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PARTNERS IN TRANSFORMATION: TOWARD A NEW CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ETHIC
by Jim Rotholz
7/09/2016 / Stewardship
Christians once found themselves in the media's fickle but intense spotlight when faith-based environmentalists made an effort to convince automakers to stop manufacturing so many gas-guzzling cars and trucks in lieu of more environmentally friendly models. The rhetorically laden question, "What would Jesus do?" was offered as a consumer yardstick for self-appraisal, introducing an element of morality into what most Americans thought was the ethically-neutral matter of owning an automobile. The obvious implication was that Jesus would buck the bigger-is-better trend in America toward owning SUVs and other over-sized passenger cars for an economical model that entailed less time at the gas pump. Something like a Honda Civic hybrid would catch his eye, if you can imagine such a scenario. The purpose of the "WWJD" argument, of course, was to rouse the religious communityand, indirectly, society-at-largeto deal more responsibly and prudently with the natural resources which are the fortunate but limited endowment upon which all of us are so utterly dependent.
At the center of any Christian environmental ethic is a premise so basic to the Western religious worldview that it is easily dismissed as downright unremarkable. It does, however, deserve close scrutiny. I speak of the biblically-derived concept that humans are appointed by God to be faithful and responsible stewards of the creation. The notion of stewardship is, in fact, so deeply engrained in a faith-based approach to environmental issues that to question its validity seems almost sacrilegious. Even purely secular environmental groups have wholeheartedly adopted their own versions of the faithful steward approach to environmental preservation. It has proven to be a powerful tool with which to contest the unprecedented scale of mind-boggling disregard that now dominates industrial societies' consumption-driven stance toward the natural world.
But the stewardship model is incomplete. It lacks the dynamism and holism that could make a religious-based perspective significantly more relevant to our contemporary understanding of ecology. For the environment, it is now widely recognized, is not a thing to be controlled and manipulated merely for societal betterment, but in the words of the anthropologist Tim Ingold, a lifeworld within which humanity is enfolded and fully engaged in an indissoluble relationship of co-dependency (1993, "Globes and Spheres: The topography of environmentalism").
Part of the missing framework needed to provide a coherent faith-infused environmental ethic is to be found in the biblically-derived understanding that powerful moral linkages exist between humans and the natural world. The current stewardship model fails to acknowledge that the moral universe we live in pertains not only to humans, but also to the physical and biological spheres within which we are vulnerable denizens, not distant landlords. The scriptures describe a state of affairs wherein humans dwell in a morally-responsive universe where nature necessarily experiences the effects of humankind's free-will choices. Those choices, both good and bad, come back upon us via nature's ensuing alterations. Biblical epistemology insists upon a divinely fashioned relationship between the natural world and the human racea co-partnership in a multi-dimensioned universe interwoven with unassailable moral principles.
Such moral connections lie well beyond the direct ecological impact of mankind upon the environment, as is the case with millions of carbon dioxide spewing vehicles contributing to global warming. A biblical worldview places both humans and nature in a singular animated dimension, bound to one another through an indivisible web of existence. In such a world, both entities owe their existence to a loving Creator, both experience the noxious effects of the Fall, and both are destined to be intimate participants in a final triumphant transformation.
Unfortunately, our dualistically-oriented Greek heritage severed this important understanding of connectivity, leaving the spiritual and physical worlds bereft of one another, as though we humans relate to two entirely independent realms. We have come to think that only scientific principles apply to the natural world, and that spiritual concerns are the sole providence of culture and personal experience. In so doing, we have lost our ancient Hebraic inheritance with its knowledge of a seamless universe infused with human will and divine concern. Our spiritual forbearers lived in a world where matter and spirit were permanently wed. Without that knowledge today, Western culture plods destructively along, operating under an erroneously conceived duality, for the most part oblivious to the vital understanding that we are part-and-parcel of one overarching and inter-reliant universe that functions through the benevolent auspices of a morally-impassioned Creator.
A holistic biblical worldview places humankind and nature together in a universe responsive to both material and spiritual forces. It is a world where pollution and hatred both have detrimental outcomes upon a unified natural and social world. This point of view is, incredible as it might seem to us moderns, similar to a Middle Ages perspective, wherein humanity was part of a larger "lifeworld." At the same time, it is not unlike many worldviews of indigenous peoples, both past and present.
A revisionist worldview will no doubt cause many Christians to squirm. Yet who can deny the many biblical texts describing inviolate moral ties between mankind and nature? From Eden to the New Jerusalem, moral linkages are clearly elaborated in the biblical narrative. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the whole creation shared in the punishment (Gen. 3:17). Eden was lost and the original couple banished from an intimate engagement with it. Enmity emerged in a mangled creation. But the awful event exposed the importance of the permanently woven moral fiber between humankind and nature. A similar theme runs throughout the whole of scripture, which again and again relates the deleterious impact of human sin on the created order (Numbers 33:35; Psalm 106:39; Isaiah 24:5,6; Jeremiah 3:1; Romans 8:20,21).
