Ecology and the
Christian Mind: Christians and the Environment in a New Decade
FRED G. VAN DYKE
Wildlife Research Biologist
Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
P. 0. Box 1351
Red Lodge, MT 59068
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (September 1991): 174-184.
Today the scientific community is appealing to the religious community to join them in preserving and cherishing the earth against ecologic catastrophe. The Christian community must identify and define key issues and assumptions inherent in such appeals in order to respond appropriately and to articulate a genuinely Christian environmental ethic. Ecologic concern is understood in Christian life from the perspective of knowing God as Creator and the universe as His creation. Within this perspective we understand God's characteristics of being pre-existent and transcendent, and can thus understand the physical universe as real and good, rather than illusory and evil. Biblical revelation teaches humans to celebrate creation by assuming God's activity in it, not by attempting to prove God's existence from creation's activity. Our response to appeals for joint commitment should be gracious and, whenever possible, cooperative, but must make clear that: l) Christian faith offers insight into real truth and is not merely a means to control human behavior, 2) abuse of creation is wrong because it expresses willful rebellion against God, and 3) creation is to be valued because of God's value of it, not because it is itself sacred or worthy of worship.
Environmental concerns began receiving serious national and international attention in the early 1960's, especially after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.1 Involvement of and response by the Christian community to the ecologic crisis has changed progressively since then. Initially unresponsive, Christian response was sparked and focused by the 1967 publication of Lynn White, Jr.'s essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis."2 White, a historian, identified the Judeo-Christian tradition as the primary cause of western culture's exploitive and abusive attitude toward nature. His thesis was repeated, often with increased fury and additional negative implications, by many scientists and science writers during the next ten years.3
Christian response during this period and the years that followed was
directed mainly toward refuting White's charges4,5
and toward developing a systematic biblical view of environmental concerns
within Christian perspective.6,7,8,9 Such response
has ultimately had a two-fold effect. First, environmental problems have been
established as a legitimate concern and priority of the Christian community.
Second, the scientific community has largely ceased placing the entire blame for
ecologic problems on the biblical world view, and has adopted a less hostile, at
times even cooperative, posture toward the Church and the Christian tradition in
relation to environmental problems. The purpose of this article is to consider
appropriate Christian thinking and response toward both our environment and the
environmental movement as the Christian community enters a new decade, and a
changing atmosphere, of ecologic concern.
Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer and spokesman of science, published a letter in the July 1990 issue of the American Journal of Physics.10 In it he called for a joint commitment by "science and religion" to preserve and cherish the earth. After briefly reviewing some of the major environmental problems, Sagan wrote, "We are close to committing - many would argue we are already committing - what in religious language is sometimes called Crimes against Creation."11 Sagan goes on to say that our environmental problems require "radical changes not only in public policy, but also in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment."12 Speaking for the scientific community he concludes that, as scientists, "We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded."13
This letter was not the first such appeal by Sagan. The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders On Human Survival, held in Moscow in January 1990, attracted more than 1,000 religious, political, and scientific leaders from 83 nations, including United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and Mikhail Gorbachev.14 A joint religious-scientific initiative emerging from that meeting was a commitment for "preserving and cherishing the earth." The initiative was led by Carl Sagan. Other statements included the "Moscow Declaration," which called for a new "planetary perspective" to include "a spiritual and ethical basis for human activities on earth." And the Forum's "Plan of Action" included many measures to raise public consciousness, while taking concrete steps to reverse environmental destruction through "fundamental change in the attitudes and practices that have pushed our world to a perilous brink."15
The implications of such appeals merit careful consideration by the Christian
community. Within them are contained the key issues that force us to understand
what makes an environmental ethic genuinely Christian, and to perceive what lies
ahead for the Church in the coming Environmental Age.
