Treehuggers and nature-worshippers. Environmentalists and pantheists. I grew up loving nature and learning that Christians should be good stewards of creation. But I also remember hearing terms like these. Terms that put “environmentalism” in the same mental category as other “-isms”—secularism, humanism, pantheism, and the like. Surely adherents of another “-ism” would invariably act differently and get their priorities out of whack, right? And at any rate, it’s always easier to make your actions look reasoned and responsible by painting others as extremists. By recycling and not throwing trash out the car window, weren’t we pretty much doing ok?
It’s increasingly hard to ignore the seriousness of our what we’re learning about the well-being of God’s creation. Take just a few examples: Scientists estimate that species are going extinct 1,000 times faster than we would expect without adverse human action. Every few years, some of the most robustly peer-reviewed research in the history of science, synthesized in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, describes the reality of the changing climate that we all have observed—and the likely outcomes of our current trajectory. And just last month, a detailed study published in the journal Science revealed that the North American bird population has dropped by a startling 2.9 billion since 1970, with grassland bird populations dropping by more than half. (Learn more and read what you can do to help). The lead researchers, stunned by the magnitude of the disappearance, describe this as “a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.” In the midst of these realities, a facile “but I don’t throw trash out the window” attitude seems akin to claiming that as long as we don’t steal from homeless children we’re doing our part to address poverty and hunger.
Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World
But what then are we to make of all of this? What is our place in the midst of this story?
Christians pondering these questions rightfully turn to Scripture for guidance—but often with different results. Some Christians see in Scripture only the story of God’s dealings with humans, with nature as a static backdrop to be used as we wish. Others engage in selective proof-texting, extracting “green” morsels of Scripture that could appear to align with their environmental vision.
Christians seeking a more robust approach to the Bible will welcome Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World, by the father-son team of Douglas Moo (professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) and Jonathan Moo (associate professor of New Testament and environmental studies at Whitworth University). The Moos’ book, published in Zondervan’s “Biblical Theology for Life” series, is one of the finest resources I’ve encountered for biblical Christians seeking to better understand these issues.
To begin with, the Moos’ book does an admirable job describing Scripture’s big picture of the world that God made, God’s purposes in the world, and our place within God’s plan. Several chapters are given to sketching the biblical doctrine of creation, the glory of God revealed in creation, teachings regarding Israel’s relationship to the land, the “groaning” of an imperfect creation, and the ultimate redemption of all things through the work of Christ. The Moos’ overview here is eloquent and persuasive. They place core Christian theology in dialogue with contemporary ecological issues, clarifying areas of diverse interpretations, without allowing science to dictate the priorities of the text. Summaries and discussion questions at the end of each chapter further enhance the book’s usefulness for classrooms and discussion groups.
The Moos’ book also excels as a model of what constructive dialogue between science and theology can look like. As the authors put it, “Science…is no alien dialogue partner, since the scientist studies the very world that God has made intelligible in the first place” (p. 41). Accordingly, the final chapter provides an excellent scientific overview of various ecological issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to agriculture and pollution.
I’m reminded of a theologian I know who once referred to environmental issues as “applied theology-and-science,” in a similar way to how “applied physics” connects the equations and experiments of the laboratory to the problems and opportunities of the everyday world. BioLogos readers are no doubt familiar with our advocacy of the harmony of modern science and biblical faith, and our responsibility to be shaped by a proper understanding of each. This is one of those areas where the rubber meets the road. It’s a key opportunity to show the watching world around us why this partnership between Christianity and science matters. Our lived faith commitments can offer more than scientific discovery alone, unmoored from an absolute ethical framework and understanding of ultimate purposes, could ever provide. Who, after all, could have more reason to care for the natural world than those who know the Creator?
