Saturday, April 6, 2019

Toward a Christian View of Environmental Stewardship

Many environmentalists push green for green’s sake. One local non-profit group has created a commercial that presents the following text interspersed with alternating pictures of pristine and damaged mountains: “One million acres ravaged . . . 2000 miles of stream buried . . . 500 mountains destroyed . . . for cheap coal . . . one mountain can still be saved . . . with clean wind energy . . . help build a wind farm and save a mountain.” Perhaps their reasons are more complex than this, but the fact is that many appear to value green simply for green’s sake. Save an acre, stream, or mountain because they deserve to be saved for their own sake. Is this a valid reason for Christians to be green? I cannot speak for all, of course, but I can present my own formative thoughts concerning Christianity and environmentalism.

Green for green’s sake appears to be a belief of the Cult of the Created Thing. The Apostle Paul explains that because humankind rejected the worship of the One True Creator, they instead began to worship created things (Romans 1:18-25). For some people this has led to the worship of idols and images. For others it apparently means worship of the environment. Service to the creation becomes an end in itself, to the point of elevating it above the needs of humankind. This Cult of the Created Thing fails to understand the purpose of creation and mankind’s purpose within it.

God created the universe for his own glory. Nature glorifies God in many different ways apart from the activity of humankind within it. For instance, both its beauty and its balance speak praise to God even when humans do not.

Humankind was placed upon this earth as the chief God-glorifier. The creation account in Genesis tells us that God gave humans a mandate to rule over every living thing in the air, sea and on the ground. This mission was predicated upon humanity’s unique status as the sole image-bearer of God within the created order (Genesis 1:26-28). Men and women were charged with the task of reflecting God’s rule and authority within creation. Therefore, in obedience to the creation mandate, we have a mission to glorify God by using the resources of this planet in service to ourselves and others as we serve God.

When humankind fell from their original created state, the God-reflecting image was shattered. Now they reflect God in imperfect ways that are constantly stained by the effects of our depravity. We no longer possess the ability to do the job correctly. We often use the creation as an end for ourselves alone, or as an end in itself. Depravity has ruined our God-established relationship to creation.

The redemptive task of Christ in this world is to restore the created order—humankind to their original, unshattered, unstained image-bearing state and the creation to its original state of beauty and balance. How is the Christian to be involved in this redemptive task? 

Humans Were Created to Glorify God

First, we must recognize that the purpose of humanity trumps all other earthly purposes. We must glorify God, and we must obey the creation mandate in order to do that. That requires that we resume our post as rulers on this earth. All its resources are available to us as we seek to glorify God. Green for green’s sake is an indubitable violation of this principle. If environmentalists wish to set up the false dichotomy of either us or it, we must choose us every time, if we are to obey the creation mandate. 

Humans Are Stewards of God's Creation

However, this dichotomy is indeed a false one, hence the second point. As image-bearers, we are also stewards of the creation. We cannot abuse what God has set us over. Consider the analogy of earthly kings who once ruled their domains so harshly that people starved and died as they sought to provide for their rulers’ selfish desires and ambitions. North Korea's rulers come immediately to mind, but history books provide too many examples to number. The implication is that we must use the earth’s resources wisely. This requires restraint and respect for others and their need to use the environment, and for the needs of future generations as well. 

Depravity Runs through Everything Humanity Does

Thirdly and closely related to the last point, we cannot glorify God if we are motivated to serve our own interests alone. Due to the Fall, humanity often uses creation’s resources for illegitimate and abusive purposes. Is it possible that some mountaintop removal mining is done for the sole purpose of feeding greed and power? Those who drive the industry are quick to say that they provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. But let us all remember that throughout the history of mining the industry has often abused people for the sake of enriching and empowering a few. There is no shortage of brutal examples of this in West Virginia’s history. Has humanity changed so much over the last 100 years that we are no longer permitted to question the motives and practices of company owners? 

The Creation Itself Glorifies God

Fourthly, we must always be mindful of the original beauty and balance with which God imbued the creation. Even though the creation serves us, every last human being knows on some level that the creation also declares the glory of God quite apart from us. We have seen it with our own eyes and can only imagine the pleasure that God receives from the same vision. It does this through a myriad of means, not the least of which are clear-flowing streams and beautiful, windswept trees on steep mountainsides. In autumn our hills erupt into a colorful symphony of breathless praise orchestrated by God himself for his own glory and for our pleasure. When God created the earth, he stepped back and said with no equivocation, “it is good.” Thus, we should use the resources of this world, in ways that preserve the balance and beauty of what God has created as much as possible. The earth’s beauty and balance glorifies God and gives us knowledge of the Creator. 

Christ Leads the Chorus of All Creation

Lastly, a redemptive use of the environment can only be fully accomplished by applying the redemptive work of Christ to human hearts. Depravity more often than not causes the eventual abuse of the created order in one way or another. Some will rape the earth, others will deify it. Both manifest the need for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Only through the transforming power of Christ can humanity be restored to its original mission. Christ can overcome wrong motivations such as greed and pride. Christ can put mercy within the hearts of company men for their miners and mining communities. Christ can restore the rightful worship of the One True Creator among those who now worship the created thing. Christ can keep us mindful of the need to be stewards for the sake of future generations. Christ can help us join the chorus of creation as it sings praise to God.

By these principles I do not mean to imply that natural resource extraction like mountaintop removal is wrong "on the face of it." I firmly believe it is wrong to put the so-called “needs” of the environment above the needs of human beings. If mountaintop removal is the best way to glorify God as we seek to reflect his image and rule the earth, then by all means, let’s do it. On the other hand, due to depravity, humanity cannot be trusted to glorify God in the pursuit of its own interests without serious accountability. Let us never pretend that we are free from sin’s influence, regardless of our commitment to either the environment or to industry. Let us seek to glorify God both by fulfilling the creation mandate and preserving the song it sings in praise of the Creator.

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