Department of Religion
Holland, MI 49423
This article explores a neglected but significant area of research in ecological ethics, namely, virtue theory. More precisely, the author attempts to answer this cluster of questions: What exactly is a virtue? Are there particular virtues which arise from a biblically informed Christian ecological ethic? If so, what are those virtues? How important are they? Are they merely nice to have or are they necessary? The thesis is that certain virtues--like frugality, humility, and wisdom--are indispensable if Christians are to responsibly fulfill their calling to be earthkeepers. In short, certain character traits are central to creation care.
Much has been written in recent years in the area of ecological ethics,1 including Christian ecological ethics.2 The vast majority of this scholarship adopts, intentionally or not, one of two basic ethical perspectives: deontology, a focus on rules and obligations, or teleology, attention to goods and consequences. While there has been important and influential work done in the area of virtue theory or areteology in moral philosophy3 and Christian theological ethics,4 relatively little has been done on the application of virtue theory to ecological ethics, at least from a Christian point of view.5
This paper will explore this often neglected area of ecological ethics. More precisely, it will ask and seek to answer this cluster of questions: What exactly is a virtue? Are there particular virtues which arise from a biblically informed Christian ecological ethic? If so, what are those virtues? How important are the virtues? Are they merely nice to have, or are they necessary?
As the subtitle of this paper indicates, my thesis is that certain virtues are indispensable if Christians are to responsibly fulfill their calling to be earthkeepers. In short, certain traits of character are central to creation care. I attempt to redeem this claim by first gaining greater understanding of the nature of virtue. What is virtue and what are the virtues? In the second section, by attending to Scripture, I draw out various theological motifs and ethical principles and in so doing develop a list of virtues and corresponding vices. Which virtues are prominent in the Bible, especially with respect to the study (ecology) and ordering (economics) of the household that is the earth? Along the way I (all too briefly) argue for the necessity of these ecological virtues.
The Nature of Virtue
Virtue is one of those phenomena, like pornography and religion, about which it is often said: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." We all have some intuitive sense for what virtue is--or more exactly what certain virtues are, like courage and justice and humility--even if we find it difficult to define. But what precisely is virtue? Can it be delimited with any precision? If so, how? While there remains considerable debate concerning the nature of virtue, there is little controversy over where to look to find insight into the question, for almost all who ponder this issue return to Aristotle and Aquinas. As Philippa Foot puts it: "In spite of this recent work [on virtue theory], it is best when considering virtues and vices to go back to Aristotle and Aquinas."6 Foot goes so far as to claim that "it is my opinion that the Summa Theologica is one of the best sources we have for moral philosophy."7 Similarly, Alasdair MacIntyre in his magisterial After Virtue turns to Aristotle (and in his later work Aquinas) for guidance in developing his own virtue-based moral philosophy. So as we seek to answer the question of the nature of virtue, let us turn to these two influential thinkers.
In his famous discussion of virtue in book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle first speaks of virtue (aretê), better translated excellence, in terms of habits. Virtues, especially moral virtues, are formed by habitual behavior (ch. 1). We become just, says Aristotle, by doing just acts, and brave by doing brave acts. In other words, our doing shapes our being, our conduct forms our character. This understanding of moral virtue in terms of character is reinforced when Aristotle distinguishes between acts which create virtue and acts which flow from virtue (ch. 4). The question is a common one: If the doing of virtuous acts requires that one already be virtuous, how then is virtue acquired? Aristotle argues that "if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately" (1105a 30). The necessary conditions for virtuous action include, in addition to the act being in accord with the virtues: (1) that the agent must have knowledge of the act; (2) that the agent must choose the act, and choose it for its own sake; and (3) that the action "must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character" (1105a 35). Therefore, a just act may not necessarily be done by a just person. A person may have performed such an act unknowingly, or accidentally, or merely to appear just. The just acts of a truly just person, in contrast, are typical of that person's character.
Virtue is, Aristotle concludes, neither a passion nor a faculty but a state of character (ch. 5). That is, a virtue is not a feeling or a capability to feel since neither involves choice. Passions, like anger and fear, as well as the capacity to have such passions are part of our natural human endowment and as such are neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Virtues and vices, on the other hand, are "modes of choice or involve choice" (1106a 4). They are dispositions to act by reference to which we are rightly praised or blamed (1106a 6). So, in short, a virtue is something like a settled disposition to act excellently. It is a state of praiseworthy character, developed over time, and made perfect by habit.
Aristotle further refines his notion of virtue or excellence by describing it as a mean lying between two extremes (ch. 6). For example, courage is that excellence of character which disposes one to act, when fearful, in neither a rash nor cowardly way. Moderation is that excellence of character which disposes one to act, when faced with various pleasures, in neither a self-indulgent nor insensible manner. Since there is no algorithm for determining in every situation what the mean is, Aristotle affirms that ultimately we must look to recognized exemplars of virtue--people of great practical wisdom--in order to know how to act "to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way" (1109a 27). Given that this is so, Aristotle wryly remarks: "it is no easy task to be good" for "in everything it is no easy task to find the middle" (1109a 24). With his understanding of virtue as a mean Aristotle not only points to the significance of practical wisdom (phronêsis)--itself an intellectual excellence--but also indicates how important it is to have role models, people of virtue, to whom one can look for guidance and insight.
Aristotle ties these various strands together in his final
definition of virtue, especially as it pertains to moral virtue:
"virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice,
lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined
by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man
of practical wisdom would determine it" (1107a 1). In other
words (bracketing the issue of intellectual virtue), a moral virtue
is an excellence of character, developed by conscious choices
over time for which one can and should be praised, which disposes
one to act in such a reasonable way as to avoid extremes--to act,
in short, as a sage would act. As Aristotle argues in Nicomachean
Ethics books I and X, it is the life of virtue--not the life
of pleasure, wealth, or honor--which constitutes living well (eudaimonia).
Aristotle's treatment of virtue is outdone only by Thomas Aquinas, who provides one of the most detailed discussions of virtue available. In his Summa Theologiae I-II, questions 49-67 (the so-called "Treatise on the Virtues"), Aquinas delves with considerable depth into a host of issues dealing with virtue and the virtues. After an extended exposition on the nature, formation, and variety of habits or dispositions (habitus), in question 55 he addresses "the essence of virtue." For Aquinas a human virtue (virtu) is a kind of habit or disposition (article 1). More exactly, a virtue is "an operative habit" for it "implies a certain perfection of power." That is, while there is power with regard to both being (body) and acting (soul), human virtue pertains "only to that which is proper to the soul." In short, virtue has to do with human action (article 2). Virtue is, furthermore, a good habit. Since virtue is the perfection of a power, and since such perfection is the maximum of that power, and since the maximum must be what is good, human virtue "is a good habit and productive of good works" (article 3).
