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A Greener Lent?

Dear Dr. New Age,

I’d like your sage advice on a difficult personal question. I have a friend who says he is a Christian. We’ve been friends for a long time and every once in awhile we go to lunch to catch up. If things are going well, maybe we’ll have a glass of wine to celebrate. We met for lunch the other day, and my friend didn’t want a glass of wine. He said it’s something called “Lent” so he’s given up wine for a few weeks as a personal sacrifice. I thought this was very strange. My friend drives a big old car (he has a big family, and they like to go to church and take lots of other outings together). It uses tons of gas and spews out vast quantities of carbon emissions. He and his wife and all those kids must have a size-eighteen carbon footprint. And he’s giving up wine? Why not give up something that will really help the earth (like kids, for example?) How can I explain to him sensitively that giving up something to help sustain the environment is better than giving up a little vino?

Green but Perplexed

That’s a fictional note, of course, but it raises a Lenten question: what is the purpose – and point – of the sacrifices and offerings we make to mark this time in the desert, this exodus towards a better land? Is that better land after Easter really just richer in flora and fauna?

Lenten offerings are sometimes divided into three types: those in which we give up something to put the virtues more at the center of our thoughts and acts; those by which we serve others; and those in which we aim at no such practical outcome but give as a gratuitous offering. They all serve, one way or another, to take us away from ourselves in order to grow closer to God, to open ourselves more to Him.

Would doing something green, leaving the car at home to take public transportation, for example, be a good Lenten sacrifice? It would seem so: it might serve others by freeing up gas money for another cause, or keeping the air a bit cleaner. It might give us more exercise on foot or a bike than in a car. Or it might have no practical outcome aside from allowing a few more minutes for prayer. But these could all provide a good basis for green Lenten offerings.

The danger for our friend, Green but Perplexed, is not that lowering one’s carbon footprint is a bad idea. It is not that a cleaner environment with a more “sustainable” approach to daily life would be harmful. The danger is that taking steps in that direction with the wrong intention can be a sacrifice to a false god. Father James Schall wrote in this space last week:

Lent . . . makes us aware that we are involved in a mystery of disorder that passes through each of our souls. Many of us desperately seek to find a theory in philosophy, religion, or science to assure us that we are not in any way involved in this mess.

For many in the environmental movement, “sustainability” is just such a philosophy, religion, and science. It paints man – or at least those other people who pollute so much – as the problem because of our impact on the environment. It externalizes the disorder and it treats the earth as a deity. Environmentalism can thus be a vehicle both for minimizing the struggle with the real disorder in our souls and for minimizing the place of man in creation. The results can be catastrophic.

In his new year’s message for 2010, Pope Benedict XVI once again approached the question of the environment with his characteristic emphasis on faith and reason together:

The wisdom of the ancients had recognized that nature is not at our disposal as “a heap of scattered refuse”. . . . Biblical Revelation made us see that nature is a gift of the Creator, who gave it inbuilt order and enabled man to draw from it the principles needed to “keep it and till it” (cf. Gen 2:15). . . .The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water, and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. . . .On the other hand, a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment will not end by absolutizing nature or by considering it more important than the human person. If the Church’s magisterium expresses grave misgivings about ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. . . .They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone.

So, sure, during and after Lent, let’s use less gasoline, give up more material things we don’t need anyway, and sustain and steward creation in a more responsible manner. But let’s do it for the right reasons. Pantheism and neo-paganism have been tried (Nazi Germany was a premier example). They are not our destination on our Lenten exodus journey.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.