Do Biblical Models Need to Be Replaced
In Order to Deal Effectively with Environmental Issues?
Richard H. Bube
Materials Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford, CA 94305
Attempts to develop models to guide a Christian response to environmental issues have in recent years frequently involved an emphasis that deviates from that derived from the Bible. The general argument is that the traditional biblical view of the human/environment interaction is too human-centered, too concentrated on human authority over nature, and too deficient in the crucial nature of the interactions that occur between human beings and the rest of the created world in which they live. Searching for new stimuli for dedicated and responsible action, some have been led into the search for a new world view that will, in their opinion, be capable of sustaining their goals. Typical of these efforts is the advocacy of a resacralization of nature, a recognition of the presence of the divine in everything in the created world, an appreciation of the spiritual qualities of all nature revealed to us by modern science, a removal of all theoretical distinctions between human beings and the physical universe, and the Gaia hypothesis - where Gaia is the name for the earth viewed as a living organism. In this paper we consider the question: "Is responsible environmentalism better expressed within the biblical models of creation, stewardship and redemption, or within the proposed models of religious monism and resacralization of nature?"
For millennia human beings have lived oblivious of the effects of their lifestyle on the earth, secure in the conviction that the earth is far larger than necessary to absorb their pollution, waste and growing population. If present locations became uninhabitable, it was always possible to move on beyond the frontier. Today we have come to realize that the limits of the whole earth's capabilities are under stress, and although with the exercise of a high level of creativity, intelligence, and compassion we could certainly improve the present situation immeasurably, still there is a finite limit beyond which we cannot go in the future. Earth's resources are being stretched to the vanishing point, human attempts to provide a better life are threatening to pollute land, air, and water to such an extent that the quality of life will be drastically lowered, and human waste alone seems on the verge of burying us.1 If we do exceed the limit of earth's capabilities, the human population of the earth will, to be sure, not continue to increase in its present practices; it will be limited by suffering and death through shortening life span, disease, and war. In addition to its obvious military applications, the space program has been motivated by the realization that earth is getting too small and that we must begin to look for living space beyond this planet if we do not plan to drastically change our ways of living.
A variety of contributing factors can be cited for this present critical situation. We can cite the universal dominance of materialism, which can be defined as the position that "to have is to be." We can cite the failures of our dominant social economic models: free enterprise (competition) and socialism (cooperation); both of these models, used exclusively, when pursued by limited and sinful human beings, lead to something quite different and unsatisfactory. We can cite the false barriers between people raised by their preoccupation with nationalism, racism and ethnicism.2
A useful alternate cross-section of these contributing factors has been given by Frair.3 He pinpoints the importance of ignorance, inertia, and irresponsibility. Because of ignorance, we have proceeded to do what seemed to be good at the time, but without recognizing the inevitable damage to the environment that would result. Because of inertia, we have continued social practices that might have been tolerable in an earlier day in a frontier-mentality, but are no longer acceptable in the shrunken world of today. Because of irresponsibility, we have often put short-term profits ahead of long-term responsibility for care of the environment, and have based our lifestyle on greater expansion, larger markets, and bigger profits.
A Biblical Model for Environmentalism
The attempt to construct a biblical model for environmentalism has the following inputs.
Creation. The biblical teaching about the creation of the universe by God establishes that the earth belongs to God, and that it is a gift given in trust to us by God. The universe is separate from God (expressing the transcendence of God), but it is totally dependent upon God (expressing the imminence of God). He appoints men and women as his stewards (caretakers) over it, to preserve it and maintain its health for God and for the benefit of all creation. The key passage is Genesis 1:26-28.
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." ...And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
Care must be exercised, of course, to interpret words such as "dominion" and "subdue" within the biblical context, so that this basic injunction to stewardship is not obscured by misunderstanding and misapplication. These words do not mean "exploit" or "bring into subjection," as if the world belonged to us and we were the ultimate lords of creation.
The law of Leviticus and Deuteronomy reveals God's concern for the land. The concept of ownership is revised - we do not own it in some absolute sense, but we take care of 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 4:2, 3:
"... there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder. 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."
and Isaiah 24:5, 6:
"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, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt ..."
The created order will share in the redemption won by Christ, as described in Romans 8:19-22.
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; ... because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now..."
