s, Sittler worked on the social statement on ecology that was adopted by the Lutheran Church of America, a predecessor denomination to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Yet today, very few Lutherans are even aware of Sittler’s legacy, just as few are aware of Carson’s religious roots.
Carson would not be alone as a Presbyterian-influenced voice of the environmental movement, either. Historian Mark Stoll in his 2015 book Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism described the Presbyterian influence on Carson’s worldview and how religion played a role in the thought of other environmentalists including: John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Jacobs, E.O. Wilson, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan.
According to Sideris, Stoll’s book showed her that there was an emphasis on sin manifested as a tendency to glorify oneself and to serve oneself. This image of being puffed up with pride is a recurring motif in Carson’s writings, she said. This appears alongside a Calvinist suspicion of what Carson called the artificial world that humans make or what Calvin called the “works of man.”
It also speaks, according to Sideris, to the reformed tradition of reading the pages of the book of nature being akin to reading God’s words in the Bible. Stoll makes a compelling case, she said, for the way in which Carson’s critique of chemical pesticides fit the mold of a Jeremiah as a moral indictment rooted in a strong sense of Calvinistic civic duty and commitment to social reform.
As Carson was losing her battle with cancer and nearing the end of her life, Sideris said that Carson condemned the evils of technological idolatry. Carson wrote of how the modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity and the quick and easy profit. It is out of this idolatry that monstrous evils have arisen.
Sittler too, saw humanity in an age driven by profit at the cost of nature. The global United Nations annual COP conferences focused on climate change have witnessed competing interests between saving the planet and the global economic challenges to forcing such change. In turn, efforts to invest in renewable energy are only now taking off in industrialized countries that see the imperative to act.
These realities of our daily lives — whether it is severe drought, a powerful derecho or unprecedented flooding — may be why so many of us have easily forgotten about the grace-filled response to nature that Sittler and other theologians have proposed.
Sittler asked whether the affirmations that God is gracious and that God’s creation must be enjoyed and used as a gracious gift could help us in forming a response to the pressures we place on the environment. Today, we are left to pick up from where Carson and Sittler left off in their shared response of awe and wonder in nature leading to action.
The gift of grace and our wonder-filled response to nature may accomplish that radical change in spirit of our minds that Sittler wrote about. This is not only a good starting point to discuss nature but can help us move forward with the effects of climate change at our doorstep.
Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.