Taking Our Bearings: Where We<R>Have Been
"When first investigated," noted scientist Rene Dubos, "the cave floor of the Choukoutien cave, which had been occupied by Homo erectus 500,000 years ago, was littered with the charred bones of horses, sheep, pigs, buffalo, and deer. More recent prehistoric sites contain food residues which had been casually abandoned by the occupants over many generations, along with artifacts of stone, bone, ivory, or pottery. Such accumulations of products and objects are an essential source of documentation for the archaeologist.... But from another point of view...[they]...can be regarded as the garbage of primitive humankind. They are the equivalents of beer cans, plastic junk, radios, bedsteads, and automobile carcasses that litter modern highways and settlements."16
In light of such data, it is not surprising that Dubos perceived that fatal flaw in the thinking of his countryman, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, in assessing human nature and its relation to the environment. "...Rousseau," wrote Dubos, "believed that human nature was intrinsically good until it was sullied by civilization. The fashionable view at present is that human nature was bad from the very beginning and civilization has only given wider ranges of expression to its fundamental bestiality."17
This "fashionable view" does not, like historian Lynn White, Jr., assign the causes of our environmental crisis to a particular world view, like Christianity, or to the civilization most influenced by it, medieval Europe.18 Rather, Dubos and others understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature itself. It is "bestial," to use Dubos' phrase, though, as a wildlife ecologist, I think that term unfair to beasts. Nevertheless this fundamental depravity within human nature expresses itself in, among other things, a destructiveness toward the physical world. It is, at heart, an expression of the selfishness of humankind.
Humans find selfishness
more natural (and more profitable)
than cooperation, with environmental destruction the logical result.
"Immediately upon the fall," wrote Jonathan Edwards, "the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness.... Before, his soul was under the government of the noble principle of divine love, whereby it was enlarged to the comprehensiveness of all his fellow creatures and their welfare.... [But]...Sin, like some powerful astringent, contracted his soul to the very small dimensions of selfishness, and God was forsaken, and man retired within himself, and became totally governed by narrow and selfish principles and feelings."19
It is amazing that an eighteenth-century theologian like Edwards should be able to describe so precisely and powerfully what environmental philosophers like Garrett Hardin can only puzzle over as a bizarre quirk of human societies. Namely, that humans find selfishness more natural (and more profitable) than cooperation, with environmental destruction the logical result.20 While such behavior is not unique to American culture, it has always been very much at home in it. In colonial America, William Penn provided a positive example of good stewardship by prescribing that, on his lands, one acre of forest was to be left standing for every five that were cleared.21 But George Washington expressed his embarrassment over more typical American farmers in a letter to Arthur Young. Washington wrote that the goal of such farmers was "not to make the most they can from the land, which is ... cheap, but the most of the labour, which is dear; the consequence of which has been, much ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been...."22 In these perceptions of the father of our country, the words of Genesis are flung stinging back upon us. "Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it," ( Genesis 2:15).
A Beginning: Right Thinking About Creator
Ethicist James Gustafson summarized two basic ways of looking at the application of theology to social issues. One is to begin with some pressing moral and social question. When we have a clear view of the question, then we can turn to the resources of theology and religious practice to establish the theological and religious "answer." The second is to begin with a more basic question. What do we know about God and his plans, and how do we know it? In Gustafson's own words, "What can we affirm ... about God's purposes for life in the world? What beliefs about God pertain to the moral issues we face in time and place ... of contemporary life?"23 I think, with Gustafson, that the second approach is better. In fact, it is the use of the first approach that contributes to the weakness of much Christian writing about ecologic problems today.
Begin with a more basic
What do we know about God and his plans, and how do we know it?
Theologian J. I. Packer addresses this point powerfully in the final paragraph of his classic book, Knowing God. He wrote, "From current Christian publications you might think that the most vital issue for any real or would-be Christian in the world today is church union, or social witness, or dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, or refuting this or that-ism, or developing a Christian philosophy and culture.... But our line of study makes the present day concentration on these things look like a gigantic conspiracy of misdirection."24 Packer goes on to make clear that it is not that, at least it need not be. The issues are real and must be dealt with. But the true priority of every human being is to know God in Christ. From that perspective, and to avoid making this article part of that "conspiracy of misdirection" we must summarize the issues of ecology and Christian thinking from a larger perspective.
God the Creator
God chooses to begin the revelation of himself to us as Creator (Genesis 1), and no idea in human history has had more impact that the first five words of Scripture, "In the beginning God created...."25 It is an idea so radical it finds no parallel in ancient myth or modern philosophy. No culture was without its story of creation, but none could conceive of creation ex nihilo, from nothing. To an ancient people surrounded by pagan cultures God revealed his true nature, even as he reveals it today to a modern people steeped in twentieth century paganism.
