Calvin’s reformation: changing the climate of the church

“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”

–John Calvin

When I examine the life of Calvin B. DeWitt, I find it hard not to draw comparisons between it and the lives of two great figures from the religious tradition from which DeWitt sprang and to which he still belongs: his namesake John Calvin, and Noah (yes, he of ark fame).

It’s not only DeWitt’s white hair and sun-and-smile-creased visage that make me think of the landlubber turned shipwright and sailor from the Book of Genesis. Although beardless and far younger than the Noah many of us remember from our Sunday school picture Bibles, who was 600 years old when God tapped him to save a sampling of creation, Calvin DeWitt seems to have vigor enough to build an ark of his own (he asked me not to share his age but insists he feels 28).

Even the modest split-level home where DeWitt lives with his wife Ruth and in which the couple raised five children is perched, ark-like, atop a high knoll surrounded by wetlands.

And like Noah, DeWitt is living his life in answer to a divine calling.

But that’s where the similarities to the biblical patriarch begin, not end. What really makes DeWitt’s resemblance to Noah so uncanny is the fact that DeWitt has also kept a great many creatures from being wiped off the face of the Earth.

Unlike Noah, however, DeWitt’s interest in collecting and preserving plants and animals was kindled at a very young age. As a boy, he maintained a home zoo. And today, largely due to DeWitt’s leadership and advocacy, the biologically rich marshland around his house in the Town of Dunn, just south of Madison, is now protected as part of the Waubesa Wetlands Scientific and Agricultural Preserve.

It’s ironic that more people may know of DeWitt for this act of preservation than for a far more significant one more than a decade ago. Some might even say it was a conservation achievement of biblical proportions, although the deluge DeWitt faced was legislative, not hydrological.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

When I interviewed DeWitt on an unseasonably warm autumn day last year, I got him to tell me the story.

DeWitt was going about his work as a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin in 1996, he says, when he caught wind of a bill in Congress being touted by its sponsors as a renewal of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which Richard Nixon signed into law in 1974. DeWitt read the bill and realized that it actually contained a sunset clause allowing the ESA to expire. Permanently.

The bill was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and DeWitt knew it. His angry comment to a colleague about the legislation was leaked to a reporter at the New York Times and within hours those words were immortalized in newsprint around the country: “The Endangered Species Act is our Noah’s Ark and Congress and special interests are trying to sink it!”

It took some effort for me to imagine DeWitt angry. His quick smile and unassuming affability must disarm many potential antagonists. The expression “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” sprang to mind.

Not long after the Times story ran, the normally mild-mannered Midwestern professor found himself on the set of a FOX affiliate’s morning news program in Washington, DC, sitting, somewhat inexplicably, next to a cougar. His interviewer seemed at a loss for words when met with this sight, so, DeWitt told me, “I just started telling him the story of Noah’s Ark.”

Later that day, opponents of the legislation whisked DeWitt to a press conference called by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who knew the true intent of the legislation and wanted it defeated. The room was bristling with reporters. The cougar was there, too, swatting at the sound crews’ microphone booms. DeWitt says he was surprised when Babbitt said a few quick introductory remarks and then abruptly turned the press conference over to him. Despite his nervousness, DeWitt collected himself and answered the reporters’ questions about the pending legislation with a question of his own.

“Do we answer to Newt and Clinton or to the creator of the universe?”

He was referring to U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-GA., Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time and one of the backers of the legislation, and then President Bill Clinton.

A later press conference at which DeWitt and his new feline friend appeared garnered between 30 and 40 million viewers. Among other things, it led to an invitation, which DeWitt accepted, to address a meeting of World Bank staffers gathered in Washington. Larry King invited DeWitt on his show to debate the suddenly controversial bill with Gingrich, but the show was cancelled when Gingrich, who initially agreed to appear, called shortly before air time to say he couldn’t make it. Perhaps realizing they were no match for DeWitt, Gingrich and the bill’s other sponsors also withdrew the disingenuous legislation.

