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Evangelicals and the Environment

Canadian Christian Musings

As Canada settles into winter, talk about climate change experiences a resurgence. If there is a lot of snow, it’s because of climate change. If there is little snow, it’s because of climate change. There are people termed “climate change deniers,” and there are many on the other side of the spectrum who lobby for the recognition of “inconvenient truths.” There is a gamut in Environmentalism (note the “ism”), but Environmentalism as a system seems to provide—for some people—a Messianic cause of world salvation. Christians will find it impossible to agree that saving this physical planet is the noblest and highest of eschatological goals. Nevertheless, it seems that many evangelicals have failed to wrestle through biblical passages which do teach a causal relation between a people’s morality and the fruitfulness of their environment.

Furthermore, the Bible teaches clearly that our sin affects the created order and our land. Even if one wants to be skeptical about climate change reports, surely one can recognize that we are able to poison our water, pollute our air, deforest vast tracks of land, and ruin a local environment’s ability to produce sustainable crops. Today, those of us in Canada who live near the Great Lakes would never drink from them directly. A trip to certain cities in China or India will quickly reveal the debilitating nature of smog and air pollution. In Malawi, there is a crisis because of the number of trees that have been cut down; people are running out of easily accessible wood, which is affecting both them and their environment. A reading of history will reveal that there have been numerous places that once supported thriving populations, but bad agricultural practices ruined the land. Despite how some evangelicals want to interpret God’s covenant with Noah, God’s promise to never again destroy the earth with a deluge can hardly be taken to mean that God is bound to exempt us from the environmental consequences of our selfishness, short-sightedness, and sin.

So How Should Evangelicals Think about the Environment?

Very carefully. Genesis 1 reveals the astounding orderliness, beauty, and fruitfulness of the world that God formed. As we all know, God gave human beings—his image bearers—the task of filling the earth and exercising dominion over it. Much, much more begs to be said about this point, but it will suffice to say that stewardship is not ownership, dominion is not exploitation, and selfless service is not sinful self-indulgence.

We must always bear in mind that This is My Father’s World. Genesis 3 records the rebellion of God’s image bearers, and one part of the resulting curse is that the land yields thorns; the land is affected by our sin. Romans 8 tells us that the creation is groaning in bondage because of our sin. The Flood shows the resetting of creation back to Genesis 1:2. God’s judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah leaves their towns and surrounding countryside ruined. The covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 are tied inseparably to land, crops, fertility, etc. True, this is an old covenant blessing/curse pattern, but it is very difficult to maintain that in the church age there is nothing that people can do that can harm their environment, or that God never punishes human sin by affecting the land. In fact, there is little reason to think that climate change could not be a way that God could judge our hubris and technological exploitation of creation.

While we are responsible before God to rule over the earth, we are to rule over it under God. We are stewards or vice-regents, not despotic emperors. If we take his gift of good land and pervert it in our autonomous pride and rebellion, surely God can allow us to reap certain consequences. In other words, one may deny that climate change is actual, but one cannot believe on the basis of some theological a priori that negative climate change is impossible. Throughout history there have been large famines; what kind of cultural arrogance is it for Canadians to think that God must exempt them from such a possibility! Or is God only justified in bringing famines to other nations, or at other times?

There is a Positive Intuition in Environmentalism

Although Environmentalism as an extreme system can be problematic, it is possible to uncover a positive intuition inside of it. We are to take care of God’s world! What we do with our environment matters, and it matters greatly. Those who make taking care of the environment the highest ethical good of their lives are misguided—some more so, some less so—but God has designed us to act as stewards. We can distort and pervert and misapply this design, which certainly has been warped by our sin, but our consciences still speak in this regard.

Christians should care far more about the environment than any other people on the planet. This is not because there is no new heavens and new earth in our future; it’s because God gave us this role and it is our moral responsibility to fulfill it. We have a binding moral obligation to manage our Father’s world. Every drop of water and every grain of soil was created—and is sustained—by the Word. God planted the Garden of Eden, and then God placed Adam and Eve inside of it. Yet it was always his. If someone entrusts us with something valuable, and we purposefully break it, abuse it, or ruin it through willful neglect, we have behaved immorally; we have sinned against them. Failure to care for God’s world is sin and requires repentance.

In terms of worldview, if materialism is true, then neither this universe, this world, nor any people at all have any significance. But if Christianity is true, literally every-thing matters. Christians recognize that nature is creation: the enormous importance of this recognition—and its implications—cannot be exaggerated. The world must be cared for, since it is God’s property.

