Christian Environmental Ethics Essay

Introduction Among many environmentalists religious belief is often viewed, at best, as irrelevant in addressing environmental issues or, at worst – particularly in the case of Christianity – as a leading culprit in creating the global environmental crisis. No religion, either Eastern or Western, primitive or modern, has ever prevented environmental degradation, and in some instances religions have aided and abetted the destruction of ecosystems.

This disdain for religion reflects ‘the largely unexamined position espoused by scores of ecologists, historians, philosophers, poets, nature writers, political activists, and even some theologians who have identified themselves with the ecology movement’ (Santmire, 1985). Two articles which conveniently frame the growth of popular ecological consciousness over the last quarter-century reflect this environmentalist disdain for religion. In his now classic essay, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ Lynn White, Jr indicts Christianity as the source of humanity’s ‘unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results’ (White, 1983).

According to White, Christian theology stripped nature of any sacred status leaving it composed of inanimate objects and ignorant beasts that humans could exploit and manipulate with impunity. When this anthropocentric faith was uniquely joined with modern science and technology an unprecedented destructive power was unleashed. Nor did Christianity’s destructive influence wane with modern secularity. Although ‘the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian’, we nonetheless continue ‘to live … very largely in a context of Christian axioms’ (White, 1983).

Consequently, in terms of the global environmental crisis, ‘Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt’ (White, 1983). Twenty-five years after the publication of White’s essay, Wendell Berry, in his article, ‘Christianity and the Survival of Creation’, notes that Christians are culpable for the 0960-3115 © 1995 Chapman; Hall 850 Waters environmental crisis because they ignore the key precepts of biblical faith. Our technological age, which originated and was nurtured with Christendom, ignores the theological belief that the earth belongs to God and humans are called to be God’s guests and stewards.

The attempt to reshape nature in a technological image is ‘the most horrid blasphemy’ because it throws ‘God’s gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them’ (Berry, 1993). This blasphemy is morally and spiritually corrupting leading to the ‘preposterous assumption that Paradise can be recovered by violence, by assaulting and laying waste the gifts of creation’ (Berry, 1993). White and Berry both conclude that the environmental crisis stems from a spiritual crisis in which humans attempt to master rather than to live in harmony with nature.

In the interval between their two articles, environmental ethics has turned to a variety of resources to solve this crisis of the spirit. In addition to secular appeals to pragmatic and enlightened self-interest, there is growing curiosity in pantheism, mysticism, animistic religions, and the peculiar amalgamation labelled ‘New Age’ as possible ways to guide the world out of its ecological and spiritual malaise. Yet this quest for spiritual resources has missed an important cue from White and Berry. Despite their harsh indictment of Christianity’s complicity in the environmental crisis. oth turn to it to provide spiritual resources for rectifying our current predicament. White proposes St Francis as the “patron saint for ecologists’ (White, 1983), and Berry pleads for the recovery of a stewardship ethic. In short, cutting ourselves off from traditional Christian theological resources will not help heal our ecological and spiritual sickness. We cannot ‘devise or invent a new ethic’ but we must utilize “principles’ which are ‘implicit in our moral traditions’ (Attfield, 1983). There have been a number of Christian responses to the environmental crisis.

Many of these works, however, have been defensive attempts to exonerate Christianity, and more positive proposals have largely failed to spark secular or ecclesial interest (Birch and Cobb. 1981; Santmire, 1985; Bowman, 1990; Young, 1994). This deficient utilization of theological resources in developing an environmental ethic is due not only to sinful self-interest and political fickleness on the part of Christians, but also a failure to explicitly ground these proposals in the biblical, creedal and doctrinal traditions of the church which shape the values, virtues and practices of Christian communities. Rather than efending Christianity against its environmentalist critics or proposing an environmental ethic based on Christian principles, the purpose of this essay is to: (1) review selected Christian theological doctrines to examine if they may serve as resources for an environmental ethic; (2) sketch the contours of ethical models suggested by these theological resources; (3) describe the need for holding these ethical models in tension in order that they may be ecologically sustaining rather than destructive; and (4) assess the prospects of these ethical models for informing a larger environmental ethic beyond ecclesial communities.