DeWitt thought his extra-curricular activities in the nation’s capital had probably cost him his teaching post in Madison, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that the Endangered Species Act had been saved. When the chairman of his department summoned DeWitt shortly after his return to Madison, it was not to fire him but to thank and congratulate him and to ask him to speak to a large group of university employees about his experiences in Washington. After that, DeWitt told me, it was three weeks of phone calls and messages every 15 minutes.

In the beginning

DeWitt grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town that largely shaped by the Dutch immigrants who settled the area. His parents, of Dutch ancestry themselves, belonged to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a denomination with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church. Salvation is not earned, according to reformed teaching, it is a gift from God. Good works are the Christian’s response to that gift. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” was a common refrain at home and at school when DeWitt was a boy.

One of the gifts the church gave DeWitt was the ability to handle the rigor  he would later face in academia.

“Being in the Christian Reformed Church was kind of like going through college,” DeWitt told me.

And listening to sermons, DeWitt added, laughing, was like listening to public radio all the time. “It wasn’t very evangelical because it was so intellectual.”

Despite the emphasis on hard work and doctrine — young Calvin and his two siblings had to repeat parts of the Heidelberg Catechism before they could go outside to play — DeWitt’s church and his parents both valued and affirmed science, art and literature. The CRC is unique among Calvinist denominations in this respect. It has also traditionally respected the personal consciences of individual members who feel led by the Holy Spirit. Living an integrated life is encouraged more than certain behaviors are discouraged.

Central to the living of an integrated life, and to CRC theology, is the concept of vocation, or calling. Like the rest of his siblings and classmates, DeWitt was constantly encouraged to try many things in order to discover what he was good at and passionate about. The discovery of one’s talents and passions led to callings. Growing up, DeWitt says, he never heard anyone talk about jobs.

“Only vocation.”

DeWitt’s father was a painter and decorator who considered his work a godly calling. He was also such a skilled acrobat that the circus once tried to lure him under the big top. Calvin’s mother allowed her son to maintain an aviary and an aquarium room in the house so long as he kept both meticulously clean (Little-known fact: Newt Gingrich also kept a home zoo as a boy). Although Calvin would go on to earn a doctoral degree, his parents had only eighth-grade educations. Nevertheless, says DeWitt, his father was quite a scholar. DeWitt also remembers his mother laying out newspaper clippings and magazine articles that she thought her son should read when he visited from college.

It became clear to DeWitt at an early age that his passion — and his calling — was to delve deep into the natural world to see what he could discover, and to use what he learned to serve God and others. He loved to explore the fields and woods and marshes near his home, and he collected animals and plants the way some children today collect apps for their iPods.

“Just Cal”

The church helped to steer DeWitt toward a career in science, a fact that may seem ironic to some but not to DeWitt. His Christian faith remains strong. Although he mixes as well with scientists as he does with church folk, DeWitt studiously avoids labels. He tells me that he’s never thought of himself as either an evangelical or mainline Christian.

“As soon as people know something to call you, they form a meaning that probably isn’t true at all.”

Although many now call him the dean of the creation care movement, DeWitt says he would prefer people just call him Cal.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

DeWitt’s refusal to accept labels makes him even more of an enigma to many in scientific and religious worlds. After all, science and Christianity both rely on differentiation, categorization and critique to make sense of the world. Science has Linnaeus and the scientific method; Christianity has the Sermon on the Mount, wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, the saved and the damned.

To many, this tendency toward reductionism and rigidity (both science and religion are rife with rules and laws) is where the common ground between the two world views ends. To understand why DeWitt, with a foot in both camps, doesn’t find difficulty in reconciling them, it helps to know a little something about the Belgic Confession of 1561.

The Belgic Confession is central to reformed theology. DeWitt was steeped in it as a child, and then again when he attended Calvin College, a CRC institution. The first two articles of the confession uphold the existence, goodness and creative power of a single and simple God and state that this God is revealed to humanity in two main ways: through creation and God’s word (the Bible).

