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The environment: Created and sustained by whom?

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Archives / 2001 / May

 

 

The environment: Created and sustained by whom?

Patrick A. Travis
Patrick A. Travis, D.D.S., is a chaplain at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Florida.

 

 

During the past thirty years across the globe, interest in environmental issues has been increasing. Author Charles Rubin notes that in 1955 there were no references in the New York Times Index under the term "environment." In 1965 there were two. In 1970 the first "Earth Day" was organized, along with 86 notations under the word "environment" in the Times. In 1972 the United Nations held a confer ence in Stockholm on the human environment. In 1992 we had the "Earth Summit" in Rio.1 By 1998 we were seeing almost regular national evening news updates on "El Nino."

More recently environmental weather changes were being attributed to the "La Nina" effect as well as to "global warming." Everywhere, even in the churches, voices are crying out; for many the environment has become nothing short of a crusade. What are some of these voices, what are they saying, and how may Christians relate to this growing movement?

The Voices

In The Green Crusade, Charles Rubin lists the most significant early "populizers" within the environmental movement over the last thirty years such as Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, E.F. Schumacher, and the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome endorsed The Limits to Growth (1972), a book which was based on a "global computer model" analysis done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This "model," which predicted that the earth would survive for per haps another thirty years, was later shown to have flawed "system analysis."2 Another significant early environmentalist was Eynn White, who in an essay written in 1967 ("The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis") blamed the monotheism of the Bible and man's biblically described central role of having dominion over nature as the primary cause for the present ecological exploitation of nature.3

Bouma-Prediger lists the "Eco-Theological Models" of Reuther and Sittler as important contributors in the present "greening" of the church. Rosemary Reuther was one of the first to mix Eco-theology and liberation or political theology as a single issue. She felt it was necessary to create a "link" between social justice and Christian ecology. Joseph Sittler was an early pioneer of "nature theology" and once wrote an article on "ecumenical ecology."4

With the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, political voices have multiplied. Virtually every nation has some policy structure designed to protect the environment. In the United States, most congressional and presidential candidates have a declared environmental policy as part of their candidacy and political platform. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recently published Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action. This "Interfaith Partnership for the Environment" effort explores earth issues from the various faith traditions and touches on eco-justice, global warming, and other issues it considers linked to the health of the environment. Klaus Topfer of the UN Environment Program states, "We have entered a new age. An age where all of us will have to sign a new compact with our environment... and enter into the larger community of all living beings. A new sense of our communion with planet Earth must enter our minds."5 The blending of political and religious environ mental voices is a global phenomenon. Discussion of the "redemption and rejuvenation" of the planet by "people of faith" is proliferating.

Other Voices

Another high-profile environmental voice is that of Al Gore, former Vice-President and author of Earth in the Balance.6 In his book Gore laments the fact that Christian theologians who have traditionally supported a liberal agenda such as the social gospel in the early 1900s, seem to be less enthusiastic about the environment even though, Gore insists, social justice "is inextricably linked in the scriptures with ecology . . . today social injustice and environmental problems can be seen everywhere."7

The entry of Pope John Paul II into the environmental movement became more conspicuous after he attended the gathering at Assisi. In 1986 at Assisi, the pope met with 150 religious leaders who corporately prayed for world peace and the restoration of the planet's environment. The pope said: "We hope that this pilgrimage to Assisi has taught us anew to be aware of the common origin and common destiny of humanity. Let us see in it an anticipation of what God would like the developing history of humanity to be: a fraternal journey in which we accompany one another toward the transcendent goal which he sets for us."8

Perhaps the pope's most significant environmental work came in 1990 in the publication of his paper written for the World Day of Peace titled "Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All Creation." Statement 6 of that document states, "The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related 'greenhouse effect' has now reached crisis proportions as consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.... The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands. ... It is necessary that the entire human community—individuals states and international bodies—take seriously the responsibility that is theirs." Number 10 says: "The ecological crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized."9

Today there is the "Eco-Theology" group consisting of persons from a cross-section of many traditional mainline churches. Codel (Coordination in Development) contains 40 Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox groups.10 There is the "Cosmic Christ" of Sittler and the "New Creation" group of Granberg-Michaels (based on 2 Cor. 5:17).

John De Boer's creation of an interdenominational effort, known as the "Eco-Justice Task Force," is one of many other similar ecclesiastical organizations that have recently been formed. When the World Council of Churches (WCC) met in Vancouver in 1983, the adopted theme was "Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation."11 The Ecumenical Review (of WCC) reports that a resolution was adapted to "promote preservation of creation" at all levels. A different lifestyle was encouraged in relation to "wants and needs" so that "survival of the natural world can be assured." Along with other ethical issues that make up "new Sundays" as special days, it recommended that an "Ecological Responsibility Sunday" be added.12

Legitimate cautions

The growth of environmental movements within the church over the past thirty years has been amazing. While there are many different "voices" they all seem to harmonize in the light of the need for immediate positive environmental action or "eco-justice" in the prevailing "global crisis." It's important for Christians to understand, however, that "being for the environment" is not necessarily synonymous with being for God.

