A Christian Four-Eyed Perspective on the Environment

English: photo of a green eye and glasses

English: photo of a green eye and glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This is an Expanded Version of a Speech Delivered at the Faces of Faith Inter-Faith Council Day Forum “Perspectives on the Environment”, January 30, 2008 at York University.)

When I was a little kid, some of my schoolmates would tease me and call me “four eyes” because I wear eyeglasses. Well, you can say that I grew up with a ‘four-eyed’ perspective on the world. So, in my time here, I am going to present A Christian ‘Four-Eyed’ Perspective on the Environment. What are these four eyes? Well, the four eyes are four theologies: the theology of creation, the theology of evil, the theology of redemption, and the theology of ultimate renewal.

I am going to give insights from each theological eye, insights that inform a Christian approach to the environmental crisis. There are, of course, more insights from these four theologies, but because of time, I am just going to focus on these four insights. And I have framed these insights in language and concepts that I hope will also be helpful to all of us, Christian or otherwise.

One disclaimer before I continue: Christianity has a great deal of diversity within its ranks. So, please understand that this is “a” Christian perspective, and not “the” Christian perspective, as I make no pretensions to speak on behalf of all Christianities.

1st Eye: Theology of Creation

Insight #1: Part of being human is to be nurturing stewards of the environment that doesn’t belong to us but to which we are intricately connected.

Let me expand this a little for you. In the Bible, Genesis 2:7 (NRSV) “the LORD God formed [a] man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” This picture of us being made from the dust of the ground suggests that we are intricately connected or linked to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – in the original Hebrew of this passage in Genesis 2 there’s a pun or a play on words that further emphasizes this connection – God created adam (the Hebrew word for the first ‘man’) from the adamah  (the Hebrew word for ‘earth’). We are in solidarity with the environment. There is interdependence between humanity and the creation.

But the environment doesn’t belong to us. Christians believe that the whole universe, the cosmos, the earth, the world we live in, and all that inhabit this earth are created by God, are God’s handiwork, God’s work of art. The environment, therefore, is not random, not purely by chance, but rather purposeful and beautiful. (Genesis 1 & 2) And since God created it all, it all belongs to God. Psalm 24:1-2 “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. (NRSV)

And our role in this world that belongs to God is to be stewards, managers of something very precious and valuable that belongs to our master. Genesis 2:15 suggest that our stewardship role is to “till” and to “keep” our garden Earth. We are suppose to nurture the environment, God’s creation, so that it will blossom with life, just like a good gardener does with a garden that s/he loves. This stewardship role that belongs to both men and women, to all of us, is part of what makes us human.

This stewardship approach or stewardship ethic is a good starting point for a Christian environmental approach. Don’t simply take my word for it. In a chapter on conservation values and ethics, J. Baird Callicott, a philosopher, environmental ethicist and a long-time critic of the Judeo-Christian ethic wrote: “The Judeo-Christian Stewardship Environmental Ethic is especially elegant and powerful. It also exquisitely matches the ethical requirements of conservation biology. The Judeo-Christian Stewardship Environmental Ethic confers objective value on nature in the clearest and most unambiguous of ways: by divine decree.” [J. Baird Callicott, “Conservation Values and Ethics,” in Principles of Conservation Biology, ed. Gary K. Meffe and C. Ronald Carroll; Sinauer Associates, 1994, p. 36] (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 181)

Cover of "Redeeming Creation: The Biblica...

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2nd Eye: Theology of Evil

Insight #2: The evil in all of us manifests itself in both personal evil and structural evil that do violence to both people and the environment.

Christian biologist and environmentalist Fred Van Dyke and his colleagues wrote: “[Christian] theologians distinguish between two types of evil – personal and structural. Personal evil, the problem of individual sin and moral choice, is the subject of many sermons. The Christian’s response to personal evil is a change in personal behavior [and beliefs]. It requires repentance, restitution and subsequent consecration to God. … [p. 155] But evil in the fallen world can reach beyond personal levels and demand more than personal responses. Evil can come to be incorporated, and even rewarded, in the operation of a system or organization. Evil at the structural level cannot be effectively thwarted by remedies at the personal level. It is the system itself that must be changed.” (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 155-156)

What are some examples of structural evil that we see today? Well, in relation to the environment specifically, one example of a structural or systemic evil is our Western economy’s greed for unlimited consumption and unlimited economic growth. Fred Van Dyke, et al, again: “But the truth is that resource-based economies cannot expand without limit in a limited world.” (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 157)

Another Christian environmentalist, William Van Geest wrote: “in contrast to stewardship, a top priority for North American society has long been an ever-expanding economy and increasing consumption. As a result, human well-being and creation stewardship are often sacrificed to the requirements of economic production. Most of our economic activity is still based on a belief that we can continue to consume the earth’s resources without limitation.