To an ancient people
surrounded by pagan cultures God revealed his
true nature, even as he reveals it today to a modern people
steeped in twentieth century paganism.
The dominant creation myth of the ancient Near East was the Enuma Elish, one of several Babylonian creation stories. In its polytheistic view of many gods in a chaotic universe, Marduk, the hero god, slays the monster goddess Tiamat and the servant monsters she has created. The earth is formed from Tiamat's dismembered body. Mankind is fashioned from the body of a god, Kingu, who is sacrificed for his part in helping Tiamat. There is no dignity for man in this creation. "Blood I will mass and cause bones to be," says Marduk. "I will establish a savage, `man' shall be his name. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease."26 But Marduk himself is no real creator, only a craftsman making a tool for his own use. The cosmos itself, in Enuma Elish, existed before the gods and they are but products of it.
Other pagan myths offer an equally pessimistic view of humanity's place and destiny in the universe. The best example of these is the Mesopotamian story, Atrahasis. This story begins with the gods already established in an organized society. The greater (management) gods have assigned the more numerous lesser (labor) gods the heavy work of digging canals on the earth. After 40 years of long and oppressive conditions, they unionize, form a picket line at the foreman's (the god Enlil's) house, and set their tools on fire. An emergency management council is called, and the craft god Ea has a plan. The birth goddess, Mami, is assigned to create humans, and they will take over the canal work. One of the gods is sacrificed to provide the capital. Mami shapes the mixture into fourteen humans (seven male and seven female), puts them in a place called "the house of destiny" for ten months, and, at the end of their gestation, they are born into the world.27
Several of the key elements in Enuma Elish are shared in Greek mythology and later incorporated into Greek philosophy. A plurality of gods is produced from an existing cosmos. Eventually there is civil war and one god, in this case, Zeus, emerges victorious, killing or banishing his enemies and rewarding his allies. This mythology makes no attempt to account for the human race: its existence is not even considered worth mentioning. And humans are no object of love for Zeus. Rather, in his anger at the titan Prometheus who gave them fire, Zeus directs his vengeance at both. For humans, he creates a fair maiden, Pandora, and makes her, in the words of the Greek writer, Hesiod, a "spine-chilling, untouchable booby trap,"28 because she is given a gift of pain and sorrow for men from every Olympian god. These are contained in a jar (not a box, as the common expression would imply), along with hope, and Pandora, after being sent to earth, opens the lid. All manner of evil flies forth to afflict men randomly and then, according to Zeus's plan, she slaps the lid down before hope can escape, trapping it under the rim. And Zeus's malice against humans triumphs. "Full is the earth," wrote Hesiod, "full is the sea of evil. During the day, afflictions come to mortals; and at night they go to and fro wherever they will, inflicting evils.... Thus, there is no way to escape Zeus' plan."29
With unequaled dignity
and beauty, the writer of Genesis reveals
a wealth of knowledge about God in a single sentence.
The Radical Revelation
It was to a culture steeped in these ideas that a living God spoke, revealing the true nature of himself and what he had made, of the place of mankind, of the nature of good and evil, and of human hope and destiny. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." With unequaled dignity and beauty, the writer of Genesis reveals a wealth of knowledge about God in a single sentence. First, God is pre-existent. He does not emanate from a pre-existent, eternal cosmos. He is the one eternal entity. Second, God is transcendent, as well as imminent. He is not the same as what he has made, and he does not add to or subtract from himself to make it. Third, God is a creator, and that means he is free. A craftsman god can work only according to a predetermined plan and purpose in constructing a tool for a particular use. A tool can only be one thing, not another. That is why the Greek view of a craftsman god never developed into a real science. For nature, as the work of a craftsman, is not free, but pre-determined.30 Therefore, its reality can be understood by deductive reason alone, and there is no place for experiment or extensive observation.
God's creation, though
reasonable, is unique.
It could have been something other than what it is.
