Creation Care and Christian Mission
Care for the environment has become an increasingly important global issue in the last thirty years. It arose from an increasing awareness in the 1960s of the human effect on the environment through pollution, population growth, habitat loss and anthropogenic changes in climate. Although interest in the environment arose principally as a scientific1 and political issue, underpinning this have been ethical and philosophical approaches to care for the environment which have played a major role in developing the paradigms under which most modern environmental attitudes and policies are based2. Colin Russell has noted that there are currently two broad philosophical approaches to the environment
The latter view underpins a large amount of current secular motivation for creation care. It is predominately pantheistic and it is a harking back to pre-Christian world view which views nature as divine although much of the modern basis is parascientific, being based on James Lovelock's Gaia principle.4 On the other hand Christians have been accused of ethics that are ecologically destructive, the most notable protagonist being Lynn White who in 1967 suggested that at the heart of the modern ecological crisis lay a Christian world view of dominion without regard to its global consequences5. Ecologist Max Nicholson once stated that God licensed man to be the world's worst pest.6
Christian scholars and commentators that promote a positive Christian image of creation care come from a wide range of theological and environmental backgrounds. Thus scientists like Colin Russell and Sam Berry in the UK or Calvin DeWitt and Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in the USA argue from an academic scientific platform not associated with more radical environmental groups, although there are many that have views that are more radical in terms of direct action or philosophically in so called "deep ecology". Although there is much literature on creation care theology, including rebuttals of the Lynn White view; how may it fit into the context of mission? Most pro-creation care theologians7 would make a strong argument for viewing it as an aspect of mission, for a number of reasons:
1. Creation care is a reflection of God's redemptive plan for the human race.
Recorded in Genesis 3:11-19 is the cursing of the ground due to the Fall, indicating that the consequences of sin affected more than Adam and Eve alone. Human beings are an integral part of the created order and their fall disrupted that order. For creation care theologians God's redemption of the human race also involves the redemption of creation. Paulos Mar Gregorios suggests that humanity is redeemed with the created order and not from it.8 Celia Deane-Drummond, interprets Romans 8:18-23 as supporting this redemptive process noting that the reconciling work of Christ redeems both the effects of the sin of humanity in the human and non-human environment. Also in Colossians 1:15-23 Christ is seen supreme over all creation.9
In this context therefore, the mission of Christians and of the Church, is not merely engaging the world with the gospel, but also engaging the world in reflecting the responsibility of man's stewardship of the earth. Douglas John Hall notes that:
"..to be a recipient of divine grace is to know oneself, as human being, to be participant in the gracious governance of the world towards its envisioned telos, the kingdom to come " on earth as it is in heaven".10
2. A positive view of stewardship will promote a positive Christian image to the world .
A Christian view of stewardship stands as a bulwark against a pantheistic world view and therefore reflects the gospel. Domination and exploitation have been seen traditionally as Christian values but proponents of this view are usually unsympathetic to the faith and will also view this as part of Christian imperialism anyway. Berry has noted that there is a long history of Christian creation care so such an approach is an exaggeration.11 Commentators such as Douglas John Hall base their approach of stewardship on the concept of Adam's management of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. Exploitation of nature and environmental degradation are a product of sin and as part of the redemptive process through Christ, God's people are called to re-establish the proper order of harmony with nature. Loren Wilkinson sees the human race as becoming alienated from nature and in turn alienating non-human creatures from their natural environments. This is a fundamental role in the Old Testament in particular.12
This approach also provides an ethical framework that is not pantheistic, but which will provide an opportunity for Christians to reflect God's love for his creation and his desire to redeem it through the witness of creation care. It also a rebuttal of the negative views put forward by Lynn White and others.
3. Creation care is one aspect of the promotion of justice and peace, which may be also promoted as aspects of Christian mission
There is a strong link between creation care and social justice, particularly in respect of the two thirds world. Pollution is sin in that the activities of some are detrimental to the health and welfare of others. Environmental degradation causes the displacement of people and food shortages. On the other hand, poverty causes people to be herded into poor quality environments such as shanty towns or to poor quality land which degrades rapidly through soil erosion when cultivated.
