Vice-President Al Gore says he wants to federalize land-use restrictions in the name of eliminating so-called suburban sprawl. This word “sprawl” is curious. It increasingly seems to be invoked against patterns of development that are a benefit to people and businesses. If developers are prevented from building and businesses are prohibiting from expanding, economic progress for everyone is blocked.
In a free enterprise economy, the pace and direction of economic development is supposed to be left to the free choice of individuals. In recent years, however, state and local governments have intervened heavily and politicized economic development with complicated restrictions regarding land use. Gore is only taking this to the next logical step.
As this case illustrates, environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not to preserve nature's beauty, but to restrict the advance of economic prosperity. As a priest, I am concerned about this movement, not only because I believe that economic development is good for society, but also because environmentalist ideology is making increasing inroads into our houses of worship.
Don't be surprised to see liberal church organizations joining Gore's campaign against “sprawl” in the name of protecting mother earth. Of late, we have even witnessed the rise of what some have called a “green spirituality” that is said to blend nicely with traditional faith.
There are aspects of “green spirituality” or “eco-theology” which do cohere with the historic Christian faith and do express the traditional positive view of the created order articulated throughout the centuries.
Christianity teaches that the Earth is the Lord's because it is His creation, and we are called to look upon the glories and beauties of nature as prime examples of God's hand at work in the cosmos. Moreover, the Scriptures call the human family to have a profound respect for that creation and to not squander resources that are entrusted to us for our use, but rather to employ them wisely.
But let us insist upon some elementary distinctions. Looking upon nature as a lens through which we see God's hand as author of creation is not the same as finding God Himself present in nature, much less substituting nature for God.
Moreover, having respect for God's created order does not mean that it cannot and must not be used for the benefit of humankind; rather, a belief in the sanctity of life requires that we accept our responsibilities to have dominion over nature. That such statements are even considered contestable (even “politically incorrect”) is a sign of how far environmentalism has made inroads into the communities of traditional faith.
In Earth in the Balance, a book widely praised as the consummate statement of the new environmentalism, Gore admits that “the more deeply I search for the roots of the global environmental crisis, the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual.” He is asking us to reassess our spiritual place in the universe by renewing “a connection”--not to God and not to other people, but to the “natural world.”
But this view comes close to suggesting that the life of “nature” is as precious as that of human beings. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this theory would not only reduce the status of human life to that of the animal kingdom. In addition, owing to its radical implications for economic systems, it would likely lead to the massive curbing of production, economic exchange, and innovation.
In truth, we know from all of history and Christian teaching that man's survival and thriving depends on exercising responsible dominion over creation, tilling and keeping the Garden, owning property and transforming it to the betterment of the human condition, and always with an eye toward doing God's will with the aim of the salvation of our souls.
In secular times such as ours, perhaps it is not surprising that strange theories that harken back to the Gnostics and the errors of the early Christian centuries would come into political play, even through massive popular movements such as an ill-conceived environmentalism that teaches ideas contrary to orthodoxy. But we make a profound error in attempting to graft those ideas onto orthodox faith. We risk falling prey to political agendas that would restrict economic advancement that would otherwise enhance human dignity.
The material prosperity that flows from free enterprise cannot save our souls. But neither can government restrictions on economic production. This much we can say: Free enterprise leads to a thriving of human community while state restrictions only impede the creativity of the human spirit.
There is no theory of “spirituality,” however in tune with Earth Mother, that can morally justify preventing people from acting justly to make better lives for each other. Gore's spiritually driven desire to rid us of “sprawl” may in fact rid us of the means to live out the Biblical injunction to have dominion over the earth.