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After Nature's Revolt and From Apocalypse to Genesis

The environment is increasingly becoming a religious issue, as a host of environmental advocates attempt to “green” the church. More than a dozen volumes have been issued over the past two years alone, and new books seem to pour forth almost every day. Among the odder contributions—at least to anyone who believes in orthodox Christianity—are After Nature's Revolt and From Apocalypse to Genesis, both from Fortress Press.

The underlying premise of all of these eco-theological books is that we face an environmental crisis, “a silent but effective revolt” by nature, in social ethicist Dieter Hessel's words, with the earth “withdrawing its awesome, vital diversity while lashing back to protest human insults.” In his view, the catastrophe is omnipresent: Renewable resources are being degraded, nonrenewable resources are being depleted, water is being contaminated, the world is being buried in trash and overwhelmed by population growth, animals are dying out, and global environmental systems—the ozone level and temperatures, for instance—are running haywire. Along with the problem of environmental degradation is that of global poverty. In his view, then, “the faithful response is to attend to eco-justice—ecological integrity and social equity together.”

Anne Primavesi, a professed “freelance theologian,” shares Hessel's pessimism. Indeed, so certain is she of impending environmental disaster that she doesn't even bother to spell out the supposed threats in any detail. Rather, she simply reports on people's fears, apparently accepting them as her own. For instance, human “excesses are now coming together exponentially, in a catastrophic relationship between human fertility and the earth's humanly imposed infertility,” she writes.

Moreover, virtually all of the new eco-theologians blame the ecological crisis on Christianity and the church. Sometimes the criticisms are fairly narrow. In the Hessel volume Lutheran pastor H. Paul Santmire focuses on “those who stand in the traditions of Luther and Calvin” who are, he contends, “ill-equipped to respond to the global environmental crisis theologically.” Further, he adds, “in this critical instance the Protestant mind is suffering from a severe case of hardening of the categories.” Most serious, in Santmire's view, is “the theology of a divinely mandated human dominion over nature.”

But other critics go further. George Kehm, a theology professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, complains of “the constriction of the Christian message that has been allowed to go on virtually unchallenged within the churches,” that is, anthropocentrism. Kehm dismisses both the traditional emphasis on individual salvation and social reform: “Neither vision of anthropocentrism promotes a vision of the world that would include all species, ecosystems, and the entire biotic community (including the earth itself) as included in the salvation promised by God according to the Christian story.”

Primavesi offers a similar critique. Christianity, she writes, “has reinforced the harsh dualisms of Nature and spirit, body and soul, female and male which support hierarchical structures of domination. Moreover, she adds, ”'Christian values, with their destructive lack of ecological wisdom, are no longer perceived by other systems of thought as having any positive role to play in the present world crisis... Is God calling Christianity to account?“

Obviously, then, theology must be adjusted. Primavesi, for instance, concludes that “it appears to be a question not of whether theology ought to become ecological but of how quickly it might do so.” Never mind 2000 years of history and tradition: “Now we are all learning the painful lesson that the earth does not revolve around humankind. Christians are being given further lesson that our relationship with the world does not revolve around the salvation of the human being.” The contributors to the Hessel volume, too, envision a more nature-oriented theology. “There is a time, especially in the night, when it is best for the tiny human creature to withdraw like a grasshopper into some protective niche, to allow the great ones of the cosmos to thunder and to frolic with God,” contends Santmire.

Philip Hefner, another Lutheran theologian, devotes an entire chapter to proposing a new, ecological spirituality. In Hefner's view, Christ's resurrection “is an event within a continuum of events in which God has been active, and the continuum includes the history of nature.” He says that “the rainbow covenant” after the flood “predicts God as a higher advocate for nonhuman nature” and indicates that “God will never again permit [his covenant with nature] to be breached in favor of humans at the expense of earth.” Thus, he writes, “Our images of ourselves, of God the Creator, of Christ the Redeemer, and of the quickening Spirit will also be reorganized in fresh images,” particularly the notion that animals are our brothers. “Shalom comes when we consider that our calling to be: sibling to the geese and the spiders; eye, tongue, and heart, to sweet earth; covenant partner with earth and its birds, cattle, and every beast.”

There is nothing wrong with increased attention to environmental issues by Christians, of course, since they, as citizens, should be concerned about important public policy matters. But the increase in church focus on ecology, particularly the type advocated by Hessel, Primavesi, and their colleagues, is a different matter. The rise of enviro-theology mimics the growth of the social gospel a century ago—a church created to propagate the transcendent message of the Gospel subordinates, if not drops entirely, its unique role in order to act like just another political interest group in society. This lost sense of mission, of helping people meet their deepest spiritual needs, would be tragic enough, yet the new political activism is almost uniformly misguided, based on junk science, ideological crusades, and demagogic scaremongering.

It is true that some Christians have emphasized man's authority to exercise “dominion” over the earth and downplayed his responsibility to act as steward over what are ultimately God's resources. Moreover, God pronounced his Creation to be good, and indication that it has value to him independent of its value to mankind.

Nevertheless, Christianity has been anthropocentric because the Scriptures and tradition upon which it is based are clearly anthropocentric. There is a centrality to the role of man, not animals. Moreover, Christ ministered to man and sacrificed himself for man, not animals. A theology that treats geese as our brothers may be a perfectly plausible basis for a new religion, but it is not consistent with the historic tenets of Christianity. And if the Gospel has lost the transcendence with which it was originally imbued, then no infusion of ecobabble can salvage it.

Equally sad is the eco-theologians' unthinking acceptance of the apocalyptic vision being peddled by many environmental activists. Serious environmental problems exist, of course, but we have made dramatic ecological progress in recent years: Our air and water, for instance, are dramatically cleaner than they were twenty years ago. Moreover, many supposed crises appear to be anything but. Disaster-causing global warming is anything but inevitable, for instance; the majority of atmospheric scientists reject the doomsday theories believed by credulous theologians like Hessel and Primavesi. A massive federal study found acid rain to have little to do with the acidification of lakes. Even where environmental problems exist, command-and-control regulation is likely to make matters worse. Tightening fuel economy standards for autos might save a little energy, though probably not much, but it will kill hundreds or even thousands of motorists by pushing them into smaller, less safe cars. And so on.

If we are to be true to our godly responsibilities, we will care for God's Creation. At the same time, however, we will make use of the resources given us by God to create a better world, particularly for the most vulnerable around us, who most obviously need the benefits that come from economic growth. Sadly, the lack of balance exhibited by the new eco-theologians threatens the integrity of the gospel and the church's mission along with the economic and political liberty shared by Christians and their neighbors alike. In short, what we have to fear are so-called Christian theologians who would have us worship rather than protect the environment.