But Greek attempts at science ultimately failed because nature is not like Euclidean geometry, nor is God like Euclid. His creation, though reasonable, is unique. It could have been something other than what it is. But God gave form from void, a unique form out of a myriad of possibilities, to a heaven and an earth which had neither. Finally, the universe itself is a creation. As Francis Schaeffer said, "It is really there."31 It is not an illusion. Its material substance is neither an imperfection, as Aristotle thought, a necessary evil, as Plato thought, nor an illusion, as Buddha thought. Rather, as soon as nature is understood to be a creation, we understand that its material substance is not some imperfection in its form, but the essence of it. That is why we can now begin to deal honestly with the things in creation as creatures, not as imperfect, evil, or unreal. And we can begin to see ourselves, not as souls trapped in physical bodies (which even some Christians mistakenly believe), but as creatures with a composite nature: body, soul, and spirit.
The consequences of these truths must not be allowed to escape us. The current perception in western Christendom that what is material is evil and what is non-material is spiritual is not a biblical view, but a Greek one. As long as it persists, it will prevent Christians from fully knowing God as Creator, and of experiencing the value and joy of his good creation. Indeed, it is our culture's present loss of this idea which has contributed to its increasing loss of optimism and of reality. With the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin entered the world, and creation fell with them (Romans 8:19). But it is sin which is evil, not created matter. That is why Christ was not ashamed to take on a human body. And even in a body like ours, he was able to live a sinless life. That is why created things are still valued by God, still worthy of redemption (Romans 8:19-22), and still "good" in his eyes (Genesis 1:25).
Creation defines our place in the cosmos and our position before the living God, our Creator, just as it also defines our common bonds with other creatures and our special responsibilities to them. "Creator" and "creation" are words and concepts the Church must reclaim if it is to successfully lead people to know God and his world, as the really are, and not merely as we might (falsely) think them to be. To know God as Creator is to know that he is pre-existent and self-existent, that he is transcendent (not the same as what he has made) as well as imminent, and that he is free, creating for his own purposes, not ours.
It is only in knowing God as Creator, and the universe as his creation, that we can begin to contemplate the immensity of the person and work and purposes of God. And in the present age, when people are all too ready to imagine God as a sort of celestial bellhop assigned to their own room service, the knowledge of God as Creator is not a knowledge which any Christian can get along without. In fact, it is essential if one is to presume to know God at all.
Because our culture has
lost its belief in God the Creator,
it has lost, with that, its spontaneous joy in the works of creation.
The Celebration of Creation
Because our culture has lost its belief in God the Creator, it has lost, with that, its spontaneous joy in the works of creation. Despite their grandeur and beauty, it is difficult for people to find lasting joy in mere physical obects which they believe are simply the outcome of time plus the impersonal plus chance. The Church, in its attempt to appear sophisticated and mimic society's "objectivity", also has robbed God's people of such joy. Such an approach to the works of creation is not, in fact, sophistication, but stupidity. The Bible teaches the believer to say with the psalmist, "Oh Lord, how many are Thy works! In wisdom Thou hast made them all!" (Psalm 104:24). It teaches us to find joy in the wonder of rock badgers and wild goats, in lions and storks, in moon and sun and stars (Psalm 104). The Bible even teaches the believer to find joy (with reverence) in the power and destruction of a thunderstorm (Psalm 29).
To know God as Creator we
must celebrate his creation.
This means that it is hypocrisy for a Christian to willfully live
separated from God's creation and the joy of it.
The Bible does not do this because these things prove God's existence (as though the Creator depended on his creatures for this), but because they are simply his; his creatures and his works, and they exist for his pleasure. To understand this is to begin to understand the joy of the psalmist and say with him, "Let the glory of the Lord endure forever!" (Psalm 104:31). To know God as Creator we must celebrate his creation. This means that it is hypocrisy for a Christian to willfully live separated from God's creation and the joy of it. Just as knowing God as Creator is not some piece of theological lumber the Christian can very well get along without, so knowing the joy of God's creation (through deliberate contact, study, and concern) is an essential element to the joy of Christian life.
The Obedience of Ruling and Subduing
As the Christian cannot be indifferent to knowing God as Creator, or to the joy of celebrating his creation, he cannot be indifferent to the needs of creation, especially when these needs express themselves as the ecological crises of the modern world. Because ruling, in the kingdom of God, is to be expressed by service to those ruled and by the command to cultivate and keep (Genesis 2:15), management and preservation combine in the concept of stewardship. While the stewardship of creation is a professional calling to some Christians who serve as scientists and resource managers, it must be the avocation of every Christian. Involvement in the care of creation, both corporately and individually, both on issues of worldwide concern and of local significance, represents appropriate obedience for every Christian to the imperative of Genesis 1:28.
