Science in Christian Perspective
Energy and the Environment
(A) Is Energy a Christian Issue?
Richard H. Bube
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford, California 94305
From: JASA 35 (March 1983):
I am constantly reminded of a definition that evangelist Tom Skinner off ered in an address I heard him give: "What is God's agenda for the Christian? God's agenda for us is that we should be living models on earth of what it means to be citizens of heaven." These are the good works that God has before ordained that we should walk in them. They tie us to the environment in which we live, the earth that is our home, and the energy sources that allow life and civilization to continue. In a series of three installments, I consider whether or not energy and conservation constitute Christian concerns, the nature of the barriers to responsible living in our environment, and finally particularly those concerns related to nuclear energy and nuclear warfare. Because our interaction with the environment in our modern world is so much dominated by advances in science, technology and engineering, no attempt to integrate perspectives on science and Christian faith is complete without a consideration of this interaction.
Recent years have seen ups and downs in our concern about energy. Our perception is tied closely to the length of time we have to wait at the gas pump, or to the cost of fuel gas and oil. We learn exceedingly slowly and each temporary indication of a good supply of gasoline is accompanied by a swing back to the purchase of large fuel-inefficient cars. We can be assured, however, that energy concerns will continue to loom large in the years ahead, if we can refrain from destroying ourselves by nuclear warfare, and if the Lord tarries. Are these questions that Christians should be concerned about because they're Christians, or are these just affairs of concern to the secular world that we Christians should not bother with - having the more important spiritual business to be about?
In this installment I consider briefly several reasons that are usually advanced for Christians to excuse themselves from this involvement, and then several inputs from Christian theology.1A Lack of Faith
It continues with the observation that Christians trust God to deliver them; if they continue to obey His commandment to multiply and have dominion - as they always have - they can and should leave everything else simply to God's direct action. Such is the message, for example, of the Bible-Science Newsletter. Our attempts to plan ahead signal our lack of trust in God; challenges to present courses of action indicate a lack of spiritual insight.
But such an argument neglects the "living out" of Christian faith in life. It forgets that God has revealed that He often chooses to act through the lives and efforts of those who are committed to Him. Instead of a genuine appeal to faith, such an approach is in actuality a retreat to irresponsibility, a denial of the commands of Christ that His disciples should be obedient.
This argument represents the first general and broad issue that Christians must face on many fronts: responsibly and faithfully making the distinction between lack of faith and irresponsibility; between doing nothing and trusting God, and being unfaithful stewards. The boundary between lack of concern because of true spiritual trust and the irresponsible neglect of the duties to which God calls us is at times a gray area indeed. It is an area to which Christians must constantly be addressing themselves, being careful to avoid the pitfalls on either side. It is the type of issue to which a "neither/nor" ethical approach is admirably suited.2A Materialistic Emphasis
Christians shouldn't be concerned about energy and conservation because to be concerned is to commit oneself to the material rather than the spiritual. This is the substance of the second common argument. Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures on earth, not to be anxious for matters of this life such as food, clothing - energy? But to devote ourselves instead exclusively to the matters of the spiritual Kingdom.
It is true, such arguers may admit, that in the Old' Testament the people of God did know how to glorify God through concern with the material (e.g., building the Ark, the tabernacle, or Solomon's temple), but the New Testament spiritualizes the theological significance of these works, and therefore calls for a spiritualization of one's attitude to the earth and its "stuff " as well. The Old Testament did have an earthly kingdom, an earthly people, and earthly promises, but for us in post-New Testament days to be preoccupied with material things is symptomatic of spiritual immaturity.
But to draw such a contrast between Old and New Testaments does violence to basic Christian convictions about the
Bible - after all it is the Old Testament in Genesis that sets
forth the origin of man's responsibility so often quoted by all.
Warnings against idolization of the material hardly indicate
that the Christian has no responsibility for his care and use of
materials. Warnings against subservience to the material
hardly indicate that a Christian's spiritual commitments can
be expressed in non-material terms. A full biblical picture
shows us the whole person: whose spirituality at least in this
life is inseparably wed to bone, blood and tissue.
Here in this argument we see a second broad and general issue for Christians: how to properly evaluate the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Discussions of the question are strewn with dichotomies between living and non-living, between body and soul, between natural and supernatural,3 dichotomies that find their ultimate foundation, not in biblical revelation, but in classical philosophies.
The World is Soon Ending
Christians shouldn't be concerned about energy and conservation because concern for material things is inappropriate since the world is soon coming to an end. The third argument starts with the assumption that the return of Christ and the end of this age will occur within the next generation (or this one), and that therefore nothing is important at all for the Christian except preaching the Gospel. Anything that detracts from this is to be put aside. Sometimes the case is made that Christians should even rejoice in the impending calamity of the energy crisis - it is but one more sign of our Lord's return, hardly an appropriate area for a Christian to become involved in order to prevent such a crisis!
