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On World Environment Day, Time to Retire St. Boniface

06/05/2013 10:17 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

June 5 is World Environment Day. Similar to Earth Day, WED celebrates the global movement for environmental activism by commemorating the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the first such international conference.

June 5 also marks the Feast Day of St. Boniface (672-754), the patron saint of Germany, who is credited with establishing Christianity among ancient Germanic tribal peoples.

The most famous incident in St. Boniface's life happened around 723. Boniface arrived in the village of Geismar and began to preach the Christian Gospel at the base of Thor's Oak, the sacred tree of the Germans. To prove the superiority of the Christian God over Thor, Boniface took an axe to the tree beseeching Thor to strike him dead if he cut the holy oak. According to the legend, Thor failed to respond and Boniface felled the tree, aided by a great wind that, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. The terrified pagans deserted Thor and embraced the Christian God. Boniface promptly took the sacred splinters and made a cross, and eventually used the rest of the wood to build a church where the tree once stood.

That World Environment Day and a feast day for an axe-wielding, tree-chopping Christian saint fall on the same date seems strangely -- and sadly -- ironic.

In his seminal 1967 article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," UCLA professor Lynn White blamed Christianity for the global environmental crisis:

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

White's analysis shaped much of the conversation between Christianity and environmentalism over the last four decades -- an uneasy relationship if ever there has been one. Many environmentalists follow White, seeing Christianity as a major problem in the face of global climate change and environment crises. Indeed, studies show that theologically conservative Christians overwhelmingly reject global warming, animal rights, environmental activism and species protection.

Despite St. Boniface and his lasting influence of western culture, however, Christianity may not be completely lost to the global environmental movement. Indeed, even Lynn White pointed out that some strands of Christian tradition-most notably represented by St. Francis of Assisi, the nature-embracing saint-spoke to an "alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it." He proposed that St. Francis be the "patron saint of ecologists." In one of the most provocative passages in his paper, White said:

Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and re-feel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.

St. Francis is of course, a better-remembered and more beloved figure than St. Boniface. But,on this World Environment Day, I can't help but think that far too many Christians give lip service to Francis while still acting like Boniface. For the sake of all creation, I think we need to embrace Lynn White's 1967 suggestion: to stop cutting down sacred oaks in favor of following St. Francis, "the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ," who according to White, "tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures."

To White's proposal, I say: Amen. Time to retire St. Boniface and embody St. Francis' way instead.