Christianity & the Environment

"In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God moved across the face of the waters. And God spoke saying, 'Let there be light', and it was so" (Gen. 1:1-2). Thus begins Genesis, the first book of the Bible. From there, God gives form to the world and universe in a series of deliberate and loving acts of Will that shape all there is and give it purpose, and when all is finished, "the Lord God looked over all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Thus, the Bible begins with the story of God's deliberate and loving act of creation, which gives purpose and meaning to all that is, affirming its goodness and its right to exist in His eyes.

It is a central tenet of Christianity, and Judaism before it, that the universe was created by God out of love and for a purpose, that it reflects His essential nature, and that it is fundamentally good in it's own right. This theme is developed throughout the Bible, where we are told that the image of God can be seen in all that is. We are told to have "dominion" over the Earth and all its creatures - to "rule over" them (Gen. 1:28). The Hebrew used here for "rule over" is the word radah, which in the Hebrew literature of the time meant literally "to rule over" or have power over (the word is used only 12 times in the entire Old Testament). Neither the associated noun or verb carried with them the idea of domination, and when used in regard to mandated rulers of Israel both carried with them the context of husbanding or nurturing, the way one would tend a garden or "rule" over beloved children (the context of Gen 1 regarding dominion over a "very good" creation given to us by God is clearly this sort of radah).

Throughout the Old Testament, the meaning of radah is always driven by context, and never involves harsh rule unless describing a circumstance condemned by God. The kings who had radah over the nation of Israel had a mandate of responsibility more than power—those they ruled over were to be cared for, the way Christ cared for the church he ruled over even to the point of giving His life for her, and they were held accountable by God as His servants for the well being of their subjects. The context of Gen. 1 suggests that radah over God's creation carries the same mandate. Though we are to take control of the Earth and use its bounty for our needs (to "subdue" it, in the language of Gen. 1:28), it has a meaning and purpose apart from its utility to us, and is to be treated accordingly - lovingly and responsibly, as God's gift. The idea of "dominion" as "domination" - bringing something under foot and enslaving it, simply to satisfy our own needs or selfish wants without any larger responsibilities - is not taught in the Bible, but instead infiltrated church doctrine during the last two centuries, mainly due to the rise laissez faire and utilitarian philosophies during the Industrial Age. The belief that nature is separate from us - nothing more than mere raw material to be controlled for our ends only rather than the garden in which God has placed us to live out our existence and be a part of - was a central tenet of such philosophies, and the idea that nature was to dominated for profit only followed directly. Though such ideas have grown popular in some segments of the Evangelical church today in conjunction with the rise of neo-conservatism and its associated materialism, they are contrary to Biblical tradition and have a separate history.

An attitude of respect, spiritual gratitude and responsible, sustainable use of the Earth's natural treasures is thus fundamental to a Biblical worldview. In this regard, the church has been an active and powerful voice for the protection of the natural world. Numerous papal bulls and formal church position statements have demanded that society face realities like global warming, loss of biodiversity, and environmental justice around the world. Evangelical organizations like Target Earth and the Evangelical Environmental Network have fought faithfully for environmentally sound policy and tirelessly worked to educate the general public about the relevant scientific and spiritual issues involved. Such communities make up the bulk of the Christian community today.

Nevertheless, it is a sad reality that in recent years the public face of Christianity has come more and more to be defined by its most ideological and intolerant flank - the Religious Right. With the rise of neo-conservatism over the last 15 to 20 years, people like Rush Limbaugh (who frequently alludes to the "Biblical" foundation of his views), Marvin Olasky, Tim LaHaye, the ever popular Dr. James Dobson, and others have largely co-opted the title of "Christian" in public forums. Even intellectual thugs like Ann Coulter tout themselves as defenders of the cross (her latest book, entitled Godless, labels anyone with views she deems to be “liberal” as being unchristian). Olasky, who is probably best known as George W. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" guru, is an editor at World, a fundamentalist news and commentary magazine with a format similar to Time or Newsweek. Loosely affiliated with Bob Jones University, World offers carefully edited "news" stories and ultra-conservative commentary with Christian Reconstructionist leanings.

The Religious Right has drawn attention to many truths from the Bible and Christian tradition that have been lost in our spiritually schizophrenic society. But they have done so in a highly selective and exegetically pinched manner which ignores more than it addresses. The end result is theology and social policy which is more concerned with preserving their orthodoxy than healing brokenness and bringing grace to a world in need.

All protests to the contrary and claims of Biblical authority notwithstanding, there is little more here than compassion-free legalism, nationalism, and free-market values dressed up in Christian clothing. Needless to say, there is little here in the way of respect or gratitude for creation—a fact made all the more apparent by the scientific illiteracy which pervades their publications and commentary (concern for the natural world goes hand-in-hand with a respect for the scientific knowledge needed to understand it preserve it—and vice versa).

But they have been unable to circumvent the Biblical mandate to care for creation, and for the most part their gestures toward environmental concerns have been superficial at best. Among the more notable of these is the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, created by the Michigan based Acton Institute and the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES) as a response to the more Biblically based and broadly recognized Evangelical Declaration for the Care of Creation. Acton, whose stated mission is “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles” produces faith-based literature, lecture series’ and community outreach in a number of public policy areas. Their stated environmental policy is to promote “an approach to the earth and its resources that attends both to the demands of human freedom and flourishing and to the Biblical call for human beings to exercise caring ‘dominion’ over creation”. ICES, which is an Acton spin-off describes its mission as “serving humanity and ecology through faith and reason” by affirming that “the 20th Century brought unprecedented improvement in human health, nutrition, life expectancy, and environmental quality… None of [which] would be possible, were it not for the religious, economic, and scientific traditions which are now under assault.” Stewardship, according to ICES and Acton, is to preserve this “approach to the earth and its resources”.

The key to understanding this brand of “stewardship” lies in the terms “freedom”, “flourishing”, and “dominion”—all of which have been carefully repositioned (with some very creative Biblical exegesis) to mean unrestrained profiteering and consumption. Acton and ICES go to great pains to present an image of being ecumenical and committed to “caring” for creation, but their list of advisors and benefactors reads like a war roster for the Religious Right, and their published books and monographs are little more than a warmed-over rehash of standard Far-Right pseudoscience and pitches for the blessings of unrestrained capitalism. As of this writing, the Q&A section of the ICES web site ( even cites the OISM Petition and the Leipzig Declaration as proof that there is no scientific consensus on global warming—nearly a decade after both were scientifically and professionally discredited! In the end, Acton, ICES, and the Cornwall Declaration are simply an attempt by the Far-Right to impose Biblical sanction on profiteering and consumption.

Natural resources are infinite (the gospel according to Julian Simon); Free markets will solve all human social and spiritual plagues; Material prosperity and consumption are sacred; Morality is about maintaining a clean record in puritanical rule-books… none of these ideas is taught anywhere in the Bible. Nor is any of the pseudoscience that has become integral to ultra-conservative theology (e.g. creationism, global warming denialism, etc.). But thanks to the Religious Right, all have somehow become synonymous with what is “Christian” in the eyes of the American public.


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Christianity & the Environment
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