Theological doctrines The first doctrine is creation. A central Christian belief is that God is the creator of heaven and earth; i. e. physical and spiritual reality is the result of divine will or intent. Furthermore, the original divine creative act is unique as portrayed by the notion of creatio ex nihilo. ‘It is a creation, brought into existence by God but something distinct from and over against God’ (Peters, 1992). Consequently, the world is not sacred but is rather a Christian theology and environmental ethics 851 divine gift or blessing. This theological doctrine, however, does not imply a static view of creation.

Creatio ex nihilo is complemented by creatio continua in which ‘[c]reation is properly understood as a continuing act of God’s will… ‘ (Polkinghorne, 1986; cf. Peters, 1992). As described by various sciences, creation is a domain of continuous change (Peacocke, 1990). Yet, unlike scientific description, a theological portrayal of creation insists that dynamic natural processes are also influenced by divine intentions. Creation has a purpose, namely to be a hospitable environment for living creatures, suggesting that the ‘swarms’ mentioned in Genesis is ‘the biblical word for biodiversity’ (Rolston, 1993).

Hence, providence may be understood more in terms of a relationship of interaction between the Creator and creation rather than divine interventions into natural or historical processes. Humans play a unique role is this relationship or interaction because they are capable of discerning and responding to divine disclosures regarding the teleological end or purpose of creation. The principal theological task, then is to truthfully discern these providential disclosures, whereas the primary moral challenge is to respond or act in fitting ways (Niebuhr, 1963).

It is this relation among creatio ex nihilo, creatio continua, and divine purpose that leads t o t h e r~ext doctrine of redemption. The Christian tradition claims that the world (particularlY humans) are distorted or plagued by a fundamental flaw in need of correction or healing. In more traditional theological language, all creatures live in a fallen and sinful world. Admittedly, the fall is one of the most difficult theological doctrines to maintain in light of modern science. The natural and anthropological sciences do not portray a pristine relationship between humans and nature that was disrupted in the past.

Yet the fall plays too significant a role in Christian faith to be simply jettisoned. It provides a helpful metaphor for understanding our present ecological predicament; that with the emergence of Homo sapiens a species evolved with the mental and technological power to extensively disrupt and destroy various ecosystems, thereby frustrating creation’s purpose to be a hospitable environment for diverse expressions of life. Acting upon this potential marks a disordering of creation subjecting it, using Paul’s imagery (Romans 8:18-25), to futility.

Furthermore, moral and sinful creatures are unable to rescue themselves from this plight. For Christians, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ signifies God’s redemptive interaction with creation, enabling it to accomplish its purpose. This redemptive act, however, is not confined to human souls or even human history but includes a cosmic reordering of all creation (Beker, 1980). It is this redemptive hope that draws us to the final doctrine concerning eschatology (the study of ‘last things’).

The Christian tradition affirms that God is an active and redemptive participant in the creatio continua. God sustains and interacts with creation that it might fulfil its purpose. The randomness and chance that characterize our understanding and portrayal of natural and evolutionary processes reflect God’s providential ordering of creation toward its consummation (Peacocke, 1979, 1990; Polkinghorne, 1989). There is an obviously strong teleological dimension in Christian eschatology. God is drawing creation into a redeemed future.

As a number of theologians have argued, the preeminent sign of this redeemed future is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Pannenberg, 1968; O’Donovan, 1986; Moltmann, 1990). In Christ’s resurrection we catch a glimpse of creation’s destiny, for not only is Jesus ‘the first born of all creation, but he is the first among many’ (Gunton, 1992). This redemptive and eschatological sign is not confined to humans but includes all of creation because Christ’s resurrection is but a prelude to the resurrection of both history and nature (Moltmann, 1990). Christian hope 852 Waters nvisions a new creation as a cosmic reordering encompassing a redeemed relationship among God, humanity and nature. Furthermore, this hope in a new creation informs or shapes our present moral values, acts and virtues. Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that the doctrines of creation, redemption, and eschatology are not construed within a deistic, monistic or pantheistic understanding of God, but within a uniquely Christian trinitarian framework. There is a necessary relational quality of God both in terms of the divine life within the godhead and its relation to creation.

