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The Christian and the Environment

 

Part 1 of 2

 

By A. Prentice

 

I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.

[David Suzuki, Canadian geneticist, environmentalist, broadcaster]

 

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

[Genesis 2: 15, New International Version, UK edition]

 

THE GARDEN OF EDEN, and man’s place in it, was a model for the future. Adam’s job was to till the soil and keep a watchful eye on this prototypal landscape, an environment which would provide his food and other resources essential to a happy, perfect life. We now can only guess at what that hope-filled future would have been. Man’s expulsion from that place sounded the death knell for earth’s one and only paradise, and he has been trying to come to terms with unruly Nature ever since.

The untamed wilderness to which Man was introduced after the fall from grace is a fitting symbol for the outlaw mentality and morality which the human race gradually slid into. The Flood of Noah effectively obliterated both the scenery and the gross sinfulness of the centuries-long period following Adam, setting the metaphorical counter back to zero. But not quite – for the roots of sin had already sunk deep, and the earth, now devastated, would continue to defy all efforts to master it.

 

As the human family spread over the face of the earth, each grouping adapted to varied local environments, cultivating the ground for food and hewing trees for shelter. The nomads among them would migrate from place to place as local conditions dictated. The majority endeavoured to stay put and to wrestle with the elements at hand. Not until the advent of large-scale mechanical and agricultural industrialisation, beginning in England around the late 1700s, did it become feasible to take control of nature on a planetary scale. Such ‘control’, however, was always a delusion and, at best, incomplete. Sometimes it made things worse. And frequently Nature has retaliated. In his book about the effects of the drought on the Canadian prairie, during the Depression of the 1930s, the historian Pierre Berton writes

 

There was no escape from the dust – the insidious, all-pervasive dust – that crept ghostlike into the tightest houses, seeping through cracks in doors or window frames or down chimneys until everything – furniture, carpets, bedspreads, window sills – was covered in a spectral mantle of grey powder. [One farmer] remembered an east-southeast wind that dimmed the sun for three days and covered a railway crossing and fence to within two inches of the top. When the wind changed, the great dunes shifted back to the opposite side of the crossing. In these ‘black blizzards’, farmers had to quit their fields because ‘conditions weren’t fit for man, beast or tractor’. Starving cattle ate dirt and died from mudballs in their stomachs. And still the rain did not come.[fn1]

 

Such disasters, allied with economic rupture, now have a global impact. When droughts or hurricanes cause the annual crop to fail in the supplying country it can raise the prices for the consumers in another, or cut off the food on which the poor survive. The worldwide market price rises or falls in response to shortages of coffee, wheat or oil and the numerous other resources on which modern life and its infrastructure depend.

 

The Obverse Side of the Ecological Coin

The Industrial Revolution led, in a few short decades, to the facilities most of us in the developed lands now enjoy, along with a plethora of labour-saving devices and technological gadgets, advantages which separate our generation by figurative light years from our ancestors. Now we have the luxury of tilling the ground in our own garden plot because we choose to, not because we have to. And we may grow flowers for show, rather than vegetables for subsistence. The picturesque stone houses and thatched cottages which dot the English countryside and beguile millions of admiring visitors by their charms, belie their former dank, dark history as hovels for the labouring class.

 

At first blush, technological progress seemed like a renewal of human existence, a re-invention of life, Eden come round again – but this time with motor cars and television sets. Only later did it appear that the environment of earth may have had to pay a high price. Pesticides, intensive farming methods, monoculture, and profligate consumption of raw materials – all have been indicted as culprits in soil and atmospheric pollution and the detectable rise in global temperatures. If the observations are correct, and climate change (‘global warming’) proves to be as dire as many scientists and ecologists predict, civilisation will soon enter a new and troubling phase of its existence. The theological implications of such changes are broad and cannot be easily shunted aside. Indeed, the whole question of climate change arouses fierce debate in and between the secular and religious camps.