The boundary between lack of concern because of true spiritual trust and the irresponsible neglect of the duties to which God calls us is at times a gray area indeed.
But the biblical teaching of the imminency of Christ's return has always been seen as both a comfort and a warning - with nothing clearer than that no one knows the day or the time. When concern with eschatology calls for a withdrawal from human responsibilities, it ceases to be faithful biblical exegesis and instead becomes cultic. Watching and waiting for Christ's return must always be coupled with our call to be salt and light today.
A probably apocryphal story relates how someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he were sure that Christ were returning the next day. "Why," Luther is reported as replying, I would plant an apple tree today." Today is the day for planting even if tomorrow is the day for ending (or beginning!). Each day is to be lived as if Christ were indeed returning tomorrow, but with that responsible planning and concern that would characterize the case if Christ were to delay for a thousand years.
The third general issue for Christians is seen here: how to work daily responsibly and faithfully for the preservation of a world destined ultimately for destruction.No Apologetic Value
Christians shouldn't be concerned about energy and conservation because discussions of energy involve "merely practical" courses of action and nothing that is useful for Christian apologetics. Problems worthy of Christian consideration, so a fourth argument goes, should have a Christian solution - different from all other solutions and easily identifiable - so that such consideration can at least serve our Christian witness. Such an approach sees all non-Christian solutions drawn up on one side and the Christian solution in stark contradistinction on the other; if such a dichotomy cannot be envisioned, interest lags. Possible solutions are regarded without interest because they appear to be "merely practical" solutions, rather than uniquely Christian solutions exposing the fallacy of secular attempts.
But this is not the way things are. Many problems in life require Christian solutions that look. like non-Christian solutions. Motivations may or may not be different, but the course of action will often be the same. A Christian and a nonChristian coming upon a small girl who has fallen into a well both have the same practical course of action: get a rope and help to pull her out! It is not as if the Christian has a .1 spiritual" solution in this case, such that the non-Christian runs for the rope but the Christian stands still, prays and waits for a miracle. Presumably the Christian will be praying while running for the rope! In many other areas the solutions sought may be the same for Christian and non-Christian, whether directed toward preservation of the environment, protection of endangered species, moving away from nuclear warfare etc.
For the Christian to withdraw from all except obviously uniquely Christian approaches is for the Christian to withdraw from his responsibilities before God. He fails to recognize the centrality of the Christian commitment to all of life and not simply to peripheral spiritual issues where Christian distinctives can readily be defined and defended.
This is a fourth issue for the Christian therefore: the tension between the practical and the Christian, between working effectively in Christian discipleship vs being unequally yoked with non-Christians in cooperative ventures.
It is hopefully evident from these considerations of four principal arguments advanced against Christian concern for the mundane matters of energy, conservation and the environment, that faithful biblically directed discipleship demands Christian involvement in these matters. To see the positive inputs from the biblical revelation that call for this involvement, we turn now to the topics of creation, stewardship, and concern for the poor.Creation
The fact that energy must be a Christian issue follows directly from an assessment of the whole biblical view of the relationships between human beings and the earth. The earth is a gift given in trust to us by God. The end purpose of the creation account (whether modeled by the six days of Genesis or the sequence initiated by the Big Bang) is the appearance of human beings, called to be God's stewards (caretakers, deputies, or custodians) over the earth, The earth belongs to God; He appoints men and women as His stewards over it.
The law of Leviticus and Deuteronomy reveal God's concern for the land: the concept of ownership is revised - we do not own in some absolute sense, but we care for it (or abuse it) for God. "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. . . " (Lev. 25:23).
The moral faithfulness of God's people is linked with the condition of the earth in Hosea 4:1-3 and Isaiah 24:4-6:
... there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth.
The created order will share in the redemption won by Christ (Roman 8:19-22).Stewardship
The basic commandment yielding what is often called the -cultural mandate" is given in Genesis 1:26-30. The term -stewardship" needs to be rescued from the narrow mold into which it has been forced by ecclesiastical use: one's financial giving to the church's needs, usually through a regular offering (hence Stewardship Sunday). Rather we must see stewardship in its full sense of our responsible care of all things in the created universe that God has given into our trust: land, water, air, energy, material resources - everything that characterizes our "Spaceship Earth."4
Faithful and unfaithful stewards figure large in Jesus' parables in Matthew 20 and Luke 12. Paul likewise indicates that stewards are required to be trustworthy in I Corinthians 4:2, Titus 1:7; see also I Peter 4:10. We've lost the sense of global stewardship because we think that everything belongs to us. Of course, if it really belongs to us, there is no meaning in stewardship; for a steward is one who serves another to. whom all things truly belong.