Once we firmly grasp that there exists an unassailable moral connection between man and nature, we are privy to a rather amazing insight: the state of the environment can now be seen as an indicator of the moral state of the human endeavor. A failing environment signals a failing human race. Given the current state of the earth's hemorrhaging ecosystems, it is hard to arrive at any conclusion except that the human race is failing miserably, not just as environmental caretakers but also as moral beings. Pollution and global warming proclaim that the collective heart of humanity is currently far from wellas if the issue was in question.
The ramifications of this understanding are very far reaching indeed. It suggests, for example, that the greed and avarice of Wall Street could be correlated with events such as recurring crop failures in drought-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. It forces us to ask if ozone holes may have as much to do with ignoring the victims of poverty and injustice as it does with the use of fluorocarbons. It also means that a healthy environment is dependent upon a high degree of moral uprightness among and between every human society and culture. In this light, the biblical admonition to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) becomes, among other things, a radical environmental act.
In contrast to sin (which the Bible defines as "missing the mark" in regards to God's intentions for humankind), scripture also associates righteous human actions with healing, wholeness, and even rejoicing within the natural world (Isaiah 44:23; Ezekiel 36:35). Nature is portrayed as a special instrument of God, employed for his transformative work among an often shortsighted and rebellious humanity. This is most clearly seen in the crucifixionthat cataclysmic event in which divine love flowed down a raw and splintered tree, righting a wayward world hung heavy with the awful affects of the Curse. On the cross, nature framed the supreme act of divine love and redemption. A tree became the stage from which a process of ultimate healing began to envelope not only all of humanity, but every element within the far-reaching cosmos. (That function links the cross with the tree of life in both the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem.) Nature was designed from the beginning to play a crucial role in God's moral order and within his ever-unfolding plans for redemption. Like humankind, nature is meant to be both a participant in and a beneficiary of God's grand and glorious plan of redemption.
At the end of the day, any environmental ethic or effort that takes no account of a vibrant spiritual dimension can only be superficially effective. This understanding has for decades motivated people of faith who have wished to renegotiate a Christian theology that encompasses ecological insights and values. The resulting "ecotheologies" movement has been amazingly diverse, as evidenced by Matthew Fox's mix of Western mysticism and primal religions, Thomas Berry's confluence of Catholicism, science, and philosophy, Sallie McFague and Rosemary Ruether's Christian ecofeminism, and Thomas Derr and John Hall's version of an environmentalism oriented around issues of poverty and justice in the developing world. Many others have also offered important contributions to an emerging ecotheological consciousnessJames Nash, Larry Rasmussen, and Cal DeWitt not least among them.
These writers all share the position that the Church must move beyond the language and ethics of stewardship. As stated by H. Paul Santmire, "'stewardship' is too functional, too manipulative, too operational a term, and too tied in with money" (Christian Century, Dec.13, 2000). For Santmire, a theology of nature must contain four key elements to be viable: a biblical derivation, centered in the person of Christ, ecologically relevant, and based within a community of faith (practical and lived). Unfortunately, the insights and urgings for a new Christian environmental ethic have been mostly ignored over the years by rank-and-file believers. The Christian community seems stuck on the old stewardship model, with its inflexible dichotomies and domination thinking. Perhaps what is needed to kickstart a convincing and successful ecotheology is a living model, Santmire's suggestion of a theology of nature based within a community of faith.
But before that can happen, a heartfelt conceptual reorientation must be effected. To embrace a non-traditional Christian environmental ethic first requires a serious commitment to reevaluate a Western cultural orientation that repeatedly places the human endeavor over against that of the natural world. That orientation is the bequest of our agrarian predecessors, who struggled against undeniably difficult natural forces that threatened their sedentary, agriculturally based way of life. But the nature-as-unruly-and-brutish concept denies a still more ancient and holistic view represented by foraging and herding peoples throughout history. Their pre-agrarian worldviews placed humanity firmly within nature, as part of a larger whole. Yet their perspective was not limited to conceptualization only, but deeply based in the emotions of firsthand experience with and in nature. A viable Christian ecotheology must do no less.
An attitude of domineering and manipulation needs to be replaced by one of engagement and cooperation. That is where education comes in. Sunday schools would do well to teach ecology alongside theology; for once a non-exploitive attitude is really embracedboth cognitively and emotionallyappropriate actions will naturally follow. Among the changes will be a desire to work in a harmonious and sustainable set of relations with nature and its sacred processes as they presently exist. Organic farming, crop rotation and strip farming (allowing fallow seasons instead of repeated use of artificial fertilizers) represent a few examples of cooperative relations. Others would include a bioregional approach to natural resource conservation, a measure designed to work with naturally bounded ecosystems instead of artificially drawn boundaries that cater to urban interests.