Stewardship. The term "stewardship" expresses our responsibility for the care of all things in the created universe that God has given into our trust: other creatures, all living things, land, water, air, energy, and material resources. Faithful and unfaithful stewards are prominent in the parables of Jesus in Matthew 20 and Luke 12. Paul likewise indicates that stewards are required to be trustworthy in I Cor. 4:2, Titus 1:7; see also I Peter 4:10. The concept of stewardship follows directly from the biblical teaching that all creation belongs to God, not to us.
Stewards are required to be faithful where they are, doing what they can to be faithful to their calling. Such faithful stewardship is a personal commitment. We are called to live in this way not only because it is effective, not only because it works, but primarily because we desire to serve our Lord.
Criticisms of the Biblical Model
When we look at the problems in the world around us, we find that the noble sentiments of the biblical model do not seem to have been too effective in achieving environmental preservation and health. Historically, it has been conventional to respond to this discrepancy by pointing out that "It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; rather Christianity has been found difficult and not tried."
In more recent years, however, there has been an increasing chorus of those who conclude that Christianity is not just the untried solution to our problems, but rather that at a fundamental level the Judeo-Christian world view is responsible for our failures. In a much-noted paper, Lynn White4 made the claim that the historical roots of the ecological crisis are to be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition of human beings as the rulers of the earth. By exalting human beings at the expense of nature, White argues that Christianity has separated human beings from nature, has argued against the oneness of human beings and nature, and has given divine approval to the unlimited exploitation of nature by human beings.
There is probably no doubt historically that human beings and institutions who have thought of themselves as Christian have been guilty of these various aberrations. A key question, however, is "Are these shortcomings a consequence of a proper understanding and a faithful response to the Judeo-Christian position, or are they a human distortion of this position governed by ignorance, inertia and irresponsibility?" Critics of the biblical model might then respond that the failures of the biblical model result, not from its being incorrect, but from its being ineffective. It simply is not vital enough to command the allegiance of those who presumably should subscribe to it; we need a new, more robust and commanding model that would attract people into changing their actions.
A similar charge is leveled against the traditional biblical model for environmental stewardship by Gray,5
"I want to challenge the assumption that we have in our Jewish and Christian traditions an adequate creation theology. By creation theology I mean an adequate mental picture and conceptual grasp of ourselves, our world, and our relationship to the Creator."
In rebellion against Psalm 8:3-8, with its statement that God has made humans a little lower than the angels, made them to have dominion, and put all things under their feet, Gray responds,
"What we're given here is a nifty little snapshot in which God is above, highest in value. Angels are next and just slightly higher than humans. Then come humans. And everything else is underneath our feet."
Gray presents two major criticisms of the biblical model as she perceives it. (1) Reality is not hierarchical but interrelated. (2) Human beings are not "above" nature in dominion or control. Dominion must be replaced by "attunement" or "fitting in."
Both of these criticisms might have some validity against extreme distortions of the biblical model. But examination of the structure of the world indicates that the fundamental structure is hierarchical, consisting of parts and wholes, with the result that a hierarchical description emphasizes the degree of interrelatedness.6
The properties of the wholes emerge from a particular patterned interaction of the parts, but the behavior of the parts is affected by the condition and feedback of the whole.
And the description of humans being "above" nature cannot be simplistically dismissed without realizing that there are relationships in which human beings are indeed "above" nature (only human beings have the ability for a personal fellowship with God) while at the same time there are other relationships in which human beings are an interacting, interrelated part of nature (human beings are fellow creatures related to all the rest of creation). It is not a question of choosing between a model in which humans are "above" nature and its mutually exclusive opposite in which humans are identical with the rest of nature. In one more example of our need for complementary descriptions, human beings are both "above" nature in some respects, and identifiable with nature in others.
A Proposed New Age Model
If the traditional biblical model for environmental stewardship is judged to be outdated, misleading, and hopelessly enmeshed in misleading symbolism, then the way is open for the formulation of a new model that will avoid these problems.
(1) If the desacralization of the world as a result of the Judeo-Christian world view, which declares that the earth is a "thing" created by God and that world views in which animism plays a prominent role are thereby ruled out, is responsible for our bad treatment of the "things" of the earth, then the solution is to be found in resacralizing them.7 Once we can claim that everything on earth is really part of God, or at least is invested with a personal divine spirit, then we will have a new motivation for treating these "things" of the earth with respect. The American Indians are right in their religious beliefs, and Christians are wrong.