From all the biblical teaching on stewards, one basic conclusion can be drawn: stewards are required to be faithful. Stewards are not necessarily called to be ultimately successful, but rather to be faithful now. Stewards are not called to solve all the problems, but rather to be faithful where they are. Such faithful stewardship is a personal commitment: it brings us to the point of fulfilling Tom Skinner's definition of God's agenda for us. We are called to live in this way not only because it is effective, not only because it works (and it is and does!), but primarily because we desire to live in the way that we say we believe we should.
Stewards are not responsible for all the Master's work. He left ten, five and one talent to particular people. But we are responsible for what we can do. The wise steward does not underestimate just how much it is that can be done, but neither is he or she paralyzed by the magnitude of everything that needs to be done.
We must see stewardship in its full sense of our responsible care of all things in the created universe that God has given into our trust: land, water, air, energy, and material resources.
When people speak of developing energy sources so as to allow the standard of living to continue and even to increase, they are speaking about the wealthy and developed nations and not the poor people of the world. The development of limited resources for the benefit of the wealthy nations all too often means no more than even less chance of energy utilization by the poor and developing. The concern to preserve national energy strength may be little more than a program to insure that the poor stay energy deficient. The argument that we must indiscriminately develop our coastal oil resources because otherwise we may be "forced" to militarily take "our" oil away from those countries where the wells exist, is unbelievable arrogance. Christian concern for the poor calls for a very special involvement in energy matters.
If political treatment of the energy problem all too often leaves out the concerns of the poor, economic treatments have often the same effect. The economic assurance that no energy crisis is coming because the cost of energy will rise as it becomes scarcer, thereby preventing any crisis - hardly does justice to the needs of people who feel the crisis as soon as they are unable to afford the more costly energy.
Even the quest for more and inexpensive sources of energy is not the final answer, however. For we are limited by the earth itself in how much more energy we can produce on earth without so radically changing the environment that human life itself suffers. This limitation has two parts: (1) the production of new energy sources of any kind inevitably damages the earth through air and water pollution, exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, increase in the carbon dioxide layer and the greenhouse effect, damage to the ozone layer, or nuclear radiation and waste disposal; and (2) even with none of the above, when thermal pollution by generation of new energy reaches about 0.1 Sun, dramatic climatic changes and melting of the polar ice caps follows as the ultimate limit.
At about this point, someone will suggest that all we have to
do is leave the earth and colonize space. I wish them well -
but cannot believe it is a viable option.
Every aspect of the analysis of the energy problem emphasizes that no simple solutions are valid, that no amount of sloganeering, crusading, or demonstrating is really adequate for the task - although it must be recognized that in our peculiar society they may be necessary to get the ball rolling!
Christians are called to recognize the complexity of the fallen world, while still seeing the possibilities for redemption through the power of God. Devotion to such fidelity may not lead to public acclaim, but it is the only path open to a faithful steward of Jesus Christ.
2'R. H. Bube, "Science and the Whole Person. Part 8. Ethical Guidelines,"Journal ASA 30,134 (1978).
3R. H. Bube, "Science and the Whole Person, Part 9. The Significance of Being Human," Journal ASA 31, 37 (1979).
4William G. Pollard, Man on a Spaceship, Claremont College, Claremont, CA (1967).
1 . Jack and Mary are college students taking a class on organic chemistry. Both are also actively engaged in the evangelical Christian group on campus. A big chemistry exam is scheduled for Monday, but a prayer retreat is scheduled for the weekend. Jack goes to the retreat because he feels spiritual things must take precedence over secular, and prays that God will give him the knowledge he needs.for the exam. Mary studies in her room all weekend because she feels that her first responsibility at college is to her witness through her studies, and prays that God will bless the prayer retreat in her absence, Which acts responsibly?
2. An old saying states, "God helps those who help themselves." Is this a cynical commentary by non-Christians or a pragmatic assessment of created reality?
3. Would there be life on earth if it were not for the sun? Is the provision of the sun for life natural or supernatural? Is it more spiritual to be a minister or an engineer?
4. Comment on the following criticism of Christian environmental involvement: "When a ship is sinking you don't run around trying to patch up the holes! You try to save the lives of the passengers and crew."5. Can our belief in Christ's return become an excuse not to tackle some
6. 1 saw a sign at a Christian booktable at Berkeley that read, "Jesus Christ is the Answer, but what is the Question?" Does this have a bearing on trying to find "Christian" solutions to environmental problems?7. Discuss some mechanisms by which we might hope to enhance the awareness that no one owns anything ultimately.
8. 1 frequently walk down the halls of my university building at night or on weekends and turn off unused lights. Is this a meaningful exercise of energy stewardship? Why, or why not?