Intelligent involvement and action toward creation has not and will not be unique to the Christian community. Indeed, the Church has lagged far behind other groups in recognizing the rightness of caring for creation. What is unique to the Christian is the ability to act without internal conflict and intellectual contradiction. She does not need, on the one hand to claim (falsely) a complete identity with the earth and its creatures to have a reason to act. On the other hand, she does not need to claim (inconsistently) to be merely a plain citizen of nature and then assume that she should make life and death decisions about its welfare. Stewardship of creation is demanded by something greater than the survivalist mentality inherent in many modern environmental appeals. It is demanded by humanity's unique position in creation as the image of God. So we are exalted by this demand, to act, in a limited but very real sense, as God's servant and representative to other creatures in this present age. But we are also, in the same acts of stewardship, humbled, for we also are creatures, and we stand accountable before God for the outcomes of any actions we take.32
While the stewardship of
creation is a professional calling
to some Christians who serve as scientists and resource managers,
it must be the avocation of every Christian.
If the Christian community embraces this role for itself toward creation, it also must understand what it must reject. Namely, we must reject the false, but popular, notion that protection is the same as preservation, as though God's creation was a static artifact to be corked in a glass bottle, rather than a living system produced by complex exchanges of matter and energy. The former view, which author Wendell Berry described as "nature under glass,"33 at best denies and at worst despises the human presence. Alston Chase, author of Playing God In Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park, demonstrates that it is precisely this equation of protection with preservation which has depopulated Yellowstone National Park of its native animals and ruined the historic vegetational communities which supported them.34 This view also has deflected much emphasis in modern ecology from the genuine and active care of creation to the so-called "Deep Ecology."35 The advocates of Deep Ecology espouse not a scientific but a religious position, a position characterized, not by its ecologic integrity, but by its rejection of all things modern and material.36
In answering the
question, "What is humanity's place in nature?"
Christians must appreciate the significance of God giving Adam
the tasks of a gardener, not a museum collector.
This is part of the present crisis in environmental ethics.37 The question, "What is humanity's place in nature?" cannot be satisfactorily answered by Deep Ecology or New Age Spirituality about the environment. The failure of the Church to address this question has created a vacuum which these movements exploit, but it still remains a question that only the Church has the answer to. In answering this question, Christians must appreciate the significance of God giving Adam the tasks of a gardener, not a museum collector. Protection from human presence and development does not, by itself, insure the continuance of any life form, community, or ecosystem on earth. The ethics of protectionism amount to nothing more than protecting nature from humans. God calls us to be an involved humanity, actively working for the good of other creatures with all the resources we possess. God calls us to be managers.
Teaching The Vision: Christian Ecological
In northern lower Michigan, near the town of Mancelona, there is a place called the AuSable Institute of Environmental Studies. Serving as a field campus for a consortium of Christian colleges throughout the United States and Canada, AuSable, in the words of its own official bulletin (1990) "offers programs and courses of study for college students, for Christians, and for the greater world community. Students at AuSable take college courses, gain field experience, and develop practical tools for environmental stewardship."38 At the time of this writing, AuSable is, to my knowledge, the only institution of its kind. Since its inception in 1982, it has trained hundreds of students in the professional and practical application of Christian resource stewardship.
For Christian higher education, the question of the future is, "Will AuSable remain the only one of its kind?" In his classic science fiction trilogy, Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov tells of the decline of a decadent civilization which has ruled the galaxy for centuries. Foreseeing its collapse, and the centuries of chaos that will follow, one of the empire's most brilliant scientists secretly establishes two new communities, the Foundation Colonies, in different parts of the galaxy. Their ultimate purpose is to replace the decadent empire as a new, and better, source of order, peace, and enlightenment in the galaxy. Asimov's trilogy is the story of the struggle of these colonies. In the same way, environmental ethics established upon inadequate value systems must ultimately lead to irresolvable conflicts and crises.39.40,41 This outcome is inevitable. What is still in doubt is whether the Christian educational community will recognize the coming collapse of such ethical systems and seize the opportunity to become the new foundation.
