Between Two False Religions

September 10, 2014

Few things are more polarizing for Americans than environmental ethics. Any mention of  the need for “creation care,” any affirmation of biodiversity or sustainability, or any concern about global warming is likely to evoke strong reactions, both positive and negative, from Americans in general and from evangelicals in particular. Like many public issues in American life, environmental ethics has become so highly politicized that we often think of those issues primarily in terms of “Left” and “Right” instead of evaluating them through biblical categories.

Evangelical Christians should be deeply invested in environmental discussions and environmental action, and should determine to think through the issues carefully and biblically, not allowing their stance to be dictated by the political left or right.

It does appear that we are experiencing a slight upturn in evangelical interest in the environment. Sociologist Sabrina Danielson, for instance, argues that there has been an increased interest in environmental issues among Evangelicals for the past three decades, which can be demonstrated by an uptick in articles in Christianity Today, Sojourners, and World. Each of these periodicals has a different editorial and theological perspective, and together they are fairly representative of the evangelical movement

We need to encourage this increased interest, while seeking to meet three challenges. The first challenge is to not allow the political contention caused by one environmental issue—Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW)—to keep us from careful constructive thinking about global warming and a host of other environmental issues.  There are petulant voices on either side of the debate of AGW, which often leads a person to equate any concern for the environment with either a positive or negative reaction to the sub-topic of AGW. This has polarized the conversation in US politics as well as in religious communities and has hampered the conversation about environmental ethics among Evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular.

A second challenge is to avoid overreacting to environmentalists who have made a religion out of their cause. Evangelicals who are politically conservative are especially susceptive to the danger of overreacting. They rightly see that some environmentalists have forged a religious narrative which compares and contrasts with the biblical narrative. This competing religious narrative is complete with a High God (e.g. Mother Earth), a Fall (humans have sinned against Mother Earth by degrading her), a soteriology (upholding Mother Earth’s glory and saving ourselves through environmental action), and an eschatology (depending on the success or failure of our action, we will either be saved or destroyed). It is true that we should reject this idolatrous version of environmentalism, but we should not paint every environmental ethicist or activist black with the brush of idolatry, and we should not allow constructive discussion and debate to be derailed because of it.

A third challenge—evangelical Gnosticism—is devastating to the cause of evangelical environmental ethics, especially when we are already being derailed by the first and second challenges. Gnosticism was a type of philosophical dualism present in the ancient world, which distinguished between the spiritual and material aspects of life, elevating the spiritual while denigrating (or even considering evil) the material. The early church refuted and rejected Gnosticism, but it continues to thrive in the church today. Any time Christians denigrate or devalue the material world, they are unconsciously adopting a Gnostic ethic rather than a Christian one.

In light of the various environmental debates which press themselves upon us in public life today, and in light of the three challenges above, here five basic Christian principles that provide a framework for evangelical environmental ethics:

God created the heavens and earth, affirmed their essential goodness, and continues to sustain them through Christ. (Gen 1:1-31; Col 1:17). His creation is a unity-in-diversity, a kaleidoscopic profusion of variations which are united under their creator and which give their creator praise.
God gave humanity a special place within the created order by creating them in his image and likeness, and by entrusting to them its care and development (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15).
Instead of keeping God’s trust, humanity sinned and, because of human sin, God’s good creation has been corrupted and misdirected. Scripture teaches that human sin has put creation into a “bondage” under which it now “groans” (Rom 8:20-22). This bondage can be see both in the so-called natural evils and in the deleterious effects of human actions which degrade the environment.
Even though sin has corrupted and misdirected God’s good creation, creation remains God’s and it remains good. Sin does not have the power to make bad what God has made good.
God offers salvation through Christ, a salvation which extends beyond humanity to the whole created order. He will deliver creation from its bondage (Rom 8:21) by renewing and restoring it in its entirety (Rev 21-22).

Where are the implications of these principles for Christian environmental ethics? Where do these principles lead? They do not provide a panacea for all questions about environmental ethics. In fact, they do not directly address any particular environmental issue. However, these do make clear that God values his creation and that we also should value it. There is no room whatsoever for an “other-worldly” minimization or denigration of environmental issues.

Although divine action will ultimately be necessary to liberate creation from its bondage, God uses human action to keep the world from being as bad as it possibly could be. Without just human action, the world would become an utter horror. In additional this “restraining” aspect of human environmental action, there is a “prophetic” aspect. When we treat God’s creation with respect, providing our fellow humans with an environment conducive to the flourishing of the world, we prophesy by pointing to Christ’s future return in which he will save the world. Our actions, individually and corporately, serve as a preview of his coming kingdom.

We must preview his kingdom in this manner because, as environmentalist Willis Jenkins notes, “The science of ecology cannot supply moral foundations.”[1] An “ought” (ethics) does not issue forth immediately or clearly from an “is” (scientific data). Just environmental policies do not spring forth unaided from the soil of ecological data. Justice in political policies, including environmental policies, can only arise from a moral people who are willing to engage the issues and work together in the formation of such policies. It is, therefore, important for evangelicals to develop a properly framed response to the scientific data based on a biblical paradigm.

Christians are those people who pledge allegiance to the supreme Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ, who made all things and will one day will renew and restore all things. We do not worship the Earth, on the one hand, but do not minimize its significance, on the other hand. Through our Christian words and actions, we can be known as a people who care deeply for creation and who can interact constructively and creatively on issues such as global warming, biodiversity, sustainability.

Southern Baptists should build on the positive aspects of their environmental legacy. The SBC issued resolutions on encouraging positive engagement with environmental stewardship efforts in 1970, 1983, and 1990.  In 2006, the SBC approved a resolution on environmentalism and Evangelicals, which argues for a biblical approach to environmental ethics that takes into account property rights, economic opportunity, as well as responsibility for creation care. In 2007, the SBC passed a resolution that urges a similar balance between care for the environment and care for people, also calling individuals to make choices to voluntarily limit excessive personal consumption. Then, in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon accident resulted in a large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the SBC urged private individuals and leaders to take action to mitigate the problem and prevent future accidents. These reflect concern for the environment balanced within biblical bounds. They recognize the importance of the creation, but see ultimate concern for the Creator.

Human action is not the only cause for environmental problems. Human action will not be the only solution to them either. However, humans have been given a special role in creation, with a command to cultivate and care for the created order.  As a result, evangelicals must begin to examine the environmental questions in culture in a way that properly accounts for human value, creational responsibility, and divine ownership. This is an essential part of being Christian in our age.

[1] Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 152.

Bruce Ashford

Dr. Ashford has been teaching at Southeastern since 2002 and became the provost in 2013.  His goal in teaching is to encourage his students to bear witness to the truth, goodness and beauty of the gospel and to work out its implications in all facets of their lives and in … Read More