Last year I ran a series of posts with quotes from For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger. This book develops a Biblical view of creation care that is neither Earth-centered nor man-centered, but God-centered. Because I have new readers of The GeoChristian, I periodically recycle previous posts. For this book, however, I won’t re-run all eleven posts, but will just give you some highlights:
Chapter 1 — Where Are We? An Ecological Perception of Place
Despite our education we remain ecologically illiterate. Or perhaps more accurately, because of our education we remain ignorant of how the world works.
Ecological literacy is “built on a view of ourselves as finite and fallible creatures living in a world limited by natural laws.” (Quote from David Orr, Ecological Literacy)
Chapter 2 — What’s Wrong With the World? The Groaning of Creation
The author refers to Calvin DeWitt (professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin and a co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network), who lists “seven major degradations brought on by our assault on creation”:
- land conversion and habitat destruction, e.g., deforestation
- species extinction
- degradation of the land, e.g, loss of topsoil to wind and water erosion
- resource conversion and production of wastes and hazards
- global toxification, e.g., oil spills
- the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion
- human and cultural degradation, e.g., the displacement of agriculture by agribusiness
The author, Steven Bouma-Prediger, goes through these degradations (and others), and I’m not going to restate those here. It is clear that much of human impact on the Earth is not just bad for woodpeckers, wildflowers, and walruses; it is bad for us as well.
Does our soaring consumption really make us happy?
Chapter 3 — Is Christianity to Blame? The Ecological Complaint Against Christianity
Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and its traditional cultures. It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economies as are most industrial organizations. –Wendell Berry
Bouma-Prediger then analyzes four common complaints against Christianity given by many anti-Christian environmentalists:
Complaint #1 — The first is that monotheism in general, and Christianity in particular, is the primary if not sole cause of the despoilation of the earth.
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.”
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.
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? — Wendell Barry
Complaint #2 — Christian theology emphasizes the spiritual over the material, resulting in the material being abused or neglected.
The initial premise is unacceptable– the claim that the Bible promotes a dualism between soul and body, spirit and mater–this argument is not sound.
Some additional thoughts of my own:
- The original creation was proclaimed to be “very good” even apart from anything “spiritual” in its description. (Genesis 1:31).
- Christ became fully human as well as being fully God. The incarnation is a sign that the material is good and of eternal value.
Complaint #3 — The third reason that many environmentalists blame Christianity for the ecological crisis is eschatological: If this world is going to burn, why take care of it? If Jesus is coming back soon, why be concerned about what the world will be like 100, 1000, or 10000 years from now?
Bouma-Prediger acknowledges that the complaint is at least partially valid because there are a number of Christians whose behavior and statements reflect this kind of attitude.
I’ll add a thought of my own. I believe in the literal return of Christ, and that it could happen at any time. This does not negate my responsibility to take care of the Earth any more than it negates my responsibility in any other area. I take care of my body, even though I believe that some day I am going to get a new one; a body without aches and pains, sore hips and graying hairs. It would be foolish for me to abuse my body, even though my resurrection body will be even better. The same goes for the Earth. It is foolish for us to consume resources at unsustainable rates, pollute the air and water, and force thousands of species into extinction when we could live otherwise.
Complaint #4 — The fourth complaint against Christianity given by environmentalists is that because the Christian worldview is largely responsible for the rise of science and technology, Christianity is to blame for the ecological crisis that is upon us. This idea was promoted by a widely reprinted essay by historian Lynn White entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”
White’s thesis is accepted without question by most environmentalists, but Bouma-Prediger points out the weaknesses of the argument:
- While Christianity had a role in the rise of science and technology, it was not the sole factor
- “Ecological crises are not peculiar to Christian-influenced cultures. Non-Christian cultures have also caused severe or irreparable harm to their ecosystems.” — quoted from James Nash.
- In general, environmentalists accept White’s critique of Christianity but ignore the section where White points out that there has always been a stream of thought in Christianity that affirms the value of the Earth. White proposes St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint for ecologists.
Chapter 4 — Is there a connection between scripture and ecology? — Biblical wisdom and ecological vision
Some lessons from Genesis 1-2:
God is the creator of all things.
Humans are given the delegated, royal responsibility of ruling the earth.
The chaotic, to be sure, exists, but the universe is a place of order and structure, purposefully and lovingly designed by God.
