Saving Creation, Celebrating Earth Day | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Saving Creation, Celebrating Earth Day

April 11, 2013

From the Executive Director...

On April 22, Earth Day will be celebrated throughout the world.  Established in 1970, Earth Day reflects global concerns for the stewardship of the earth and its resources.  A Presbyterian who became known as the “father of environmental ethics” helped to shape the ethos of an environmental movement that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. 

Holmes Rolston III (1932- ) was a child of the manse with deep Presbyterian roots in the Shenandoah Valley.  Both the son and grandson of respected Presbyterian ministers, he followed the family tradition only to discover that his call involved more than saving souls.  His love for the environment, rooted in the bucolic splendor of the Shenandoah Valley of his childhood and reinforced by his theological and scientific education, yielded a broader ministry to instead save creation. Starting in the 1960s, Rolston became an advocate for protecting the earth’s biodiversity and ecology.

Rolston was a revolutionary thinker whose ideas were ahead of his time.  While trained as a theologian, his lifelong passion for the wonders of nature put him on a trajectory of conflict with other theologians, philosophers, and scientists.  Rolston understood society’s failure to recognize nature’s moral and religious importance at a time when environmental advocates were viewed as being on society’s fringes.  He believed that the gap between evolution and Christian thought contributed to this failed understanding, and thus charted his course to challenge this human centered value system.

Rolston’s own words, cited by his biographer Christopher Preston, best describe his long journey as an environmental activist.  “I had to fight both theology and science to love nature.  My own personal agenda for half a century—figuring out nature—had during my lifetime turned out to be the world agenda, figuring out the human place on the planet.  If anything at all on Earth is sacred, it must be its enthralling fruitfulness.  If there is any holy ground, any land of promise, this promising Earth is it.”

While the conflict between science and theology continues to engage vocal participants in a debate that began with the publication of On the Origins of Species, Holmes Rolston’s contributions to the reconciliation of science and religion are best expressed by his ability to apply religious teachings and ethics to environmental conservation.  Those contributions reveal the nuanced relationship between science and theology for our stewardship of the Earth and its bounty.