Lesslie Newbigin was Moderator of the General ...

Lesslie Newbigin was Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC in 1978/1979. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

… Missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin has written: “Growth … for the sake of growth … not determined by any overarching social purpose … is … the phenomenon which, when it occurs in the human body, is called cancer.” [Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Eerdmans 1986, p. 114] (From God’s Earth Keepers: Biblical Action and Reflection on the Environment by William Van Geest, 1995, pp. 14-15) Unlimited growth is a cancer.

May I humbly suggest that this economic ‘cancer’ is killing the environment and is killing us softly, slowly and gradually, by deluding us under its almost hypnotic power to consume, consume and consume to the point we almost forget the meaning of the word, “enough”.

The Bible sees a connection between violence to the earth, to the environment, and violence to people. An interesting passage in Isaiah 24:4-6 (NRSV): “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant [with God]. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled, and few people are left.” It seems that crimes against humanity, crimes against the environment, and crimes against God are connected.

Now, I want to stress the ones that suffer the most from these structural evils are almost always the poor and the marginalized. Al Gore, before he won the Nobel Peace Prize and before he made An Inconvenient Truth, and even before he was Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore wrote a book called Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. In there Al Gore wrote: “In today’s world, the links between social injustice and environmental degradation can be seen everywhere: the placement of toxic waste dumps in poor neighborhoods, the devastation of indigenous peoples and the extinction of their cultures when the rain forests are destroyed, disproportionate levels of lead and toxic air pollution in inner-city ghettos, the corruption of many government officials by people who seek to profit from the unsustainable exploitation of resources.” (Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992, p. 247) In a recent book on global warming, the author Mark Maslin simply stated: “Be under no illusion: if global warming is not taken seriously, it will be the poorest people in our global community, as usual, that suffer most.” (Mark Maslin, Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford UP 2004, p. 3) These insights are echoed by studies in environmental racism, ecofeminism, and environmental justice, for instance.

All of us in the West are not innocent of unlimited consumption, of feeding this economic cancer that is killing us softly but especially killing the global poor whose faces are often women, children and ethnic minorities.

I am not saying that our economy is evil. Rather, I am suggesting that our economy, though good originally, is now possessed by a systemic evil that requires a vigorous exorcism, so to speak, by our combined efforts. How do we exorcise this systemic demon? This leads to the third eye’s insight.

3rd Eye: Theology of Redemption

Insight #3: The environmental crisis is a religious and moral issue, requiring us to renounce personal and structural evils, even perhaps at sacrificial cost, and to embrace a stewardship ethic and stewardship structures that are rooted in a religious or spiritual narrative.

How do we change a structural evil? Fred Van Dyke et al: “Reform is needed in the structures of management and the structures of law. But by themselves the reforms generated in these areas would still be incomplete. A further, and greater, need is the development and provision of an environmental ethic by which both individuals and agencies are judged. And until that ethic is well formulated and well articulated, neither personal nor structural evil in natural resource management can be effectively attacked.” (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 158) Structural and legal reforms are needed, of course, but what is even more urgently needed is an environmental ethic – a moral foundation, which I argue religion can provide leadership in.

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, even non-religious scholars have acknowledge this: “[The late] Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer and spokesman of science, [also an atheist] published a letter in the July 1990 issue of the American Journal of Physics in which he called for a joint commitment by “science and religion” to preserve and cherish the earth. … Sagan wrote … that our environmental problems require ‘radical changes not only in public policy, but also in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment.’ ” [Carl Sagan, “Guest Comment: Preserving and Cherishing the Earth – An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion” American Journal of Physics 58 (1990): p. 615] (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 162) The atheist Carl Sagan implicitly admits that science and technology alone cannot solve our environmental dilemma. We need the “teaching, example and leadership” of religion.