With this background in mind, Aquinas offers a definition of virtue which he borrows from Lombard's Sentences (and ultimately Augustine), and explains and defends this definition part by part. A virtue is "a good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us without us" (article 4). This definition, Aquinas remarks, "expresses perfectly the whole nature of virtue" for it encompasses all four of the Aristotelian causes. First, the formal cause is expressed in the claim that virtue is "a good quality" or, as Aquinas prefers, a good habit or disposition. Second, virtue is a good quality "of the mind"--the material cause in the sense of that in which virtue is, i.e., a subject. Third, the final cause or end of virtue is made evident in the statements that virtue is that operative habit "by which we live rightly" and "of which no one can make bad use." And fourth, the efficient cause of (infused) virtue is indicated by the phrase "which God works in us without us." In sum, for Aquinas, virtue is a firm disposition in humans to act necessarily for the good; and while some virtues can be acquired through habitual human action (though not without divine action), other virtues must be caused in us by God without any action by us (though not without our consent).
While Aristotle and Aquinas provide rich insight into the nature of virtue, more recent thinkers offer additional clarity. For example, while agreeing with both Aristotle and Aquinas that virtue is a good quality--that it is in some sense beneficial--Philipa Foot asks how virtue differs from other beneficial qualities like memory and concentration. Pursuing this question, she concludes that virtues have as much to do with dispositions, desires, and attitudes as with intentions.8 While "it is not wrong to think of virtues as belonging to the will," she asserts that the will "must here be understood in its widest sense, to cover what is wished for as well as what is sought."9 Robert Roberts concurs with Foot in claiming that there is more to virtue than merely that which belongs to the will, since some virtues are or involve emotions, e.g., gratitude, hope, peace, and compassion, and other virtues are in large measure skills, e.g., courage, moderation, and patience.10 Thus the definition of a virtue must include more than intentions, dispositions, and the like. Virtues go beyond the will and/or the mind to encompass the whole person.
Like Aristotle and Aquinas, Foot distinguishes between virtues and other practical excellences, such as arts and skills. Because deliberate mistakes in art or skill, e.g., spelling, are exculpable while deliberately vicious actions are not, arts and skills are mere capacities, she claims, while virtue "must actually engage the will."11 Gilbert Meilander agrees with Foot that "the virtues are not simply techniques."12 According to Meilander, while virtues are like skills in that they require habitual practice, it is nevertheless more accurate to think of virtues as traits of character. But is this distinction airtight? Are virtues and skills quite different things? Roberts thinks not, since he identifies a class of virtues which "are to a large extent skill-like."13 These moral strengths he calls "virtues of will power" since they are not inclinations, desires, or motivations to act excellently, but "a family of capacities for resisting adverse inclinations."14 In other words, honesty, justice, and compassion are "substantive virtues" because "they are the psychological embodiment of ethical rules;" patience, courage, and moderation, on the other hand, are "virtues of will power" and do "not imply any characteristically ethical patterns of behavior, judgment, or emotion."15 Racists and thieves can be patient and self-restrained. As Roberts perceptively observes, "actions exhibiting courage and self-control are not done out of courage and self-control," whereas actions exhibiting justice and compassion are done out of moral motives, though "such actions may be done by virtue of courage and self-control and patience" if the circumstances demand them.16 So it seems that a certain class of virtues is more skill-like and less moral than is often acknowledged and that certain virtues have what Plato in the Republic calls a "preserving" function (429c).
Foot also argues that virtues are, by and large, corrective. That is, each virtue stands "at a point at which there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good."17 Courage and moderation, for example, are necessary only because fear and desire for pleasure function as temptations. And justice and love "correspond not to any particular desire or tendency that has to be kept in check but rather to a deficiency of motivation."18 But is Foot correct to think that virtually all virtues are corrective in this way? Once again, Roberts demurs. While courage and moderation may be necessarily or intrinsically "corrective," virtues like industriousness, hope, and honesty are not corrective, since "industriousness could exist in a world in which no one suffered from laziness, and hope in a world where no one ever despaired, and honesty in a world where no one ever lied."19 This difference between those virtues which are corrective and those which are not, or are so only in some trivial sense, corresponds to Roberts' distinction between "the virtues of will power," like courage and moderation, and "the substantive virtues," e.g., hope and honesty.
One additional piece of the puzzle must be added to make the picture (for our purposes) reasonably complete. Meilander and Stanley Hauerwas make this point especially well, namely, that whatever else is true about virtue, virtue is primarily a matter of character. While virtues involve dispositions to act in certain ways, there is "never a perfect or tight fit" between virtue and action.20 And while virtues are in certain respects skills or skill-like, "virtues engage the will in a way that skills do not."21 Virtues, according to Meilander and Hauerwas, are best thought of as traits of character. Character in this context refers to that set of attributes or qualities which distinguishes us from others--that complex of traits which marks us as the persons we are. Hauerwas speaks of character as more than merely "the determination of our self-agency," i.e., the sum of all we do as agents; character reflects "the particular direction our agency acquires by choosing to act in some ways rather than others."22 This way of construing virtue has the benefit, they argue, of highlighting the intimate connection between virtue and vision. The virtues "influence how we describe the activities in which we engage, what we think we are doing and what we think is important about what we are doing."23 Thus as Meilander puts it: "what duties we perceive--and even what dilemmas--may depend upon what virtues shape our vision of the world."24 In short, virtue informs vision and vision shapes action.
What does all this reflection on the nature of virtue amount to? While much, much more remains (and needs) to be said, we have now sufficient conceptual resources at hand to gain some greater clarity on what a virtue is. In sum, a virtue is a state of character--with the attendant desires, attitudes, and emotions--formed by choices and habits over time, which disposes one to act in certain ways, and shapes one's vision of the world. Some virtues are intrinsically morally good, while others are instrumentally good. Some have more to do with intellectual excellence, while others have more to do with moral excellence. Some are corrective in the sense that their necessity derives from various temptations; others would exist in a perfect world. All virtues shape our character and substantially influence how we see the world.
The Ecological Virtues
Any responsible Christian perspective must begin with the Bible, since within the Christian tradition- Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant--Scripture functions as both the source and the norm for thinking properly and living rightly. That is, the Bible is not only one of the main places Christians go--along with tradition, reason, and experience--when seeking guidance on how to live, but the Bible is that source which takes precedence over all others. The canonical Scriptures, as the term implies, are the standard according to which all claims are judged. For evangelical Protestants, this affirmation of the primacy of Scripture is especially important. With respect to virtually any issue, evangelicals instinctively turn to the Bible for insight and direction.
In this section my procedure is as follows. First I examine biblical texts which directly address the issues before us. Such reflections will be brief, but of sufficient depth to properly indicate the biblical basis for the theology and ethics which follow. Next I identify particular theological motifs or themes which emerge from the biblical narrative. Not exactly full-fledged doctrines, these theological motifs nevertheless function like doctrines insofar as they, like doctrines, are portable stories.25 That is, they attempt to summarize in one word or expression what the biblical text narrates. Lastly I derive certain ethical principles and the corresponding moral virtues or excellences. Needless to say, much will be left unsaid.