To liberation theologians, this connection between environment and poverty is one of injustice and exploitation, both through social inequality within South America and through Western exploitation of their environments, for example the Amazonian rainforest.13 Therefore creation care is an extension of the need for Christians to promote the cause of social justice.
The sentiments put forward above are also reflected in the approach of the World Council of Churches whose Covenant for Justice and Peace in Creation sees the integrity of creation being more than merely environment:
"The foundation ... should be confessing Christ as the life of the world and Christian resistance to the demonic powers of death in racism, sexism, caste oppression, economic exploitation,, militarism, violations of human rights, and the misuse of science and technology."14
Interestingly, some of the most vociferous advocates of this approach are theologians from the less developed world. Although Western theologians like Larry Rasmussen, Douglas John Hall and Loren Wilkinson all examine creation care in terms of justice, it rarely stretches to disparities in the distribution of global wealth.15
What this approach does illustrate is that it is difficult to divorce environmental issues from the broader issues of social justice and this must inevitably influence missiological approaches to them.
Although the bulk of writings on Christians and creation care would view it as falling into the scope of Christian mission, there are a number of reservations that could be made to this approach. Generally, most objectors tend to be from more conservative Christian circles, with the USA being the source of most vociferous criticism. Richard Wright has noted that they also tend to also reflect the political right16. Politically, criticism in the USA has come from individuals such as Rush Limbaugh and Dixy Lee Ray and organisations like the Wise Use Movement which claims that most environmentalist material overstates their case and is anti-capitalist. On the Christian side, their views in the evangelical fold are reflected by writers such as Calvin Beisner and Larry Burkett. Wright sees this as an "environmental backlash" by evangelicals, other commentators like Edwin Olsen suggest that even in the USA that anti-environmentalists are not a large group.
Criticisms of Christian creation care fall into a number of categories:
1. The world is cursed and not going to last anyway
This is a common argument amongst fundamentalist thinkers in the USA who are strong on the imminent return of Christ. The fate of the world is one that will ultimately be physically redeemed before its destruction (2 Pet 3:12). Therefore the main aim of the Church should be to deal with the eternal dimension of people's lives. This is the same logic that would be used to deter Christians engaging in other issues of social justice. Dean Ohlman argues that this approach should not exclude present God-given responsibility17, besides which the verse in Peter is enigmatic. Calvin Beisner does not go as far as the fundamentalist viewpoint and finds the verse is difficult to dismiss easily.18
2. Identification with the science and theology of new age movements
One of the major problems for many Christians has been the way in which creation care theologians have identified with the campaigns and science of green campaigners who are from a much more new age stable. The green movement represents quite a rainbow of ideals and ideas, much of it based on parascience that developed in the 1960s producing pessimistic views of the future; prophesying gloom and doom. This has underpinned much green thinking and energised the movement. The debate has drawn in Christian scientists and theologians, wishing to contribute to the debate and arguing a Christian perspective. There are well established Christian green organisations that reflect these points of view. However laudable this is, the suspicion still lurks: are the greens right? History has shown that there is a tendency for greens to overstate their case. Thus in the sixties the Paddocks were prophesying overpopulation and famine by the mid 1970s, in the seventies the Club of Rome was prophesying a similar crisis by 2000, with a lack of resources as well19. These have not come to pass and it is questionable whether it was because of "gloom and doom" reports or despite of them.
