The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
The Christian and the Environment
Part 2 of 2
By A. Prentice
To read Part 1, go here
Scripture references are to the British edition of the New International Version (NIV-UK)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22: 1, 2
‘ . . . use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.
For this world in its present form is passing away.’
1 Corinthians 7: 31
LOOKED AT FROM the humanist or materialist standpoint, Nature encompasses all that can be known. Human beings are thus regarded as one part of a continuum of existence that runs from the single-cell through to the more complex. Nor is man regarded as the best expression of life. This ‘we’re all in it together’ approach has no space for the spiritual or super-natural. For if what we see is all that we have, faith in an external Power or creative Mind is irrelevant.
No wonder, then, that panic sets in when the planet comes under threat. As the spectre of nuclear war has receded, that of environmental degradation has come to the fore and increasingly engages science in the mission of averting disaster – or at least staving off the worst effects of climate change. If there is one redeeming feature of this human-centric approach, it is that mankind demonstrably cares about his home, even though he may not be interested in its Landlord.
A Rotting Majesty
Many aspects of the natural order reinforce the materialistic point of view. The jaw-dropping beauty of the British landscape – that redoubt of patriotism – is viewed as if it were in benign collaboration with our senses and overall welfare. At the less obvious macro- and micro-scopic level, however, there is a fierce competition under way for sustenance and supremacy which, were it to be scaled up to human dimensions, would frighten us out of our wits.
Nature, then, may not be ‘friendly’ in the courteous aspect of that term, but it is generally efficient, conserving energy by a natural re-use or recycling of individual components – from the disposal of dung to the rotting of leaves for compost to the circle of evaporation, condensation, and the falling of rain.
Indeed, Nature makes no distinction in this regard as to the estate of Man.
After the death sentence was pronounced on him in Eden, Man lost his special status as a ‘little lower than the angels’, one built for eternity. Ever since, he withers and dies like the grasses of the field. This is whimsically alluded to in the traditional Yorkshire ditty expressed in the vernacular, On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ’At, which in the narrative progression warns of the dangers of venturing out on the wild, windswept moorland without your hat on (bah’t ’at [bar hat]), catching cold, expiring and, to put it delicately, being buried:
Tha’ll go an catch thee
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ’at . . .
Then we shall ’ave to bury thee . . .
Then worms’ll come and eat thee up . . .
Then ducks’ll come and eat up t'worms . . .
Then we shall come and eat up t’ducks . . .
Though Man’s death is the result of a judicial decree, God has turned over the execution of it to natural processes, thus lumping Man in with the animal world. This indignity – quite apart from the separation of Man from God’s favour – shows how far from Divine likeness the race has fallen. The stark reality is expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes who, speaking for the materialistic mind, says (3: 19-20),
19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Gently Does It
Conservation is stewardship. It implies care and concern for the places and spaces around us. It is the fulfilment of the original mandate given to Adam. As a philosophy for life, it manifests itself in frugality or thrift, with its implicit fear of the future.
But for most of man’s history, conservation was not an option. It was a virtue enforced by poverty and exacerbated by local conditions of drought, famine, and frequent disruptions in the regional economy (recessions, depressions). Religion, in one form or another, with its teachings on the finite term of life, added gravitas to man’s view of the world. This was certainly the view expounded in Ecclesiastes, cited above. The ancients felt subordinate and humbled before the environment, and were often victims of it, feeling obliged to placate the various ‘gods’ with an offering, to ensure kindly skies and a good harvest. From such circumstances the principle of thrift arose, assuming a type of godliness, like the proverbial cleanliness. But with industrialisation came the hubris that men could conquer the earth.
As the race aggregated into nation states and empires, the contingencies of warfare and expansion stimulated the need for the principal resource, timber. England’s forests (and their wolves and bears) had largely disappeared by the 16th century, due to the burning of wood for charcoal and the heavy requirements of the navy for building ships. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a hectic industrialisation in the Western world spurred a frenzy of excavation of earth’s hitherto buried treasures – oil, natural gas, coal, and minerals necessary to the building of the modern world with its sprawling cities, transport systems, supermarkets with their all-season supplies of fruit and vegetables, and the manufacture of billions of electronic devices (resistant to decomposition).