Creational Integrity and Dependence
We must begin at the beginning--in the book of beginnings, namely, Genesis. Genesis 1 is a rich and multifaceted narrative. This seminal text communicates much, not only about who we are and what God is like, but also about the character of that which God creates and sustains. For our purposes here, it is important to note a number of things about creation itself. First, creation has a diversity of creatures. Through God's "let there be" the earth brings forth living creatures of every kind: birds, fish, animals both domestic and wild, flying and creeping things, and even sea monsters. Again and again the text speaks of God bringing forth many kinds of creatures. Second, this plethora of creatures--the diversity of life--is good. God sees what God creates and declares it to be good. Indeed, in Gen. 1:31, God sees everything created (not just humans) and declares that it is very good. Creation is a place of beauty, blessing, and delight. Third, creation as a whole evinces integrity or soundness. Because of God's wise and orderly creative activity, the diverse kinds of creatures fit together into a harmonious whole. Creation is a place of shalom--of flourishing fittedness. In short, biodiversity is an intended result of God's wise and orderly creative activity.
This picture of creational integrity and dependence is reinforced
in various Psalms. Psalm 104, for example, speaks of all things
as having been created by God. Everything in heaven and on earth
is a result of God's creative activity. Furthermore, the world
God has brought into being is a cosmos--an intelligently designed
and meaningfully ordered whole. This cosmos, moreover, is not
autonomous, but exists solely because of the continuous care and
sustenance of God, its Creator. All creatures--the wild asses,
the cedars of Lebanon, the storks, the rock badgers, the young
lions--depend upon God for their existence and their flourishing.
In addition, God's creatures are valuable not because of their
usefulness to humans--though some are useful, indeed essential,
to us. Rather, they are valuable to each other: for example, the
cedars are valuable as places for birds to nest and the mountains
are valuable as places of refuge and rest for the wild goats.
Most importantly, rocks and trees, birds, and animals are valuable
simply because God made them. Their value resides in their being
creations of a valuing God, not in their being a means to some
human end. Finally, a close reading of this Psalm reveals that
the human creature is but one creature among God's many creatures.
We are to cultivate the earth, but in harmony with the needs of
other creatures and in such a way that all creation is enabled
to sing praises to God the Creator, since the chief purpose of
all creatures is to glorify God.
Psalm 148 is an enthusiastic and eloquent exclamation point to this affirmation concerning the purpose of creation. Here the psalmist calls upon all created things to praise God their Maker: the angels and hosts of heaven; the sun, moon, and stars; fire and hail; snow and frost; water and wind; mountains and hills; fruit trees; wild animals; creeping things; kings, princes, and rulers; women and men--nothing is left out. God's glory is unsurpassed and all creatures are invited to sing in a symphony of praise.
In sum, in these texts we find the theological motif of creational integrity and dependence. Individual creatures and creation as a whole have an integrity as created by God and as such have more than merely instrumental value. Creatures are valuable irrespective of human utility and exist to praise God. From this theological theme, we derive the ethical principle of biodiversity. Because species have intrinsic value, they have moral standing. And because they have moral standing, humans have certain duties with respect to species.26 Given, furthermore, that species are dynamic natural kinds, unique and irreplaceable, entire forms of life, the extinction of which is a form of superkilling,27 I offer the following moral maxim: we should act so as to preserve diverse kinds of life. More exactly, we have a prima facie duty to protect and preserve nonhuman species. In other words, while the possibility exists that other moral considerations could outweigh or overrule this duty, normally we are obligated to preserve nonhuman species. Holmes Rolston proposes the following yet more precise specification of this duty. While we have "no duty of benevolence to preserve rare species from natural extinction," except to save certain endangered species as resources or museum pieces, we do have "a duty of nonmaleficence to avoid artificial" or anthropogenic extinction.28 That is to say, we have an obligation to avoid human-caused extinction of species and in some cases we are obligated to preserve species whose extinction is, as far as we can tell, a product of nonhuman factors. This duty of nonmaleficence is a prima facie duty and thus can be overridden in certain cases, e.g., smallpox or malaria. But the duty to avoid harming nonhuman species still holds and so the burden of proof always resides with those who wish to do harm.
Corresponding to the theological motif of creational integrity and dependence and the ethical principle of biodiversity are certain important moral virtues or excellences of character, namely, respect and receptivity. Respect names an understanding of and proper regard for the integrity and well-being of other creatures. A respectful person shows both esteem and deference to the other, because of the unique nature of that other. That which has intrinsic value calls forth a looking back--a respecting--which acknowledges and regards that God-given value. Respect names a look which neither overlooks nor merely looks over. There are two vices which correspond to the virtue of respect. The vice of deficiency is conceit, for conceit is ignorance of and disdain for other creatures. It is a failure to recognize the other as other. It is a lack of proper regard. Conceited people show no genuine interest in another, and will, if necessary, violate the integrity of the other--human or nonhuman--to serve their self-centered interests. The vice of excess is reverence or overregard for the other. In reverence of this sort, a person regards that which is not worthy of worship as an object of veneration. Reverence in this sense is misplaced regard in which creatures rather than the Creator are worshipped.
Receptivity is shorthand for the acknowledgment of our interdependence with other creatures. It denotes an acceptance of our kinship with our nonhuman neighbors--a willing embrace of our mutual dependence. Receptivity connotes openness and responsiveness to the other. It is a taking in, a capere, which nevertheless allows the other to remain other. Receptivity, in other words, is a form of hospitality. The vice of deficiency is self-sufficiency or the disposition to act as if we do not need others. It is living as if we can survive and even flourish independent of other creatures--as if we are not contingent creatures but the makers of our own world and destiny. It is living as if we exist a se. Self-sufficiency often manifests itself as isolating autonomy. The vice of excess is addiction or unhealthy overdependence on another. It is a taking in--a receiving--driven by fear or anxiety rather than grace and freedom. In contrast to the isolation of self-sufficiency, here one finds the inability or unwillingness to be alone.
In short, creation has a God-given integrity or wholeness and is dependent on God its Creator. We have a moral obligation to protect and preserve nonhuman species. Hence, we must cultivate the virtues of respect and receptivity, and actively discourage the vices of conceit and reverence, of self-sufficiency and addiction, in the shaping of our character.
The Genesis 1 creation narrative also emphasizes that creation is finite. Despite the manyness--many individual creatures, many kinds of creatures--there is no suggestion here that the panoply of God's creatures or the earth itself is unlimited. Creation has definite limits. Moreover, God's word to humans in verse 28 to be fruitful and multiply does not suggest, as some maintain, that the earth has an unlimited supply of "resources" for an ever growing human population. First, it is often overlooked that this call by God to be fruitful and multiply is (in verse 22) also given to all living creatures. The sea monsters, the fish, and the birds--indeed, every living creature of every kind--is given this command. This calling to reproduce is not a special privilege unique to humans. Second, this imperative is actually not a command at all, but a blessing by God on all living creatures brought forth by God's creative word. As Susan Bratton puts it, God's blessing "is not an ethical imperative, nor is it a way to please God by reaching to excess."29 Rather, God's blessing conveys a reproductive power intended to contribute to the flourishing of all creatures on a finite planet. As Bratton concludes: "Human population growth has no mandate to damage or desecrate the cosmos."30 Creation is finite and humans have no biblical license or warrant to act as if it is infinite.