In developed areas, an ecotheological approach to the environment would no doubt support measures such as walking-oriented communities aimed at enticing home buyers to live in mall-less subdivisions where all necessities are purposely situated within walking distance of homes. In these progressive developments sidewalks are given prominence, thereby encouraging physical movement and social interaction not normal among communities oriented around driving everywhere. Such developments also provide accessible green areas that promote face-to-face interaction in settings where nature is directly encountered as a vital and valued part of the neighborhood.
These type of communities represent a progressive form of post-modernism that seeks to recapture what has always existed in small towns and small-scale cultures the world over but has been all but lost to urbanized and technologically sophisticated societies. Namely, life in small, rural communities is lived in socially-oriented environments where the rhythms of nature go a long way toward determining lifestyles, and not vise versa. Small-scale societies actually have much to teach us in this regard, if we can but muster the humility required to learn from them. Among their valuable insights is the lesson that nature has a sacred dimension that must be incorporated into culture if communal life is to be satisfying and sustainable. Small-scale societies can teach us to embrace nature as a life-giving entity to which humankind is physically, socially, and spiritually related. And we need not be animists to do so. For such a worldview is already solidly part of our own Western Christian heritage, for anyone who cares to look into it.
A theology of nature runs counter to a worldview that approaches nature with self-aggrandizing schemes in mind. This is currently seen in the frenzied effort to find healing substances in nature that can be chemically or genetically altered just enough to produce patentable and profitable products. But we are discovering that such changes too often lead to disharmony within the human body itself, which resonates to natural formulations in ways that artificial ones cannot emulate. Foods and herbs in their natural state may well hold the key to solving a plethora of diseases and ailments that accompany modern lifestyles. But are we savvy enough to fully explore their potential? We seem to have sold out to a reliance on powerful synthetic drugs that are, to a large degree, oriented toward the palliative and carry a freight of unwanted side-effects. A new Christian environmental ethic would seem to fit well with the precepts of preventative health care, thereby moving us further away from the shortcomings of our myopic reliance on allopathic approaches to medicine.
To recognize that nature's parameters can help guide human endeavor is to recognize that God is already active in the world, already doing something spectacular through the motions and dictates of the created order. Thus, to work with nature's rhythms is to work in tandem with God himself, and to become sensitive to his unabated activity in all spheres pertaining to life and welfare.
Despite all the self-congratulatory posturing of modern science, we still only know but a little of the true dimensions of nature and the value of living harmoniously with its vulnerable but priceless treasures. There are, thankfully, efforts to redress that situation. One of them is apparent in a Christian community situated on a 208-acre retreat center in the borderlands between Washington, D.C.'s urban sprawl and the fast disappearing farms and woodlands of the Maryland countryside. Among the community of DaySpring's diverse ministries is an environmental group called Earth Ministry. Its ethos, "to preserve and enhance the beauty and diversity of the land at Dayspring, and to explore ways of living more simply, justly, and in harmony with the earth," is based on the premise that ecological destruction is essentially a spiritual problem. The group's efforts are based on a holistic worldview wherein spiritual and ecological issues are necessarily intertwined and approached as such. They have built ecologically sound cottages that model sensible and sustainable housing in an area plagued by inefficient, mega-sized home construction that totally disregards the natural environment as a sacred endowment. Their efforts toward "linking faith with ecology" have led to their church cooperating with a well-known conservation group to monitor the water quality in the stream that runs through the property. Dayspring engages D.C.'s inner-city children with nature through camps, retreats, and classes that teach the value of and need to live in harmony with the natural worlda world many of those children have never encountered before. Other endeavors include educational outreach to the community through adult classes, a community garden with plans for a 5-acre organic farm, and restoration projects to plant native species of trees, grasses, and wildflowers while eradicating invasive species that are destructive to the local environment.
What DaySpring and other church-based efforts like it ultimately represent is the humble recognition that we Western Christians have erroneously separated the spiritual and physical worlds, and in so doing inadvertently encouraged and contributed to a destructive arrogance toward nature. These communities represent an opportunity to change courseto repentand to approach God's manifold creation as a sacred endowment toward which we are not just deeply indebted, but with which we are intimately related. They encourage us to engage a far more spectacular and intriguing universe than we have heretofore envisionedone infused at every level with the sacred.
It is a living universe that is so much more than a mere collection of circulating molecules ripe for manipulation. Rather, it is a place where faith and actions are mysteriously bound up with the elements of the Creator's magnificent designfashioned into a web of intense moral engagement under his benevolent and purposeful direction (see John 9:1-11). We desperately need to move back into that universe, again to be enfolded in all its divinely-imbued glory. Until we do, neither humankind nor the world of nature will ever approach anything close to wholeness.
Thanks to Dr. Jim Hall at DaySpring for his kind assistance.
Jim Rotholz, PhD, worked five years in missions and international development in Nepal, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He also served a brief tenure as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. His most recent book (his third) is Gospel Without Borders: Separating Christianity from Culture in America (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He has two grown children and currently lives in northern New Mexico with Louise, his gifted and adventurous wife of 37 years.
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