"For the Lakotas and Cheyennes all creation is sacred, all creation is filled with supernatural life. ... Sacred Powers assume forms that human beings can recognize. Thus the Sacred Powers may appear as animals, birds, or natural forces. ... This is a sacred world, a world filled with supernatural life and power. The Earth, the Mother of the People, is a supernatural person."8
The theme of resacralization is sounded again by Rifkin, 9
"To end our long, self-imposed exile; to rejoin the community of life. This is the task before us. It will require that we renounce our drive for sovereignty over everything that lives; that we restore the rest of creation to a place of dignity and respect. The resacralization of nature stands before us as the great mission of the coming age."
Now in many such descriptions as these (and others to follow) the reader is left uncertain. Is the author using a dramatic poetic style of hyperbole to make a point, or does the author mean this as a literal statement? If we were assured of the former, then we might be willing to give a certain freedom in expression, which would not be possible if we were assured of the latter.
(2) If our environmental problems arise from the fact that we do not perceive the intimate relationships between ourselves and the natural world around us, then the solution is to be found in formally terminating all distinctions between our selves and the natural world.
"... if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behavior leading to destruction of the world will be experienced as self-destruction."10
"... the illusion of separateness we create in order to utter the words "I am" is part of our problem in the modern world. We have always been far more a part of great patterns on the globe than our fearful egos can tolerate knowing ... To preserve nature is to preserve the matrix through which we can experience our souls and the soul of the planet Earth."11
(3) If our insensitivity to environmental concerns is the result of our viewing the earth as simply being "stuff" that's there for us to live on, then the solution is to invest the earth itself with life and spirit, viewing it as a living organism. Such an organism must be named, and so the name of the Greek goddess for the earth, Gaia, is invoked. The result has been described as follows,
"Is it science or is it religion? Not even the promoters of Gaia agree completely. Gaia is the New Age darling of spiritual feminists, neo-pagans, political environmentalists, and animal-rights activists. Yet in the past three years, more than 100 scientific and technical articles have been written on Gaia theory. Gaia, the Greek earth goddess, has scientists hotly debating the reality of her existence. The Gaia hypothesis is the scientific expression of the pre-Christian belief that the Earth is a living creature."12
The so-called Gaia Hypothesis was advanced by Lovelock13 who proposed that "the Earth may be a living organism," that the name Mary, of the Virgin Mary, may be simply another name for Gaia, and that "'Gaia' is a religious as well as a scientific concept." He concludes, "I have tried to show that God and Gaia, theology and science, even physics and biology are not separate but a single way of thought." Similarly Berry,14 described as "an ecotheologian - that is, a theologian who self-consciously shapes the principles of the Christian religion in response to the natural world and our responsibilities toward it," writes,
"One of the finest moments in our new sensitivity to the natural world is our discovery of the earth as a living organism.... Personal designation of the earth as Gaia is no longer unacceptable in serious discussion."
Scientific studies of the complex range of interactions that affect life on the earth have sometimes adopted the name of Gaia due to its timely implications.15 Certainly the significance of these investigations for the solution of environmental problems should not be underrated. But the poorly defined development of the Gaia-hypothesis "undermines biblical creation by imputing a kind of divine power to the Earth, while offering a science that resonates with ancient mysticism."16 Biologist Margulis is also concerned, and writes17
"A far more accurate short statement of Gaia, discussed in chapter 12 of my recent book, is that the surface temperature, chemistry of the reactive gaseous components, the oxidation-reduction state and the acidity-alkalinity of the Earth's atmosphere and surface sediments are actively (homeorrhetically) maintained by the metabolism, behavior, growth and reproduction of organisms (organized into communities) on its surface. Gaia is not an individual, it is an ecosystem.
(4) Finally, if our lack of respect for our environment is the result of thinking of human beings alone as intelligent, spiritual and personal, then the solution is to consider all of matter as being basically intelligent, spiritual and personal - and invoke modern scientific developments such as quantum mechanics as the basis for such a claim.18claimed that this "'new cosmology' can legitimately be understood as the good news (i.e., the gospel) of salvation for our age." This "new cosmology" calls for us to see the divine in everything that lives, and focuses on the findings of modern science that supposedly enable us to save the material world by declaring it to really be spiritual.
A number of dramatic claims are made for this new scientific perspective into the nature of matter:
* Scientists have come to see that all matter has a mysterious, psychic/spiritual dimension.