This theme is present is other biblical texts. For example, after the Israelites escaped from Egypt they wandered in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. As narrated in Exodus 16, God provided bread and meat--manna and quail--for them to eat, but only enough for one day at a time. The portions were sufficient for the day, but there was to be no excess. Their resources were not unlimited, lest they forget their dependence on the God who not only delivered them but continued to sustain them. Jesus calls to mind this wilderness experience when he teaches his followers what and how to pray. After three petitions concerning God's glory, he petitions God for human needs. He first prays "give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11). In other words, in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus asks the provisioning God of the Exodus to give us the nourishment we need for today. As the Israelites received their daily bread, we are to ask for and with gratitude receive food sufficient for the day. This text, in a perhaps unnoticed way, reiterates this theme of finitude and sufficiency. In short, the biblical witness confirms what those most famous of photographs from space portray--that the blue-green sphere on which we live is finite. Only God is unlimited in power, knowledge, duration, presence, and compassion.
In sum, these texts provide us with the theological motif of creational finitude. Creation is finite; only God is infinite. There is only so much to go around. The only seemingly limitless physical resource is the energy from the sun--that divine provision fundamental to all life on earth. All else is limited. From this theological motif I derive the ethical principle of sufficiency. Given that the earth is finite, I propose the following moral maxim: we should acknowledge the finitude of the earth and act so as to live within our means. More precisely, we have a prima facie duty to preserve nonrenewable resources and conserve scarce though renewable resources. This duty applies to a wide range of things--from energy to species. We should, for example, conserve our fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, for once that solar savings account is depleted it will be a very long time before it is replenished.31 So, too, we should preserve species, for that "resource" once gone will never return.
Corresponding to the theological motif of creational finitude and the ethical principle of sufficiency are the moral virtues of self-restraint and frugality. A cardinal virtue of the Greeks, self-restraint is moderation of inordinate desires. What is sought is not the extinction of all desire--as if that were possible--but the control of desire. Disciplined desire is the goal. To use an old-fashioned word, the virtue is temperance: habitual control of one's appetites or passions. The vice of deficiency is profligacy or unrestrained desire. Profligate people are overly self-indulgent at best and wildly extravagant at worst. They lack sufficient self-control. As Aristotle notes, "these people are called belly-gods, this implying that they fill their belly beyond what is right."32 The vice of excess is austerity. Overly self-controlled people mistake masochism for moderation. Austerity implies that the passions are inherently evil. Desire per se is dangerous.
Frugality is economy of use or efficient use given the limits of the goods available. It is characterized not by a parsimonious wish to hold in or keep back, but by a desire to use sparingly that which God has provided in order to allow others to live and flourish. Thus rightly understood, frugality represents a form of hospitality. As its etymology suggests, to be frugal is to enjoy (frui) the proper use of the finite goods God has given us. The vice of deficiency is greed--the disposition to excessively acquire, especially beyond one's need. Avarice is perhaps a more accurate term, for it denotes a craving to acquire which is blinded to the limits inherent in creation. Driven by cupidity, the greedy person lacks any sense of the finitude of the world. The vice of excess is stinginess or thrift as an end in itself. Sparing to the point of being mean, the stingy person exhibits no generosity. Fearful of whether there will be enough, the penurious hold in and keep back. Economy for economy's sake is their motto. In the case of each vice, there is no enjoyment of that which God has provided.
In short, creation is finite. We have the moral obligation to preserve the resources God has provided and so joyfully live within our means. We must cultivate the virtues of self-restraint and frugality, thereby discouraging the currently fashionable vices of profligacy and greed while avoiding the vices of austerity and stinginess.
Human Finitude and Faultedness
If creation is finite and we are creatures, then it follows that we are finite. It might seem that this obvious point needs no special attention. However, we have a penchant for forgetting this central feature of our existence. Indeed, we have a deep desire to avoid looking at our finitude, especially our temporal finitude or mortality, straight in the face.33For to acknowledge the limited nature of our existence produces anxiety and often fear. It raises the question of whether death is the end of one's life or whether there is Someone who is sufficiently able and willing to preserve our life beyond biological death and in whom we can rest despite our fear and anxiety. Not surprisingly, the Bible speaks often of human finitude. For example, in Genesis 2 the narrative tells us that the human creature is formed out of the ground and is made alive by God's life-giving breath (verse 7). We are 'adam, earth creature, because we are clumps of earth, 'adamah, animated by the Spirit of God. Like all of God's creations we are finite.
The finitude of humanity is powerfully portrayed also in the book of Job. After numerous conversations between Job and his friends about Job's plight, chapters 38-41 narrate God's speech from a whirlwind. In the deluge of questions put by God, Job is, among others things, forcibly reminded of his finitude. Job has not commanded the morning or entered the storehouses of the snow or provided prey for the ravens. He does not know when the mountain goats give birth or who lets the wild asses go free. That the hawk soars and the eagle mounts up is not Job's doing. Job's power and knowledge are finite. He is a creature. Even Psalm 8, which speaks of humans as having been created a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor, reminds us that humans are creatures and therefore finite. We have a God-given dignity and calling, but we are nevertheless limited in our abilities. Only God is infinite and hence worthy of praise--the one whose name is majestic in all the earth.
But we are not just finite; we are faulted. Though often confused,
these two are not the same. Finitude is a good feature of human
existence. It is simply how God made us--a feature of our humanity
to joyfully accept. Faultedness, however, is not God's intention.
The brokenness we know in ourselves and all around us is something
we acknowledge with regret and seek with God's grace to overcome.
This feature of human existence is also powerfully depicted in
the Genesis narrative. Adam and Eve desire to transcend their
creaturely finitude and become, like God, omniscient. But in this
attempt they fail to trust in God and thus become estranged from
God. They also become estranged from each other. For example,
they scapegoat and attempt to pass the blame. They lose touch
with their own true and best self, hiding and concealing their
actions. They are out of joint with the earth, working the earth
becomes burdensome and toil. In these four ways they, and we,
are alienated. In short, our lives are interwoven with a contagion
called sin which we knowingly and unknowingly foster. The Bible
confirms what we know in our hearts: the world and our own lives
are not the way they are supposed to be.34
In sum, in these and many other biblical texts we find the theological motif of human finitude and faultedness. As humans we are creatures--limited in power and knowledge as well as space and time. We are 'adam from the 'adamah, humans from the humus. We are not God, though we are God's. Furthermore, we are faulted creatures--alienated from God, other humans, ourselves, and the earth. Though we are not God, we all too often think and act as if we are. From this theological motif we derive the ethical principle of responsibility. Given the limited scope of our human knowledge and power and given our stubborn unwillingness to admit such limitations, I propose the following moral maxim: we should act cautiously, in full acknowledgment of our limited ability to know the future consequences of our actions and with honest awareness of our penchant for self-aggrandizement and self-deception. To be more precise, we have a prima facie duty to survey all possible consequences before making decisions. In our care of creation, we must be circumspect and exercise forethought.
