The other day I, half-joking, told a Canadian friend who is a United Church of Canada pastor that I needed to do penance for all the air travel I am doing for work. He fired back an email with a new United Church of Canada-connected web site that would allow me to calculate my carbon footprint and make a donation to offset it. My donation would help fund the "greening of the buildings of different faith communities."
Actually, I liked the idea and the website, and was heartened to see that driving my Honda Insight (hybrid) for the last 10 years, a car that still gets 55 miles a gallon, helped balance out my sins as a frequent flyer.
But the Protestant in me did find myself wondering if this were some sort of new system of indulgences. Remember indulgences? It was abuse of the system of indulgences within the Catholic Church that was a spur to the Protestant Reformation some 500 years ago. The wealthy could buy their way into heaven, or into the good graces of the church hierarchy, or both, depending on your view. Martin Luther thought it tacky.
Some wonder if the environmental and climate change movements are becoming a new religion. If so, are "carbon offsets" a new form of indulgences? You pay to have your environmental sins forgiven?
Recently Seattle based outdoor equipment retailer, REI, has come under fire for its efforts to offset its carbon footprint. Critics complain that REI's sins, caused by its travel business, are actually growing even if the purchase of carbon offsets is some sort of atonement. In other words, a carbon-offsets program may simply allow the sinner to continue in their unrepentant ways and unredeemed life. That was among Luther's complaints about the abuse of indulgences way back when.
There is growing debate about whether environmentalism is becoming a new religion. Some worry about that. Some rejoice in it. I am ambivalent.
Christian theology has tried to walk a line or hold a distinction, claiming that the natural world is good, indeed "very good," according to God in Genesis, but still not God. In other words, do love and care for nature, earth, and natural systems and see the hand of God in them, but don't worship nature or make a tree or a stone into your God. They're great but not God. And, some Christian theologians and mystics have long claimed that if the Bible is the first book of sacred scripture, then nature is the "second book" and can be studied for its capacity to reveal God to us.
Others worry that environmentalism is taking on the less appealing signs of a religion: its own strict orthodoxy and dogma, which admit of no question or challenge and would excommunicate dissidents. Maybe. What does strike me as worthy of concern is the idea that nature per se is the truth and the answer and that all that is needed (which happens also to be impossible) is to "get back to nature."
One problem with this, apart from its romanticism, is that it lets human beings off the hook. To be sure, nature has its incredible beauty as well as amazing powers of renewal. But nature, as indicated by the recent Haitian earthquake, is not always benign. Christian theology has claimed that human beings have a role and responsibility as stewards, caretakers who are to enhance nature's positive potential while mitigating its negative ones.
Many would say that we have done just the opposite. And they have a point. The record of human beings is at best mixed. We've stripped the hilltops, fouled the air, and polluted the rivers. But we have also restored the land, created productive farms, and protected endangered species. We certainly have the potential, and the responsibility, to be good stewards of the natural world.
One thing that does strike me as right about the carbon offsets idea is that it recognizes that all of us are implicated, that none of us (to use religious language) is without sin. All of us participate to some degree in increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We all have an impact.
At their best religions remind us that we too have a part in the evils we deplore and that it is not enough, dangerous in fact, to only blame others. John Calvin, another of the Protestant reformers, famously taught that confession of sin always begins with the house and people of God. Take a look in the mirror. He who is without sin throw the first stone.
At their worst religions neatly (too neatly) divide people into categories of pure and impure, righteous and unrighteous, saved and unsaved. Such easy divides tend to encourage self-deception on the part of those who see themselves as the righteous while sowing the seeds of judgment and division.
So, in a sense, carbon offsets remind us that none are righteous, not completely. I have my air travel problem. You have your own issues. Making a donation to the Canadian site, or another, may help balance things out. We're in this together and we need one another if we're going to make progress on a common challenge.