Evangelical Environmentalism

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Key politically active evangelical leaders are going to meet soon to discuss how the political message of the religious right should include obeying the command at the very beginning of the Bible to take care of God's property that we've been given to manage. In this Washington Post piece, the guy they focus on the most seems to me to be a panentheist rather than a theist, but you don't find that out until the end when they quote him as saying the earth is God's body. Still, James Dobson and Chuck Colson were also named, and they're true evangelical Christians who have both taken political views meant to be informed by the Bible.

It's nice to see that they're finally listening to the voices that have pointed out how narrow their political agenda has been, with opposition to abortion and gay marriage taking center stage and a few other side issues (e.g. stem cell research) trailing along behind, while concern for the poor and marginalized, and wise management of and interaction with the creation entrusted to us, have simply been absent. Since this focus ignores the breadth of biblical values that might inform political opinions, I'm glad to see this. It's important to be sure that our policies really are for the best, and I'm not convinced left-environmentalists really have the best policies in many cases. The same is true for left-minded attempts to deal with racial issues or poverty issues. What I'm upset at many conservative evangelicals over is not that they don't adopt liberal policies on these issues but that they don't seem concerned about the issues at all. [Hat tip: There is some truth in that]

Relatedly, last week President Bush said at the National Prayer Breakfast, "For prayer means more than presenting God with our plans and desires; prayer also means opening ourselves to God's priorities, especially by hearing the cry of the poor and the less fortunate." [Hat tip: also from Jonathan]

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No Christian would deny that as Christians we have a responsibility to good stewardship towards the planet -- but past that point, things really start to hit the fan. Read More

But let me step back from that point for a minute and discuss four reasons why I oppose the idea of "Evangelical Environmentalism," Read More

8 Comments

Jeremy, I fully understand that you are saying Christians can care about the environment without buying the left-wing agenda, but I am responding by asking a pratical questions -- How?

For example, in your comment on my post, you mention "improving air quality." Let's consider Los Angeles. As Anselm says in his comments, LA's air is cleaner than ever. On a per capita basis LA has the lowest air pollution in any major metropolitant center in the world. Yet it's air quality remains in the five worst. The only way it will ever get better is to move out all the people -- it's a geography thing.

What about the third world? The cost of achieving that per capita emission level in LA is absolutely enormous. Are we going to leave the third world to into the first, or keep them in the stone age becasue they cannot afford the leao in technology to afford to join is cleanly?

This is an enormously complex issue. Platitudes just are not going to cut it. If all you have are platitudes, it will further divide the church on left-right lines -- and that is why the issue is largely ignored in the church.

I'm not offering platitudes. I'm calling Christians to value these issues enough to think about which positions and policies on them will constitute living righteously with respect to the environment. You've obviously thought a little bit about the issues. Most evangelicals don't even seem to me to bother going that far. I knew someone who sat and listened to someone explaining from the Bible why he should even care about the environment to begin with, and at the end of it he still wasn't moved. I didn't understand that at all.

I'm not working in the area of social policy or environmental ethics. I think Christians working in those areas should deal with these enormously complex issues, and if there aren't Christians in those areas then we ought to encourage people gifted in those ways to work in those areas. That's not what I do, because it's not what I'm good at. My specialties are metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of race, and I have a side interest of studying theology and biblical scholarship, probably to the point of being able to teach at least upper level undergraduate courses in either one.

I write about what my specialties and level of understanding can contribute, and what it can contribute to this issue is not the nitty-gritty details of policy proposals but the fact that the Bible makes it pretty clear that the common ambivalence I find among politically conservative evangelicals to these issues is just thoroughly uninformed by what the Bible has to say about it. If I had to teach a course in environmental ethics, I'm sure I'd end up with more to say on specific issues, but I haven't looked into those specifics enough yet to know what I think about many of those things.

It seems to me that you're treating my lack of expertise in the specifics of this subject as a justification for saying that I don't have the right to point out that the area is tremendously important. I just don't see why that would be so.

Jeremy:

Let me tell you a little but about what I do and do not do. I have graduate degrees in Chemistry and have attended seminary. I am somewhat uniquely qualified to speak in this area. I own a consulting business that specializes in advising industry about environmental compliance and policy.