Paul's description of the pagan preoccupation with nature (Romans 1:20- 25) could be a legitimate challenge to some of the ecclesiastically oriented environmental organizations. Though Christians should have a healthy and balanced view of creation steward ship, many of the existing ecological movements deserve the focus of a healthy skepticism in at least three areas:

1. The tendency of addressing environmental issues on a purely naturalistic and scientific basis. Does humankind really have the ability to understand such a massive global environmental system, with all its innumerable fluctuations and variations? At the local level it is entirely consistent with the biblical worldview to support such concerns as the movement against the spread of toxic waste, but we need to be realistic enough when thinking globally to remember that "only a stall with no ox is perfectly clean."

2. Then there is the tendency of some ecclesiastical movements to tackle environmental issues on a purely political basis. It is difficult to maintain the integrity of a legitimate Christian worldview while working from a strictly political perspective.

3. There is the potential for the widespread abuse of inappropriate, intrusive power over virtually every aspect of human life when it comes to orchestrated attempts to "solve" this "global problem," particularly when the environmental issue becomes the sole concern of a given organization.

Consider some of the theological implications of many of the assertive contemporary environmental voices.

How do these assertions voices relate to the sovereignty of God and His covenant faithfulness to the human family (Gen. 8:22)? How do we understand today the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant as they relate to the weather? (Deut. 28:23, 24). How do we understand the blessings and the mighty sovereign voice of God echoing over His creation as revealed in Psalms 29, 96, 104, 148 and Job 37:39? Are these expressions simply the articulation of a kind of mythical view of how God relates to His creation?

Affirmations of the Christian faith

Christian faith affirms that Christ actually did create and still maintains all things by His mighty voice (Col. 1:16, 17). To what extent and in which ways does the human cooper ate with the Divine? Does God still bring the blessing of rain or the curse of the drying of the Euphrates, or are all such things simply the function of natural phenomena which humanity may increasingly manipulate at will?

In addition, are there political and religious interests and overtures in the environmental movements? Is the "eco-theology-justice wing" nothing but another expression of the "social gospel," dressed in the con temporary garb of "eco-justice"? All Christians should have compassion on the less fortunate and a deep sense of responsibility for God's creation, but that does not mean that we should automatically approve all the political movements designed to bring about social, economic, and ecological justice.

Peter Berger, notable church sociologist, states that no matter the political agenda of the religious left or right, there are times when the "political and cultural agenda is elevated to the status of the gospel ... all such politicization is an act of implicit excommunication. But, in politicizing its message, the church is actually excommunicating itself!"13

Environmental awareness and reform on a global scale is a crucial concern that is vitally important to be a part of. In fact, openness in this area offers Christians the opportunity, among other things, to spread the gospel. It may well be urged that Seventh-day Adventists, who have been and are so deeply committed to the "conservation" of both the soul and the physical body, should in all consistency also be profoundly concerned with the conservation of the magnificent gifts God has provided through all He has created and made for humankind; that is, the ecosystems of our planet. At the same time, however, Christians must resist blindly syncretizing religious belief with ecological purpose, merely for the sake of creating inter-religious peace and harmony, and considering exclusively the scientific, environmental, and political concerns that are involved. As with any other reform, the creative sovereignty of God must be judiciously brought to the center of the Christian approach to environ mental reform.

Conclusion

There is no question that Christians have been called to be good stewards of their environment. We should care about our planet, the purity of its water and its air, and all the other aspects of its magnificent eco-systems. But even such a good can be taken further than it might be, or emphasized in an imbalanced manner. It is the Creator and not His creation that is ultimately vital for long-term peace and prosperity.

We do not know the explicit unfolding of future events, but it is today our responsibility to preach the everlasting gospel, proclaiming that "our God reigns" (Isa. 52:7). In Christ, the Father has given to us "wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, "'Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord'" (1 Cor. 1:30, 31, NASB).

It is our responsibility to speak with a courageous voice in a world embracing an essentially evolutionary outlook. It is ours to speak with a true voice in a world undecided between "Baal" or the living Creator.

To worship the creature or the creation over the Creator is foreign to an authentic biblical faith. Our message is to "fear God, and give him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; and worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters" (Rev. 14:7). We look forward to the restoration that will begin when Jesus returns, when we expect that all of the blighted creation order will be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth.

"Turn to me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other" (Isa. 45:22).

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1 Charles Rubin, The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalhm (Lanham, Md.: Rowmnan & Littlefield, 1994), 6.

2 Ibid., 18, 26, 30, S3, 85, 155.

3 Robert Royal, The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion In Environmental Debates (Grand Rapids: Ecrdmans, 1999), 34.

4 Steven Bouma-Prediger, The Greening of Theology (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholar's Press, 1995), 12, 14.

5 Earth and Faith. United Nations Environment Programme (New York: 2000), 3.

6 Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

7 Ibid.

8 World Day of Prayer for Peace, Assissi, 27 October 1986, no. 5.

9 John Paul II. "Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All Creation," World Day of Peace, January 1, 1990.

10 Nancy G. Wright and Donald Kill, Ecological Healing: A Christian Vision (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 162.

11 Grandberg-Michaelson. 73-82.

12 Ecumenical Review (WCC), vol. 51, no. 4, October 1999.

13 John Neuhaus, American Apostasy: The Triumph of "Other" Gospels. Essay by Peter Berger, 12.

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