Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is it Christian to Care for the Environment?

Some time ago the Globe and Mail apologized for printing a piece that claimed that the C&MA denied global warming, pointing out that leadership, i.e., yours truly, had indeed published articles calling for concern about this issue. In response something like the following appeared on certain other sites:
“Global warming??? Really??? Is this where we are going??? Global warming??? Oh I'm sorry... I thought this was the Christian & Missionary Alliance... I guess I got the United Church of Canada by mistake.”
Sadly this comment reflects a commonly held belief that there is a disjunction between the story of origins, that is Genesis 1 & 2 plus various Psalms, and the story of redemption, that is, Genesis 3 forward, plus various Psalms. To create this disjunction the Bible is seen as presenting information in a hierarchy of importance and this hierarchy dictates a hierarchy of action, that is, world care is way below salvation.
But perhaps there is a confusion here, for the Bible does not present a hierarchy of action, but rather calls us to Kingdom living, which is, living out the fullness of redemption. The confusion is to forget that there is in the Bible a wonderful depiction of redemption, and that the story of redemption requires many pieces of information so that it will, in the end, be understood for what it is: a robust, complete and true story, illuminating the way of salvation and a sure road map for life. What a wonderful book, full of stores, history, proverbs, songs, letters and visions, is the Bible. All through it, redemption, not just “you are saved from hell,” as huge a theme as that is, but also, a presentation, and a call, to full redemption which is a fullness of righteousness through the presence of the indwelling Christ, a righteousness that moves from the private sphere into community, and from community into the physical world; for the whole story includes the creation and its groaning as it waits for the completion of redemption (Romans 8).
Thus we need to ask this simple question. Who should be more concerned about the environment than Christians? The answer in truth is this. Christians are concerned, and rightly so, but there is a huge struggle to figure out a moral/philosophical basis for that concern. Christians, lacking a theological foundation, seem to have accepted one or more of the following reasons for environmental concern.
Pragmatic motivation: We live on this planet and when we behave ourselves in regards to the environment, our life is pretty good. So, let’s behave ourselves. Bio-diversity holds promise of new knowledge that may lead to life saving drugs. So, protect bio-diversity. Not corrupting the oceans and streams is one way to protect our food source. So, let’s work to keep them clean. Polluted air has well documented adverse effect on health, so clean up the air. And, the dire consequences of global warming are so severe and have such disastrous economic repercussions that we need to slow down or even stop the warming trend.
The problem with the pragmatic approach is that if a more immediate, pragmatic concern is present, it will, by the logic of pragmatism, be chosen. In other words, everything is subject to a cost-benefits analysis over a short timeline and the most efficient solution is chosen, most efficient usually meaning most economically beneficial, at least in the short run. For this reason a serious response to global warming remains for pragmatists in the “hoped for” category.
Aesthetic motivation: We live in a beautiful world, a world filled with lovely animals and plants, and we need to preserve this beauty. This is without question true, but it meets resistance again from pragmatic realities. Elephants are beautiful, but some covet their ivory, so, money trumps beauty. To counter this triumph of money over beauty the sustainable national park movement has been launched in a number of countries with the idea that tourist dollars (people like to see beautiful animals) will create a long-term economic benefit that outweighs the short-term gain from destroying the local eco-system. However, as an overall response the fragility of these parks underscores the fragility of “aesthetics” as a reason for environmental concern.
Earth goddess: Made popular in the movie Avatar is the revival of belief that the physical planet and the eco-system are manifestations of a divine presence, perhaps a divine intelligence, which belief may have polytheistic or pantheistic formats. However, this belief, in the end, fails to inform us why humans should be concerned about the environment, for if “the divine” is equally spread through all things, then the actions of humans against the environment is as much an action of “the divine” as are actions to preserve the environment. 
Facing all of this, evangelicals have tended to react with confusion. The beauty of the world is part of our apologetic for the existence of God and it is affirmed in Scripture; so sure, let’s go to South Africa’s parks or at least to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and look at the lions and tigers. But the market place calls, and pragmatism rears its head. And evangelicals are, if they are anything, pragmatic. And then, look at how conveniently the “earth goddess” movement arrives, with its attendant new-age talk. Just in time to provide a reason for evangelicals not to be involved in environmental issues as one would not wish to support paganism in any manner.
Let’s go back to the Bible, for the Bible alone provides a rationale for environmental concern that can rise above pragmatism, be stronger than aesthetics and properly understand God’s will for the earth. Put simply, the story of redemption begins with creation, and the relevant point is that people were given the earth as a trust. The world was wild, but a garden was made and set aside and in it humanity began with a mandate. That mandate was to spread this garden through the whole planet, to fill the world and subdue it.
Sin resulted in banishment from the perfect garden into the surrounding wild, untamed world. Add the curse, which barred the natural synergy which our parents had with creation, and the result was a world where nature and humans barely co-existed. And while the mandate, to fill the earth and subdue it, was still in force, a chasm had opened between humans and nature, a chasm marked by greed and corruption.
But the Savior has now come, and with his resurrection and ascension we live in the age in-between, the age of “already but not yet.” In this age we wait, but not in a quietist manner, no, we wait actively, working to bring in the fullness of the approaching Kingdom. This must be a wholistic work, the whole gospel for the whole person for the whole world. The whole gospel includes healing for the body and righteous acts such as the protection of vulnerable people and the protection of our vulnerable planet. Thus, environmental work is eschatological, for in so working we can possibly bring changes which will allow the benefits of Christ’s kingdom to be visible and active now, in the planet, even though limited in extent. Thus, to work for the good of the environment is to do a Kingdom work, a work which we were told to do at the beginning and which, in doing, displays in microcosm the glory of the coming Kingdom macrocosm.

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