The lodge at the Au Sable Institute looks west through a standing choir of pines. Beyond, a shallow wetland pond reflects waning sunlight and Big Twin Lake sparkles on the horizon. On Sunday evenings, faculty and students conduct a vespers service as the summer sun sets and the deepening forest exhales. It’s a serene embrace of community, organic worship, and pine-needle grace. The old stone fireplace and knotty pine. I tune out my demons and we prop the doors open to the chipmunks and the fragrant breeze.

It’s my favorite inflection in the weekly rhythm of classes, field trips, and earnest conversation. Creation’s beauty weaves with worship creativity from students and colleagues – now friends. We pray for one another by name and bear their burdens. We ask for guidance. But there’s a stone in my shoe.

A year or so ago, Au Sable tried to capture a bit of that lodge vibe for Au Sable expats and friends living in the real world. They started a public FaceBook page called “Behold” where Au Sable nation was invited to join “to educate and support one another.” Rules of engagement were:

“Give more than you take. No selling stuff, no political rants, no righteous judgement, no cat videos. 99% of social media is garbage and amplifies the divisions within our society. Let’s be the 1%. Divisive issues are best discussed in person and within the context of meaningful relationships. Practice resurrection.”

Well enough. The typical Behold posts fall somewhere between a bask in the majesty and a natural history homily – a metaphor for wealthy North American churches that claim to “care for creation.” Cue the swelling music and the postcard vistas on the screen. No politics to harsh the spiritual-granola buzz. No hard questions.

Au Sable, near Mancelona, Michigan, serves Christian colleges around the country, providing mostly field science courses in service of a Christian mission of creation care. I’ve taught there, five weeks a summer for 13 years.

Unrelentingly Bad

My unease is growing. Against the general awfulness of 2020, recent news for creation has been unrelentingly bad. The baseline for years now is a climate crisis that is accelerating towards catastrophe driving the earth’s sixth great spasm of extinction.

The COVID-19 pandemic is our dress rehearsal for the leadership and collective resolve needed to battle a monster – and we are an abject failure.

Plastics pollution is choking our oceans and landfills and increasingly fouling even the remote Great Lakes shorelines that are sacred to me. Last week, I walked a remote Lake Michigan beach with windrows of invasive mussel-shells that were higher than my knee. Cancer alley.

The common good and the good of the commons are selfsame urgencies. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that wild mammal populations have declined 68% in my lifetime. Each species is a unique expression of the Creator. Each neglectful degradation a slap. Where is the Christian outrage?

How Great Thou Art & SUVs

We wealthy Christians are good at “beholding” Creation. Committing to using our agency to putting our putative “care” to use to do something to redeem or protect it? Not so much.

I am steeped in these stories. They are background to my teaching and research. If I don’t shut them out, I can get mired in feedbacks of lament – an ecologist’s grief. Most extinctions occur unheralded to animals known only to specialists or local peoples, if known at all.

I’ve seen soft tears of my students when the lights are down and my PowerPoint slides are up — and I cannot endure it anymore. And the extinctions themselves, tragic as they are, are only symptoms of a world given over to the banal evil of presuming that these others’ lives are expendable in the service of our wealth and privilege, and convenience.

We’ll nod to an occasional sermon on “creation care” and sing “How Great Thou Art” but afterward we’re going to climb into our SUVs and drive across town for brunch. We treat shopping as recreation. We tour the parade of homes and plan for our own birthright of a pristine too-big home on a too-big lot on a patch of ground that used to be prairie or forest or wetland. God loves us, you see (Isaiah 5:8 not withstanding).

I can’t contemplate lament without battling corrosive anger at the breezy complacency of wealth and privilege that my tribe of wealthy Christians enjoys. The complacency to consign the problem of extinctions to God with the humdrum assurance that faith means that we, we uniquely among the rest of the creation, get to live lives of environmental injustice while the world burns – that God loves us so much that we are to be free from even minor concessions in our rapacious consumption towards some grace to enable the survival of our non-wealthy and non-human kin. That’s our heresy.

