Environmental Piety No Substitute for Technique

In 1994, a group of evangelical Christian scholars, members of the Evangelical Environmental Network, circulated a document titled “An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation.“ The document’s aim was to spur concern for environmental action on the part of evangelical Christians. Care of Creation renews the call for the greening of evangelicalism and presents a series of commentaries on that document by such notable theologians as Richard Bauckham, Calvin DeWitt, John Guillebaud, Jürgen Moltmann, Oliver O'Donovan, Ronald Sider, John Stott, and Loren Wilkenson. But of wider interest is whether these Christians can engage the larger environmental movement while persuading their fellow evangelicals to take on a heightened concern for the environment.

Certainly, as some authors such as Sider argue, Christians do not want to surrender the field of evangelism to environmentalists who would lead many to the “inadequate worldviews” of Matthew Fox's creation spirituality, Shirley MacLaine’s “we are all gods” gospel, or Peter Singer’s vision of man’s moral equivalence with animals. (Not to mention, Stott notes, New Age or Eastern religions.) Involving oneself in the environmental movement, argue Sider and DeWitt, provides an opportunity to evangelize many lost souls.

However, Christians must have credibility on the matter, so they must first defend themselves from the charge—made most notably by historian Lynn White in his 1966 essay, “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (reprinted in this book)-that Christianity is single-handedly responsible for the rape of nature. This, White argues, is because of Scriptures that encourage man to have dominion over nature and to subdue the Earth (Gen. 1:26-28).

Rebuttals to White, then, appear early and often in this book. Arguments such as White’s misunderstand the notion of dominion, taking it out of context from all of Scripture in general and, specifically, from the notion of Christ’s dominion, which is one of service, humility, and continued care. What is more, argues Bauckham, inadequate attention is paid to the role of the Renaissance and, particularly, to the interventions of Francis Bacon, whose program of dominating nature “became the ideology which inspired and governed scientific research and technological innovation down to the twentieth century.” Although Bacon’s goal was humanitarian, it was deeply flawed because it saw no value to nature outside of human needs. Also flowing out of the Enlightenment, according to Sider, are a “narcissistic individualism and materialistic naturalism.”

These evangelicals, DeWitt notes, must also attempt to convince many of their co-religionists that joining the movement for care of creation will not lead to excessive worldliness (to the detriment of a focus on salvation), one-world government, the New Age, pantheism, political correctness, or a diminution of the importance of humans compared to animals, most notably in the promotion of abortion. (DeWitt and Guillebaud explicitly reject abortion in their essays.) Further, there is the problem of Christians who “come close to celebrating the demise of the Earth” as a portent of Christ’s impending return.

Striving to Worship the Lord of Creation

Before dealing with some of these issues and obstacles from within and without, we should give these Christian authors appropriate credit. They love a personal God and wish to affirm Scripture’s claim that man alone is created in God’s image. Indeed, such authors’ reason for holding this position is in response to a 1992 World Council of Churches meeting in Seoul, South Korea, that explicitly sought to deny such a claim about man. But most importantly, many of the authors believe that the care of creation is required of Christians as a form of worship of the Creator and as a means of contributing to Christ’s reconciliation of all things to himself (Col. 1:19–20).

To underscore this point, we need only reflect on our understanding of the Trinity. As elaborated most influentially by Moltmann, Christianity cuts a middle course between extreme notions of God’s immanence and transcendence, hence avoiding the errors of eco-feminism and creation spirituality, on the one hand, and deism (or alternatively, according to Sider, Hindu monism and Platonism, which see “the material world as an evil or illusion to escape”), on the other. Christ is the mysterious Word, or Logos, through whom all things were made and who dwells amidst creation. As Moltmann notes, quoting the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Cleave to the wood and I am there, lift up a stone and you will find me.” Thinking about Christ this way leads us to a new “cosmic spirituality.” Wilkenson chooses more orthodox sources to make a similar point, citing Ireneaus (Jesus “hung upon a tree, that he might sum up all things in Himself”) and Athanasius (The Father effects “salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it at the first”).

Unsuitable and Incomplete Solutions

Despite the many attempts by these authors to be faithful to the tradition, many scientific, theological, and anthropological questions are left unanswered. For example, are we certain that our Christian responses are responses to real problems? The original Declaration—as well as the essays that defend and comment on it—take completely for granted that there is a series of ongoing ecological crises involving “land degradation,” “deforestation,” “species extinction,” “water degradation,” “global toxification,” “the alteration of the atmosphere,” and “human and cultural degradation.” Yet substantive argument on the facts of the environmental debate, which might also lead to clearer policy prescriptions, is completely lacking in these essays.