The present practice of
sending the best and brightest students to
complete their graduate education at state universities has done both
Christian education and environmental stewardship much harm.
The beginning of this recognition will be the establishment of programs in graduate environmental education at Christian colleges and institutes. The present practice of sending the best and brightest students to complete their graduate education at state universities has done both Christian education and environmental stewardship much harm. While interchange and training within the entire scientific community is always valuable, indoctrination in a secular system of values is always harmful. Its outcome is a class of individuals which C. S. Lewis rightly called "men without chests."42 The products of such training are often individuals who have been taught to believe in a dichotomy of two worlds, a world of facts without a trace of value, and a world of values without one trace of truth or falsehood.43
Secular education does not always produce the kind of individuals Lewis describes. Many of the most dedicated Christians engaged today in science were trained professionally in state universities. The failure of secularism to convert all the men and women trained by it is due to two factors. Negatively, it fails to address many of the most important issues and questions of life, and even its own pupils see these inadequacies and look to other sources. Positively, God, by his grace, continues to raise up and keep for himself men and women whom he calls for his own purposes, even in the heart of a hostile environment. We ought to praise God that these things are true. We ought not to think that this excuses the failure of Christian higher education to address graduate training in science. Some people survive car crashes. That does not lead the Department of Transportation to encourage them.
educational community must make the
commitment to professional, graduate-level training in resource sciences
if it hopes to lay a new foundation of environmental ethics.
That God produces people for himself in a hostile environment supported by the state does not mean that he would fail to produce them in a godly environment supported by the Church. Here in Montana, volunteer wheat grows in vacant lots. But farmers who want a harvest plow and plant, and God rewards their diligence. The time has come for the Christian educational community to work with God's purposes in diligence instead of against God's purposes in ignorance.
Though the failure of Christian colleges to provide graduate training in environmental sciences has been due, in part, to a lack of resources, it has been primarily a lack of vision that has kept those colleges and their constituencies from seeking the resources necessary to begin. The work cannot be put off any longer. The Christian educational community must make the commitment to professional, graduate-level training in resource sciences if it hopes to lay a new foundation of environmental ethics. If Christian colleges fail to produce individuals in which factual knowledge is wedded to moral conviction, the Christian community has no hope of influencing the outcome of the environmental crisis.
The Difference In Us and the Difference It
In his book, Pollution and the Death of Man, the late Francis Schaeffer discussed the implications of an important article published in Saturday Review entitled, "Why Worry About Nature?"44 The author, sociologist Richard Means, suggested that the ecological crisis was really a moral crisis, and that a solution to it would be found in pantheism. Means said, "What, then, is the moral crisis? It is, I think, a pragmatic problem." Schaeffer responded, "Here is a remarkable combination of phrases being put together; the moral dissolved into the pragmatic. He starts off with a moral crisis but suddenly all one is left with is a pragmatic problem."45 And Schaeffer is right. As he concluded later, "The only reason we are called upon to treat nature well is because of its effects on man, and my children, and the generations to come. So in reality, in spite of all Means' words, man is left with a completely egoistic position in regard to nature. No reason is given - moral or logical - for regarding nature as something in itself. We are left with a purely pragmatic issue."46 The outcome of such thinking is well summarized by Schaeffer himself. "The ... thing to notice is that what one has here is sociological religion and sociological science .... One does not have religion as religion; nor does one have science as science. What one has is both religion and science being used and manipulated for sociological purposes."47
Many scientific writers,
if they acknowledge religion at all,
usually express the hope that someday it will go away.
I began by considering the content of an important letter published by Carl Sagan, appealing for a joint commitment by science and religion to preserve and cherish the earth.48 It is time I returned to it. Sagan's appeal has many things to commend it. It recognizes the present and historic reality of religion, and the effect of faith on human life. This is a dramatic change from many scientific writers who, if they acknowledge religion at all, usually express the hope that someday it will go away. Sagan's letter is also commendable because it implicitly admits, by appealing to religion, that science and technology alone are insufficient to solve the environmental dilemma. This is a clear-sighted perception, and a remarkable admission from a recognized spokesman for science. Finally, Sagan's appeal is commendable because it is expressed in a way which is gracious, courteous, and sincere, rather than being condescending, rude, and shallow. The appeal itself acknowledges the possibility for dialogue and interaction between science and religion, and for greater understanding between them.
Recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of Carl Sagan's appeal, we must recognize, at the same time, some shortcomings of it. This is not because we want to be picky or polemic, but because it is in this recognition that we come to understand most clearly what a truly Christian environmental ethic is, and what it is not. Sagan acknowledges that "religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment."49 This is true, in fact, inarguable. But religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is more than teaching, example, and leadership, and faith is more than just another behavior modification device. Living faith produces virtuous behavior, including virtuous behavior toward God's creation, but it is not the behavior that makes the faith valuable. Faith is to be valued because it provides real insights about the nature of God and reality that a lack of faith cannot. Faith has value because it is true, and because it genuinely has the power to change merely nice people (or, perhaps, nasty people) into new creations.
Religion in general, and
Christianity in particular,
is more than teaching, example, and leadership,
and faith is more than just another behavior modification device.
We might produce desirable behavior (or, at least, controllable behavior) through drugs or propaganda. This is exactly what is done to George Orwell's hero, Winston, in 1984. But an Orwellian dictatorship is not what most people have in mind when they imagine an ideal society, because there is nothing ideal about getting people to do the right things for the wrong reasons. As Christians, we must make clear, and require the scientific establishment to acknowledge, that faith lays claim to real truth, truth which impacts not merely human behavior but the practice of science itself. We must ourselves understand and (graciously) make clear to others what Paul means when he writes, "For by him (Christ) all things were created, both in the heavens and the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities - all things have been created by him and for him." (Colossians 1:16).
As Christians, we must
make clear, and require the
scientific establishment to acknowledge, that faith lays
claim to real truth, truth which impacts not merely human behavior
but the practice of science itself.
The cosmos is not all that is, all that ever was, or all that ever will be. Christ stands, not only as its Creator, but as its Consummator; not only the One who began its existence, but the goal toward which it moves. We cannot insist that all scientists believe this, but we must make clear that faith is about something real, not merely a means to produce the right behavioral results in a good cause. If we fail to do this, we will be but one short step away from the kind of "ecological religion" proposed by environmental philosophers like Garrett Hardin. Hardin has urged that we "reshape" (Hardin's word) humanity into " mature" creatures who no longer depend on the support of God (whom Hardin refers to as "Providence"). This will be done by embracing ecology as religion, and then by adhering to its two major dogmas: l) not all things are possible and 2) the world is limited. Therefore, demand must be restrained.50
Our ecologic crisis represents more than "Crimes against Creation." Indeed, it is meaningless to speak of a creation without reference to a Creator, and the crimes to which Sagan refers are primarily crimes against the Creator. The psalmist understood this when he wrote, "Against thee and thee only have I sinned." (Psalm 51:4). The only way that religion has been able to influence "personal conduct and commitment" is to convince individuals of the reality of a creator God who is also their Judge, before whom they will one day stand to give account. The Bible treats land abuse matter-of-factly as criminal activity against God (i.e. sin, Leviticus 25:1-23) precisely because it recognizes God as Creator and the world as his creation. Without a God who is also Creator there can be no creation, and without a God who is holy there can be no crime.
Finally, we must understand what is sacred and what is not. Carl Sagan will be disappointed in the Christian witness if he hopes that we will teach others that the earth is sacred. This we cannot do, for sacredness can be ascribed ultimately only to God. The ground upon which Moses stood was holy because God was present in the burning bush upon it, not because of the inherent sacredness of soil. The creation, including this earth, is not to be well-treated because it is sacred or because it should be worshipped, but because God made it and called it good (Genesis 1), and its goodness is independent of human utility.51 Likewise, we value creation because God finds pleasure in it, and so to value creation is an act of honoring God.
We also value and love God's creation because he intends to redeem it. And we, being creatures ourselves, will be redeemed with it (Romans 8:19-22). It is sometimes possible to influence personal conduct and commitment by erecting an idol, but it is never wise. Christians cannot offer to other men and women the graven image of a sacred earth so that they will bow down before it and treat it well. This would be devious and false. Christians can offer only One who is himself sacred, and through obedience to him learn to love a creation which is precious to him and of which we are a part. It is popular today, even in some Christian circles, to infuse nature with spirit. Whatever warm feelings this may generate, it is false. Its outcome is to make creation unknowable, and this is not what the Bible or what science teaches us.