Two of the most thought-provoking chapters for me in the book are ones that explore the place of humanity in creation, including concepts like the Image of God, stewardship, and dominion. As the Moos discuss in chapter 11, the proper place of humans in nature has been a matter of much debate. Some environmentalists on the more extreme end of the spectrum reject any concept (even “stewardship”) that implies a special standing for humans within nature. (The controversial ethicist Peter Singer has even coined the term “speciesism” to decry as akin to racism attitudes that treat one conscious being as superior to another by virtue simply of being Homo sapiens). Setting aside the extremes to which Singer takes it, this critique strikes me as one we ought to consider carefully. After all, the Bible reminds us that we are creatures, not gods. And the modern scientific picture of our biological commonality with all life on earth is an astonishingly beautiful picture. Numerous groups throughout history have justified their wanton exploitation of creation by appeals to their elevated standing apart from the natural world. But as the Moos note, “the Scriptures and our own experience make it clear that humans have unique relational and intellectual abilities—in degree if not in kind—that give us a distinct place within that created world” (p. 181). And as science makes clear, we are the only species who by conscious choice are impacting the environment on a planetary level. This, write the Moos, “suggests that humans have, at the least, unique power to affect their environment and perhaps—especially given our unique ability to think and reflect on these effects—also unique responsibilities (p. 181).”
Responsibilities. We hear much talk today about those who either accept or do not the scientific consensus regarding one ecological issue or another. And don’t get me wrong, our attitude toward the truth on these topics matters deeply. But what ultimately matters is what comes after that. What matters is whether we’ve accepted our own responsibilities as image bearers and caretakers in God’s creation.
All the King’s Men Parallel
While reading Creation Care over the past few weeks, I was also rereading one of my favorite novels, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men by the poet, novelist, and essayist Robert Penn Warren. And in one of those happy confluences, the common wisdom of each of these books ended up reinforcing and illuminating each other in intriguing ways, particularly regarding this theme of responsibility.
All the King’s Men is narrated by Jack Burden, former journalist and now right-hand-man to the corrupt and demagogic governor Willie Stark. Burden has no compunction doing the dirty work of “the boss,” digging up dirt on rivals. He believes that a person is “just a peculiarly complicated piece of mechanism,” and he uses smug sophistry to deny the possibility of God and defend a fatalistic, detached philosophy of life. As a “student of history” (the focus of his PhD studies years earlier), he comes to believe that “nothing was your fault or anybody’s fault, for things are always as they are.” Humans are just along for a meaningless ride in the stream of history. He bemusedly affirms the philosophy of “idealism” to argue that if you don’t look at something, it isn’t really real. (And his functional nihilism would leave him hardly to care that his takeaway of philosophical idealism is a rather absurd caricature.) In short, “it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway.”
BioLogos readers are no doubt familiar with our advocacy of the harmony of modern science and biblical faith, and our responsibility to be shaped by a proper understanding of each. This is one of those areas where the rubber meets the road. It’s a key opportunity to show the watching world around us why this partnership between Christianity and science matters.
Before long, though, Burden is forced to see how his actions as hatchet man to Stark have uncovered deep wounds and done harm closer to home than he could have imagined, resulting even in the death of people close to him. His wry detachment hardly lessens the magnitude of the harm he has caused and the wrongs he has been part of. His life philosophy changes. Someone tells him that “history is blind, but man is not,” and he comes to accept responsibility for the harm he has done and the good he is capable of. In the novel’s famous last line, a newly sobered Burden, accepting finally the magnitude of human responsibility, writes of going out “into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.”
Christianity most certainly has no place for a functional atheism or nihilism that cannot see past our own wants and our powers to pursue them. Likewise, as believers with a robust theology of human sinfulness and lament, we have ample warrant for soberly acknowledging the sins of our past as we reflect on the harm done to God’s world and our fellow creatures. (As Burden puts it, “if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future…and if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.”)
Every day that we live, the actions and inactions of our lives are woven into the fabric of the world that is, making it into the world that will be. The “awful responsibility” that Jack comes to accept at the end of Warren’s novel is that there’s no escaping this fact. You can deny it, you can ignore it, you can evade it, but the reality of that responsibility remains undimmed.
Like poetry, the novel’s evocative final line (“the awful responsibility of time”) begs for a multifaceted reading. From one perspective, that of the Jack Burden of much of the novel, it may seem awful to be judged for our actions, to face unblinking the real-world results of our pride and detachment and the harm that we’ve caused. And even when we recognize our place in the world and the responsibilities that come with it, a sense of humbled “awe-full-ness” remains, particularly for us as Christians. Awe in the majesty and worth of God’s creation. Awe at our often frightening power to remake and alter the world according to our own priorities. And humbled awe in recognizing our own responsibility to change our ways, to join with the Creator in setting the world right once again.
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