Creation is good. The universe originates not out of struggle or battle or conflict, as portrayed in so many ancient creation stories, but through a seemingly effortless and struggle-free divine speaking and making.
The earth is a home for all earthly creatures. The earth is created as a habitat not only for humans but for all living things.
The sabbath reminds us, among other things, that the world is in God’s loving hands and, therefore, will not fall to pieces if we cease from our work.
Chapter 5 — How should we think of the earth? A theology and ethic of care for the earth
Neither cosmocentrism, with its “ethic of adoration,” nor anthropocentrism, with its “ethic of exploitation,” is adequate since both tacitly assume a dualism between nature and history, differing only in which has priority. Only a theocentric perspective, which refuses to accept such a dualism, is able to cultivate a proper “ethic of responsibility.” For these and other reasons Richard Young concludes that “the Christian Scriptures, when interpreted through a theocentric perspective, offer the most satisfying and realistic solution of the environmental problem.”
Jesus Christ is Creator, Integrator, and Reconciler; yet many who call on his name abuse, neglect, and do not give a care about creation. That irony is there for all to see. Honoring the Creator in word, they destroy God’s works in deed. Praising God from whom all blessings flow, they diminish and destroy God’s creatures here below. The pieces of this puzzle do not fit! One piece says, “We honor the Great Master!” The other piece says, “We despise his great masterpiece!” — Calvin DeWitt
Chapter 6 — What kind of people ought we be?
In this chapter, the author develops seven ecological virtues:
1. Act so as to preserve diverse kinds of life.
Creatures exist to praise God and are valuable irrespective of human utility. From this theological theme comes the ethical principle of intrinsic value.
We are obligated to preserve nonhuman species except when other moral considerations outweigh or overrule this duty. And since such species cannot exist without their homes, we are also obligated to preserve habitats.
2. Act so as to live within your means.
We have a prima facie duty to preserve nonrenewable resources and conserve scarce though renewable resources.
The author doesn’t advocate austerity, but rather discipline and self-restraint, as individuals and as a society.
3. Act cautiously.
We are to act cautiously in our relationship with the creation both because we are finite and because we are faulted. Because we are finite, we don’t understand all of the implications of our activities. Because we are faulted—fallen into sin—we are “alienated from God, other humans, ourselves, and the earth.”
4. Act in such a way that the ability of living creatures to maintain themselves and to reproduce is preserved.
It is God’s will that the whole of creation be fruitful, not just people. — Calvin DeWitt
We are permitted to use the fruit of the earth, but we are not allowed to destroy the earth’s ability to be fruitful.
Ecologically speaking, foolishness is the disposition to act as if the earth is endlessly exploitable and expendable.
5. Act in such a way that the creatures under your care are given their needful rest.
In the ten commandments, the command for sabbath rest doesn’t just apply to humans, but to their livestock as well.
6. Act so as to care for the earth’s creatures, especially those creatures in need.
Dominion does not mean domination but responsible care.
It is not enough merely to refrain from doing harm; in certain cases we are morally required to do good.
7. Act so as to treat others, human or nonhuman, fairly.
It is not that animals are equal to humans, but that we have certain responsibilities toward them because of our position over them.
Chapter 7 — Why worry about spotted owls and the Pacific yew?
- The intrinsic value argument: Nonhuman creatures have an intrinsic value, because God created them. I think this is a real strength of the Christian argument for creation-care, as opposed to secular or non-Christian arguments. The secular environmentalist can assign value to nature only in an arbitrary or self-centered way. To the Christian, nature and its creatures have value simply because God created them. They were valuable before we came on the scene, and are not valuable just because they are useful to us.
- The earth community argument: or the we’re-all-in-this-together argument. This is similar to the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, but Bouma-Prediger modifies it to a Christian form. We, as humans, are a part of a much bigger biosphere, and what we do to the biosphere turns around to have an effect on us. This is not an appeal to self-interest, but rather an acknowledgment that what is good for the environment is good for us.
- The divine command argument: or “because God says so.” Bouma-Prediger bases this on his interpretation that the earth-care mandate given in Genesis 2:15 (”The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” ESV) means that we are here to serve and protect the earth, not to do whatever our sinful desires would have us do.
- The image of God argument: or “because God’s concerns are our concerns.” God cares for the creatures of the earth, and as his viceregents—created in God’s image to rule in his place—we are to show the same care.
Grace and Peace, and take care of the Earth