I want the Jesus as drawn by Stan Lee, cracking the whip and busting the heads of the greed mongers, driving them from the temple. I want Christians who dance with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline and storm against the evils of a pipeline in the straits. I want preachers with courage to call out politicians who would put extractive-industry lobbyists in charge of our relationship to nature and mock climate-crisis science. I want an old testament prophet to rage against the fossil fuel pushers and the plastics industry pimps. I want Christians who measure their interests in terms of wild lives lost, rising ocean temperatures, cancer clusters in poor neighborhoods, and atmospheric carbon instead of exquisitely precise increments of stock market indices.

I have an Au Sable colleague whom I love. Each summer we embrace and greet each other as “brother” when we return from our gigs in the real world. He checks in on me in my solitary Au Sable cabin after vespers and we talk. We occupy opposite poles of the political spectrum and I asked him one time, “Suppose one of our students asks, ‘What’s the most impactful thing I can do to care for creation?’.” He went quiet.

I answered my own question: “I’d tell them to vote.” The obvious follow-up question — “For whom?” — went unasked. The answer is obvious. But we don’t talk about it.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

17 Comments

  • David Schelhaas says:

    Thank you Tim Van Deelen for this prose poem, this lament, this heart-rending, unspoken call to Christians to live what they claim to believe about the creation.

  • Jim says:

    My rage and despair and deep sadness exactly. How long Oh Lord?

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight, Tim. It especially powerful because it comes from your place of knowledge and personal experience. These are the perspectives that need to continue to be highlighted in faith circles if we hope for hearts to soften and change. Your words are a blessing.

  • Del VanderZee says:

    Thanks Tim. I believe we met once at Au Sable. I, too, vespered on the Lodge deck, for 18 summers — the most blessed summer Sabbaths in my career. And, I’m with you in mourning the loss of parts of my Father’s world. This morning’s sun was a rosy (not orange) red as it struggled to shine through a smoky cloud cover mid continent.

  • Roger Bouwma says:

    Thanks Tim for a well written and urgent message. Blessings to you in your continued efforts to preserve for the future and stirring us to do the same.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Amen! Thank you for writing this. I am sorry that my generation of scientists has been so unsuccessful in initiating action in our country and especially within the religious community on these issues. It has not been for lack of effort by the scientific community, in my opinion, but for lack of support by the broader community and, perhaps, poor messaging. We scientists thought that we could communicate with the facts and others would understand and act. But we have been run over by slick, well-funded propaganda from those with a vested interest in continuing the environmental degradation that you describe.

    By the way, I personally want to see the prophets call down fire upon those who continue to argue that we don’t really know enough about climate change to act and we should just wait until we know for sure. We already know for sure and every day we wait makes the problem more dire and the solutions more difficult.

    Blessings on you and keep the faith.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    I am confounded by our indifference in the face of the looming environmental catastrophe and try to make some sense of it. Is our indifference due to a lack of leadership, the sheer momentum of consumeristic capitalism, the inability of our evolved species to delay gratification?
    I am more and more convinced that we are indifferent to catastrophe because just do not feel it. The line between my body and the body of the created order does not exist. We are made of the same stuff and intimately connected. The forces at play in the world are the same forces at play in my body, which my recent cancer diagnosis only confirms–stay away from round-up herbicide. I can feel those forces enlivening me in myriad ways, and I can feel those forces waning in our current state. It does not help us to think about environmental degradation, to reduce it to an idea or an abstraction that can be debated; we need to feel it, to feel the threat to our existence. Yet the goal of consumeristic capitalism is to disconnect us from the world and turn our embodied souls into autonomous entities seeking personal satisfaction. Yet perhaps it is not just consumeristic capitalism but a failure to feel in general, a failure of intimacy, a failure to love, that plagues us at so many levels of our lives. We need to feel and love bodies, and we have a savior who came in a body to teach us that, a Bible full of stories inviting us to do just that.

