Sunday, October 7, 2007

Christianity and the Environment

In the Book of Genesis chapter 1 verses 26 and 27 it says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; in number; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’"[1]
Even a perfunctory reading of this account throws a question mark over the traditional interpretation of it. Whereas, the prevailing theme in the creation account in Genesis has been taken as man’s dominion over the Earth and his freedom to do what he wills with it, there seem to be large amounts of Biblical evidence asserting that God alone is in charge. For example, Psalm 24:1 says, “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein.”[2] Subsequently, God did give man dominion over all of creation, and appointed him as steward who would care for what He had given to him. The overarching truth then is that God alone is creator and everything in Heaven and Earth are His creation. As a consequence, it seems if God has given man dominion over His creation, then it should be the central task of humanity to take care of it in all moral purposiveness.
A lot of this misinterpretation of man’s role within creation has come from a misunderstanding of what we are meant to do as stewards given dominion by God. First, it is important to understand the original meaning of the word dominion. The word dominion in Hebrew is ‘radah’. It is a word used when referring to a king’s authority over people and his obligation as a good ruler to serve them and care for them. His responsibility to his realm of rule or the range of his effective-will, was and is to make it a better place for the people. Secondly, the word steward was meant to be understood as a person who would work, ‘till or serve.’ The word till is actually translated ‘replenish.’ In his writing on the Hebrew meaning of stewardship Roland Moss says,
The Hebrew word conveys a wide range of meanings in the Old Testament, but it most often includes the implication of filling to, but not beyond, a finite, defined limit or capacity, usually a volume or period of time. The significant facts seem to be that the word implies a limit, and that it also implies the satisfaction and blessing of the thing filled. [3]
In light of this understanding then, God seemingly put man in a position to care for the “garden,” making it a better place to live for all humanity with an understanding that there were, and still are parameters for this stewardship. This idea of stewardship, to ‘fill’ or ‘replenish,’ does not give us a license for unrestrained exploitation of land or a limitless spreading out of human population. What it does seem to convey is that humanity is given the unrestricted right to do whatever they can as stewards to make use of creation while maintaining a harmonious existence with it. The question arises then as to what God will think about man’s care of His creation when He returns. Will man look to God and say, thanks for letting us use your earth, sorry we tore it up? Or will he say, thanks for letting us use your earth I hope you find it in better working condition now then when you first gave it to us? There are many issues surrounding this concern of how we are handling the earth and the resources it provides us.
Global warming is a mainstream issue dominating much television and media. Carbon emissions have rapidly increased since the industrial revolution and methane is a growing concern in the green house effect. Rain forests are disappearing at alarming rates. One statistic states we are losing an equivalent to the size of the state of Indiana every year. Land conversion is a concern in many countries today. Many farms and open prairies are being converted into suburban “sprawls” and most recently rural “sprawls”. This facet of mishandling creation is contributing to numerous degradations of creation including; species extinction and endangerment, species fragmentation, land degradation, deforestation, increase in carbon emissions and it is creating a higher demand on raw materials for building, just to name a few. We are exhausting our natural resources at alarming rates today when we could easily be practicing sustainable methods for the care of our environment. How has humanity become so poor at caring for their environment? Can the exploitation of earth be traced back to a specific people, time or place?
The following account of environmental care is based out of the book Environment and Christian Ethics, written by Michael Northcott. He gives a great example of a time when humanity began to neglect creation. He begins by explaining how the dispersal of European influences in ecology during the sixth century coincided with the expansion of Christianity from the Mediterranean basin to its current population covering more than a third of the globe. The expansion was actually led by monks such as Patrick, Ninan and Columba. They influenced the agricultural development in Europe through various innovations including the domestication of sheep. This proved to be quite profitable for the monks. Additionally, monasteries were most dense in prairie lands where the monks would drain wetlands and establish communities. The communities were developed by sustainable farming methods where they were self-sufficient and self-governed, reflecting the Christian and Hebrew methods of caring for creation through farming practices. This agricultural practice caused a deep respect and gratitude toward creation and there was a general sense of thankfulness to God for His provisions. However, alongside the careful stewardship of creation, there was a general fear of the wild aspects of nature, thus motivating the monks to domesticate and transform it into a workable resource for humanity. This is evidence of a growing problem in the monastic movement’s relation toward creation and how they engaged it. Nature was something that had to be brought under subjection motivated by fear, resulting in a paradox within the monastic movement’s original intents.
The monastic movement continued to grow, naturally accumulating more land to keep up with the demand for food, finances and other resources. As they grew, the monastic movement saw financial prosperity and became more powerful. About this time The Black Plague came to Europe by way of trade routes stretching across the East to Mongolia. The plague killed many of the workers in the monasteries resulting in a shortage of people to sustain the prosperous agricultural industries. The result of this was that agricultural lands were changed to sheep grazing lands, which so happened to be quite profitable for the monasteries. But at the same time the relationship between man and nature began to dissolve. The monasteries accumulated mass amounts of surplus money and as corruption crept in, so did the secular crown. At this point the monastic communities began to dissolve and the lands were taken over by secular agriculturalists that had no understanding of the relationships between God, man and nature. The original practices of the monastic movement disappeared and their agricultural methods lost. What were once sustaining agricultural practices, caring for God’s creation, became a totally exploitative methodology and mindset between man and nature. For centuries the same practices imposed on creation by the secular crown have been practiced. The way we treat our land has become more secular than it has sacred.”[4]