DeWitt sees his scientific endeavors as the study of God’s “other book.” To him, creation reveals as much about the nature of God as the Bible does. Conversely, DeWitt asserts, the Bible is full of guidance on how people can live in harmony with creation. (Dewitt recently authored an introduction to the new Green Bible, a version in which all the verses relating to creation care are printed in green ink; Desmond Tutu wrote the foreword). In his talks to groups large and small, religious and scientific, learned and lay, DeWitt frequently refers to the Book of Genesis, especially Chapter 2, verse 15:

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

For DeWitt, much hinges on the words “till” and “keep.” In the original Hebrew, “till” is avad, meaning both “to work” and “to serve.”

The Hebrew verb for “keep” is shamar, which also means to heed, protect and preserve.

Just like with a garden, DeWitt says, we have to serve creation in order for it to serve us well. The word “conserve,” he points out, literally means “to serve with.”

To do that well, and to live a well-integrated life, DeWitt believes, requires asking three crucial questions:

1) How does the world work?

2)What ought to be?

3) What must we do?

DeWitt seeks answers to the first question through science and to the second through the Bible. It is only through a careful study of both that the answer to the last question becomes apparent, he believes.

DeWitt calls these questions his scientia, ethics and praxis triad, and it seems to have served him — and his community — well through the years.

Community into communion

DeWitt and his wife Ruth have lived in the Town of Dunn since the early 70s. In 1972, neighbors asked Calvin to run for political office. The invitation came after he had spoken up at a town board meeting a few weeks earlier. DeWitt says he was there for research purposes, to discover how land-use decisions were being made at the county level. But when a board member arrogantly told the audience that they should not interfere with board decisions on land development, Dewitt was converted in a flash from objective observer to emotional participant. He stood and delivered what witnesses later called a “speech on democracy.”

DeWitt’s words struck a chord with many residents, some of whom had already been meeting to find a way to come to grips with the rapid urbanization of their rural township and a town government that seemed to want little else. Soon DeWitt found himself one of two supervisors on the 3-member town board. Two years later, he was elected chair. Not long after that he was able to get his fellow supervisors to agree to a 2-year moratorium on all land division. It gave the town time to survey the resources it had, which no one had done in a comprehensive way, and to develop a land ethic and stewardship plan that would guide all future land-use decisions.

That ethic, DeWitt says, is now published in the lives of the township’s members, and its landscapes, as much as in the official written annals of the town government. In 1995, actor Christopher Reeve presented representatives of the Town of Dunn with Renew America’s National Award for Environmental Sustainability, the only award of its kind given that year by the group.

No one can accuse Dewitt, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Calvin College, a master’s in biology and a PhD in zoology from the University of Michigan, of living in an ivory tower. Or, for that matter, a church spire. He has written, “In our community there is no ‘they,’ meaning the ‘government,’ where responsibility lies for our community, lands and resources. We know full well that in our democracy, ‘We’ are ‘They’. We are responsible.”

DeWitt’s sense of personal responsibility and community engagement is something his upbringing in the church helped cultivate. But his observations and research as an environmental scientist have also reinforced the importance of working in concert with others.

Community, DeWitt has written, is the vital fabric within which we weave our work and lives with meaning and purpose.

Having your neighbors over for tea or coffee is probably the most important thing that someone who wants to change the world for the better can do, DeWitt told me. Recalling a painting bee at the town hall during those contentious early years on the town board, DeWitt’s eyes begin to well up.

“Folks who had been at each other’s throats were talking about their kids and listening.”

Community is important, DeWitt believes, but it’s compassion that transforms community into a kind of communion.

