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Environmentalism: wilderness, wasteland, or garden?10 min read

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wheregardenmeetswidlernessA recent book by E. Calvin Beisner entitled Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate gave me the idea for this post (you can hear Beisner talk on the environment here).

There are at least three possible views when it comes to how we view environmentalism – the leftist ‘Wilderness’ view, the rightist ‘Wasteland’ view, and the more balanced ‘Garden’ view.  The extremes are lack of concern for the environment, or virtual worship of the environment, while the Garden view is one possibility between the extremes.  Which camp do you lean towards?

1. The Wasteland of Industrialists

Those who are not concerned with the environment end up creating a wasteland.  Through lack of resource management and industrialization, they either abandon creation care, or actively rape the land for resources.  They have no concern for sustainable practices such as crop rotation, or recycling, re-use, and reduction of industrial by-products and wastes.  Hyper-capitalists and many second world nations such as China are still raping and polluting their land and water without concern for the future, looking only to short term profits.

Unfortunately, biblical Christians have been very remiss in creation care over the last century, and have either tacitly or explicitly bought into this wasteland view, mostly for theological reasons, including:

  • Isolationist Doctrine: the mistaken doctrine that faith
    only applies to one’s personal life, and not to public matters.
    Rapture-ready folk have no interest in making this life better, and
    only look to the next. This doctrine was one of the main reasons that
    Evangelicals left the Fundamentalist movement in the early 1900’s. And incidentally, this separationist doctrine is also pushed by secularists who want no religion in public life, which compounds the lack of involvement of Christians in environmental issues.
  • Avoiding nature worship: The main difference between the
    Christian view of nature and the panentheistic eastern view (all nature
    contains God’s essence) is that the latter leads to nature worship,
    while the former is supposed to lead to nature stewardship. However, in
    an effort to avoid nature worship, xians have gone too far the other
    way and, instead of pushing for responsible use and stewardship of
    nature, have allowed industrialists to abuse it. Stoopid.
  • AContractWithTheEarthRejecting nature worship: Unfortunately, in ceding responsible creation care to eastern and Darwinian thinkers, the arena has been given over to those who worship nature to the point of despising humans, and seeing humans and animals as co-heirs of the creation, rather than seeing man as the caretaker. So eco-whackos who fail to balance human value with the value of the creation often end up damaging humanity, and not really doing a reasonable job, but rather, an emotional one. Hence Newt Gingrich’s push for “scientific environmentalism” in his book A Contract with the Earth. In rejecting this type of environmentalism, xians have unfortunately ended up siding with the industrialists.
  • Aligning with free market capitalism: Capitalism is, arguably, the most biblical of monetary systems (although Catholicism leans towards socialism, this may be one reason why Protestant countries have outperformed Catholic ones in both freedom and economics). This  theological alignment with capitalism has catalyzed the Christian  alignment with the industrialists, not only in economics, but in environmental lack of concern, which is a problem. If not balanced with biblical values, capitalism becomes abusive, which is what xians have allowed.

SurprisedByHopeAuthors like N.T. Wright have taken this ‘escape to heaven’ view to task in such book as Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the ChurchOne reviewer of Wright’s books remarks:

To those of us still soaked in the idea that God’s end game is “souls escaping the world for Heaven’s clouds” it may seem so foreign…to those of us who have embraced a God who is more concerned with Reshaping, Restoring and Resurrecting His Good World, it will be invigorating and energizing (especially for mission).

2. The Wilderness of Secularists, Darwinists and Eastern Religionists

I hate to pin this extreme view on Darwinism, and I don’t want to get sidetracked on this issue, but I do think that, just as Darwinism gave a scientific rationalization for such things as Nazi eugenics, it’s dehumanizing effects also give some scientific justification for seeing man as a parasite, or just another animal in the creation, rather than the caretaker who should be exercising responsible ‘dominion’ over creation.

Eastern religions that teach panentheism also place man as a coequal with animals, which is why many are vegetarian – because reincarnated men may come back as animals, and because animals may be just as holy and precious as men.  For this reason, for instance, many Hindus may starve for lack of food, while holy cows walk around without concern for becoming hamburgers.  But I digress.  Even some Christian environmentalism falls into this trap – or as the product description of Hore-Lacy’s Responsible Dominion puts it:

Some Christian environmental writings are deeply flawed in that they do not take seriously enough the biblical emphasis on the value of human life.

DemocracyAndItsFriendlyCriticsInterestingly, the famous French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book Democracy in America, discussed the inevitable slide to pantheism in secular democracies, as described in Democracy and its friendly critics:

Democracy, de Tocqueville explains, opposes particular distinctions, and so the particularity of the personal God and human persons.  It tends to replace personal or individual explanations with impersonal ones, and so it tends to culminate in materialism and pantheism. (p. 31)

The “don’t harm or change creation because it is holy” view can originate from hyper-Darwinism, eastern religion, or other philosophies. Regardless of why people hold this perspective, it basically posits that nature should be undisturbed, rather than tended and managed. This perspective is based on a half truth, a biblical truth that most Wilderness proponents probably don’t give conscious assent to – that the inherent DESIGN and mechanisms of nature are to be observed and respected.

Nature itself is amazingly complex and sophisticated, and has mechanisms of balance within each ecosystem that we should acknowledge and work with. Respecting this ‘design’ is important.  However, to put the principles of nature above our own responsibility to manage the creation for the good of mankind is a mistake, because the beautiful creation is flawed by the introduction of sin, sickness, and death, and needs tending.

3. The Garden of Biblical Stewardship

I have tried to associate a philosophic group with each position listed here, and I had trouble coming up with a generic, non-biblical philosophy that promotes the ‘garden’ view, so please excuse me if I give credit to the Bible for this view – there may be a more generic philosophy or other groups that support this view.

Biblically speaking, the command to responsibly manage the creation was given to mankind as his primary responsibility on earth, even before the fall into sin:

Genesis 2:15
Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.

In theological circles, this is commonly referred to as the ‘Dominion Mandate.’  It posits that

God told Adam and Eve to cultivate and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15), and we may certainly use nature for our benefit, but we may only use it as God intends. An effective steward understands that which he oversees, and science can help us discover the intricacies of nature. Technology puts the creation to man’s use, but unnecessary waste and pollution degrades it and spoils the creation’s ability to give glorify to its creator. I think it is helpful to realize that we are to exercise dominion over nature not as though we are entitled to exploit it but as something borrowed or held in trust.

After the fall, the curse made this task more difficult, but it was still part of his responsibility:

Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field. (Genesis 3:17-18)

But Biblical origins aside, this view basically says that we are to enjoy, use, and manage the creation in a manner that is in concert with BOTH human flourishing (the development and happiness of mankind), and the laws of nature that preserve it. Ultimately, we should eschew greed, and look beyond just meeting our immediate needs and wants to fulfilling the larger purposes of God – to enhance human development and enjoyment, to manage and explore the creation (via science, for example), and to preach the gospel until Jesus returns.

Here’s a nice video explaining the Biblical Environmentalist view.