* Physicists are beginning to tell us that every atom of the universe has an inner intelligence which is non-material and ultimately unknowable.
* The earth is alive and we are the Earth's reflexive consciousness.
* There is nothing in existence that does not have subjective experience.
* Every being, from individual atoms, to individual persons, to individual solar systems, to individual galaxies, has a non-material center, an inner intelligence.
and the new theological perspective that is consistent with this new scientific perspective:
*This cosmology can be understood as an integral part of what the church has traditionally anticipated as the second coming of Christ.
*Ignorance, not evil, seems to be the root of the problem.
*The commandments of God are found through empirical observation of the universe.
*Nature is the primary Bible.
*We are neither stewards, nor caretakers, nor anything else that assumes we are separate from nature. We have no existence apart from the living Earth. We are the Earth.
The principal difficulty with all of these claims is a simple one: they are simply not true. There is not a single shred of support for these statements in either authentic science or authentic Christian theology.19
These are views expressed in visionary poetic language to describe the new situation when science and religion join together in one environmentally supportive role. But they do not express valid and necessary conclusions derived from science, and even express conclusions that scientific results contradict. If they are taken as essentially poetic statements, then one can grant that certain aspects of their metaphorical usage reflect human feelings. But if they are taken as literal statements, they can only be rejected as pseudoscience and pseudotheology.
Modern science has shown us that the basic descriptions currently available for the very small and the very fast do not correspond to our common sense expectations from macroscopic experience. But there is absolutely no connection with a psychic/spiritual dimension. There appears to be here the usual problems associated with an attempt to assert that the reality of life, consciousness, and intelligence at the more complex levels of living creatures is the result of the existence of these qualities in the atomic matter of which we are composed.20 It should be repeated: there is no scientific basis for such claims. It may well be that some individuals who work as scientists in part of their lives make public claims in support of such statements as those listed above; but this is then not a consequence of their science but of a world view that they have assumed on faith quite independently.
Discussion of Environmental Models
What is the intrinsic value of the natural world and how does it relate to human values? Summarizing the discussion of this paper, we may define three major models, each with fairly direct consequences if consistently followed.21
(1) The natural world has value only because of its usefulness to human beings. The earth belongs to human beings and they can do with it whatever contributes to their sense of well being. If some aspect of the natural world is considered "not useful" to human beings, it can be summarily dispensed with. This can be a fairly broad view, including not simply various forms of environmental exploitation, but even efforts to preserve the environment based only on the conviction that conservation is in the best selfish interest of human beings. This is a common secular world view, but not advocated by defenders of either a biblical or a New Age model. It is nevertheless the model often ascribed to the JudeoChristian world view by New Age advocates.
(2) The natural world has exactly the same value as human beings, because human beings and the natural world are essentially one with each other and with God. Both human beings and the rest of the natural world exhibit the Spirit of God, and we are bound in one great complex mutual interaction in which no single species can claim any higher position than any other. This is the model proposed by New Age advocates to win the day for environmentalism.
(3) Nature has intrinsic value as nature because of Creation; a tree has value as a tree because God made it as a tree. The tree does not have value because it is really a form of God; it has value as a tree because God made it to be a tree. The value of nature to human beings is then a second source of value in addition to this intrinsic component. It is recognized that on the level of creation, human beings are part of the natural world and cannot ever forget this interdependence, but as the only creatures made in the image of God, human beings are also distinct from nature and responsible for its care before God. This is a crucial distinction with reference to the critique given by Gray above. Schaeffer22 has dramatically captured this relationship in his words,
"But I must be clear that I am not loving the tree or whatever is standing in front of me, for a pragmatic reason. It will have a pragmatic result, the very pragmatic results that the men involved in ecology are looking for ....When we have learned this C the Christian view of nature - then there can be a real ecology; beauty will flow, psychological freedom will come, and the world will cease to be turned into a desert. Because it is right, on the basis of the whole Christian system - which is strong enough to stand it all, because it is true - as I stand and face the buttercup, I say, "Fellow creature, fellow creature, I won't walk on you. We are both creatures together."