What I am attempting to say is that to say this is a vital issue without considering the ramifications of that statement is not necessarily wise. To get the church all fired up on environmental matters, but not give them a place to turn with that enthusiasm will result in disaster. That is pretty much why the left-wing environmental agenda is such a basket case, they have bought the platitudes, but not the reality.

Secondly, and I should probabaly post on this on my site, the Genesis 1 command to "fill the earth and subdue it" can be taken a lot of ways.

All my artistic friends tell me that by being "creative" they are acting in God's image as Creator. I will accept this. I expand on point to say that technology is also creative -- just differently so. Building cars and factories, etc. is both creative and "subduing"

Pollution is the result of us subduing and creating -- therefore perhaps it is a part of God's created order?

there is something in science called "The Law of Conservation of Mass." What that means is if I make something from something else I will have the same mass of stuff coming out the back end of the process as came in the front end. Now since it is extremely rare that I need all of what goes into the process to come out in what I am making, I will have waste, i.e. pollution. Again, pollution is a natural product of both creating and subduing.

This whole issue is in the details, not in the general statements.

I agree with everything you say except the following:

to say this is a vital issue without considering the ramifications of that statement is not necessarily wise. To get the church all fired up on environmental matters, but not give them a place to turn with that enthusiasm will result in disaster. That is pretty much why the left-wing environmental agenda is such a basket case, they have bought the platitudes, but not the reality.

You seem to be assuming that I'm telling people to get fired up about specific issues. I'm not. I'm just saying that having no value at all for the environment is downright sinful. I would like those who can look into the details to do so, and I would like others to pay attention to the good work done by people who do the detail work. I made it extremely clear in my post that I wasn't endorsing any particular policies.

Pollution is the result of us subduing and creating -- therefore perhaps it is a part of God's created order?

Creating human embryos to use for stem cells is subduing and creating. For that matter, so is growing a human being to a much older age to harvest for organs. Breeding slaves to work on plantations is subduing and creating. I don't have any idea why you'd think absolutely everything that counts as subduing and creating would therefore be part of God's intent in his initial command in Genesis 1. Cornelius Plantinga makes a good case in his A Breviary of Sin that what God does in Genesis 1 is separate and bind. He separates things that should be distinct, and he binds together things that should be united. In many ways sin is a departure from that. It's not about mere subduing and creating. It's subduing and creating in a way that fits with and fulfills God's righteous purposes.

there is something in science called "The Law of Conservation of Mass."

There was such a view until Einstein. He disproved it when he showed that you can remove mass by releasing nuclear energy. That's not really relevant to what you're saying, but there technically isn't such a law.

Now since it is extremely rare that I need all of what goes into the process to come out in what I am making, I will have waste, i.e. pollution. Again, pollution is a natural product of both creating and subduing.

It's definitely natural in one sense, but the issue of what counts as natural is as complex as any other philosophical issue. One thing is fairly clear, though. It's extremely hard to come up with a sense of 'natural' that means morally ok and 'unnatural' that means morally wrong. The only one I can think of pretty much reduces to God's purposes for us to live our lives, which is not about what in fact happens in nature at all, especially in a fallen world, but about what should happen.

Hi Jeremy,
Good to see you raising this issue. Whatever the complexities about our response, stewardship of God's creation is something that needs to concern all Christians. "Creation care" may in fact be a more helpful phrase than "environmentalism", which is perhaps too loaded a concept for many Christians.
Blessings

Could it be that as Americans....part of one United States....that conservatives and liberals have certain concerns in common? Wouldn't that be wonderful? I am an evangelical Christian and classified as "liberal," whatever that label means.

We are clearly charged in the Old Testament with taking care of God's creations here on earth. Taking care of our environment, without worshipping it except as one of God's creations, is an essential for all Christians.

It's wondeerful that Republicans are moving past defining their party by just one or two issues, and into the full body of Christian responsibilities and cocnerns.

Hurrah!

Finally a Christian who is willing to say something about the environment and the growing global ecological crisis. Bravo Parableman!

Frankly, whether or not this is a left or right wing issue is of little importance. We all live on the same planet, and are dependent upon it for our survival. The lifestyle of the richer western nations is not environmentally sustainable, and the situaiton must be addressed urgently by Christians - and all Christians, not just the 'left' ones.

It's good to see this issue being discussed. I also have some background in this area. Before attending seminary I worked nine years in environmental consulting. I'll be posting a list of biblical principles of environmentalism on one of my blogs Monday.

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