These doctrines stress more the loving nature of the triune God which allows the freedom of ‘the other’, rather than a deity who is wholly transcendent and independent of, or wholly immanent in and dependent upon, ‘the other’ (LaCugna, 1991; cf. Moltmann, 1981). With these brief summaries of creation, redemption, and eschatology in mind, the next task is to sketch some rough contours of three ethical models suggested by these doctrines: dominion, stewardship, and co-creatorship. Ethical models The first ethical model is limited dominion.

Because humans have, or are given by God, certain mental, moral and spiritual capacities, they are called by God to play a unique role in helping creation accomplish its purpose to be a hospitable environment for life. Consequently, humans intervene and regulate various natural processes. Some notion of human dominion is needed to resist the temptation of romanticizing nature. ‘We properly fear certain features of the natural world; it is not always a “friend” which serves our best interests’ (Gustafson, 1981).

Gutstafson also insists that such natural things as germs, viruses, diseases, earthquakes, droughts and floods do not always provide hospitable environments for human life (Gustafson, 1981). It is significant to note that the biblical creation story begins in the garden rather than the wilderness of Eden, for there was always the expectation that humans would have a duty to tend creation. Dominion implies a hierarchy in creation, yet it is not one of humans being separate from or over and against nature but where they are part of nature playing a unique, tending role.

This limited understanding of dominion leads to the second ethical model of stewardship. Dominion is not a license to exploit nature in order to satisfy every human want and need. Rather, humans are authorized to be God’s faithful stewards to care or tend creation, enabling it to fulfill its purpose. The ‘Bible regards it as man’s duty to use nature, not to abstain from using it; but that he must use it as a son of God and in obedience to God’s will; and that his use or abuse of nature has far-reaching results in the whole structure of the world… (Moule, 1964).

The limits upon human dominion imposed by this stewardship ethic are reflected in the Old Testament laws regarding agriculture and land use (Brueggemann, 1977; Lilburne, 1989), and in New Testament injunctions that Christians should conduct themselves in ways that do not frustrate God’s redemptive intentions for creation (Moule, 1964). A stewardship ethic is rooted in the Christian hope that humans will not be saved from creation but redeemed with all of creation. It is this eschatological dimension that suggests the final ethical model of co-creatorship.

An understanding of humans as created co-creators is rooted in the Christian theological traditions of creatio continua and hope in the new creation (Peacocke, 1979; Hefner, 1993). Humans work with God in the ongoing creation and redemption of the world. Humans “become that part of God’s creation consciously and intelligently co-operating in the Christian theology and environmental ethics 853 processes of creative change taking due account both of man’s and nature’s proper needs, with duly assigned priorities for each’ (Peacocke, 1979).

Although the tasks of cocreatorship are similar to those of stewardship, the difference lies in their respective orientations. The steward is orientated towards the past and present for the purpose of maintaining an imposed order, whereas the co-creator is oriented toward a relatively open future. Without the complementary role of co-creatorship, stewardship may become a deterministic exercise in which human actions play no significantly creative or redemptive role in fashioning the future. Consequently, Christian theological resources do not support an exclusively preservationist or a restorationist ethic.

The image of Christian hope is not a restored Eden, but a new creation: The redemption of the world.. , does not serve only to put us back in the Garden of Eden where we began. It leads us on to that further destiny.. , so that the outcome of the world’s story cannot be a cyclicalreturn to its beginnings, but must fulfil that purpose in the freeing of creation from its ‘futility’ (O’Donovan, 1986). As is true with most, if not all, ethical models, dominion, stewardship, and co-creatorship are accompanied by both moral peril and promise. It is towards briefly assessing this peril and promise that we now direct our attention.

Moral assessment If these three ethical models are not held in tension, they may prove to be ecologically destructive. Dominion can easily degenerate into antropocentrism. Particularly in a secular age, limited dominion granted by God is often transformed into an idolatry of insatiable human appetite. Consequently, ethical decisions often reflect short-term personal, economic, or political benefit rather than fidelity to God’s redemptive intentions for all of creation. Likewise, when stewardship is rooted in anthropocentrism rather than limited dominion it is used to justify the exploitation of nature.