  • Thank Mr. Van Deelen, you’re a wonderful writer. Your description of Au Sable drew me in as a first-time visitor wishing to visit the ‘choir of pines.’ Your call for respectful face to face dialogue and the importance of a camp protocol of “…no political rants, righteous judgment, no cat videos. 99% of social media is garbage and amplifies the divisions within our society. Let’s be the 1%,” was refreshing- hopeful.

    Then you proceeded to lecture. You lament the loss of species and a climate crisis heading to catastrophe (a meteorite likely killed off more species than the combustion engine). You claim the response to COVID-19 is an ‘abstract failure’ is if it were a simple fact and not a political opinion. Then with righteous indignation, you attempt to shame us into ‘where is the Christian outrage?’

    In the end, you answer your own question as to who to vote for. I assume, considering your political perspective, one candidate is better for God’s creation than the other.

    I appreciate your passion Mr. Van Deelen, but passions can turn into anger. I would have rather discussed this with you in person- face to face. To encourage both of us to ‘…be the ‘1%’ as you so elegantly called us to- but that would have taken a fair amount of fossil fuels.

    It’s a complicated world, Mr. Van Deelen. Best to you.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      There’s no moral equivalency between a meteor and human agency clouded by indifference and greed. That’s exactly the sort of casual dismissal of our cultural culpability in degrading creation and creating injustice that makes me angry.

  • Ron Rienstra says:

    Beautiful and powerful, Tim.

  • Karl J Westerhof says:

    Powerful. Thank you. Your opening paragraph by itself made this a wonderful read. I loved it. Then comes the indictment. Prophetic, passionate, disturbing. I can’t help but reflect a bit here, to be part of the dialog, to be part of the community of caring. I’m late in the 8th decade of my life. I would describe myself as a nature lover since I was a kid in my Grandpa’s garden. Upper peninsula, agates, woods, Wendell Berry, cabins in the woods, and more…. For 60 years I’ve cared passionately about racial justice, and creation. A couple of the intractable issues we face. I’ve engaged in numerous very personal ways in work for racial justice, but almost nothing regarding climate change. Why is that? I often ask myself. is it because of the period in which I’ve lived, I was shaped far more by race issues in the 60s than by climate? Clearly I have different levels of understanding of these issues. Is that because of an early and impactful starting place for one and not the other? I don’t feel a lot of hope for either one, frankly, but that doesn’t seem to deter me from having engaged in one and not the other. One major difference is that those being oppressed by injustice have a voice and I could form alliances. But that’s not quite true with nature… though again, going back to your first paragraph, there’s certainly dialog there! Beautiful conversation. Yet, it’s different. I could write on, but won’t. Just a question, Can you point me to a community of creation care Christians who value shalom in all its dimensions, and with whom I can journey while I keep learning about the climate crisis, and can begin to understand how the living of my daily life can make a genuine difference? I’m hungry to learn and understand more about, for example, why mussels and cancer are related?

    • Timothy Van Deelen says:

      Thank you for your heartfelt reply Karl. First off, there’s no connection between invasive Quagga mussels and Cancer Alley (in Louisiana). The confusion was because of the juxtaposition in the essay. I should have been more careful with my self-editing. As far as communities of creation care Christians, my first recommendation is still the Au Sable Institute (https://www.ausable.org/) despite the sharp elbow I tossed their way in the essay. All are welcome at Sunday Evening Vespers and if you show up during summer session 2, you can be my guest. Another suggestion would be A Rocha (https://arocha.us/) although I know them less well. In the activist community, I recommend 350.org ( https://350.org/). Their founder and leader is a fearless Christian who also wrote a beautiful meditation on job.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Hi Tim,

