Creation Care Part 3: Should Christians Be Environmentalists?

25 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Should Christians be environmentalists? The answer, I’d suggest, is “yes.” Humanity was given the privilege and responsibility to care for creation from the very beginning, instructions that were never rescinded in the rest of the scriptural narrative.

Still, there has been resistance to the concept of environmentalism, particularly from conservative evangelical Christians – and not entirely without good reason. The question therefore becomes, what kind of environmentalists should we be?

IS THERE A NEED?

Do we even need to be environmentalists? In yesterday’s post we looked at the fact that creation wasn’t declared “good” until it found alignment with God’s established order – what one might call an ecosystem.

But in Genesis 3 we find that because man chose to rebel against his Creator, the very environment he found himself in became cursed with “thorns and thistles” (Ge 3:18). Paul echoes this when he tells his Roman audience that “creation became subject to futility” (Romans 8:20). “Things fall apart,” observes William Butler Yeats, and if the center cannot hold than it becomes necessary for humanity to take action in preserving the created world.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the “stewards,” which describes the responsibility bestowed on those to whom much is given (Matthew 25:14-30). Care for the environment is indeed an issue of such “stewardship,” and it becomes a task to live wisely within the created world.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AS RECONCILIATION

Creation was the last thing described as affected by Eden’s curse, and it may be fitting that it is indeed the last thing to be reconciled through God’s redemptive plan.

In Eph 2:10 and Col 1:20 Paul mentions reconciliation on a much larger, universal scale, making explicit mention of “the heavens and the earth.” Paul does not elaborate on these verses, though it seems a fair statement to suggest that Christ’s redemptive work is completed when the current, broken state of affairs here on earth are reconciled in the eschatological sense.

Bruce Demarest writes, “…these texts indicate that the discord and fragmentation characteristic of the fallen universe ultimately will give way to harmony and unity as Christ sovereignly rules over the created order.” (The Cross and Salvation, p. 181)

TWO BOOKS

But that’s just it, though, isn’t it? What does it actually mean to “live wisely within the created world?” A quick Google search will reveal a wide variety of shrill voices, talking heads and “inconvenient truths” on the issue.

In the sixteenth century, a group of theologians affirmed the existence of “two books:” that there is a “book of Scripture” (i.e., the Bible) as well as a “book of nature” (i.e., the natural world). The book of nature most certainly would include our understanding and knowledge gained from the natural sciences, which is why as someone trained in both science and theology, I find these categories so very helpful.

Which means that the “book of Scripture” teaches us to care for creation. But the “book of nature” must provide the reasons and means for caring for our ecosystems in the here and now by providing us with the most accurate scientific data available. This is yet another case where Biblical interpretation does not lead to unified application, as the data and figures are being interpreted differently by different groups of people.

Let’s be clear: this is hard, and only further complicated by increasing insistence on “going green” and the apparent lack of scientific consensus (or, to say it differently, a lack of consensus on whether or not there is a consensus…see what I mean?).

THEOLOGICAL CONCERNS

There are a variety of peripheral, theological concerns that should inform our thinking. I’ll name only a few of the most relevant.

  1. Creation > Creation. Lately, particularly in pop culture, there has been a tendency to use language akin to “mother earth/nature.” While not all such language should be confused with pantheism, it certainly does not add clarity to our theology. Christians affirm a distinction between an infinite God and His personal creation.
  2. God = personal. In all this discussion of environmentalism, it should be noted that God is certainly not the managerial god of deism, setting up an ecosystem and walking away, but intimately involved in human affairs and desiring relationship with His people.
  3. Human rights. While interdependence should not be ignored, human beings are more important than animals. This becomes an important point when global policies on the environment potentially impinge on subsistence farmers in the poorer countries of the world. At the end of the day, the Christian commitment to “love thy neighbor” takes precedence over environmental concerns.
  4. Eschatology: this world is not all there is. The Christian hope is of a future, restored creation. This does not negate our task to care for the one in the present, but gives us a future vision for a day when lion and lamb coexist and all things are brought to a state of beauty and perfection.
  5. The gospel. Increasingly, there has been a focus on environmental and social concerns, particularly among young Christians, even to the extent of redefining the gospel in social terms. The problem is that this discussion often stops short of bringing people to the cross for personal forgiveness and transformation. As Christians, our primary task is not environmentalism, but evangelism.

CONCLUSION

While we won’t always agree on the details, these are all areas of consideration for the dialogue on environmentalism, an important one that overlaps the areas of both theology and politics.

The recent BP disaster certainly should raise questions regarding the safety and viability of off-shore drilling, questions whose answers must be compared to other forms of oil extraction and its its subsequent environmental impact.

In the end, Christians must, as always, recognize our “dual citizenship:” both in the present world as well as God’s kingdom. As such we must make our decisions with attention paid to caring for the present, as well as hoping in the future.

25 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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