Christian Environmentalism

Modern Attitudes toward care for the environment tend towards one of two conclusions.

A materialistic view (no spiritual or eternal realities, no God) of our universe is a belief in a particular future ending of the world. The sun burns out and all life on planet earth slowly dies. Although a great many people in our society believe this is the actual state of affairs for our world, yet they cannot seem to live out the full implications of this view. Namely: “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” Most find that to be incredibly un-satisfying. We feel that we should care for the environment. It carries the weight of a moral imperative. It seems so self-evident. It is wrong not to care for the environment.

But wallowing in paralysis at the absolute meaninglessness of all of life and creation is not, nor has it ever been, the American way. Perhaps it suits a certain kind of philosophically-minded Frenchmen following in the footsteps of Albert Camus, but for the American we don’t need to base our action and activity on our worldview. We sign an uneasy truce with it and do what we believe to be right regardless of strong reasons or motivations to do so.

But think deeply about this for a second. In a materialistic, amoral universe could there be anything that is inherently “good” or “bad” for the earth? There are things that lead to the flourishing of life, but you have to remember that inside this worldview life is a cosmic mistake that lasts the blink of an eye and is forgotten by a Universe that never had a mind to remember it in the first place.

If it seems overbearing to argue that the lack of existence of a God makes all moral distinctions meaningless I can only reply that thinking about the Earth on a geologic timescale sort of invites that argument doesn’t it?

Consider the dinosaurs wiped out by a cataclysmic disaster. They perished, yet life continued to flourish. It could equally be said that should man make the earth uninhabitable for himself by his actions, then he simply reaps what he sows, ceases to exist, yet life will continue on without him, probably the better for it. Appealing to inherent morality just doesn’t work on that big of a timescale.

This sort of moral feeling regarding the right care of the earth coupled with absolutely no philosophical underpinnings whatsoever eventually led to the dominant reasoning behind the modern environmental movement, namely, earth as deified: Gaia. If you think that is silly, you have only to think back to the cartoon Captain Planet to be assured that it was a philosophy of environmentalism sufficiently persuasive to be taught to children through mass media.

Earth as personified. Earth as god. Gaia. If the Earth is itself a being then our moral feelings toward it are completely justified. In fact they are required. While this may sound like a philosophy for hippies who name their kids things like River or Oak in fact it is the dominant way of thinking among common Americans. Every time a person throws something in the recycling bin so that it is good for The Environment they are appealing to a personified earth (named The Environment) and the fact that things are either good for it or bad for it.

The Personified Environment way of rationalizing moral feelings toward the care of the Earth in the 20th Century had one enormous drawback for Christians. They reacted to it. In what should be unsurprising to any alert student of history, instead of Christians leading the way by developing theological foundations for the issues that people cared most about, they found themselves treading water, gasping for survival and often simply reacting to the oceanic currents of thought around them. In other words, when Environmentalism (as a movement) became entangled with Earth Worship they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of insisting on the biblical understanding of man’s role in creation, Christians often jettisoned the environmental impulse as a bunch of hippy-dippy tree-huggers (they were) who were focusing on the wrong things (they weren’t).

Christians on the wrong side of the environmental issue often found themselves in league with large agri-business and corporations who cared about profit to the neglect of human flourishing. Not exactly a witness to Christ-like character. One is tempted to think of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple who were more concerned with commerce than right worship.

It is my contention that currently most Americans sympathize with the Environmental movement (though it’s not like they are about to give up their SUV’s or anything), but that they don’t really know why. They don’t buy into the alternative theory of the hardcore environmentalists. Still, they inherently believe that the earth should be cared for, but they don’t think it should be worshipped to the complete forfeiture of human flourishing. They desire a middle way. They desire a comprehensive philosophy of the environment that recognizes the moral component of caring well for the Earth which at the same time refuses to deify the earth and so render it incompatible with use for human flourishing. Now that sounds an awful lot like what the Bible says about Creation.

Unsurprisingly, the Biblical account provides the philosophical and moral underpinnings for people’s deepest held convictions regarding this shared space we call the Earth. But characteristically, because it is in the Bible, almost nobody knows what it actually says…

So here are a few simple thoughts to get you started on a theology of Creation.

1. The moral component of Earth care is derived from God.
If you are looking for commandments in the Bible like “Large Agribusiness shalt not pervert the plants with genetic mutation…” prepare to be disappointed. Unless that is in a rarely read section of Leviticus, it’s just not in there. However the story of our world presented in the biblical narrative has one incredibly powerful thought regarding Creation (the Bible uses the term “Creation” to refer, not to God’s act of creating, but to the whole material and non-material cosmos as distinct from God). This world belongs to God. In one conveniently succinct Psalm it states, “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;” (Psalm 24:1, NIV)

In the Biblical worldview, this Earth belongs to God. Human beings have a role to play in changing it, but the first and most dramatic point of the Biblical narrative reminds us: this world belongs to God, you are only a steward. God made it and he thinks it is “very good.” If your neighbor loans you a tool, you take special care of it, better than even your own things, because if you ruin it you will be held accountable. This Earth works the same way. It is God’s, not ours.

There is a moral component to care for the Earth, not because the Earth is a living being with a name as in Captain Planet, Avatar, etc. But rather because God made it.

2. People are responsible for their treatment of the Earth.
In the Introduction to the book of Genesis man and woman both are tasked with producing more people and creating culture by engaging with the Creation in such a way that it leads to human flourishing. Look at what it says, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

Sometimes people have read the word “subdue” and thought that implied a license to do whatever suits humans. But we have already seen that what is happening here is delegated authority. Man is free to subdue the earth, to create culture by rearranging the basic elements of Creation to promote human flourishing (being fruitful and multiplying). But he is under the authority of God who declared his Creation “very good.” Power without accountability is tyranny, but delegated power within boundaries is authority.