Properly Caring for the Environment Helps Form Character

Not only are we required to positively shape the environment (we are to exercise dominion, after all), one of the entailments to honouring God and obeying his commands is that doing so produces good fruit in us. While there are many practical steps we can take to reduce our environmental impact, personal moral improvement doesn’t automatically come from purchasing the latest LED lights or buying the newest high-efficiency clothes dryer. Contextually, all of these improvements are also feeding an industry that is reaping the rewards of greater awareness without deeper understanding. Looking at the whole picture, we might indeed find that repairing an old washing machine is actually less wasteful than causing the production of a new one and adding the old one to a landfill. We need to take personal responsibility and develop an orientation towards good management.

This may sound daunting to some because there are so many things commanding our attention these days, but even if we start with small steps, we’re taking our responsibility as stewards seriously, and honouring God. As we start to do this, we create opportunities for certain virtues to be cultivated in ourselves. We care because we respect the life God has created. We then encourage self-discipline as we structure our activities to reflect our care. As we see the rewards this brings into our lives, we find delight in contributing to the betterment of our world, but also realize that we have played only one small part and are dependent on the larger systems in which we work. This produces humility, which requires a sort of patient hope and optimism that the future might turn out well. This then cycles back to a sense of responsibility: the future of our world depends on our caring.

Caring also encourages unselfishness. If we only selfishly treat the natural world as a commodity to be mined, it obviously will not flourish forever. This is our current mode of industrial agriculture, resource extraction, waste “management,” and even global trade. We depend on gross amounts of artificial inputs, so that we can reap the maximum short-term benefit. This necessarily leaves nothing for next year, nothing to glean, and nothing to recycle back into the systems, so we have to begin again from scratch. Nature, when properly cared for in the long-term, is self-sustaining and self-propelling, because that’s how God designed it to be. We know that God’s providence never stops upholding and guiding the world, but God has made our world as an integrated system with one thing built upon another. Every piece has a role to play. We are to manage it, not to ravage it. If we choose to steward well, we are compelled to give back; to offer the firstfruits for next years’ harvest so that we can build on what we’ve accomplished. In doing so, we exercise humility, and in the process, gain wisdom, patience and self-control.

Can’t Technology Solve All of Our Problems?

Technological control doesn’t require long-term accountability because it gives us the illusion that starting over is always a tenable option. In fact, we often make the destruction intentional and then engineer our way to re-creating (always less successfully) what we have just lost. This enables us the short-term satisfaction we are seeking (i.e., feeling like we’re making progress and accomplishing goals of innovation), while avoiding the heartache that accompanies the recognition that we have destroyed something that is actually vital and necessary. Why do we think it is easier to manufacture nature than to sustain it? Why do we always find ourselves having to make solutions for problems we’ve created (many of which were originally produced as “solutions”)?

Despoiling the earth is the ultimate make-work project. Desecration requires work, and it produces multifaceted crises that require ever-increasing inputs of energy and labour to vainly try to undo and offset the effects of the original despoliation. In contrast, nature flourishes in succession. Each year builds upon the last, increasing in fruitfulness—especially when there is loving and intelligent guidance. When we are constantly re-creating, we inevitably sacrifice quality for quantity. Given the right circumstances and care, nature provides both in abundance. By relegating solutions to technocrats, we distance ourselves from responsibility and forsake our calling as stewards and caretakers of the earth God has given to us. In fact, we should be vigilant in holding the technocrats accountable for their practices and products, since so many of them have been harmful.

Conclusion: Provision, Humble Dependence, and Gentle Care

Nonbelievers may marvel at the incredible unlikelihood that our world would be accidentally filled with resources for us to discover and utilize (to say nothing of us evolving to a state where we can produce technology and energy from this stockpile). Christians, however, will marvel at the God who designed us and the world in which we live. In wisdom and love he has given us the capacities, senses, and faculties needed to explore his world. The natural order that God has created is sufficient to sustain the entire human race for this entire temporal age. We should honour and adore the Creator who has made and sustains such a bounteous and good creation. This provision from God’s heart and hand should make us humble, hardworking, grateful, and careful. The world is a great gift. Existence is precious beyond all imagining. God has designed us so that we cannot live or flourish in health apart from our organic connection to the Father’s world.

Abusing the land is not merely foolish, it is evil; it disrespects God. It mocks and rejects his design. Christians are the only people who can truly understand the nature of nature—as a result, we must lead the world in caring for it. This is a biblical, theological, and moral imperative. May our Creator God give us the wisdom and necessary moral goodness and courage to live as proper stewards. May he so work in us so that we love him supremely—thus honouring all his handiwork—and so that we love our neighbours enough to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the fruit of long-term love. This means that we learn from the past so that we can shepherd God’s creation today, with an eye to the future. The land was not owned by those who came before us; it is not owned by us; and it will not be owned by those yet unborn. But all of our days we live on it and pass over it. Caring for creation is one way that we can live in love and grace, and, in God’s mercy, care for one another and help keep each other safe.

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