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Christians and the Environment

I am rather a skeptic when it comes to many of the claims of global warming and environmentalism. However, this skepticism about the prognostications of doom and gloom does not indicate that I am unconcerned about the planet we live on. It is quite the opposite, really. I want my skepticism to allow me to find better solutions than those posited by the green movement. I want my diagnosis of the problem and my understanding of solutions to be grounded in the Bible. I have been helped here by Francis Schaeffer and his book Pollution and the Death of Man. It is, in my assessment, still one of the best treatments of a Christian understanding of creation care.

Schaeffer begins with the reassurance that as Christians we are able to acknowledge what today’s secular humanists cannot: That mankind has been called by God to exercise dominion over the earth. We are not here by chance and we are not here by mistake. We were placed here by God to care for this planet and have been called to be faithful stewards of it. But like everything else in this world, our ability to exercise this kind of stewardship has been affected by our sinful state. “By creation man has dominion, but as a fallen creature he has used that dominion wrongly. Because he is fallen, he exploits created things as thought they were nothing in themselves, and as though he has an autonomous right to them.” We no longer consistently tend the world in love, but instead ravage and pillage it. Though we may not believe in all of the dire claims being made about the state of our planet and its perilous future, we must at least acknowledge that we have not cared for the world as God has called us to.

The answers to this crisis lie not in our own efforts and not in the dictums of former Vice Presidents. Rather, if we are to understand the crisis, its roots, and its solutions, we must turn to Scripture. And this is precisely what Schaeffer does. Though his book was originally published in 1970, it reads as if it was written yesterday (if, that is, the reader is willing to replace the ecological crises of thirty years ago with those of our day, perhaps substituting global warming in place of DDT).

Schaeffer looks at the spirit of the day and examines how people are dealing with ecological issues. Perceptively, he understood that ecology, bereft of any firm, biblical foundation and without any consistent basis for morality, must breed a kind of pantheism. He saw that people would deal with environmental issues by making themselves one with the planet and it one with them, and this decades before the film Avatar. He responds with classic Schaefferian thought: “Pantheism,” he says, “will be pressed as the only answer to ecological problems and will be one more influence in the West’s becoming increasingly Eastern in its thinking.” Almost forty years later, his words have proven true. Witness the rise of Yoga right alongside and intertwined with the rise of the green movement.

Pantheism has elevated nature, lowered man, and discarded God. This is critical to pantheistic thought: “The only reason we are called upon to treat nature well is because of its effects on man and our children and the generations to come. So in reality…man is left with a completely egoistic position in regard to nature. … Having no absolutes, modern man has no categories. One cannot have real answers without categories, and these men can have no categories beyond pragmatic, technological ones. … A pantheistic stand always brings man to an impersonal and low place rather than elevating him.” In the end, pantheism pushes both man and nature into a kind of bog, leaving us unable to make any kind of necessary and rational distinctions between us and the world around us.

The Bible offers us a far better and far higher view of ourselves, our planet, and our responsibility toward it. Schaeffer affirms that our understanding must begin with God’s act of creation through which he created things that have an objective existence in themselves. Despite the claims of pantheism, creation is not an extension of God’s essence. It is only the biblical view that gives worth to man and to all that God has created. How? Because we understand both ourselves and nature when we see that, though we are separate from nature, we are related to it as something God has created. “So the Christian treats ‘things’ with integrity because we do not believe they are autonomous. Modern man has fallen into a dilemma because he has made things autonomous from God.” Because we love the Creator, we love the creation. As we love the creation, we express love to the Creator.

Even in the 1970’s Schaeffer was saying “We must confess that we missed our opportunity. We have spoken loudly against materialistic science, but we have done little to show that in practice we ourselves as Christians are not dominated by a technological orientation in regard either to man or nature.” He warned that “if we treat nature as having no intrinsic value, our own value is diminished.” Ultimately, he calls upon us to treat nature well because we are all products of the loving Creator; we are all creatures together.

While acknowledging that sin and its effects will not be eradicated until the Lord returns, Schaeffer believed there can and should be “a substantial healing,” of the planet and its environment. He says, “we should be looking now, on the basis of the work of Christ, for substantial healing in every area affected by the Fall.” As Christians we of all people are the ones who ought to be treating creation now as it will be treated in eternity. And this, I think, is our challenge: to treat the planet today as we will treat the new earth, exercising dominion without pillaging, exploiting without destroying, faithfully stewarding God’s great gift.