In this scenario, man has the authority to use the Earth to create culture, to promote human flourishing (to be fruitful and multiply), but he does not have the authority to abuse it to achieve his own ends. In fact, in Genesis 3 when man rebels against the authority of God man’s rule over Creation is challenged by Creation itself.

3. There is a hierarchy to the created order.
While the world belongs to God, yet it exists for people. This allows the nuanced application of Earth care to daily life. It is not so much that we are against everything that is “un-natural” and for everything that is “natural.” Instead we are respectful of God’s good creation and mindful that the creation is intended to promote human flourishing.

Loving animals is a great thing. But most American’s don’t join PETA. Why? Because PETA starts with the truth, but they go too far. The truth is that animals are a part of God’s good creation and therefore like all of creation should be treated with dignity, value, and respect. But animals are also consecrated to a higher purpose, to serve mankind. A donkey plowing a field is not a bad thing even though the donkey may hate it. That is simply the lesser contributing to the flourishing of the greater.

The tricky part is for Christians to distinguish legitimate uses from abuses. Chicken is tasty, but should chickens be pumped full of steroids and kept in cages so small they can’t turn around their entire life? More robust debate from Christians is needed on these very points.

The hierarchy of the created order shows that as people are being responsible stewards plants and animals may be used to promote human flourishing. Man was not created to make the lives of animals better, but vice versa.

4. God will eventually restore this Earth fully.
After the account of the Fall of man a curious thing happens. The consequences of their actions are felt, not solely by Adam and Eve, nor solely by their descendants, but the consequences are felt by Creation itself. In Genesis 3 God states,

   “cursed is the ground because of you;

    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

    and you shall eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your face

    you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

    for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

    and to dust you shall return.””

Notice that here the curse is actually leveled at the Creation. Man has failed in his responsibility as the one to tend and to guard the Garden and now his relationship to it will be beset by difficulty.

But in Romans 8 the Bible presents a way forward. Jesus Christ came not to take disembodied souls to heaven when they die, but to create for himself a redeemed humanity who truly fulfill the vocation of the first Adam. That’s why “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21) Jesus restores people and Creation (here personified) can’t wait for restored people to be what they were always supposed to be: God’s wise stewards of Creation.

What to Do:
Then there is the small matter of what you can do about it. I think the best way to come at this is through one principle and a couple of random applications of that principle. One or two of my applications will make some of you so mad you will write me hate mail. But I’ll do my best to stick to the research and avoid being pedantic.

The principle is this: When in doubt ask whether this contributes to human flourishing?

Does this genetically modified food produce yields that are so high that it helps prevent mass starvation? Yes. Does this genetically modified food contribute to my flourishing? Probably not. You see right there that there is nuanced application of the principle. It allows you to be principled without being a jerk. That is the beauty of a principle.

Does this Ford F-250 make this a better or worse place for people to flourish? Does my recycling promote human flourishing?  What about the clothes that I buy or the food that I produce myself? Again in all these cases the principle of human flourishing provides a guideline to think these things through.

Now here are a couple of specific application points about this principle that I chose because a.) I care about them and b.) you may not know about them. They will probably make some of you angry. That’s good. Denial’s not a river in Egypt and if you’re ever going to come out of it you’ll have to have your bubble popped sometime.

1. Live in a City.
It is well documented (see Green Metropolis by David Owen for the full treatment of this) that city dwellers use less gasoline, electricity, and water than people who do not live in cities. They destroy a fraction of the land to create living space as do people in suburbs. They travel by foot and bike far more often. And the ecological disaster that is parking lots is only fractionally accounted for by urbanites. They also live in highly energy efficient buildings (apartment buildings). If you want to limit your ecological impact you must live in a city.

2. Promote Laws that reveal the true costs of driving.
This past year congress passed legislation that in effect penalized mass-transit users in relation to car drivers in the tax code. This kind of backward thinking should be outrageous. Even if you are neutral or superstitiously unconvinced on the carbon issue the 1.) amount of land paved for roads and parking 2.) traffic congestion caused by cars 3.) wasted family time in said traffic congestions and 4.) American dependence on foreign oil makes policies like this ridiculous.

The thing that makes the most sense is to tax driving more effectively in such a way that the proceeds go directly to fund mass-transit options which (in a spectacular bonus for Christians) also benefits the poor. 

3. Start ignoring labels like “Liberal” and “Conservative.”
This could be its own article, but for Christians to toe the party line on everything means they will have a Kingdom impact on nothing. Why should your political or personal views be at all affected by a political party? If you claim to be a Christian then allow the teachings of the Bible to shape and to guide your thoughts. If you do this you will eventually come to believe one thing:

No political party perfectly represents you

Now that I’ve lived in the South and in the Northeast please allow me to be even blunter with you. If you agree with a political party on everything you are not heeding the words of Scripture. If your thoughts are more shaped by Rush Limbaugh (you know who you are) or Harper’s Magazine (you know who you are) than by the Word of God then your faith has been hijacked to achieve someone else’s political ends.

Ditch the labels and pick up the Word. Allow God’s concern for the poor to run through your veins and shape your thinking on food policy. Allow God’s approbation of His Creation to stir you to protect it when it is being abused. Allow God’s self-sacrifice to motivate you to make the lifestyle changes you know are honoring him.

Being “liberal” or “conservative” just isn’t enough of an identity to shape your thinking. It is more likely a tool used by people in power to keep you incorporated into their voting bloc. So do us all a favor and ditch the labels.