    AuSable alumnus here – Spring/Summer 1992. My memory of the chipmunks at the lodge is that we let them regularly eat corn out of our mouths. Sometimes they would latch onto a tooth by mistake, making it difficult not to bite down. It was a wonderful place to explore and learn. I’m grateful for professors like yourself who teach/taught there. I learned from Ken Boon (ornithology), Max Terman (animal ecology), Randy Van Dragt (restoration ecology), Al Gebben (field botany), and another prof. who taught water resources whose last name I think was Wolf (my memory fades…). My memories wander to snorkeling on Big Twin lake, radio collaring and tracking a mother racoon so deep in the woods as to get lost, Ken Stuart petting a porcupine and paying the price, paddle-boating on the Tree Hugger, vespers with Cal, rousing games of AuSable-rules volleyball, and turning an old cabin into “The Shanty”, complete with pet rats, smooth green snake, and milk snake. AuSable still inspires after all these years.

    My encouragement to you: don’t despair. The created world is more robust and less fragile than we sometimes believe. For every story of despair, there is another story of beauty and life. In my work, I see regeneration and advance every day. God will preserve his creation by his good and perfect will.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Thanks Eric, I appreciate what you are trying to say. Its likely that I am a biologist today because of Randy Van Dragt and Al Gebben. But, if by saying that “For every story of despair, there is another story of beauty and life”, you mean that we are at some sort of equilibrium between environmental damage and environmental restoration, you are simply wrong. I know of lots of discrete restoration efforts, and they are hopeful, but they don’t begin to offset the environmental degradation that is accumulating because of the forces I mention in the essay – especially in poorer countries where wealth doesn’t insulate you from the effects of consumption. Your last sentence is seems intended to absolve human agency and responsibility – and that’s precisely the error that wealthy Christians conveniently make . Please contemplate the Debra Rienstra’s exceptionally wise writing on this point: https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2019/03/16/does-theology-make-us-passive-on-climate-change/

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hi Tim. No need to read nefarious intentions or ulterior motives into my encouragement to you. You would do well to take people at their word instead of reading things that are not spoken. God does indeed exercise sovereign care – a truth both inescapable and comforting. The Reformed have long recognized both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Recognizing either does nothing to negate the other. If you don’t desire to be comforted by the sovereignty of God, that is your choice. But I don’t need to be sent on an educational reading mission all because I made an effort to encourage you.

        Also, the point of encouraging you with beauty is simply that – to encourage you with beauty and life.

        Must everything be confrontational? Can we not simply encourage one another with beauty and simple biblical truths without having our intentions questioned? Brother, step back from warring.

        • Tom Ackerman says:

          Eric,

          My guess is that Tim’s reaction is the result of frustration, because mine often is. Those of us who study the coupled climate system and ecosystem are well aware of both robustness and fragility in the systems, and we document them both. We are well aware of the sovereignty of God, but His sovereignty does not prevent world wars, genocide, global pandemics, or deeply disastrous human impacts on climate and ecosystems. We pray for the Christian community to acknowledge the issues that we have raised and continue to raise and to seek actively for solutions. We long for the church to be an instrument of justice, but we hear platitudes. So sometimes when we hear words of encouragement, honestly meant, we react negatively out of frustration. We aren’t interested in war, but we really are interested in positive, concrete action.

          • Eric Van Dyken says:

            I hear your frustration, as I heard Tim’s. I know I did not reveal to Tim things that were previously unknown to him, but rather I chose to remind him of those things as encouragement. If he does not find them encouraging, that is disappointing to me. If he reverts to negativity in response, that is disappointing to me.

            I know a thing or two about teaching and leading on matters of science and creation. I’ve been an environmental/land use regulator for over 20 years, and in my job I daily explain environmental/ecological matters to people who have little interest beyond “What’s in it for me?”. I could become discouraged, but I look for beauty and I keep things in a perspective that allows me not to despair. I wanted to share some of that with Tim.

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