The creation, including this
earth, is not to be well-treated
because it is sacred or because it should be worshipped,
but because God made it and called it good.
These distinctions are not made contentiously, and no one can expect a single letter to address all the implications of an appeal for such a joint commitment as Carl Sagan has proposed. But, sooner or later, these distinctions must be addressed, for such distinctions lie at the heart of Christian witness, as well as at the heart of what a genuinely Christian environmental ethic really is. They are necessary to the integrity of what Christianity is and, if the truth be known, they are necessary to the integrity of what science is. We must escape the trap of "sociological science" which Francis Schaeffer correctly perceived in the pantheistic solution of Richard Means; no science as science, no religion as religion - only science and religion used to manipulate humanity for a predetermined sociological purpose.
It is popular today, even
in some Christian circles,
to infuse nature with spirit.
Whatever warm feelings this may generate, it is false.
Such manipulation may not be Carl Sagan's intent. For my part, I want to assume that it is not. But Christians should advise Sagan, as they should advise others, to beware. Such snares as these show no partiality for their victims, whether they are ordinary Christians or great scientists. To both, Christian faith offers a different, and distinctive, appeal. It is an appeal to take seriously the claims of God; about himself, about us, and about his creation. In this lies our one true hope.
"For the anxious longing of creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God." (Romans 8:19)
1Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962).
2Lynn White, Jr., 1967. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155:1204-107.
3Thomas Sieger Derr, 1975. "Religion's Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis: An Argument Run Amok," Worldview 18:39-45.
4Francis A. Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1970), 20.
5Richard T. Wright, 1970. "Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis," BioScience 20:8S1-8S3.
6Paulos Gregorios, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1978).
7Loren Wilkenson, ed., Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
8Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Worldly Spirituality: A Call to Take Care of the Earth (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).
9Joseph K. Sheldon. 1989. "Twenty-one Years After `The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis': How Has the Church Responded," Perspectives On Science and Christian Faith 41:l52-158.
10Carl Sagan, 1990. "Guest Comment: Preserving and Cherishing the Earth - An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion," American Journal of Physics 58:615.
14Mary Beck Desmond, 1990. "Global Environment - Earth Day 1990," Earth Science 43:6-7, 7 (Spring).
16Rene Dubos, Beast or Angel? Choices That Make Us Human (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), 43.
18White, op cit.
19Jonathan Edwards, Charity and its Fruits (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), l57-158.
20Garrett Hardin, l968. "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162:1243-1248.
21Joseph M. Petulla, American Environmental History (San Francisco: Boyd and Fraser, 1977). 47.
23James M. Gustafson, Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 23-24.
24James I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 254.
25Daniel O'Connor and Francis Oakley, eds., Creation: The Impact of an Idea (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969).
26Joan O'Brien and Wilfred Major, In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Ancient Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece (Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), 25.
30M. B. Foster, 1969. "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Science," pp. 29-53 in O'Connor and Oakley, op cit.
31Schaeffer, op cit., 47.
32Van Dyke, F. G. 1985. "Beyond Sand County: A Biblical Perspective On Environmental Ethics," Perspectives On Science and Christian Faith 37:40.
33Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977).
34Alston Chase, Playing God In Yellowstone (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987).
35George Sessions and Bill Devall, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1985).
36Chase, op cit, 335.
37Van Dyke, op cit. 44.
38AuSable Institute, Official Bulletin 1990 (Mancelona: AuSable Institute, 1990), i.
39Daniel L. Dustin and Leo H. McAvoy, 1982. "The Decline and Fall of Quality Recreation Opportunities and Environments," Journal of Environmental Ethics 4:48-55.
40Bryan G. Norton, 1982. "Environmental Ethics and Non-human Rights," Journal of Environmental Ethics 4:17-36.
41--- "Environmental Ethics and the Rights of Future Generations," Journal of Environmental Ethics 4:319-337.
42C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 34.
44Richard L. Means, 1967. "Why Worry About Nature?" Saturday Review, December 2.
45Schaeffer, op cit., 20.
48Sagan, op. cit.
50Garrett Hardin, 1980. "Ecology and the Death of Providence" Zygon 15: 57-68 (March).
51Van Dyke, op cit.