The environmental movement divides and confuses Christians, keeping us at arm’s length from a crucial arena of societal engagement. Many withdraw from environmentalism as an infectious carrier of New Age ideas. At last year’s Earth Summit in Rio, this was the response of the rapidly growing Brazilian evangelical church. In North America, similar tendencies are apparent in books and articles that dismiss population pressure, global warming, and ozone depletion as pseudoproblems, and belittle specific actions such as recycling or wilderness preservation.

Sometimes these Christian “anti-environmentalists” usefully remind us of the jungle of agendas and ideologies in which environmental concern moves. But to deny the reality of an environmental crisis is an enormous mistake for those who worship the Creator. Such a denial neglects a major human responsibility and withholds the gospel from one of the places where it most needs to be heard.

At the same time, Christian participation in some aspects of environmentalism embraces uncritically an emerging religious philosophy founded on the oneness of all things. In Rio, religious leaders attending a preconference “Sacred Earth” meeting issued a declaration of faith that “the universe is sacred because all is one.” It announced the need “to evolve earth ethics with a deeply spiritual orientation” and suggested that the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis resulting not from sin, but from ignorance.

Many Christians find it difficult, in the religious pluralism of the environmental movement, to stand against such syncretism. The problem is made worse by the appearance, as Christian works, of books like Matthew Fox’s The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. That work dismisses as an Augustinian perversion any idea of original sin, welcomes the Earth itself as a kind of Christ, and dismisses as “Christofascism” any theology that speaks of the unique revelation of God in Jesus.

Yet apart from the posturing and contentiousness that marked the Rio conference, there are indications that Christians are beginning to assess environmental issues with more theological rigor and biblical accuracy. It is an area we can no longer avoid: the issues are forced on us today by fears that the tragic proportions of Hurricane Andrew and the African drought, for example, may be linked to human activity. And the philosophical underpinnings of environmentalism demand an answer to calls for a new “earth spirituality” in which we are told to recognize that we are part of a sacred Earth. (see “Is the Earth Alive?” on page 22).

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The origins of environmentalism

The “environmental movement” is less than 30 years old. It emerged in the early 1960s, prompted by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, by growing concern over nuclear war and testing, and by widespread awareness of the damage brought about by postwar growth and technology. Christian (though not necessarily evangelical) concern over these issues dates back to this time as well. In 1961 in the World Council of Churches’ New Delhi Assembly, Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler pointed out the declining health of the world’s environment and called for the churches to reaffirm that Christ was Lord of all creation. At that time, however, even in the socially aware World Council (as pastor H. Paul Santmire writes), “response to Sittler’s address at New Delhi was mainly one of polite indifference.” There was little serious discussion of the enviromental implications of Christian faith (evangelical or otherwise) until the late 1960s.

Ironically, it was an attack on the church (rather than any threat to creation itself) that galvanized Christian theological response.

In 1967, Science magazine published an address given by medieval historian Lynn White to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That paper (“The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”) called Christianity “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” and claimed that through such ideas as human dominion, the desacralizing of nature, and belief that ultimate human destiny is with God (and not the Earth) Christendom has encouraged a destructive use of creation.

Lynn White’s case against Christendom (valid or not) has become conventional wisdom in the environmental movement, and Christians continue to discover—and try to refute—its argument. One of the first extended evangelical responses was Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man, published in 1970. Schaeffer acknowledged the extent of the problem, and the inadequacy of both pantheism, on the one hand, and a world-rejecting Christianity, on the other, to deal with it. He founded his Christian response on a Reformed theology that recognized both our shared creatureliness (he was not ashamed to speak of the Earth as “our fair sister”) and the unique role of human beings as creatures responsible to God. He called on churches to become “pilot plants” demonstrating the possibility of a “substantial healing” of the damage brought about by human greed.

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An even more substantial work that appeared in 1970 was H. Paul Santmire’s Brother Earth. A Lutheran pastor, Santmire critiqued American Romanticism, which sentimentalized nature, and European theology, which mechanized it. In its place, with remarkable biblical and theological thoroughness, Santmire sketched an ethic of “The Created Realm of God” and an “Ethic of Responsibility.”

In 1977, Calvin College assembled a team of evangelical scholars to address “Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources.” The result, Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources, was an important resource throughout much of the 1980s for Christians interested in the subject. But for a variety of reasons, including the U.S. political climate of the past decade, environmental concern receded. Neither the culture at large nor evangelical Christians took much notice of environmental issues until quite recently.

Early evangelical thinking on the subject tended to suggest that the chief value of creation is to fuel human industry. That kind of anthropocentrism is inadequate. Yet in response, environmentalists have gone to the other extreme. Their explanations have often diminished the human to nothing more than one node in a cosmic web. The early “conservation” movement has grown into a philosophically more radical “deep ecology.” In response, evangelical thinking has been prompted into a more biblical understanding of God’s concern for the whole creation.

