By Nathaniel Torrey
The relationship between Christianity and environmentalism was the theme of the 64th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, entitled “Caring for Creation.” Some of the plenary speakers included Dr. Calvin Beisner, founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Seminary.
As Christians, from where do we begin our understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world? In his talk, Dr. Beisner puts forth the term “Godly dominion” as an alternative to environmentalism. He lifts this term from Genesis 1:28 where, after creating mankind, God:
…blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
It is mankind’s mission to procreate and populate the earth, but also to have dominion over the earth. Whereas environmentalists in the past have accused this passage of justifying greedy and ultimately destructive behavior towards the environment, Dr. Beisner says it does no such thing. It is environmentalism, he says, that wishes for the preservation of the earth at the expense of human life and suffering. Conserving the environment, while using it to alleviate human suffering — say using techniques to maximize the yield of a field of wheat — are entirely compatible. “Environmentalism wishes us to envision ecotopia without industrialism, which is what allows us to have goods in the first place.”
Historically, Christianity and environmentalism have been somewhat at odds. Christians often see environmentalists as pantheistic and misanthropic, while environmentalists accuse Christians of biological chauvinism and anthropocentrism. However, as both environmentalists and Christian missionaries are sent as relief in the wake of environmental disasters, it is important that they dialogue and come to an understanding of each other, especially in situations where lives may be at stake. “The relationship between God and Nature is complicated enough without Christians and secular environmentalists defining each other by the fringes of their respective movements” says Dr. Moore.
Dr. Moore points out there are some issues on which secular environmentalists and conservative Christians overlap — namely bioethical issues such as cloning. Both reject the commodification of human life and remain deeply skeptical of “techno utopias,” so-called perfect societies resulting from bioengineering and the blending of human beings and technology.
If anything is to be gained by this dialogue, Christians can’t simply rattle off the old line they always have: they must think critically and in an orthodox manner. “Both Christians and environmentalists must be more complicated than another partisan issue” says Dr. Moore. In his closing remarks, Dr. Moore had these words to say:
Evangelicals must transcend this by being conservative, conserving traditions, which means conserving cultures, which means conserving communities, which means conserving nature. Sometimes that will coincide with whatever passes for conservative in the copyright holders of that name for the moment and sometimes it won’t. The Christianity that finds Bible verses to fit the agenda of politicians, whether of the right or of the left, is already bankrupt and compromised. Environmentalists, if they are interested in persuading members outside of their camp, must also divorce earth care from the litany of liberal special interest demands.
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