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story.lead_photo.caption Cliff Cain Photo by Submitted photo

Many academics write for other academics, but Westminster College religious studies professor Clifford Cain is writing for everyone else.

"Nothing less than the survival of the planet hangs in the balance," Cain said.

Cain published his 10th book, "Attunement: Living in Harmony with Nature," in December. It marks his fourth "doorway" into the issue of religion and the environment published over the past 10 years.

"Attunement" examines the lives and writings of four historical figures who had an "enchanted" relationship with the natural world: 12th century nun St. Hildegard of Bingen; Catholic patron saint of ecology St. Francis of Assisi; Pope Francis; and Japanese Buddhist poet-monk Taigu Ryokan.

Cain hopes his work might interest environmentalists as well as inspire church leaders.

"Many theologians write for other theologians," he said. "But should that be my target audience? Or should I be writing books for the general public, for the people on the streets and the people in the church pews?"

If those people in the church pews care about the environment, Cain hopes humanity might have a shot at saving the planet.

"We need science to fix the problem, but having religion would not just be nice — it's necessary," Cain said. "Science provides the ecological consciousness, but religion provides an ecological conscious."

Cain can rattle off the numbers of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in the world. With those billions of faithful motivated, he posited, what couldn't humanity achieve?

"What helped (women's suffrage) finally happen was the church," he said. "How did slavery finally get eclipsed? In part because the church got involved. It certainly wasn't easy and churches were split, but they got involved."

Cain believes taking care of nature isn't just a moral responsibility, it's also a non-negotiable mandate that much of religious teaching supports.

"I would say we must take care of the world as God mandates," Cain said. "Ryokan would say that life mandates it of us."

Spirituality and nature

The four figures included in "Attunement" span centuries of spiritual history — from the 12th century to modern day.

When deciding which figures to write about, St. Hildegard, St. Francis, Pope Francis and Ryokan were easy picks. The three Christians are fairly well-known among Catholics, while Ryokan is a household name in Japan.

All four spiritual figures believed human beings are neither separate from nor superior to nature.

These teachings were on Cain's mind during a recent weight-lifting exercise at the gym. Cain found himself comparing his performance to that of the younger college students around him.

"I was thinking, 'I can't let these students show me up,'" he joked. "So I'm hitting these weights pretty hard when I see this football player, and I'm thinking to myself, maybe I could do that 40 years ago, but a chimpanzee could lift 10 times as much."

It's easy to see humans are just one of many species — some are stronger, while others are faster and many engage in rational thought, he explained.

"Nature is not a commodity to possess, but a community to which we need to relate in healthy ways," Cain said.

Christian environmentalism

One of Cain's speaking points — his assertion a non-green Christian is a contradiction of terms — relates to biblical support for taking care of the environment.

"It's just like you would say a hateful Christian is a contradiction of terms or that a Christian who is unable to forgive is a contradiction of terms," Cain explained. "It seems to me, if you don't take the environment seriously, then we're not being faithful Christians."

Cain knows many of his fellow Christians disagree with him on the importance of the environment.

"We see in the Bible what we are predisposed to see," he said. "To some people the environment seems like it's just a tree-hugging exercise, that it doesn't have any importance in Christian life."

When someone once called him a tree-hugger, Cain had a response ready.

"Well, yes, without that tree I'd be dead," Cain said. "I'd hug that tree out of gratitude. Oh yes, by the grace of God, thank you for plants that make oxygen."

Cain believes some Christians see climate change as evidence of the second coming of Jesus Christ. These Christians, Cain said, are more concerned with the afterlife than this life.

"Some people will say it's coming any day now, and they don't do anything because they believe Jesus is going to pluck them out," he said.

Cain isn't so certain the second coming is on the horizon, but even if it was, he believes the environment should be a concern.

"I think I would rather Jesus find me with my sleeves rolled up, rather than sitting on the sidelines," Cain said.

A personal passion

For Cain, who is a Protestant Christian, caring about the environment has been an integral part of his faith for decades.

It began in the 1980s when Cain was entering fatherhood. As any parent does, he began worrying for his daughter's future.

"No sooner than she was born, they discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica," Cain said.

With the birth of his second child came more concerning news — scientists had discovered a second hole, this time over the Arctic.

"I have a moral responsibility for the quality of life of these children I've brought into the world," Cain said.

As his family has grown, so has his passion for saving the environment.

"Wouldn't it be a shame if my granddaughter inherits rising global temperatures, more severe and numerous storms erupting, no more elephants, no more rhinos, no more cheetahs, no more of the endangered species in Missouri?" Cain said. "It would be an impoverishment of the rich tapestry of the world.

"I don't want her to experience that, or else I wasn't a good world citizen and I wasn't a good grandparent."

That's why Cain wrote "Attunement" and his three other books focused on religion and the environment. It's also why he said he still feels an itch to return to the subject again, even though he's already committed to a different subject matter for his 11th book.

"If my work in some small way contributes, I would feel that a large portion of my life and the entirety of my work would be worth it," Cain said.

A reading and book-signing of "Attunement" is planned at noon Feb. 26 at the Westminster College Book Store.

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