I love nature documentaries, especially those narrated by David Attenborough. Whether watching with my children or on my own, I love seeing the majesty of the snowy Alps or kelp forests.

But I’ve noticed that in recent years, nearly every somber vignette of a species struggling on the edge of survival ends with a call to action. Viewers are beckoned to take responsibility for causing a poor animal’s plight and to consider how they can fix things before the species is gone forever.

I understand the impulse to believe that animals’ struggles should move humans to action. However, it is the ethics informing the narrator’s pleas that seem a bit muddled.

By many documentarians’ admission, the species we marvel at on screen have emerged out of eons of struggles to survive and adapt to their surroundings. Sometimes, the narrators even remind us that this process has resulted in countless prior species disappearing into extinction.

Whether you believe in a young or an old earth, in God’s hand or in meaningless physical forces guiding history, we can all agree that change, death, and selection favoring adaptability are features of life on earth. Witnessing it in real time makes for compelling television drama, but the moral indictment that you and I contribute to grave evil when one of these species goes extinct does not seem to square with the documentarians’ worldview.

What compels us to see polar bears possibly going extinct in terms of moral right and wrong? If we take human action out of the equation, isn’t history littered with the bones of countless species that have gone extinct? Are not humans and their actions part of nature?

A robust theology of creation care

If we listen closely, many environmentalists seem to hold ambiguous views when it comes to discerning between good and bad, in both utilitarian and aesthetic senses, and what is objectively right or wrong. If everything is just part of natural processes and there is no God who says thou shalt not regarding his creation, can we say anything more than that the disappearance of species is harmful to how ecosystems currently function? Can we say that it is not just sad to see these animals gone forever, but that it is actually wrong?

The basis for this seems pretty flimsy if change, struggle, and extinction are just part of nature and there’s nothing transcendent to inform what we should do. Accordingly, I’ve often thought that calls to action in nature documentaries add up to little more than sentimentality—that is, unless we undergird them with a Christian belief in a Creator to whom we are accountable as we live in his creation. Perhaps, then, Christians may have more to say about care for God’s creation than many Christians and their skeptics might realize.

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This is exactly the angle Andrew J. Spencer takes in Hope for God’s Creation: Stewardship in an Age of Futility. In considering how God cares for his creation and gives it value—and in considering the task of humanity to image God well by stewarding his creation in line with his ways—Spencer provides a robust theology of creation care. His book is accessible for the average reader but also well-researched and argued for the specialist.

Spencer seems to be just the right type of author to embark on such a project. An evangelical Christian ethicist who has spent much of his career working in the nuclear power industry, he understands the scientific and public policy discourse around these issues, and puts them in conversation with orthodox Christian theological commitments.

Readers will appreciate his summary of historic and contemporary allegations that Christianity is ideologically harmful to the cause of environmentalism. Moreover, they will learn much from how he engages with particularly tricky issues like sustainable energy sources and climate change—his key argument being that Christians should embrace a “Pascal’s wager” approach that treats energy conservation and work toward sustainability as net goods, even if theories of climate change don’t play out as projected.

Additionally, Spencer’s warning against ideologically driven approaches to environmentalism that flatten complexities and justify emergency powers to remake the social order—what he calls a “big idea” approach to environmental concerns—helps contemporary Christians discern many ulterior motives that have been smuggled into the discussion.

But the book’s most significant contribution is giving Christians good reasons to care for creation in holistic and prudent ways for the sake of mission. How Spencer does this, though, needs some teasing out. It is not the case that he sees creation care as part of the church’s mission per se. Rather, he sees care for the creation as an essential way to contextualize the faith to the cultural and moral sensibilities of our time.

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A new moral currency

While Spencer doesn’t unpack this idea directly, it is important to see how his argument fits with recent efforts to understand the phenomenon of the West becoming increasingly more spiritual, even as it grows less Christian.

Author Tara Isabella Burton has pointed out that in the current twilight of Christendom, we are witnessing an explosion of alternative spiritualities. These spiritualities help impart a sense of belonging and purpose in the absence of belief in God. In an age that has cut itself off from transcendent sources of truth, people still long to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. Even more, they desire to be equipped with moral categories of good and bad to help ensure that they are on the right side of history.

This is not to say that caring for the environment is just a fad that lacks any justification. Spencer presents good reasons Christians need to care for the environment as a matter of stewardship. As he notes, Scripture affirms that Christ is the one through and for whom creation was made, and by whom it all holds together (Col. 1:16–17).

But it’s worth highlighting that, for many in our society, concern for the environment functions in the same way that public religion used to in the Christian West. Caring for the environment imparts meaning and purpose (humans must not harm nature in its natural processes), delineates clear heroes and villains (activists and enlightened scientists versus big oil and consumer culture), and provides objective means to atone for one’s sins (carbon credits, tree planting, and recycling). In this way, care for the environment can stir the heart and provide a common basis for social order.

We might be tempted to write off such elevation of the environment over human needs as a form of Neopaganism, making a god out of nature. As Spencer points out, that is certainly a trend in environmentalism. But the insight that environmental activism is now a major moral currency in our culture means that Christians need to be discerning and active participants in the work of caring for the environment, for missiological reasons and for the sake of public witness.

This is precisely why Spencer’s work is such a timely resource. Like it or not, skeptics or those “deconstructing” their faith likely are not repelled because they find Christian truth claims unbelievable. Rather, the greater probability is that they find our faith and our vision of life in the world uninhabitable. They don’t see the way of life it fosters as actually good or desirable.

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Certainly, there is no fault in the actual goodness of God’s ways or what he has revealed about himself. But Christians need to be sensitive to the shifting sentiments of post-Christian social imaginaries—those systems of belief we inherit from our society that shape what we find believable or desirable.

Sober-minded hope

A friend of mine, who is a pastor in Amsterdam, shares often about how climate change is an urgent and existentially significant issue for most people in his context. If Christians remain silent on the issue or only point fingers in calling out the idolatry of the environmental movement’s ideological excesses, they needlessly isolate themselves and the gospel from public life. Spencer’s work provides a careful way for Christians to see that they can both care deeply about the environment and have important things to contribute to the conversation.

To name just a few contributions mentioned by Spencer, convictions about human dignity and care for the poor can help temper an alternative energy absolutism—which seeks to restrict developing nations from using cheap fossil fuels to improve quality of life. Commitments to freedom of conscience can help direct climate change solutions to be found in the freedom of the market rather than in radically reengineering society through totalitarian control. Most of all, Christianity can offer sober-minded hope in an age of environmental angst, even as it forms individuals in wise habits of consumption and conservation that point to God as the giver and sustainer of life.

Readers may disagree with where Spencer lands on particular scientific questions or wonder whether there actually are conspiratorial forces at work in climate change policies. Or they may fault him for not going far enough in his proposals. Regardless, all readers will benefit from his insistence that, for the sake of mission, Christianity does not need to be part of our environmental problems. It offers much more to say on these things than our society thinks.

Dennis Greeson is dean of the BibleMesh Institute and program coordinator and research associate at Union Theological College, Belfast. He is the coauthor of a forthcoming book, The Way of Christ in Culture: A Vision for All of Life.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

Hope for God's Creation: Stewardship in an Age of Futility
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Hope for God's Creation: Stewardship in an Age of Futility
B&H Academic
Release Date
September 15, 2023
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