The theological motif of human finitude and faultedness and the ethical principle of responsibility presuppose the moral virtues of humility and honesty. Humility is the proper estimation of one's abilities or capacities. It is the fitting acknowledgment that we as humans are earth creatures. Humility implies self-knowledge and unpretentiousness. Aware of their weaknesses, humble people do not pretend to be something other than what they are. The vice of deficiency is hubris--exaggerated self-confidence or overweening pride. Here, as for the Greeks, it means the failure to acknowledge one's own limits, often resulting in tragic consequences for all concerned. Overestimating their abilities, prideful people are vain and boastful. The vice of excess is self-deprecation. People who display this vice play down their abilities and speak disparagingly of their legitimate achievements. They are unable or refuse to properly assess their genuine strengths. Aristotle speaks of those who disclaim or belittle their authentic accomplishments as "mock modest."35
Honesty is the refusal to deceive others, oneself, or God. Honest people are without guile. They do not have a duplicitous bone in their body. There is, rather, a singleness of intention, a straightforwardness of conduct. Honesty brings with it a what-you-see-is-what-you-get transparency and sincerity. There is no need to do business at night. No need for coverups or slush funds or secrets. The vice of deficiency is deception or the culpable failure to be truthful. Deception is willful fraud, represented in the lowest circles (eight and nine) of Dante's Inferno. It is perversion of the truth for personal gain. Deception is cunning misrepresentation, most often fueled by envy and spite. The vice of excess is false honesty. Difficult to name but understood by all, this vice has never known a secret that it did not tell. Enamored by Kant's categorical imperative, persons who exhibit this vice always tell "the truth," even if it means turning in Anne Frank to the Nazi storm-troopers. They have no feeling for the relational context of truth-telling, famously described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic essay "What is Meant by `Telling the Truth.'"36 To the falsely honest, truth is truth and must be told, no matter who the conversation partner or what the situation.
In sum, as humans we are both finite and faulted. We have the moral obligation to act responsibly and with forethought. Therefore we must cultivate the virtues of humility and honesty while discouraging the vices of hubris and self-deprecation, deception and false honesty.
We have already examined the Genesis texts which speak of God blessing not only humans but all living creatures with the power to reproduce. As we have seen in 1:22 and 1:28, God wills that fish and birds and humans be fruitful and multiply. The ability to bear fruit--to produce others of one's kind--is an important feature of a flourishing creation. As Calvin DeWitt reminds us: "It is God's will that the whole of creation be fruitful, not just people. And thus human fruitfulness may not be at the expense of God's blessing of fruitfulness to other creatures."37 This concern for fruitfulness is also evident in the case law of the Old Testament--the various specific instructions meant to guide the Jews in the living of their everyday lives. For example, in Deut. 22:6-7 we read: "If you come upon a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with and you may live long." And just two chapters before we are advised that in laying siege to a town in a time of war "you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down" (Deut. 20:19-20). We are permitted to use the fruit of creation, but we are not allowed to destroy the ability of creation to be fruitful. Indeed, as these texts suggest, the kind of wise use which preserves creation's ability to replenish itself is an important ingredient in living well.
Perhaps the most famous passage which conveys the importance of the fruitfulness of creation is the story of the flood in Gen. 6-9. The narrative tells us that God grieved that he brought humans into existence, for their wickedness and violence wrecked destruction on the earth. God resolved to wash away this wickedness, but decided to spare Noah and his family and two of every kind of living creature, male and female (6:19). So Noah obediently gathered his menagerie of creatures--birds, wild animals, creeping things--in numbers sufficient to preserve their fruitfulness. And there was with Noah in the ark "all flesh in which there was the breath of life" (7:16). In the climatic turning point of the narrative (8:1), God remembered all of the inhabitants in the ark--including the animals--and, as in the beginning of creation (1:2), sent a wind to reorder the chaotic waters. The ark dwellers are saved from the waters--waters which as it turns out cleanse the earth and provide Noah and his kin a fresh start. In chapter nine, the text tells us that God made a covenant not only with Noah but with all the creatures in his floating species preserve. Like a constant drumbeat, six times in verses 8-17 we are told that God's covenant is with "every living creature." Indeed, God's everlasting, unconditional covenant is with "the earth" (verse 13). And the rainbow is not only a sign of promise to us of God's faithfulness, but a reminder to God of his covenant with all creation. In short, in this rich and suggestive story we learn of the first endangered species act--initiated by God and obediently carried out by Noah. God cares for and covenants with more than just humans. God acts to preserve the fruitfulness of creatures great and small.
In short, in these texts we find the theological theme of fruitfulness. As designed by God, creation is fruitful. Creatures produce sustenance for others and reproduce themselves. In the interconnected and interdependent world provisioned by God, even the most "unimportant" species, e.g., wild animals, and "ugly" species, e.g., creeping things, are important. From this theological motif, we derive the ethical principle of sustainability. From this flows the following moral maxim: we should act in such a way that the ability of living creatures to maintain themselves and to reproduce is carefully preserved. To make this maxim more exact, we have a prima facie duty to judiciously use those creatures under our care so as to provide for future generations. We cannot but use plants and animals to survive and maintain our own existence. Like all creatures we affect our surroundings, in part by consuming other organisms. However, we have an obligation to so use the creatures under our care that we provide not only for our own generations but also for the generations--the fruitfulness--of nonhuman creatures.
The virtues implied by the theological motif of fruitfulness and the ethical principle of sustainability are wisdom and hope. Wisdom is sound practical judgment based on uncommon insight, honed through long experience, and informed by cultivated memory. It is, as Aristotle puts it, "a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods."38 Wisdom is an intellectual virtue or excellence of intellect, developed over time, which allows one to live the good life. For Christians wisdom originates, as the wisdom literature in the Old Testament insists, in the fear of God.39 From a biblical point of view, in other words, wisdom is rooted in the proper worship of God. As far as I can tell, wisdom is not a mean; hence there are not two vices but only one. The vice contrary to wisdom is foolishness or the habitual absence of sound judgment. The fool lacks good sense. He shows no discernment and eschews learning from the past. Regarding ecological ethics, foolishness is the disposition to act as if creation is endlessly exploitable and expendable. By living only for today the fool acts as if the future does not matter.