3. Creation care theologians have inherited a false pessimism from the greens
Beisner argues that rather than Christians having to repudiate their past and follow a green agenda, they need to view Christian heritage as proving that redemption has benefited the human race already by common grace. Thus, many of the natural disasters that have been predicted in recent years have not come about because of people's ability to adapt and produce technological advance. He sees this as a function of the curse-reversing effects of redemption and the creative aspect of the image of God in man. He argues that although it is possible to point to environmental degradation in many parts of the world, critics also fail to point out the scientific and technological advances that has increased global population longevity, prevented mass starvation and improved the standard of living for large numbers of people. He repudiates the gloom and doom of evangelical greens. His view is optimistic and he believes that this improving of lives is part of God's redeeming work.20
His views are interesting and reflect optimistic views by Danish economist, Esther Boserup in the 1960s who looked at past technological change and that the human race had always found ways of averting major ecological disaster, coining the old proverb "necessity is the mother of invention". This view is not common these days in the common psyche, but interestingly underpins most of agreed global policy in the UN for sustainable development since the Bruntland Report of 1983 and subsequent conferences resulting from it.21
4. Green Christians often miss wider questions of social justice
In secular circles, environmentalism is often divorced from the wider issues of social justice. Thus rainforest destruction and soil erosion are dealt with by campaigners in the developed world as serious environmental issues that must be campaigned against. But what about the need of land for agriculture; the main source of rainforest destruction is overlooked.
Likewise, LEDCs prefer to prioritise industrialisation rather than pollution, housing or healthcare as it earns the foreign exchange to finance debt repayments to countries who call on them to protect their environment! If this is true in secular terms, how much more for those Christians who push creation care but neglect the basic issues of social justice and poverty.
Is creation care a legitimate part of Christian mission?
Even Beisner would not disagree with most of the basic approaches of the creation care theologians: that it can be argued from a scriptural base that the human race has a responsibility for God's world. Thus it is appropriate for Christians to be involved in environmental issues both on moral and missiological grounds.
However, it is what they say that is a matter for concern. On what science do we relate scriptural truth? The main problem for most Christian greens seems to be that they may be using scripture to legitimise a personal position on environmental conservation that may in itself may not be appropriate or true. There are three considerations here:
There seems to be a strong case for Christians to promote a biblical view of stewardship of creation and this has a pedigree that predates the Enlightenment. However, there are real dangers in becoming involved in many parascientific or political groups promoting environmental protection. This is an evolving field, where even those involved in it professionally must be open to new perspectives.
The most significant mission aspect here is that Christians should stand for truth and integrity, even if that eventually means highlighting distortions of the truth either from those that promote environmentalism, or those that have a more exploitative "grey" agenda.
Mark Reid is currently Minister of Swaffham Baptist Church. This paper was written as part of his training for the Baptist Ministry at Spurgeon's College, London. He was Head of Geography at a VI Form College and has also researched into the history of UK landscape protection policy.
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1 or it might be better termed as parascientific as major proponents such as Paul Erlich or Garrett Hardin based their arguments on applications of science in order to promote a populist scientific approach - a pattern reflected in modern environmental pressure groups.
2 in itself, this is a simplistic statement as the ethical base varies according to the prevailing cultural values of an area; for example, the environmental ethic is dominant in western society but in less economically developed countries, other social and economic issues take priority.
3 Russell (1994) p4
4 Lovelock's theory in itself has a scientific basis in putting forward a systems view of the earth, but his populist approach in viewing it as the largest organism has been taken up by more pantheistic new age philosophies. See Osborn (1992), Hartman, Theophilous and Williams (1992) and Berry (1995).
5 White, L, The historic roots of our current ecological crisis, Nature, 155, pp 1203-1206, 1967
6 Berry (1995) p 23
7 This term will be used to describe those Christians who strongly argue that creation care and, particularly stewardship, which is a strong theme, should be a fundamental item on the Christian agenda.
8 Gregorios (1987), p87
9 Deane-Drummond (1996) pp10-11
10 Hall (1986), p59
11 Berry (1995) mentions, Celtic Christianity and the Benedictine Rule. Russell (1983) explores some of the nineteenth century ideas of Humphrey Davy.
12 Wilkinson (1990), p325.
13 See for example articles by Boff and Elizando and also by Gudynas in Concilium, 5, 1995.
14 Quoted in Niles (1989), p55 from the 1983 JPIC Conference.
15 Rasmussen (1987), Hall (1986), Hall (1987) and Wilkinson (1990)
16 Wright (1995)
17 Ohlman, FAQ, Q1
18 Beisner (1997), p56
19 Meadows, D et al, Limits to growth, MIT, 1972
20 Beisner (1997), p42.
21 WCED, Sustainable Development (Bruntland report), UNESCO, 1983