From ark to bridges

Ever since his Mr.-Smith moment in Washington, DeWitt has continued to travel far and wide to speak out in defense of the environment – what he prefers to call creation – and to build bridges of understanding between scientists and religious people. In 2002 he organized a convocation of leading scientists and prominent Christians in England that resulted in the highly influential Oxford Declaration on Global Warming. And in 2007 he joined renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network (a group DeWitt cofounded) and 25 scientists in issuing what they called “An Urgent Call to Action.” This consensus document stated unequivocally that humans are destroying the sustaining community of life on which all living things depend, and that every sector of our nation’s leadership needed to address the problems before it was too late.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

For bringing his work as an environmental scientist and ethicist to bear on the church’s role in caring for the environment, DeWitt was bestowed a “Connie,” or conservation hero award, by the National Wildlife Federation in 2005. He recently retired from a 25-year stint as director of the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, another organization he helped found. It was through Au Sable that I first learned of DeWitt and became intrigued by his work; a former employer of mine was contracted to mail the group’s newsletters to its members, and I often read them during my breaks.

Misplaced concreteness

When I asked DeWitt if he thinks humanity will do what is necessary to avert climate catastrophe, his gaze falls to the floor and he grows very still and quiet.

“I’m always hopeful,” he says after what seems like a minute. Nevertheless, he adds soberly, global warming “will have just immense repercussions.”

The problem, DeWitt believes, is misplaced concreteness.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead used the term “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” to describe what happens when someone mistakes an abstract belief, opinion or concept about the way things are for a physical or “concrete” reality.

Under the influence of the coal, gas and oil lobbies, DeWitt says, the U.S. Congress is making the human economy more concrete than the economy of the biosphere.

When I ask DeWitt how this can possibly give him hope, he says that his hope really lies in the fact that ours is the only nation left still thinking this way. He predicts that in five to 10 years, the United States will have done a U-turn when it comes to responding to global warming and climate change.

Nevertheless, he thinks it won’t really be in time to prevent the world from becoming a much less interesting and abundant place.

In correspondence with DeWitt since our interview last fall, he told me he’d just planted a European Purple Beech tree, a species that a few decades ago would have been killed by Wisconsin’s hard winters.

“I really do believe that things are warming to such an extent that I can feel confident that this tree will now survive here, in our milder climate,” he wrote.

When I asked him what his research tells him is in store for Wisconsin and the Midwest in the future, DeWitt said we can expect more of what we’ve been getting (warmer winters, hotter summers, and more extreme storms). He worries most about the failure of our warmer winters to check species that used to be under control. What those species are remain to be seen, he says, but he points to the pine bark beetle outbreak in western states and in Canada, with its massive tree die-offs, as a sign of what’s to come for us here.

“Tell us another story”

As troubled as he is by the changes to the land and water brought about by global warming, the scientist in DeWitt delights in observing them. He wishes more people enjoyed being outside as much as he does and sometimes wonders if the increasing amount of time many people spend indoors will mean they won’t fully appreciate the environmental upheaval caused by climate change going on around them. Referring to the book, Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, DeWitt joked that someday someone might write a book titled Last Person to Experience Climate.

As a teacher, DeWitt feels his two biggest responsibilities are instilling awe and wonder in his students and making sure they are engaging with him and the subjects they’re studying. One thing that can hinder this type of engagement, he says, is a teaching style that’s too sophisticated. To check this tendency in himself, he often renders scientific concepts into everyday language. A lecture on dynamic hydraulics, for example, becomes a talk on “plant plumbing.”

DeWitt’s classes are among the most popular on campus and his lectures frequently produce laughter. Nevertheless, DeWitt insists, “I couldn’t tell a joke if I tried.”

“I never thought of myself as funny until my students kept saying, ‘Tell us another story’.”

Even after more than 30 years in the classroom, DeWitt still finds joy and fulfillment in his work. In what is now the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, he continues to teach his Environmental Science course two days per week. He also oversees 25 senior undergraduates who work as environmental interns with government, non-profit organizations and businesses during the spring semester. In his long career DeWitt has helped train over 100 environmental scientists. But it’s his work helping graduate students with their study and research, he tells me, that feeds his own passion for discovery the most. DeWitt has mentored countless grad students over the years, including Sauk County’s own Curt Meine, now a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Director of the Center for Humans and Nature.

These days DeWitt frequently gets invitations from all over the world to lecture on creation care, invitations he often accepts when his busy schedule allows. He’s currently also at work writing chapters for several books on sustainable living and the religious roots of environmentalism in America.