Hope is confident expectation of future good. It is the desire for a good future accompanied by the belief that such a future will come to fruition. Hope is trust oriented forward in time. For Christians this expectation is solidly based on God's promises and God's character as a keeper of promises. Christians hope because they worship a God who keeps covenant with creation. As one of the classic theological virtues, listed with faith and love in 1 Cor. 13, hope is a sine qua non for life itself.40 The vice of deficiency is despair, for despair is the absence of any expectation for a good future. As its etymology suggests, it is the loss of all hope (de-sperare). Despair is cynicism of a profound kind for it signals a failure or inability to trust. Despair is the hopelessness which leads, as Søren Kierkegaard powerfully describes it, to the sickness unto death.41 The vice of excess is presumption. This vice can take two forms. Sometimes presumption has to do with what we call a presumptuous attitude.42 That is, in contrast to the confident expectation of genuine hope this kind of false hope exudes an unwarranted overconfidence that tends to take the sought after good future for granted. It is an unwarranted audacity of belief or confidence. But there is another kind of presumption--one that concerns the grounds of belief rather than the level of confidence. Not all objects of hope are worthy of trust. There are many pretenders to hope in our exceedingly anxious world. Prophets (and profits) of easy credulity are lurking everywhere. Gnostic hope is abundant. If some tend to cynicism, others bend toward an illusory expectation that life bears no suffering. As J. Christiaan Beker puts it: "For just as suffering without hope degenerates into passive resignation, cynicism, or despair, so hope without a relation to suffering degenerates into false hope."43
In sum, creation is fruitful. We have a moral obligation to use the fruit of creation in a way which is sustainable. Hence we must foster the development of people who embody the virtues of wisdom and hope, and thereby strive to diminish the vices of foolishness, despair, and presumption.
According to Scripture, work is good. As humans we are called to labor, e.g., till the ground (Gen. 2:15), and in our work we are to find joy and blessing.44 The curse of the fall is not that we now must work, but that our work is now toil and drudgery. It no longer is a meaningful service to neighbor and a form of worship to God. Even God works. The act of creation itself is a work of God. And at its completion, God rests. In Gen. 2:1-3, we are told that after the heavens and the earth and their teeming multitude of creatures were made, God rested and "blessed the seventh day and hallowed it." God works and God rests, and so also should we and the creatures under our care. The sabbath rest is, as it were, built into the fabric of creation--a divinely blessed feature of our creaturely existence.
We are reminded of this need for rest in the Ten Commandments--better rendered God's ten best ways to live. In Exod. 20:8-11, we are called to "remember the sabbath and keep it holy" for the seventh day is a sabbath to God on which "you shall not do any work--you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." Notable for our purposes is the injunction to rest farm animals on the sabbath. Cows and horses and mules need to be rested too. This is spelled out in greater detail in the case law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For example, in Leviticus 25 they are told that the land must be given a sabbath rest every seventh year. In the seventh year "you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vines" because "it shall be a year of complete rest for the land" (verses 4-5). Furthermore, after seven seven-year cycles there shall be a year of jubilee. In the fiftieth year "you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" and "you shall return, every one of you, to your property and to your family." As in the sabbatical year, so too in the year of jubilee "you shall not sow, or reap the after growth, or harvest the unpruned vines" (verses 10-12). And these stipulations are given "so that the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely" (verses 18-19). Life on the land goes better when one observes God's statutes and commandments.
Lest these instructions in shalom-filled living seem quaint or out-of-date--relics from the (very) Old Testament, it is important to take note of the inaugural address of Jesus, as recorded in Luke 4. As he begins his public ministry in his hometown synagogue, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, and boldly declares that this prophetic text has been fulfilled. He asserts that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (verses 18-19). In other words, Jesus announces that in his person the messianic age has come. The year of jubilee--the year of the Lord's favor--is a reality. In short, Jesus the Messiah dramatically reaffirms that the kingdom of God he has come to inaugurate is a reign of redistribution and rest. Those in need will be comforted, those wronged will be set right, and the weary will find rest. Sabbath is gospel.
In sum, these texts illustrate the theological motif of sabbath. God calls humans to regularly rest from their labors. Indeed, God intends that humans give the people, animals, and land under their care periodic rest and the opportunity for restoration. Such intentional rest and nurture of creatures human and nonhuman resists the relentless use and exploitation which drives much of modern society. From this theological motif I derive the ethical principle of rejuvenation and the following moral maxim: we should live in such a way that the creatures under our care are given their needful rest. More exactly, we have a prima facie duty to appropriately rest the land and its inhabitants. Though directed primarily to agricultural land and animals, this duty can be reasonably extended to include other things, including species and their habitats.
Corresponding to the theological theme of sabbath and the ethical principle of rejuvenation are the moral excellences of patience and serenity. Patience is calm forbearance. It is that trait of character which allows us to resist the press of the moment. It steels us against the temptation to take the fast track. Patience presupposes a long view. As Cardinal Newman once said: "Great acts take time." Patience helps us learn the truth of that aphorism. For Christians patience is grounded in God's merciful forbearance (2 Peter 3:9). In contrast, the vice of deficiency is impetuousness. It is the impulsiveness which, fearful of the future, drives us to gratify our desires in the immediate moment, irrespective of the legitimate need of others. Those who exhibit this vice lack the ability to wait. They always eat first at the wilderness supper table. They never put off a purchase in order to pay cash when they can charge it now. The vice of excess is difficult to name, but it is something like meekness. I use the term here not in the New Testament sense of gentleness or the endurance of injury without resentment, but to name a deficiency of spirit. It is the disposition to be overly patient -to wait when one must wait no longer. Meekness in this sense denotes the failure to properly act when the situation calls for prompt action.
Serenity is unruffled peacefulness. It is an inner calm amidst the chaos. It is the relatively rare ability to remain undisturbed by the raging seas surrounding you. It is tranquillity borne not of indifference or apathy, but nurtured by the assurance of God's grace. Serenity is the Augustinian heart finally resting--at home--in God. The vice of deficiency is restlessness. It is characterized by fidgety, directionless activity. Lacking any sense of inner peace, the restless person is ruffled by the slightest winds of trouble or discontent. Restlessness is living as if one is never at home. Ever feeling on the road or on the run, such a homeless wayfarer never finds a place to call home. The vice of excess is passivity. Unruffled repose can degenerate into a kind of quietude which is indifferent to injustice or sorrow or joy. There is no virtue in an inner calm which resembles rigor mortis. Tranquillity is not lethargy. Being serene is not the same as being passive.
In short, all creatures need sabbath rest. We have the moral obligation to rest and rejuvenate the land and its creatures. And so we must cultivate the virtues of patience and serenity and thereby actively discourage the vices of impetuousness and meekness, restlessness and passivity.