Management becomes the driving force rather than a check on how humans use, manipulate, or destroy ecosystems. The stewards become accountable to no one but themselves. Hence, it is difficult to discern the difference between moral and immoral acts in respect to human conduct within natural processes because there is no larger or future standards against which these acts may be judged. When the moorings of limited dominion and divinely appointed stewardship are removed from co-creatorship, it can become an exercise in destructive fantasy.

Creativity itself becomes the supreme value and goal, and there is often no advance moral standard to discern the difference between what is or is not genuinely creative. Co-creatorship often ignores the reality of evil: ‘One never reads of co-creation and sin in the same sentence’ (Cole-Turner, 1993). Limited dominion and divinely appointed stewardship acknowledge that our moral decisions are often flawed, which should at least inspire caution and humility in our co-creating efforts. Despite these perils, these ethical models offer some promising features for environmental ethics if a proper tension is maintained among them.

Limited human dominion should be exercised from a theocentric and trinitarian rather than anthropocentric perspective. A theocentric perspective judges which ‘actions are right … in relation to the sustaining, ordering, limiting, and creative power of God’ 854 Waters (Gustafson, 1981). In exercising our dominion, we must ask: ‘If God’s purposes are for the well-being of the whole of “the creation”, what is the place of human well-being in relation to the “whole of creation” ‘? (Gustafson, 1981 ). Dominion is exercised, then, in accordance with the Creator’s intentions for creation rather than satisfying human wants and desires.

Stewardship practised from a theocentric perspective will act in ways that sustain or enhance the overall well-being of creation. For Christians, the prominent paradigms of stewardship are christological and incarnational. Within the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there are images of servanthood and healing that should be emulated in environmental ethics. Dominion and stewardship certainly imply a natural hierarchy, but in Christian theological terms its apex is a servant and healer of creation rather than its master and owner.

When constrained by theocentric dominion and servant stewardship, co-creatorship may become a more reliable source for accomplishing a redemptive hope. Empowered by the Holy Spirit to act as faithful servants and healers in accordance with God’s intentions for creation provides criteria for discerning the difference between genuine and unauthentic creativity. The human use of ecosystems should cohere with an understanding of nature as part of our hope in God’s cosmic reordering of a redeemed creation. ‘The eschatological transformation of the world is neither the mere repetition of the created world nor its negation.

It is its fulfilment, its telos or end’ (O’Donovan, 1986). If these models are to lend any promise for developing an environmental ethic, one final, though crucial question remains: What are the prospects of these ethical models influencing a larger or more public environmental ethic? Prospects for environmental ethics White (1983) and Berry (1993) argued that the environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis. Although they condemn Christianity for helping us get into this predicament, they also turn to its spiritual resources to help rescue us from our plight.

Seemingly, they both assume that there is a sufficient residue of Christianity in post-christian cultures that an appeal to this faith might provide the necessary resources for formulating a fitting or appropriate environmental ethic. I do not, however, share their optimism. The ‘acids of modernity’ (Lipmann, 1929) have had a far more corrosive effect than White or Berry imagine (Gunton, 1993). The theological concepts of creation, redemption, and eschatology no longer have an obvious meaning or pertinence.

It is hard to imagine how the ethical models of dominion, stewardship, and co-creatorship could provide the basis for contemporary legal, political and economic policies governing the human use of ecosystems. It is also doubtful if these theological resources and ethical models will have much influence on the church. The various Christian churches have also been deeply influenced and shaped by modernity, and to date there is little evidence that the environmental crisis has had much effect on Christian beliefs, values, virtues or practices.

Yet there is a remnant of hope that some Christian communities might incorporate a serious and sustained commitment to dominion, stewardship and co-creatorship exemplified in their worship, fellowship and piety. Perhaps, over time, others will come to see this more excellent way and be converted to adopt more environmentally responsible lifestyles and policies without necessarily accepting their theological and moral underpinnings. Whether there is sufficient time for this to occur is, of course, the urgency of the issue at stake.

Christian theology and environmental ethics 855 Jacques Ellul (1985) asserts that the image has supplanted the word as the principal form of communication in a technological age. If his assertion is true, then it is incumbent upon Christian communities to become visible signs of properly tending God’s creation. In obedience to its divine calling the church will, perhaps ironically, be forced to recover its ‘sectarian’ origins in order to truly engage the world through its faithful witness to the most genuinely catholic and ecumenical issue of our age.

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