When I ask him how he manages to set his priorities with so many irons in the fire, DeWitt gives a seemingly paradoxical answer, the kind that’s helped cement his reputation as something of a sage within both the church and the academy.

“Every day I try to do something of the lowest priority.”

It might be sorting screws in his workshop, he says, or petting the family cat (the animal is the size of a raccoon). Still, DeWitt insists, he’s always on vocation.

On the cusp of his golden years, DeWitt says he’s comfortable with the legacy he will leave, but hastens to add, echoing Mother Teresa, “Ours is not to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Doing something of the lowest priority and putting faithfulness ahead of success: these seem like strange words from a man who almost single-handedly saved the Endangered Species Act itself from extinction. Or from the person more responsible than any other for the church’s rediscovery of its responsibility to care for creation.

Strange words, that is, until you realize that it was the values instilled in him as a child that allowed Calvin B. DeWitt to accomplish those feats. Indeed, it is those values — faithfulness, balance, integrity, wholeness, curiosity, compassion, delight — more than any of his many accomplishments, more than any religious creed or scientific theory, that have defined the life and career of this remarkable man.

And yet it is hard to overstate the reformation of sorts DeWitt has quietly led within the hallowed sanctuaries of the wider church, the tiled halls of academia and the postered offices of the environmental movement.

And that brings me back to John Calvin. For although DeWitt resembles Noah in many ways, he also shares some things in common with his namesake John Calvin, who helped advance the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther precipitated with his 95 Theses in 1517. That reformation was a movement against clerical abuses within the Catholic Church and resulted in the wide dissemination of the Bible to the faithful.

Calvin B. DeWitt has spent the better part of his life leading the struggle to help believers and nonbelievers alike get their hands on God’s “other book” in order that they might better understand, appreciate and care for it.

The arc of the covenant

Despite DeWitt’s success getting many in the church to embrace their heritage as stewards of creation, I know there are still some Christians, even among our leaders in Washington, who think they don’t need to worry about global warming or caring for creation because Jesus will soon return and draw his followers into heaven with him. I asked DeWitt what he would say to them.

“I would say to them that there was a day reported in Genesis 6-9 when people didn’t give a care and things got so bad that civilization as it was known in early Bible times was destroyed by God with a flood. The result was that some people were left and others were taken away.

“Among those left behind was Noah; joining him was his family, and enough animal life to replenish their lines on earth. So it will be in the last days, say the scriptures: some will be left and some taken … and Jesus will dwell among the meek and the faithful, among all those who inhabit the earth.”

Whether DeWitt believes in a literal interpretation of the scripture verses to which he refers, or whether he believes such stories are allegorical, he knows his Bible and he understands the evangelical mindset. DeWitt says he is not a fundamentalist Christian, but he is also quick to point out that there are some scientists whose world views are as narrow as those of many evangelicals.

* * *

Especially when it comes to religion and science, Americans — and the peoples of the world — seem more narrow-minded and divided than ever. Many religious folk won’t listen to what scientists have to say and many scientists belittle or dismiss the beliefs of religious people. According to a new poll, relatively few Americans say their faith informs their thinking about the environment.

In such times people like Calvin B. DeWitt, who can converse comfortably with both groups and build bridges between them, are sorely needed. At least, in the storminess of modern life and amidst the climate chaos that threatens to bring an end to life as we know it, their presence is a hopeful sign.

Kind of like, well, a rainbow.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin



  1. Rick,
    After reading your profile, if Madisonians and others nearby want an opportunity to hear Cal Dewitt, he is providing an update on religious developments related to environmental stewardship at 1st United Methodist Church in Madison, 203 Wisconsin Ave (2 blocks off the square) on Stewardship Sunday, October 17 at 11:00 in Fellowship Hall. More information is at Click on the Chimes newsletter dated 9-23 for details.

  2. Thanks, Monica. Cal is also scheduled to be the keynote speaker at Holy Wisdom Monastery’s GreenFest on Oct. 2. More information about that is at