The solution to the dilemma lies not in repudiating the biblical perspective of human beings as the responsible stewards of God's creation, but in reemphasizing it to a post-Christian culture that holds onto the forms but has forgotten the heart of the message. The biblical perspective emphasizes the unity between humans and earth by the creation account of man's formation from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). Although human beings are the crown of creation, they are given the responsibility to care for the created order. De Witt emphasizes how commitment to biblical principles demands, therefore, both concern and appropriate action to preserve environmental integrity and to prevent pollution.23
Wilkinson24 points out several of the major theological issues. He says: (1) we need to think of creation in terms of an ongoing process in which God is and continues to be active in the world. "Creation is an unfolding process, not just a one-time act." (2) We need to rethink the traditional interpretation of "the curse" as the cause of all of the natural evil in today's world. But we need to be at least as aware of the fact that "our present woes are due rather to our sinful use of an relationship to the Earth than to any malfunction of the created order as such." (3) We need to rethink simplistic identification of population pressure, global warming, and species extinction as indicators of the end time when the Earth will be destroyed, and see again the significance of "the gospel as good news for all of creation, not just humans." (4) We need to rethink the place of human beings in creation. Perhaps the passage in Romans 8 is revealing that "it will be the human privilege to complete creation and be its voice of praise to the Creator." (5) We need to rethink our emphasis on Jesus Christ solely as Redeemer, and recognize the New Testament teaching that he is also our Creator and Sustainer.
Living out our biblical responsibilities as stewards of God's creation demands more, to be sure, than simply the right model or the right motivation. It demands a thorough involvement in understanding the physics, chemistry and biology of environmental interactions so that we can be creative in our responsibility, combining concern with our environment with concern for the needs of human beings on earth. On the other hand, we are not ultimately aided either in arriving at creative responses in the real world, or in having the right attitude of heart that motivates us to act to preserve the environmental interactions sustaining life, by a proposed world view that is based upon pantheism, monism and animism.
1 W. G. Pollard, Man on a Spaceship, The Claremont Colleges: Claremont, California (1967); G. Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162, 1243 (1968); R. H. Bube, The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and the Christian Faith., Word Books: Waco, Texas, 230-233 (1971)
2 R. H. Bube, "The Many Faces of 'Tribalism'," Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith 44, 45 (1992)
3 W. Frair, "Ignorance, Inertia and Irresponsibility,"Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 21, 43 (1969)
4 L. White, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155, 1203 (1969)
5 E. D. Gray, "A Critique of Dominion Theology," in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, J. E. Huchingson, ed., HBJ Publishers: New York (1993), p. 374
6 R. H. Bube, "Reductionism, Preductionism and Hierarchical Emergence," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 37, 177 (1985)
7 A. Rowthorn, Caring for Creation: Toward an Ethic of Responsibility, Morehouse: Ridgefield, CT (1989)
8 P. J. Powell, "The Sacred Way," in The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgement on America, R. D. Ortiz, ed., Greta Bear Enterprises: Berkeley, CA (1977), p. 64
9 J. Rifkin, Algeny, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England (1984), p. 252
10 From "Psychology as if the Whole Word Mattered," Center for Psychology and Social Change, 1990, quoted in T. Roszak, "Beyond the Reality Principle," Sierra, p. 59, March/April 1993
11 W. Christie, quoted in Ref. 10
12 T. Connor, "Is the Earth Alive?" Christianity Today, p. 22, January 11, 1993
13 J. Lovelock, "God and Gaia" in J.E. Huchingson, ed., Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement , HBJ College Pub.: Orlando, Florida (1993) p. 383
14 T. Berry, "Human Presence," in J. E. Huchingson, ed., Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, HBJ College Pub.: Orlando, Florida (1993), p. 388
15 S. H. Schneider and P. J.Boston, eds. Scientists on Gaia, MIT Press, Cambridge (1991)
16 See note 12
17 L. Margulis, Science 259, 745 (1993); L. Margulis, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons (Freeman, New York, 1993)
18 M. Dowd, The Meaning of Life in the 1990's: An Ecological, Christian Perspective, Living Earth Christian Fellowship: Woodsfield, Ohio (1990)
19 R. H. Bube, Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and Christian Faith, to be published
20 See note 6
21 See note 19
22 F. A. Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, Tyndale, Illinois (1970)
23 C. B. DeWitt, ed., The Environment and the Christian: What Can We Learn from the New Testament? Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI (1991)
24 L. Wilkinson, "How Christian is the Green Agenda?" in Christianity Today, p. 17, Jan. 11, 1993
From PSCF 46 (June 1994): 90-97.