The Christian & The Environment
If I were to ask you to think of “the” environment, what comes to your mind? Flowers and trees? Fish and animals? Watersheds and seas? Mountains and plains? …Nature, right? When we talk about man’s environment in society, it can become easy to view it as a far-fetched, distant reality that we are only able to observe or experience when we “get away.” Still, its far-reaching fingers touch us all right where we live, prompting a myriad of theories and ideas as to how we relate with the world around us. Some view the earth as a vast animal playground. Others, as something to be exploited. There are even those who view man’s environment as something to worship, perhaps even as a maternal deity. You hear it all the time, people referring to “the” environment as “Mother Nature.” Amid all the hubbub of this “green-friendly” mentality, the question must be asked: is it appropriate for a Christian to think of their environment in such terms? While trying to answer that question certainly tends to open a can of worms in society, I think that focusing in on three biblical aspects of man’s connection to his environment provides the believer with stability when dealing with green issues. Relationship. Responsibility. Resourcefulness.
Man’s Relationship to His Environment
First, let’s address the aforementioned theory that nature is extraneous and mystic. The concept of “Mother Earth” has its roots in the pagan deities of ancient civilizations who are by all means imaginary. Like many people groups in the world today, the ancients made statues for just about anything and everything that came into their minds. In Acts 19 we read of the sad devotion society gave to their stone statue of Diana of Ephesus, the supposed goddess of earth. Even today, it is not uncommon to find people of similar devotions when we read the bumper stickers on the back of their car. Yes, there are still those today who spiritualize the essence of earth and nature. However, “the” environment is not something foreign, mysterious, or ambiguous to us because man is intricately related to His environment. The Bible tells us how it was from the very dust of the earth that God brought forth man into existence and life (Gen. 2:7). We are a people who are linked to this place, and we belong with it; “for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19b). In our basest element, we belong here. Recognizing this connection to our environment should prompt any individual to “take ownership” of it for themselves with care and concern as they would their own possessions.
However, man’s relationship with his environment is not freestanding; it is rooted in his relationship with God. When God spoke and created all things into existence, He did so with the sole purpose of glorifying Himself, and He placed His special, image-bearing creation (mankind), within a context where His glorious image would be multiplied and displayed. Genesis 1:28 instructs mankind to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The word subdue is an interesting word, bringing with it both connotations of harshness and moderation. The passage continues to proclaim man’s God-ordained dominion, and so an order is instantly recognized within this environment: man is greater than all other created things on earth, and he is to rule the earth, not vice versa. This seems harsh in the face of those who see man as an equal byproduct of evolutionary randomness, but the Bible is clear that people are not animals, and animals are not people. Originally, the relationship man had with creation was that of peace. The word subdue (to pacify) helps us recognize this. However, the fall of man into sin and the subsequent curse of the earth has strained this relationship and man must now strive against creation. Our environment is not as it should be. Yet, as sinful as he is, man is still expected to fulfill his God-given mandate of subduing (pacifying) the earth (Gen. 3:17). This is difficult to do now… and leads us to our second point.
Man’s Responsibility to His Environment
Man’s responsibility to His environment can be summarized by two concepts that have their root in Genesis 2:15: to work and keep. First, “to work” means to labor and/or to make things grow and be productive. This orientation to work is something that God put within mankind long before the shadow of sin had darkened their heart. While work can take on many forms, the agricultural context of Genesis 2 speaks of cultivation. This calls man to prepare God’s green earth for continuous productivity. While this certainly is the driving principle behind all work, efforts, labors, and careers; again, the passage calls for man to manage his natural environment through intentional action. This means that it is good for man to put the ground to work to produce food. It is good for man to harness the power of the wind and the stream to produce power. It is good for man to build dams and ditches to counter erosion. The list goes on and on; man is called to work.
Man seems to do the first part of this mandate quite well, and rather ingeniously. However, without a proper balance, unheeded work can bring about disastrous ends. And so man is also called “to keep.” This means to protect or guard something and/or to sustain current productivity. And so, we come to the crisis between industrialists and environmentalists. By these two designations I refer to two differing extremes, both are very harmful. The extreme end of industrialism views the earth and its resources solely as a means to progress. Whereas the extreme wing of environmentalism views the earth and its resources as a glorious end. One greatly overemphasizes the “work” aspect of the dominion mandate, and the other overemphasizes the “keep” aspect of the dominion mandate, passionately protesting that the earth should not be disturbed, but rather should be honored as sacred. Both views are problematic and incomplete, and without the balance that the other brings results in destruction. This is not to say that it is evil to be industrial or to care about the environment, but it certainly will always be an issue when we try to plant our identity in things that we are passionate about apart from Christ. So, can a Christian be an industrialist? Can a Christian be an environmentalist? The answer is no. Both of these extremes hold great disregard for God’s mandate while abandoning a biblical view of man’s significance in relation to his environment. Additionally, associating with either of these two societal platforms calls you to place your identity in something other than Christ. Subsequently, these are movements that will consume you. For the Christian, both “working and keeping” play a part in their interactions with their environment. This calls for balance and the peaceable, unselfish, wisdom from above that we read of in James 3. What does that wisdom look like? Conservation. I know of no other word that accurately reflects the ideals of both working and keeping. Conservation is planned management, which means to work our environment (taking into account the harmful extremes of industry) while at the same time keeping our environment (taking into account the harmful extremes of environmentalism).
This concept of ‘keeping’ is also the hallmark of ownership. There are those who would say that land ownership is evil and that no person has rights to a certain parcel. However, you cannot escape the stark reality that not only does God recognize land ownership, but it is God who gives land ownership, right here at the very outset of history. This brings a great weight of responsibility to anyone and everyone that owns acreage. How many of you have a yard? How have you done in “subduing” it? How well have you “worked” it? How well have you “kept” it?
Man’s Resourcefulness with His Environment
Inherent to the idea of work is the goal of productivity. To see the end result of your labor. Paul uses this picture when challenging Timothy to keep the faith: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (2 Tim. 2:6). This application of conservation requires diligence and wisdom. To invest in one’s environment is to recognize its value and to seek to prolong that value. Sowing for the farmer is more than just putting the seed into the ground, it assumes cultivation. For the farmer to invest in his land and crops is for him to take extra measures to ensure that needs are met and threats are eliminated. However, these decisions are hardly ever black and white. Yet, avoiding the extremes of industrialism and environmentalism helps in coming to a decision that speaks of both ingenuity and conservation.
The world population is projected to reach over 9 billion people by the year 2050. This calls for intentionality with our environment. We certainly aren’t finding more continents to colonize, and that calls for God’s gift of science to play a big part in the solution of global issues and in man’s continued performance of the dominion mandate. Science has enabled man to interact with his environment on both the macro, and micro-level. And while there are certainly unethical/immoral lengths that can be taken with such technology, it is only right for man to utilize their knowledge of the earth to further work and keep their environment so far as they do so with the above biblical/conservational values. Genetically modified crops, emissions, waste, along with countless of other debated topics all play a part in a conversation that is relevant to each and every household.
In conclusion, the overarching understanding that this world is not as it should be both relieves us from worshiping the earth and also urges us to preserve it. In Revelation 21 God revealed that this earth will be made new by Christ, and that our environment is groaning for this redemption (Romans 8:22). Therefore, we are not on a mission to rescue the earth from destruction (global warming, etc.) because the final destiny of the planet is in the sovereign hands of God. This doesn't, however, remove the Christian’s responsibility to fulfill his God-given mandate of working and keeping it. With this we can take hope that despite our environmental conflicts, both with the earth itself and among one another, we long for the coming day in which all things are restored in Christ Jesus.
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