Sunship Earth and New Age Environmental Programs for Children

MJ asks: “What can you tell me about Sunship Earth, a program for middle school pupils? How does it extol New Age concepts? The program has a funeral for a leaf and one to become a squirrel that loses its habitat. What New Age objective is fulfilled in this type of activity?”

Although I cannot give specific advice about this program because I have not seen it, I can say that the author and former college professor Steve Van Matre’s Institute for Earth Education in Illinois has been associated by other Christian researchers with the New Age.

Berit Kjos, a Protestant New Age researcher, says much of Van Matre’s curriculum flows from the same New Age/Depth Ecology philosophies as John Denver’s Colorado-based Windstar organization. For instance, when referring to his book, The Earth Speaks, Van Matre once said it is “about giving up old ways of seeing, about loving the earth as a whole, about tapping into the universal flow of life . . .”

While I can’t speak to Van Matre specifically, I can say that there are several easy ways to spot a New Age undercurrent in today’s environmental movement.

First, New Age “eco-spirituality” fosters a religious worship of nature known as pantheism, which is based on the belief that the cosmos is animated by one spirit or is guided by a universal consciousness of which man is merely one more participant. This vision of the relationship between man and the planet is often referred to as “depth ecology.” It denies the basic difference between human and non-human existence and speaks of a bio-centric equality, whereby a mountain, a flower or a turtle would have the same right as would a man to its own fulfillment.

This philosophy could very well be passed onto children through something like Van Matre’s funeral for a leaf. If teaching children to treat a leaf the same way humans are treated, they are essentially being taught to equate plants with humans, a belief that is not supported by science – or the Bible!

Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31). This teaching explains that while we must be concerned about our environment and all the creatures therein, man has a special place in God’s plan, which is why he is “worth more than many sparrows.”

However, New Agers cling to a belief that all are equal in creation, which is why so many of their environmental programs teach that to truly love our neighbor, “neighbor” must be expanded to include the entire universe. Van Matre seems to foster this idea in one of his stated goals of wanting to help children develop “deep personal relationships with the earth and its natural systems and communities.”

While perusing Van Matre’s website, it was also very obvious that he espouses the popular New Age belief that people are to blame for the earth’s condition. “We believe the earth as we know it is endangered by its human passengers,” Van Matre says.

Archbishop Norberto Carrera once commented on this mind-set: “It fosters a religious worship of nature or of mother earth as if it were a divine reality. It ends up labeling man as an intruder and considers him a curse for the cosmos. At the heart of the radical ‘green’ movement, it pressures governments for legislation that would cut back human population and limit technological development in order to heal the planet.”

On the subject of cutting back human reproduction – another favorite component of New Age “green religions” – Van Matre includes a page entitled “Reproduction Surcharge” on an on-line “Living More Lightly” test visitors can take to determine how gently they are living upon the earth.

An even more obvious sign of the New Age in a environment program is any teaching that encourages students to connect with the earth’s “life force” – a nonexistent energy known by various names such as chi, ki, qi, prana, vital force, universal energy, etc. (Van Matre’s references to energy appear to be referring to sunlight – but I can’t know for sure without reading the actual curriculum.)

Along with all of the above, you should also be aware that many New Age environmentalists like to incorporate aspects of ancient nature religions and shamanism into their eco-belief system. These beliefs encourage the use of magic to contact various nature spirits. The most common of these spirits is a “horned god” known as PAN who is usually paired with the goddess Artemis. Another red flag will be any mention of Gaia, a so-called earth goddess. References to the “four elements” – earth, air, water, and fire – are also common in neopagan earth worship.

Speaking of magic, I did notice that Van Matre frequently refers to this quite often in his materials, includign offering an activity book called “Earth Magic” for children to use when exploring nature. He also claims his programs are “an adventuresome and magical learning experience.” However, without the actual materials, I cannot say what kind of magic he’s referring to.

All of the above-mentioned examples of New Age eco-spirituality represent a belief system that is not compatible with Christianity because it posits a kind of planetary spirituality that desires to “ensoul” the entire cosmos and to bestow on creation some kind of magical power.

“It loses the notion of a personal God, really distinct and superior to the created world, in favor of an impersonal divine force that is everything and is in everything,” Archbishop Carrera writes. “This return to naturalistic pantheism, which was definitively overcome by the event of Christian revelation, finds support in many new religious movements coming from the east and in a return to pagan religions.”

But this doesn’t mean Christians can do whatever they want to the environment. The seventh commandment, “Thou shall not steal,” compels us to respect the integrity of creation.

“Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives.” (Catechism No. 2415)

Pope Benedict XVI, frequently referred to as the “green Pope” because of his great love for the environment, explained these moral imperatives earlier this year when addressing the Vatican diplomatic corps. He said protection of the environment must be connected to the protection of human life, not associated with the various anti-human ideologies so prevalent in today’s environmental movement.

“If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn?” he asked.

Like Van Matre, the Holy Father is also calling for a “great program of education” that would promote a change of thinking and “new lifestyles.” But these programs should not be about worshiping false gods, attributing magical or otherwise unnatural powers to lower life forms, or cutting back on the number of humans to save resources. They must be about ensuring that “selfishness does not lead some to hoard the goods which are intended for all,” he said, and about reforming unjust political systems and making self-centered and materialistic ways of thinking a thing of the past.

The bottom line, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is that our environmental problems are essentially moral problems.

To prove his point, he once used the atheistic regimes of the former Soviet bloc on eastern Europe as an example of how godlessness destroys both man and environment.

“Was it not easy to see the great harm which an economic system lacking any reference to the truth about man had done not only to the dignity and freedom of individuals and peoples, but to nature itself, by polluting soil, water and air?” he asked. “The denial of God distorts the freedom of the human person, yet it also devastates creation.”

I’m hoping this blog gives you some useful tools to use when discerning environmental programs such as Sunship Earth and any others that are being used to expose our children to unchristian ideas about how to protect our precious planet.

Our Learn to Discern series contains a booklet on New Age eco-spirituality that gives an indepth view of this subject. Click on the “New Age Resources” button above for more information.

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