 

Evolution and Earth Science

For all its faults, the theory of Evolution has alerted the modern mind to Man’s relationship with the Earth. In its assertion that the human and the animal arise from similar biological imperatives, it links Man’s destiny with that of the planet in a determinist fashion, arousing his concern (and anxiety) over what goes on around him. It is not surprising that the motivation to ‘save the earth’ has come largely from secularists.[fn2]

 

We are now threatened by self-inflicted, swiftly moving environmental alterations about whose long-term biological and ecological consequences we are still painfully ignorant – depletion of the protective ozone layer; a global warming unprecedented in the last 150 millennia; the obliteration of an acre of forest every second; the rapid-fire extinction of species; and the prospect of a global nuclear war which would put at risk most of the population of the Earth. There may well be other such dangers of which, in our ignorance, we are still unaware. Individually and cumulatively they represent a trap being set for the human species, a trap we are setting for ourselves. However principled and lofty (or naive and shortsighted) the justifications may have been for the activities that brought forth these dangers, separately and together they now imperil our species and many others. We are close to committing – many would argue we are already committing – what in religious language is sometimes called Crimes against Creation.[fn3]

 

For most Christians, Earth is a tribute to God’s creative power, and He rules over all. In His Providence He sends the sun and the rain, and orders all things.

 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

                                    W. H. Monk (1823-89)

 

From this point of view, the environment was seen as benign, an evidence of God’s care for His creation. After all, wasn’t Adam mandated to take control of the Earth? To wit:

 

‘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-UK)

 

There is thus a tension between the secular tone of the ecological position, and that of the evangelical Christian. There’s no room here to go into this particular aspect of the question, but it would be foolish to assume that the instructions in Genesis gave carte blanche to Adam to despoil his home. Nonetheless, at the root of the disagreement between secular environmentalists and evangelical Christians is the validity of Scripture and, especially, the overarching principle of stewardship: it is galling to the Christian to see the unbeliever assume responsibility for the rehabilitation of the planet which the Christian insists God created.

 

Christian Theology versus the Religion of Ecology

Most naturalists today are, by definition, agnostics or atheists. It might not be pressing the point too far to assert that, for some, the environment has become a pseudo-religion, prosecuted with a zeal normally reserved for a spiritual crusade.

 

Historically, the Christian faith has to some extent abrogated responsibility for the health of the planet. In the belief that all Christians are bound for Heaven and the rest of mankind are destined for eternal torment in Hell, there would seem to be no need for the believer to take a position on the eternal outcome for the Earth. Now faced with the certainty or ambiguity of climate change – depending on which side one is on – some Christians have adopted the vague position ‘God will sort it all out’, thus deferring an opinion on the matter to an indeterminate future; or, alternatively, flatly denying there is any proof of climate change. The attention to detail by secular scientists regarding planetary health stands as a partial rebuke to the indifferent Christian, and a reminder of our Lord’s words that often the children of this world may be wiser than the ‘children of light’ (Luke 16: 8).

 

A neutral point of view assumes that the mining and burning of coal, drilling for oil and refining it for use in petrol engines and the basement boiler has been of immeasurable benefit to society at large, and that such activity was necessary for civilisation to progress. No one could make out a credible case for returning to a pre-industrial world. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that commercial interest has often encouraged a profligate use of earth’s resources. And, regardless of care, accidents occur, the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico being the most recent example.[fn4] Such incidents are an eloquent – if short-lived – argument in favour of the environmental movement.

 

The British naturalist, David Attenborough, puts it this way:

 

In the past, we didn’t understand the effect of our actions. Unknowingly, we sowed the wind and now, literally, we are reaping the whirlwind. But we no longer have that excuse: now we do recognise the consequences of our behaviour. Now surely, we must act to reform it: individually and collectively; nationally and internationally — or we doom future generations to catastrophe.

 

Of man’s relationship with nature, he has this to say:

 

The whole of science, and one is tempted to think the whole of the life of any thinking man, is trying to come to terms with the relationship between yourself and the natural world. Why are you here, and how do you fit in, and what’s it all about.

 

To be continued

 

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NOTES

 

[fn1] Pierre Berton, The Great Depression (1990; McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto), 247.

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[fn2] Christians have usually been in the van of social movements, an outgrowth of the Christian charity inculcated by Scripture, and an expression of Christ’s love for all. In this spiritual ‘environmentalism’ – the nurture and care of Earth’s afflicted – they have been active and exemplary. See James 1: 27.

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[fn3] Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in
Science and Religion
(petition presented January 1990 by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment at the Global Forum in Moscow)

Source (retrieved July 13, 2010):

 <http://fore.research.yale.edu/publications/statements/preserve.html>

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[fn4] A catalogue of significant oil spills can be found at the David Suzuki Foundation Website (retrieved July 13, 2010):

<http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/pierre-sadik/2010/07/if-we-drill-in-the-arctic-we-will-spill-in-the-arctic/>  

*This link no longer functions  (September 2012)

 

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