In fact, increasingly for many environmentalists, claiming that the environmental crisis is a religious and moral issue is nothing new. For some, especially the advocates of Deep Ecology, the spirituality, or at least the morality, of environmental activism is absolutely necessary. (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 138)

Max Oelschlaeger … [a] well-known, well-respected and well-published [scholar] in the field of environmental ethics made a startling statement in his book Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis, [Yale UP 1994]: “The church may be, in fact, our last, best chance. My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative.” [emphasis mine] [p. 1 & 5] (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 180-181)

Religious or spiritual narratives are the soil out of which environmental ethics and environmental-friendly structures can grow to replace our cancerous structures. But let’s be clear about one thing: rejecting the systemic evil that possesses our global economy will be painful and costly, and it won’t be easy.

For Christians, the example of Jesus Christ, the famous religious narrative embodied in the Bible, sets Christians a standard to be self-sacrificial, to obey our roles as nurturing stewards, even in the face of economic or even personal cost. Philippians 2:5-8 asks Christians to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (NRSV)

Just as Christ Jesus gave up his position of privilege in order to be humble and to be obedient, even to the point of death, Christians believe that we, in the West, cannot continue exploiting our position of global economic privilege and power at the expense of the global poor and the environment. We need to divest our privilege, divest our power, divest our riches, in order to do what is right – even if it may cost us, and it probably will cost us our lifestyles – for the sake of the common good.

4th Eye: Theology of Ultimate Renewal

Insight #4: Our environmental activism must be sustained by a communal vision of the ideal future, which nurtures faith, hope and imagination.

Christians believe that ultimately, sometime in the future only God knows, God will bring about the full renewal of his creation, of the environment, of social structures, of personal relationships, of all things. Colossians 1:20 says, “[that] through [Jesus Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” We believe that at the end, good will triumph, and all that is good, all that is life-giving, will be restored to its original goodness: all evils will be exorcised, so to speak. This vision of ultimate renewal gives Christians hope. It strengthens our communal faith. It captures our communal imaginations. It motivates us as a community to continue to do good.

Sometimes the environmental crisis can seem bleak. Some of us may feel on the verge of hopelessness or despair at making any significant change. Well, you need a community with a shared vision to sustain your activism. For Christians, such visions are found in the religious narrative of the Bible. Allow me to read a poetic vision of a world in perfect harmonious relationships between nature, people and God from the prophet Isaiah as a possible vision for sustaining environmental activism: Isaiah 11:6-9 “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall lie down like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (NRSV)

Summary of Principles from this ‘Four-Eyed’ Perspective

In summary let me repeat my four insights from my ‘four-eyed’ perspective:

Insight #1: Part of being human is to be nurturing stewards of the environment that doesn’t belong to us but to which we are intricately connected.

Insight #2: The evil in all of us manifests itself in both personal evil and structural evil that do violence to both people and the environment.

Insight #3: The environmental crisis is a religious and moral issue, requiring us to renounce personal and structural evils, even perhaps at sacrificial cost, and to embrace a stewardship ethic and stewardship structures that are rooted in a religious or spiritual narrative.

Insight #4: Our environmental activism must be sustained by a communal vision of the ideal future, which nurtures faith, hope and imagination.

Let me end with this challenge to all of us: Today we, especially in the privileged West, we must decide whether we will be, [to use Wendell Berry’s terms,] “an exploiter of creation or a nurturer of it. Exploiters are specialists whose concern is efficiency and whose goal is profit. Nurturers are generalists whose concern is care and whose goal is health – their own, their community’s and their land’s. Exploiters ask of creation, “How much and how quickly?” Nurturers ask, “How well and how long?” In other words, what can creation produce dependably? The exploiter wants to earn as much as possible with as little work as possible. The nurturer wishes to earn what is needful and to work as well as possible. Only in nurturing is there stewardship.” (From Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship by Fred Van Dyke, David C. Mahan, Joseph K. Sheldon, Raymond H. Brand, IVP 1996, p. 140)

Thank you.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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2 Responses to A Christian Four-Eyed Perspective on the Environment

  1. Pingback: The Bible: GPS or Map? | 3-D Christianity

  2. Pingback: Same Planet, Different Worlds | 3-D Christianity

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