The widespread application of pesticides and the synthesis of novel chemical concoctions have added to the toxic brew, generally classified as ‘pollution’, with its detrimental effects on atmospheric conditions, the ozone layer and the polar regions. The main concern of conservationists and climatologists is the high hydrocarbon content of earth’s atmosphere (allied with the effects of the sun), ostensibly driving a detectable increase of global temperature. The consequences of such changes, left unchecked, are seen as potentially devastating for life on earth, causing sea levels to increase and triggering aberrant, rising mean temperatures and unstable weather patterns all over the world. (To see charts illustrating the observed increases in land and ocean temperatures go to
<http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/07/29/climate-change-study-noaa.html> retrieved July 30, 2010.)
Associated with the problem of climate change, the ‘new’ ideology of prudent use of resources is stimulated by a recognition that they are limited. Apart from Nature’s system of recycling, noted above, the example that Nature sets is one of profligacy. Trees and plants scatter seeds widely and randomly, only some of which take root, the rest being ‘wasted’. This prodigal aspect of Nature has been misleading, encouraging the exploitation of resources above and below ground, and even in the oceans, to the depredations of fish stocks. The consequences now inform the popular notion that the planet is fragile, its resources finite. Such a philosophy, joined with the onrushing tide of unbelief, fostered in part by the teaching of Evolution, rejects the idea of an infinite God.
‘Put That Light Out!’
Thrift became a virtue and a useful hedge against financial distress, especially during times of recession and depression, and the habit was widespread. From turning off lights to shutting off the water tap, the British were a frugal people, a trait which stood them in good stead during the Depression of the Thirties and the Second World War, with its regimen of rationing.
For the Christian, living life carefully and thankfully resulted in a tentative approach to God’s creation. This was supplemented by the certainty of the brevity of life and the uncertainty of one’s ultimate destiny. Self-abnegation, the mortification of the flesh, led to the principle of frugality attaching itself to Christian behaviour as a virtue. (Witness the monastic life.). This attitude stood in contrast to those who ‘lived well’ – the rich class of persons generally viewed as secular or hedonistic and, by extension, profligate. Hence, waste was sin.
Ironically, this approach contrasts with the assertions of Scripture that God owns the cattle ‘on a thousand hills’ (Psalm 50: 10) or that in Christ the believer has access to ‘glorious riches’ in Christ (Philippians 4: 19). By such a standard, the believer is as rich as Croesus. Yet Christians are also exhorted to thrifty prudence, as in the Scripture at the head of this article. The tension between these two approaches represents the same truth from two different standpoints.
A Different Place
As responsible citizens of our country and tenants on the planet, we ought to be careful with the physical environment, managing our share of earth’s resources wisely, if only because our God made the earth. As Christians we live and grow in a spiritual environment of which the world knows little and cares less. We must guard this particular environment well. As consecrated Christians we may not squander the blessings which God has given to us, for to squander is to be presumptuous, to take for granted what we have been given. Such an attitude is the antithesis of the Christian life, for gratitude is at the heart of worship. For our salvation, Christ paid a dear price, and our appreciation of that fact is at the root of the devotion we owe to God. Nonetheless, to know that God is infinite, limitless, is to be assured that His will shall be done eventually, that He is fully capable of meeting all His promises to His people.
In return for God’s blessings to us we are to be open-hearted with all those around us – not just to fellow-Christians. As we have received freely, so ought we to deal with others – in forgiveness, compassion, mercy, long-suffering, and that type of zeal which shares with others the grace which we ourselves have received from God. For Christ died not for the few, but for the many – all mankind is covered by the generous, unstinting scope of Christ’s Ransom-sacrifice.
A free people is a generous people, charitable and compassionate in their giving and in providing for the poor, the disabled, the needy. As Christians we have been set free from the condemnation of sin and ushered into a prospect of eternity. But we must wait for the greater blessings to come, when all of mankind will be brought out of the death state and guided along the way of righteousness in the coming Kingdom of God.
Hope for Planet Earth
But what of Earth’s environment, climate change, and the threat of catastrophes around the corner?
How such predictions will unfold, or whether solutions to planetary woes will be solved by science, we cannot know. But – and without making light of mankind’s real fears for the future – we are assured by Scripture that the Earth will be man’s uncontaminated Paradise home. The prototype of the Kingdom on Earth is found in Eden, where we glimpse a model in miniature of the future arrangement. Regardless of the damage done to Earth now, it will be repaired. From His bottomless warehouse God will pour out His blessings, natural and spiritual, for all mankind.
‘Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the LORD Almighty (Malachi 3: 10-12).
[fn1] North Country Song; chorus omitted. Compare the sentiments of this song with Psalm 22: 6, in which David likens himself to a maggot (so the Hebrew). Ilkley Moor is in West Yorkshire. For pictures and a description see
<http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/360/version2_ilkley_moor_1.shtml> retrieved July 25, 2010.
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