In the history of the interpretation of the Genesis, most of the attention has been given to Gen. 1:26 28. There we read that humans are given dominion over the fish and the birds and the cattle and the wild animals and the creeping things. For many readers this means that we humans have license to exploit the nonhuman creatures of the earth. That is to say, dominion is understood as domination. That this reading is clearly wrong, not to mention self-serving, will not be argued here.45 For even if such a misguided reading were right, it is still the case that many other biblical texts declare that dominion is not domination but responsible care. For example, in Gen. 2:15 we are told that God placed 'adam in the garden "to till and keep it." These rather pale English words do not, however, do justice to the Hebrew, which speaks of our task to serve ('abad) and protect (shâmâr) the garden that is the earth. To till the earth means to serve it for its own sake. To keep the earth means to caringly guard it the way that, in Aaron's benedictory blessing, God blesses and keeps his people (Num. 6:22 26). In other words, we are to serve the earth for its own good and keep creation as God keeps us. In summing up the message of this text, Cal DeWitt puts it well:
Such keeping is not preservation as applied to pickles in a jar; it is the kind of keeping we ask God to give us. When, in accord with Genesis 2:15, we keep the creation, we make sure that the creatures under our care are maintained with all their proper connections--connections with members of the same species, with the many other species with which they interact, with the soil, air, and water upon which they depend.46
We are called by God, in short, to be earthkeepers.
That the earth is God's and that we are to keep it is reiterated in many of the Psalms. Psalm 24:1 declares that "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." Contrary to popular opinion, we do not own the earth or its creatures. God is the owner of the earth, for it was God who created it and continues to sustain it. Psalm 95 invites us to make a joyful noise to God not only because God is our Savior, but preeminently because "in his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land which his hands have formed" (verses 4-5). As we have seen with the flood narrative--perhaps the most powerful biblical reminder of our calling to be earthkeepers, God covenants with all creation. All creatures- indeed the earth itself--are in covenant fellowship with God. Through the faithful work of "Noahs," ancient and modern, all living things are kept, protected, and preserved.
In sum, in these texts we find the theological motif of earthkeeping. God is the rightful and proper owner of the earth. But God gives us the calling to care for creation. We are given the joy and the responsibility to lovingly keep the garden that is the earth--in all of its intricate fullness and dynamic relatedness. Preserving species and their habitats is a central dimension of responsible earthkeeping. From this theological motif, I derive the ethical principle of beneficence. Put in the form of a moral maxim: we should act so as to care for the earth's creatures, especially those creatures in need. More precisely, with respect to nonhuman species in particular, we have a prima facie duty to actively preserve species threatened with extinction. Here we move beyond Rolston's duty of nonmaleficence to the more demanding duty of beneficence. In other words, it is not enough merely to refrain from doing harm; in certain cases we are morally required to do good. Thus failure to promote the good makes one morally blameworthy.
The moral virtues implied by the theological theme of earthkeeping and the ethical principle of beneficence are benevolence and love.47 Benevolence is the willingness to promote the well-being of the other. Benevolent people are disposed to act kindly. They have a good (bene) will (voluntas) and thus usually produce (facere) good (bene) acts--acts which are beneficial. Such good-making acts are willed even if the bonds of affection are absent. It is in this sense that Jesus commands us to love one another (Matt. 22:36-40) for while our affections cannot be commanded, our will can. We can and should will the good, even to those, like our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:19-20), for whom we have no good feelings. There is only one vice corresponding to this virtue since, as with wisdom, benevolence is not a mean but an intrinsic good which admits of no excess. The vice contrary to benevolence, as its Latin etymology suggests, is malice. Malice or malevolence is the intention to do evil or cause harm. Malice is ill-will. It is the willful and culpable breaking of shalom.48 While often fueled by envy and resentment toward particular people, it can also be driven by an unexplainable desire to inflict suffering or cause distress--unexplainable in the sense that no feelings of spite or resentment toward the victim(s) necessarily accompany the willing of such actions. The malevolent can and sometimes do act indiscriminately, e.g., the terrorist whose evil actions are inflicted on a random group of people.
Love, as the term is used here, denotes strong affection for another. It is unselfish concern for the good of that for which one deeply cares. Such bonds of affection and care arise out of some kind of personal relationship, e.g., kinship or friendship, and therefore love stands in contrast to benevolence, for which no such feelings are required. Love is, simply put, the disposition to care for the other whom (or which) one has come to know. As with benevolence, love is not a mean, since there is no excess but only deficiency. Given this concept of love, its corresponding vice is apathy. Not to love is to lack (a) feeling (pathos). Not to love is not to care. The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. Ecologically understood, apathy is the absence of any feeling of affection or concern for other creatures. Ecological apathy is oblivious to and unconcerned about the havoc wrecked upon the earth. On the other hand, as Aldo Leopold eloquently puts it: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds."49
In short, the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; humans are not owners but earthkeepers. We have a moral obligation to protect the creatures under our care, especially those whose existence is imperiled. Thus we must encourage the formation of people who exhibit the virtues of benevolence and love, while discouraging the vices of malice and apathy.
Two of the most frequently occurring words in the Bible are righteousness and justice. In the Old Testament, God requires, in addition to mercy and compassion, righteousness (sedâqâh) and justice (mishpât) of his people. For example, the last half of the decalogue assumes that justice among humans is a central feature of human flourishing (Exod. 20:12-17). Stealing and bearing false witness, for example, are violations of justice. They are thefts of goods--material possessions and reputation, respectively--which rightly belong to someone else. The covenant stipulations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy often include requirements to execute justice--especially for widows, orphans, and aliens (e.g., Deut. 10:18, 16:20, 24:17; Lev. 19:15, 19:33)--precisely because such action accords with God's character. The prophets regularly thunder that God's justice be done. Amos proclaims "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). Micah summarizes the requirements of right living in these words: "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). And Jeremiah's bones burn with the message of justice (Jer. 7:1-7). We find this concern for justice eloquently and passionately articulated in Psalm 72. In the first four verses, the psalmist prays:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king's son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
The Psalm continues on in this spirit, interweaving appeals for justice with hopes for an abundant and fruitful land. As in many other texts, e.g., Isaiah 24, here justice among people is intimately tied to the health and fruitfulness of the land. Social justice and ecological health are bound up together.
In the New Testament, the words and deeds of Jesus and the message of the apostle Paul also speak of righteousness and justice. Jesus, for example, is keen to redefine for the people of his day what true righteousness is all about. In the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matt. 5-7, Jesus emphasizes, often in arresting antitheses, that true piety is a matter of the heart. True righteousness is not a matter of externals, but of purity of heart and hunger for justice. In a famous admonition, Jesus encourages his followers to "seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness" (6:33) and in so doing they will receive the nourishment and bodily provisions they need. In Luke 4, Jesus defines his mission, in part, as bringing justice to the oppressed. No amount of interpretive gymnastics can drive Jesus' concern for social justice out of the gospels. Turning to Paul, some would say that righteousness or justice (dikaiosunê) is at the center of his understanding of the gospel. It is, of course, the righteousness or justice of God that is most central for Paul--that righteousness which we cannot attain on our own but which Jesus through his death has achieved for us (Phil. 3:9). Though this idea of righteousness as grace or divine favor looms largest for Paul, he is also concerned about justice between people (Phil. 4:8).
