For the Beauty of the Earth — Chapter 3 — Complaint #1

A continuation of my review of For the Beauty of the Earth, by Steven Bouma-Prediger. I’m going through chapter 3, which is “Is Christianity to Blame? The Ecological Complaint Against Christianity.”

The author discusses four common complaints that environmentalists have against Christianity, starting with:

The first is that monotheism in general, and Christianity in particular, is the primary if not sole cause of the despoilation of the earth.

Environmentalists point to Genesis 1:28 as a mandate that has led to an attitude of reckless consumption and disregard for nature:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Genesis 1:28 NIV)

Here’s an example of how this mandate is perceived by a non-Christian:

some of the major maladies of the present-day world–for instance the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures, and the pollution of those of them that man has not already devoured–can be traced back in the last analysis to a religious cause, and that this cause is the rise of monotheism. (Arnold Toynbee, historian and advocate of pantheism)

Bouma-Prediger writes that this complaint against Christianity advocates that:

Only by repudiating the worldview of monotheism and adopting a worldview in which God and world are seen as one will we be able to extricate ourselves from our ecological abyss.

Wallace Stegner writes:

Our sanction to be a weed species living at the expense of every other species and of the Earth itself can be found in the injunction God gave to newly created Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”

How do we as Christians answer this complaint? Bouma-Prediger gives a few ideas:

  • Understand that humans are in some way unique; we are made in the image of God.
  • Also understand that we are not only unique, but are also part of the creation. We are made of the same stuff that the rest of creation is made of, and are embedded in the creation. The name “Adam” is very similar to the Hebrew word for “earth” — ‘adama.
  • Distinguish between dominion and domination. One who has dominion, like the ideal king of Psalm 72, is one who “rules and exercises dominion properly.”

The proper exercise of dominion yields shalom–the flourishing of all creation.

  • Consider Jesus:

For Jesus, to rule is to serve. To exercise dominion is to suffer, if necessary, for the good of the other. There is no question of domination, exploitation, misuse. Humans, therefore, are called to rule, but only if ruling is understood rightly.

And a closing quote from Wendell Berry:

Such a reading of Genesis 1:28 is contradicted by virtually all the rest of the Bible, as many people by now have pointed out. The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it. If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?

Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Anyone who uses this argument is guilty of oversimplification. There is not just one human cause of environmental degradation.
  • Biblical dominion is stewardship–taking care of something that has been put under our charge. We are responsible to care and nourish that which is put under our care, whether it be our children, our farm, or employees, or the entire planet.
  • A worldview that believes that humans are a “weed species” (see the quote by Stegner above) goes to an opposite extreme. To have a nature-centered view of creation is an error just as much as having a human-centered view of creation (more about that later).
  • Some Christians have no problem with exploiting the Earth and use Genesis 1:28 as an excuse. More about that under Complaint #3.

Grace and Peace

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