Healthy planet, healthy humans

Evangelicals also have been compelled to defend the crucial biblical teaching on the distinctive role of human beings in creation—unpopular as that doctrine is in much of the environmental movement. In fact, many thoughtful Christians harbor suspicions of the environmental movement because it has seemed to be more concerned about nonhuman creation than human needs. Even socially concerned evangelical groups like Evangelicals for Social Action and the Sojourners community have, until recently, tended to regard the environmental movement as a luxury of the comfortably developed northern nations and an excuse to ignore the deep human needs of the poor.

That perception is changing, however, among Christians and non-Christians alike. In 1987, a UN report of the Commission on Environment and Development titled Our Common Future, explains that a healthy planet and a healthy human population together make up one goal, not two: Humans will not prosper if the Earth languishes, an insight that is certainly consistent with what the Bible calls “shalom,” or true peace. Increasingly, Christian missions and relief organizations have come to recognize that environmental and developmental needs are not only compatible, but inseparable. Paul Thompson, an executive with World Vision, speaks of a kind of “Damascus Road” experience when he realized a few years ago that meeting human needs without a larger caring for the Earth was unbiblical and ultimately impossible.

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Another recent recognition by evangelicals of this essential harmony was the Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics, hammered out among Christians of widely differing economic persuasions in January 1990. Theologians and economists were able to sign a statement asserting, “God the Creator and Redeemer is the ultimate owner.” The declaration went on, “When we abuse and pollute creation, as we are doing in many instances, we are poor stewards and invite disaster.… Economic systems must be shaped so that a healthy ecological system is maintained over time.”

An evangelical response

Evangelical Christians can and should do more than just talk and theorize about the environment. We could begin by becoming aware of our creatureliness and delighting in it as a gift from God. That worshipful awareness should lead to changes in our use of creation. Christian individuals and churches could provide models of a different, less wasteful, more thankful way of life. For Christians in the wealthy world, this is one of our greatest challenges.

Caring for creation also can mean doing the best work we can in our chosen vocation. Hidden from public view in the Earth Summit, for example, was the work of Susan Drake, a State Department negotiator. She played a major role in crafting many of the U.S. positions on environment, often against considerable opposition and spiritual struggle. Throughout the process, she said she was helped immeasurably by the prayer support of Christians in her church. At a key point in organizing the Earth Summit several years ago, the mere suggestion of holding such a meeting had died because of disagreements among the many UN nations organizing it. Susan persuaded the differing nations to agree on a formula by which the summit could go forward. Thus without the courageous and prayerful work of an unpraised Christian, there would not have been an Earth Summit in Rio.

Similar examples abound as Christians translate their concern for creation into their work in influential ways. In Washington State, Ruth Scott acts as wilderness manager for Olympic National Park, bringing her concern for care of creation into the management decisions affecting the mountain and rain forest vastness of one of the nation’s treasures. In England, Ghillean Prance, a Christian who heads up the Royal Kew Gardens, has become a world authority on rainforest botany (see profile in CT, July 22, 1991, p. 26).

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Among institutions, certainly one of God’s gifts to the church in the U.S. has been the AuSable Institute for Environmental Studies. This well-equipped laboratory, library, and study center in the woods of Michigan used to be a Christian camp, but in the early 1970s it became the site of one of Michigan’s more productive oil wells. Under the guidance of a far-sighted board, the income from the oil has funded an endowment that supports environmental education among Christian College Coalition schools. Headed by Cal DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, the AuSable Institute has hosted productive meetings of evangelical scientists and theologians from all over the world, resulting in the publication of a number of books and a chance for environmentally concerned Christian leaders to think together on the issues. If there is an evangelical center for care of creation, it is probably here.

Last summer, at a meeting sponsored by the Oxford Center for Mission Studies, the AuSable Institute, and supported by the World Evangelical Fellowship, Christian scholars from five continents examined the same issues addressed by the Earth Summit, such as balancing human needs and the needs of the Earth. In an environment of worship and prayer, the results were considerably different: a World Evangelical Network was formed to encourage evangelicals worldwide to think about their care of creation in the light of biblical and theological reflection, and to generate the resources to do so.

Are 10 Billion People A Blessing?

No environmental issue is so troubling as the fact of growing human numbers. The dreary statistics are familiar: It had taken from the beginning of human history to 1940 for the human population to reach 2 billion. In the half-century since 1940, that number has increased to 5.5 billion, and it is growing at a rate of 92 million people per year. Even more startling, if couples today agreed to limit their children to two, the population would still climb by another 6 billion in the next 35 years (since so much of the world’s population is still below childbearing age).

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The issue is a particular problem for Christians, in part because Christian understanding of the worth of the human individual has helped to increase population by rapidly reducing the death rate over much of the world. But the same high standard of human worth makes many Christians reluctant to support some stringent strategies for limiting population, such as abortion or even (in the case of the Catholic church) artificial birth control. And Christians are understandably reluctant to let any socio-political agenda affect something so basic as the size of the family. Not surprisingly, these attitudes have increased criticism of Christianity among environmentalists.