In terms of practical action, there are only a few hints at what should be done. O’Donovan, in one of the more critical essays, notes that these questions seem to be left open by the Declaration. As to a program of living, there seems to be little more than “celebration, care and study, as well as the personal virtues of ‘humility, forbearance, self-restraint and frugality.’” On the policy level, we also have very few examples. One activist, Peter Harris, worked for legislation to preserve a Portuguese wetland. Moltmann endorses German animal-protection laws. And Susan Drake Emmerich sought to resolve conflicts between the watermen of Tangier Island, Maryland, and environmental activists who sought “stringent controls” on the Chesapeake Bay waterways. (Using techniques to find common language for dialogue, Emmerich recounts how this approach led to a reduction of hostilities, including confessions of guilt from the watermen about throwing cans overboard or keeping undersized crabs.)

And then there is Guillebaud, who calls for the “effective provision for voluntary birth-planning,” which includes the distribution of artificial contraception, so as to prevent the “disaster of there being more people on Earth than can live in harmony with God’s creation.” This is love of neighbor, Guillebaud argues, “which certainly requires us to ensure that there are not so many future neighbors that the planet becomes uninhabitable.”

This last “solution” is interesting and raises a number of issues. First, it is strange to love some undefined future neighbors by making sure other undefined future neighbors remain non-existent, so as not to press the limits of creation. (Are these latter non-existent neighbors less lovable?) But give the author credit—at least he is talking about love of neighbor. And is that not all that matters?

Actually, it is not, which is the primary weakness of this book. If one does not have sound science, economics, philosophical anthropology, or even philosophy of the legal system (which is, I would argue, a unique ecosystem crucial for human survival), one can go well off course.

A number of our authors wish to emphasize the value that creation has in itself, before God. They cite the Book of Job in doing so. And yet what is the appropriate response to such value? Certainly not dominion in the dominating sense, the authors would argue. That would be the “consumerism,” the “greed,” and the “selfishness” of the free-market “ideology” that is repeatedly denounced in the book. Well, then what?

Bauckham provides a clue as to the tensions in what the Declaration proposes and what many of these authors profess to do when he criticizes the Declaration’s notion of stewardship of nature as “too freighted with the baggage of the modern project of the technological domination of nature.” Stewardship still suggests an unfortunate “vertical” relationship between man and “the rest of creation.” The Book of Job, says Bauckham, teaches man “his place as one creature among others in a creation for which he is not the be-all and end-all.” Furthermore, “in the praise in which we gratefully confess ourselves creatures of God, there is no place for hierarchy.”

It Is Too Simple to Appeal to Simpler Times

Yet only Moltmann, whose theology is cited so approvingly by so many of these authors, dares to follow the logic of such a theology to its conclusion—namely, that nature has “rights” against man. Nature should be protected—through amendments to all national constitutions—“for its own sake.” We should “beg forgiveness for the injustice we have inflicted on the earth.” Nature “warrants respect regardless of its worth to man.”

But who decides what “respect” for, or “injustice” against nature—a nature that exists “for its own sake” and with its own “rights”—means? For all their reliance on the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job, these authors need to recall the Hebrew Scriptural passages where God gives Moses the Law, and, hence, gives “rights” specifically to man. Rights give men equality with each other, and, hence, freedom. Man’s rights (to life, to property, and the like), as articulated in the Ten Commandments, reflect his unique dignity before God, and mirror God’s Trinitarian glory. They join man into one community, while distinguishing him from each of his fellow men. Grant “rights” to nature, and some men—namely, the judges over man and nature—become more equal than others. You will not restore a “horizontal” relationship between creatures, as Bauckham might say, but instead make nature even more “vertical” than before—with man perhaps even taking the place of God. Is it any wonder, then, that some evangelicals suspect the environmental movement? They see problems from which some of our theologians here avert their gaze.

O’Donovan makes another observation worth noting. He points out that it is “impossible” for the Declaration to say much about “the new philosophies of history which looked for a story of progress won by human mastery and manipulation,” because “there is too much to be said.” Rather, the Declaration “wisely” attributes the problems to a “spiritual crisis.”

Well, perhaps such an attribution is wise, since a spiritual crisis is not the same thing as an intellectual error. But perhaps it is also foolish. Only to mention the Enlightenment is to ignore its organic connection with the salvation history that has, by God’s plan, run right through it. Christians have lived through, been influence by, and influenced the Enlightenment. And they continue to be influenced by it now. Simply distancing oneself from the Enlightenment by blaming it for pollution, greed, and consumerism will not do. Bauckham gives Bacon credit for the humanitarian motivation of his project, but he does not say specifically which parts of it should be reversed. Do Christians swear off all biotechnology and genetic engineering, or merely some of it? And on what grounds do we decide?

O’Donovan also points out a certain “failure of nerve” in the Declaration in speaking about “that highest work of God’s creation, that supreme object of the divine compassion, that elect partner of God’s divinity in the person of Christ,” which “suggests a failure of nerve about the meaning of the incarnation itself.” Indeed. It is too simple to say that Christ lived in simpler times. He shared the same life we find ourselves in now. He was born into a legally sophisticated empire that allowed considerable freedom. He was the son of a carpenter, and made his living—and died—on the products of the tree. How does the example of Christ, the Lord of nature, illuminate our relationship to nature?

Sadly, the answers to such a question are not forthcoming in this book.