Josiah Neufeld opens his debut work of non-fiction, The Temple at the End of the Universe, with a disclaimer: “If you hope this book will lead you to spiritual truth, I am sorry, in advance.” The short story writer, essayist, and journalist — who lives in Winnipeg and won an Amnesty International Media Award in 2016 — explores the complex intersection of religion and environmentalism.
Born in 1981 to devout Christian missionaries, Neufeld lost his faith early in adulthood when he could no longer accept the “cruel logic” that otherwise decent non-Christians would spend eternity in Hell. But he still yearned for the sacred and found a new divine connection in nature that was “like god, like an all-encompassing life force, but without the personal regard or judging vigilance.” A journalistic memoir, this book chronicles Neufeld’s attempt to reconcile his ambivalent spirituality with his deep concern for the climate crisis, alongside first-hand reporting of environmental protests and religious ceremonies across North America.
Early in the narrative, Neufeld examines how the Christian right has driven ecological destruction in the United States. With engrossing prose, he explains that evangelicals overwhelmingly oppose action on climate change because their leaders have portrayed environmentalism as a threat to the faith for some six decades. This campaign has long “touched a chord at the heart of American evangelicalism” by aligning with the Christian right’s broader sense of identity as “an embattled people at war with secular culture for America’s soul.” Today, prominent evangelicals like James Inhofe and Calvin Beisner claim that the climate crisis is exaggerated or even invented. They argue that substantive action to combat it would constitute draconian government regulation and stymie the economy. Bolstered by such misleading assertions, the Christian right spreads disinformation about the environmental movement, suggesting that its “militant” followers are under the spell of “shoddy science and faulty economics.” And the crusade has been effective. Again and again, the pious vote for political candidates who oppose green policies. (In 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the presidential candidate who called climate change a “hoax.”)
That said, many Christians are motivated by their faith to advocate for environmental and social causes. Neufeld describes Anglican, Mennonite, Quaker, and non-denominational demonstrators joining together in a series of demonstrations against TD Bank to protest the financial institution’s continued support for oilsands development and the Line 3 project, the expansion of a pipeline from Alberta to Wisconsin underneath traditional Anishinaabe land. There were no chants or speeches. Instead, participants held an exorcism to drive out “the spirit of greed,” sat in a parking lot in “meditative silence,” and served communion. As Neufeld learned, the aim was to try to “transform the hearts of bank executives as well as curtailing their power to do harm,” because, as one demonstrator put it, he and his companions “have a responsibility for their souls.” This sort of “spiritual protest,” Neufeld reports, “uses a different calculus than secular civil resistance.” While the two approaches can share common goals, “spiritual protest seeks inner as well as outer transformation.”
With his rather nuanced examination of Christianity, Neufeld capably addresses a complicated issue. However, he doesn’t consistently apply this talent. His two-dimensional depiction of oil and gas companies, including Enbridge, borders on cartoonish. He insists that “they aren’t going to be stopped by asking nicely” and, citing the theologian Walter Wink, likens them to “the rulers of the darkness of this age.” And while he dedicates a whole chapter to the land defenders of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and the spiritual convictions driving their resistance to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia, he devotes a mere three sentences to members of the nation who support the project. Disappointingly, he never examines their divergent perspective on the pipeline’s potentially favourable impacts on their community.
Although he oversimplifies such matters, Neufeld writes deeply about his own spiritual journey. His search for “moral and metaphysical” truths culminates in a week-long spiritual retreat at the Animas Valley Institute in Arizona and a three-day fast alone in the nearby Sonoran Desert. Alternately gripped by boredom, hunger, and existential dread, Neufeld vividly describes the debilitating and rejuvenating effects on his body and mind: “Out in the desert, with no other humans around, I was not thinking about my ego or image or politics or theology. I was just trying to survive.” His honest, passionate recounting of his trip to the “shadow world” may resonate with similarly introspective readers who have experienced emotional or intellectual crises.
At the end of the book, Neufeld resolves to act with “more spiritual intent” and to live each moment with “love for the earth and all its frenzied human inhabitants.” It’s nothing profound. Still, The Temple at the End of the Universe succeeds as a thoughtful contribution to much-needed discourse about aligning personal values with public action to curb the climate crisis. Neufeld doesn’t offer definitive answers, but he asks the right questions.