A recent work by Christian biologist Susan Powell Bratton, Six Billion and More (Westminster/John Knox), explores the population dilemma with biological, sociological, and biblical insight. Bratton makes the important theological point that whereas the Old Testament often implies the number of children one has is a sign of God’s blessing, the New Testament consistently avoids such an understanding. Bratton makes a strong case for limiting family size within a consistently “prolife” position.

Crucial as the population issue is, in the wealthy world it is often used as a way of avoiding facing an even more serious and immediate problem: the high consumption rates of North Americans. A child born into an average American family will use up to 50 times as many of the Earth’s goods—and leave at least that much more waste—as a child born into a poor family in the “developing” world (where 88 of the 92 million people added to the world will be born this year).

The tragedy is that the standard of “development” to which those billions aspire is set by us in the “developed” world.

By Loren Wilkinson.

Toward a doctrine of creation

Important theological issues are at stake in the environmental movement; evangelical clear-headedness on the issues requires a more thorough doctrine of creation. After all, it is God’s good creation that is at risk—not “nature” or “resources” or even “the environment.”

Yet the creation-evolution debate has reduced the high biblical concept of creation to a spate of arguments about its how and when. The tragic result has been that whole generations of Americans (Christian or not) think that a belief in “creation” commits one to the notion that God’s creative acts took place only at the beginning of time. Missing is the robust biblical picture of a triune Creator, transcendent and immanent, by whose Spirit each living thing is quickened and renewed (Psalm 104:30), and in whose Word “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

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Christians today are underrepresented in the biological sciences. Yet these disciplines reveal that creation is an unfolding process, not just a one-time act. As we develop a richer understanding of God’s ongoing activity of creating, perhaps the study of creation will be seen as an act of praise for the Creator, as well as a way to refute reductionist evolutionary theories. It is short-sighted and self-contradictory to regard life on Earth as an accident; it is just as shortsighted to ignore what creation tells us about itself.

A second theological issue involves the “curse” on the Earth. This doctrine looks back to the Fall to explain the apparent harshness of the present created order in which all living things must devour something—soil, plants, animals—to live. But do we let it explain too much? Ecology has been described as the study of who is eating whom, a definition that makes plain that some forms of death are integral to the created order that God called good. Perhaps our repugnance at a biosphere in which creatures eat each other may be a bit like Uzzah’s steadying the ark of the covenant. The ark of creation is a rough place, and God’s idea of goodness is apparently much wilder than our own.

In addition, many have located the consequences of the curse in the creation itself. But out present woes are due rather to our sinful use of and relationship to the Earth than to any malfunction of the created order as much. Hosea’s words make the situation clear: After a blunt, familiar catalogue of human sinfulness, he concludes, “Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying” (4:3). Our goal should be to restore our proper relationship with the Earth, to make it one of mutual blessing.

A third theological issue raised by the environmental movement is eschatological: What is the fate of the Earth in God’s ultimate plan? Premillennial thought (especially in America) sometimes emphasizes the idea of an imminent, literal destruction of the Earth through divine wrath. The new heaven and the new earth, in such a view, replace the old, from which humans alone are saved. Using this framework, some Christians interpret environmental problems, such as population pressure, global warming, and species extinction, as pointers to the end time: not exactly to be welcomed, but neither to be resisted through futile efforts to save a world dismissed as “the late, great planet Earth.”

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Other Christians, convinced that God has not made a throwaway world, are rediscovering a deep biblical theme that sees the gospel as good news for all of creation, not just humans. They are rediscovering the truth that redemption is not human salvation out of a doomed creation, but rather the restoration of all God’s purposes in creation. Theological support for this view comes from theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and John Calvin in the sixteenth.

Closely connected to eschatology is a fourth biblical theme: the place of humanity in creation. This is of crucial importance in an ideological atmosphere that suggests that the best things humans can do is to reduce the self-valuation that has led them to create the problems in the first place. Here the all-important principle is stated by Paul in Romans 8: Creation waits “in eager expectation” for the children of God to be revealed. In ways we hardly understand, it will be the human privilege to complete creation and be its voice of praise to the Creator.

A final theological idea in need of further evangelical reflection is a biblical cosmic Christology. The New Testament teaching that our Redeemer Jesus Christ is also our Creator and Sustainer has not been sufficiently stressed in Protestant thought. And the doctrine is confused now by the theological laxity of Matthew Fox, whose “cosmic Christ” is little more than a principle of interconnectedness available to all through the Earth itself.

The full biblical doctrine is more adequately stated by Irenaeus, who in the second century declared: “For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the word of God governs and arranges all things.… He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that he might sum up all things in himself.”

On this foundation, a Trinitarian understanding of the Creating and Redeeming God, evangelicals can build a more spacious understanding of the gospel. The gospel is good news indeed, announcing a renewal of creation that begins in the hearts of men and women—God’s image bearers and stewards—who have been reconciled with him. That is the true foundation on which our care for creation should be based.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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