Christians and the Environment
Since Monday was Earth Day, it seems like a fitting time to consider the topic of Christianity and the environment. In light of contemporary interest in ecological issues and the so-called “Green Movement” this topic would seem a relevant and important one for Christians to consider, especially since at times Christians have been pitted as enemies to the environment and in many ways responsible for people abusing the environment. I first became interested in thinking about the relationship between Christian theology while I was doing my doctoral studies because I took a class on theology and ecology, so I want to share some of the things I have discovered and thought about the topic over the years.
An Important (But In Some Ways, Ambivalent) Article on the Topic
Lynn White Jr.’s 1967 article entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" claimed that Christianity was to blame for the ecological crisis that was being identified and discussed in the 1960’s because of the way that it had introduced a human-centered worldview in place of ancient paganism and other religions of the East. According to White, the Christian teaching that God created humans to benefit from and rule over the world means humans are able to exploit the resources of the world without concern for any effects on the natural world. White saw ancient pagan religions as creating some safeguards against exploiting the natural world because it saw a spiritual nature to the natural, but no such barriers exist in Christianity. In fact, White calls Christianity the most “anthropocentric” (human-centered) religion ever created and believes that its influence in Western culture led to the worldview and behaviors that sought to conquer rather than care for nature.
At the same time that White cast blame on the Christian faith for contemporary exploitation of the environment, he did note that some Christians had a different view, with Francis of Assisi as one whose life and writings reflected a care and appreciation for the natural world. According to White, Francis’s attempt to establish an alternative Christian viewpoint concerning nature failed, but he may give some resources to people interested in countering the view of the world passed down through Christianity.
Harmful or Helpful?
In light of White’s article, one might wonder if Christianity is harmful or helpful to the environment. I believe that rather than exploiting the environment, Christianity actually teaches us to have a proper viewpoint of the environment. Christian doctrine speaks about the world around us as being created by God to give Him glory; it is distinct from Him but He cares about it. Christianity therefore says that the world is important but not ultimate. In addition, it tells us that humans are part of the created world but also unique in the created world in that we are made in the image of God and given the command as his representatives in this world to exercise care in accordance with what God desires. We are stewards and thus to care for it the way our master (God) desires for us to rather than in accordance with our own desires. The created world is not something to be conquered nor something to be left alone, as God tells the first humans to tend the garden and to cultivate it; the Bible begins in garden and ends in a city. Humans can care for the world but also harm the world, while our belief that humans are sinners tells us that our default will be to do what benefits us without regard for how it may affect others (including future generations). We know that human actions can hurt the world (in fact, sin is what leads to a curse on the world), but we also know that God is in control and promises not to destroy it but rather to redeem it, so we can live in hope even in the midst of challenges. In fact, we look forward to the renewal of the earth, for things to be made right and for a new heavens and new earth to be made (see Revelation 21-22).
Should Christians Be Concerned About the Environment?
In light of what we see in the Bible, it seems that Christians should be concerned with what happens to the created world because it is the world that God made and also the world in which our neighbors (today and in the future) live. Caring for the environment is a way to love God and love others. This leads me to think through the affects my actions have on the world, but this also must be done in a way that has the ultimate end in mind the glory of God and not the created world itself. This is important because at times, environmentalism can make the world ultimate, really worshipping the creation rather than the creator. That is not shocking, as sinners naturally seek to put things in place of God, including His world (see Romans 1:21-23). In fact, sometimes sin is defined as making things that are good into gods - the same can be true about the environment. Just because some have made the earth into an idol does not mean that we should not care about the earth; we can adopt helpful behaviors and practices but with right motives.
May we care for what God has made and entrusted to us, remembering who we are in Christ and who He is. In fact, as Mark Liederbach and Seth Bible argue in the book True North may we see caring for creation as a way to worship our God who is creator, redeemer, and coming king (Note: my summary and review of this helpful book on the topic can be found here).
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