How has this dissolution of the monastic agricultural practice affected our agricultural mindset today? I want to turn now to some modern day agricultural practices in America, specifically in the Heartland region. There is a growing concern in the Midwest about population dispersion. For example, rural American population growth is outpacing the big cities today, but at what cost?
The term “sprawl” has various interpretations. Basically it is derived out of this fact; Americans are using up land at an alarming rate to build large inefficient homes and the population growth has increased since they began moving to the suburbs and more recently to the countryside. Most definitions of “sprawl” do have some commonalities such as: “Low-density development that is dispersed and uses a lot of land; geographic separation of essential places such as work, homes, schools, and shopping; and almost complete dependence on automobiles for travel.”[5] The reason sprawling is such a large concern in the states, and for that matter, around the world, is that it has a huge impact on the land and environment. Demanding two and a half to three acres of land per home, Missouri has seen 435,000 acres (689 square miles) of farmland, fields, forests and prairies converted into sprawls between 1982 and 1997. The total area of Missouri is 69,697 sq. miles (180,516 sq km) of which land takes up 68,945 sq mi (178,568 sq km) and inland water 752 sq mi (1948 sq km). These numbers do not take into the consideration the already developed land in Missouri.[6] It also does not factor in the rate of increase in land consumption either. However, in all fairness we can see that if the consumption rate of land by “sprawling” continues at the rate it is going the majority of land in Missouri will disappear within the next couple of centuries. This is an extremely conservative number considering we have not taken into account the land, which was developed in years prior to 1982 or after 1997.
Suburban and rural sprawling has many negative effects on our environment. It changes the face of our landscape, the natural environment and other aspects of nature important to our quality of life. Studies have shown that land consumption as this occurs for three reasons: unlimited density of settlement, unlimited outward extension of growth, and “leapfrog” or fragmented development pattern.[7] What occurs from low-density growth causes a greater loss of agricultural land than dense growth.
Another risk of sprawling is what it does to groundwater. Because homes are built in suburban or rural parts of the country they require an on-site septic system, which causes more pollution to our water than urban water systems. Considering only 2% of the water in the world is for human consumption, this is something to be taken very seriously.
How can these exploitative practices on our earth be changed before it is too late? In An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation it says, “Many concerned people, convinced the environmental problems are more spiritual than technological, are exploring the world’s ideologies and religions in search of non-Christian spiritual resources for the healing of the earth.”[8] The problem we are facing with our planet today is deeply spiritual and can be traced back to the fall in the Garden of Eden. The relationship between man and nature must be handled as such, dealing with it from the pulpits of our churches.
One of the first steps we can take as individuals is to adopt a Theocentric model into our lives. Reverend Margot Hodson gives a model on integrating proper Biblical stewardship into our worldview. In understanding that God, Humans, the earth and the rest of the cosmos have broken relationships with one another she believes a Christ centered approach can mend this dysfunctional relationship.[9] This model is drawn out of Colossians 1:15-17 which says,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.[10]
This passage seems to allude to the doctrine of Natural theology, which is the belief that we can get to know God by observing nature. Calvin DeWitt says “We know Him by two means: First, by creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.”[11]
What can we do corporately? Obviously, we cannot go back to the hunter-gatherer days or all live in monasteries. What can be done is the messages from the pulpits of churches could be changed. One example of this can be found in a place called Wolvercote. Wolvercote is a small village in England who has recently gone “green.” Confronted by “newbies” characterized by having two cars and bigger house not considering CO2 emissions and contributing to global warming, the locals began to get frustrated. Having lived there their entire lives in Wolvercote, prominent leaders in their community began to speak out about global warming and ethical living. Also, a vicar of a local church began weaving environmental issues into his sermons. But the church did not just isolate themselves and try to work this out on their own, it was a community effort. As a result, what has happened in this town has been a dramatic reversal in its environmental ethics. Jane Muir the journalist who wrote this article says “Wolvercote's carbon footprint might only be a speck relative to the foot-trodden mess of the whole world, and the effect of one village in middle England changing its habits is fairly minuscule, but it is something - and it is something that is generating other good things.”[12]
Additionally, we could all make adjustments in our lifestyles at home. Gardening is a great practice, which was often used by the monks. One particular order from the 6th century, founded by St. Benedict found this to be a way to be in harmony with the cosmos. Ian Bradley says, “In the sixth century St. Benedict, founder of western monasticism, saw husbandry as a way of providing a sustainable lifestyle for his monks which fitted in with the rhythm of the seasons and provided a physical counterpart to their spiritual labours of prayer and contemplation.”[13] Gardening can be a connection point between humanity and nature giving them a sense of God’s provision for their lives. Through gardening we learn to nurture what God gives us locally. But it can also give us a global gardening mindset as well.
In closing it is important to say that our world is in need of hope. As concerns grow for our world there will be many questions needing answered. The coming years may very well be the toughest humanity has seen yet, but they may also be the years where the churches will rise to the occasion and fully engage the biggest mission field the world has ever seen.

[1] New King James Bible (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1982)
[2] Ibid. Psalm 24:1
[3] Rowland Moss, The Earth in Our Hands, (London: Intervarsity Press, 1982), 89.
[4] Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 42-47.
[5] E. Heimlich and William D. Anderson, “Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond; Impacts on Agricultural and Rural Land,” Economic Research Services 803, (1995): 9-31.
[6] Ibid.,
[7] Tina Axelrad, “The Costs of Sprawl: Summary of National Literature Review.” Agricultural Economic Report 803, (1998), 26.
[8] R.J. Berry., The Care of Creation (Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 19.
[9] Rev. M. Hodson ‘True Meaning of Biblical Stewardship’ 27 June 2007[Lecture at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford]
[10] Ibid., Colossians 1:15-17.
[11] C.B. DeWitt, Earth-Wise (CRC Publications,1994), 13.
[12] J. Muir, “A Little Can Go A Long Way,” The Guardian, (2007)
[13] I. Bradley, God is Green (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd,. 1990,) 92,93.

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