In sum, these texts and many others like them give rise to the theological motif of righteousness. Because the God of the Bible is righteous and just, those who follow this God must be righteous and just. Of particular concern are those most likely to be treated unjustly, namely, the voiceless, the powerless, the homeless. And while this concern is appropriately and most often directed to humans, it also includes those nonhuman creatures whose voices remain silent to human ears. From this theological theme, I derive the ethical principle of equity. Given the notion of justice as equity sketched above, I propose the following moral maxim: we should act so as to treat others, human or nonhuman, fairly. More exactly, we have a prima facie duty to treat equals equally and unequals differentially. In other words, equity is not the same as equality. Equality implies sameness: one treats all, regardless of circumstance, the same. Equity implies different treatment when the circumstances warrant it precisely in order to be fair. To cite a homely example, as any parent knows, to be equitable or just one must treat similar children in similar circumstances the same, but treat children in dissimilar situations differently. All the seven year olds at your child's birthday party must be given the same amount of ice cream, on pain of loud cries of injustice. But seven year olds have privileges (and responsibilities) which four year olds do not.
Corresponding to the theological motif of righteousness and the ethical principle of equity are the moral virtues of justice and courage. Justice is the disposition to act impartially and fairly. It involves the ability to discern when to treat equals equally and unequals differentially, and thus implies a kind of practical wisdom. Furthermore, Lewis Smedes reminds us that justice implies respect--respect for the rights of others.50 And as Plato accurately insists, justice signifies a kind of personal integrity--a harmony between the other virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation. As far as I can tell--like wisdom, benevolence, and love--justice is not a mean and thus has only one corresponding vice, namely, injustice. Injustice is the propensity to be partial--to play favorites for no good reason or, more perversely, for personal gain. It is the failure to give people their due. It manifests itself in the continual willingness to violate the rights of others.
Courage is moral strength in the face of danger. It is tenacity in the face of opposition. It is stubborn persistence in the face of adversity. One of the four cardinal virtues for the Greeks, courage implies a firmness of mind and resoluteness of spirit despite the fearful awareness of danger. A virtue particularly sought after by soldiers in the ancient world, in the Christian tradition it was transmuted into fortitude. The vice of deficiency is cowardice or the inability to overcome fear without being reckless. At times less directly associated with outright fear, it is a kind of timidity or lack of firm determination to reach one's goals. The vice of excess is rashness. While courageous people honestly face their fear and persevere despite its sometimes paralyzing effects, rash people refuse to acknowledge their fear and as a consequence act hastily or without proper caution. In so acting they often puts themselves and/or others in danger.
In short, righteousness and justice are integral features of God's world of shalom. We have the moral obligation to treat others fairly, giving special care to those human and nonhuman creatures which by virtue of circumstance require it. Therefore we must cultivate the moral excellences of justice and courage--while discouraging the vices of injustice, cowardice, and rashness--in the formation of our individual and collective character.
First, the various kinds of animals and plants which populate the earth are created by God and are therefore valuable, irrespective of their usefulness to humans. Such value implies that we must not needlessly harm those species under our care. We must respect our nonhuman neighbors and with receptivity acknowledge our mutual interdependence and common dependence on God. Second, the earth and its creatures are finite. Thus, we must live within our means, preserving nonrenewable resources, such as species, by exercising self-restraint and living frugally. In so doing we show hospitality. Third, we are limited and often self-deceived in how we view the world. Though we think our crystal ball provides infallible insight into the future, it does not and never will. We must be cautious--acting with humility and honesty--when making decisions about the future of the earth and its inhabitants.
Fourth, the God-designed world is fruitful and able to sustain itself. We must wisely use the creatures under our care so as to provide for future generations. We dare not eat the last seed corn. We must preserve creation's fruitfulness. In so doing we witness to the divinely inspired hope which is within us. Fifth, work is good, but so is rest. We all--people, animals, and land--need a sabbath from our labor. We must allow for times of rejuvenation. With patience and serenity we must resist the relentless drive to exploit. Sixth, the earth is God's, not ours. We are not owners but earthkeepers--called to serve and protect creation. We must be willing to promote the well-being of all those who live within the garden. Fighting malice and apathy with benevolence and love, we follow the pattern of Christ. Seventh and last, the cries for righteousness and justice must not go unheeded. God the Just calls us to do justice, not only with and for hurting humans but with and for an aching earth. We must have the courage of our convictions and treat others justly. That which needs special treatment--homeless people, fragile land, rare species--we are obligated to treat with special care. In all that we do and say, we must gratefully acknowledge our Creator-Redeemer--the Maker of heaven and earth--who richly provisions us for the journey.
Regarding caring for creation there is much good work to be done. There are biological field studies to perform. There are groundwater remediation experiments to run. There are creation awareness centers to be established. There are school-yard ecology programs to be devised and implemented. There are old milk cartons to be recycled. There are lights to be turned off. There is compost to be turned. And with so much to do, some might say that attending to the topic of this paper is a waste of time--pie-in-the-sky theoretical good-for-nothing nonsense.
But in reality very little of that good work of keeping creation will be accomplished without the concrete embodiment of the virtues set forth in this paper. While the subject matter of this paper, in one sense, is theoretical, it is also intensely practical. For virtues are, after all, not only to be studied, but to be put into practice, into action (praxis). As Aristotle reminds us concerning the reading of his own book of ethics: "Surely, as the saying goes, where there are things to be done the end is not to survey and recognize the various things, but rather to do them; with regard to virtue, then, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it."51 The good work of earthkeeping is impossible without respect, receptivity, self-restraint, frugality, humility, honesty, wisdom, hope, patience, serenity, benevolence, love, justice, and courage. To do the work God calls us to do on behalf of our nonhuman neighbors and to God's glory, these ecological virtues, these fundamental traits of character, are necessary. To repeat the thesis of this paper, character is central to the care of creation.
But lest we succumb to the alluring though false belief that human character is not only necessary but also sufficient--that the virtues listed above will be enough to silence the groaning of the earth, Wendell Berry reminds us that our care is not ours alone, and we dare not think that on our slim shoulders the world and its fate rests. I conclude with this poem from his volume Sabbaths.
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
6Foot, Virtues and Vices, 1.
11Foot, Virtues and Vices, 8.
17Foot, Virtues and Vices, 8.
19Roberts, "Will Power and the Virtues," 125.
20Meilander, Theory and Practice of Virtue, 8.
22Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, 115-7.
32Nicomachean Ethics, 1118b, 19.
35Nicomachean Ethics, 1127a, 22.
36Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 363ff.
38Nicomachean Ethics, 1140b, 20.
39See, e.g., Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Job 28:28.
42See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II.64.4.
46DeWitt, "Take Good Care," 10.
49Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine,
50Lewis Smedes, Mere Morality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), ch. 2.
51Nicomachean Ethics, 1179a 35-1179b 4.
52Wendell Berry, Sabbaths (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 19.
Many thanks to the following colleagues and friends for helpful
comments on this paper: Susan Power Bratton, Andrew Dell'Olio,
Don Munro, James Nash, Dave Unander, Fred VanDyke.
From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 50:1 (March 1998): 6-21.