I’ll skip the prefaces. Regardless of whether you’re convinced by the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change, Christians have a number of reasons to be invested in seeking the renewal of the environment that go beyond the science.
At the most basic level, we as Christians believe that there is a God who made the earth and gave it to humanity to steward, and that that same God will be coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead. With that in mind, you’d think we’d have an urgent sense of duty to truly sustain the earth. It’s literally our original job as humans.
Yet we easily come up with ways to get around that calling. Some justifications are just wordplay, others look like conspiracy theories, but some are very well-founded objections. I aim to address a few of these here.
1. God gave humanity the earth to dominate. God commands humanity in Genesis, “Fill the earth and subdue it.” As long as we are using the earth’s resources to make people’s lives better, the consequences are not our fault.
Just as God said we ought to “fill and subdue” the earth, God “fills and subdues” us. Saint Augustine speaks of God filling and subduing all things with the whole of himself: “When you are ‘poured out’ upon us, you are not wasted on the ground. You raise us upright. You are not scattered but reassemble us” (Augustine iii (3)). What is the result of God’s subduing and filling all things? Is it destruction and death? No, a life devoted to God is thriving, full of life, and bears fruit. If we continue on our current path for much longer, our earth will not bear fruit. As it is, population growth and the damage we have already done to the global climate threaten to throw some poorer parts of the world into famine. Our dominion over the earth does not give us a right to destroy it. On the contrary, it gives us the responsibility to make sure that it continues to bear fruit. We are not only responsible for what we do, but how we do it. If our use of the world’s resources to make people’s lives better causes destruction, then we’re doing it wrong.
2. God will renew the earth at the end of time, so the state of the earth is less of a priority than caring for the people on earth.
I have two problems with this.
First off, the state of the people on earth is directly concerned with the state of the earth. In order to care for the people, we have to care for the earth. That sounds like a meta Bob Marley lyric, but I’m talking at a much more basic level. In order to have food, no matter whether we get it from mass commercial growers or from our own backyards, the environment must be fit to grow it. Currently, the earth is not on a track to be fit to produce enough food for the population. While this is situation affects all of us, it is especially detrimental to poorer regions of the world where droughts and increasingly intense out-of-season storms disrupt growers who do not have any savings as a buffer in case of famine.
Secondly, from a theological lens, as we care for and sustain God’s creation we are participating, in a small way, in God’s ultimate renewal of it. If we trust that God will actually renew this earth in the end, creation care is an opportunity to work toward something that will last for eternity. It’s pretty amazing that God would include us in the physical repair of creation, even as we are renewed spiritually.
3. We don’t even have a plan to solve the problem of environmental degradation. Why should we focus time and effort on a problem we have no solution to, when we could put that effort into an issue we might actually be able to solve?
On the contrary, the church is in a unique position for helping to solve this problem.
In a world full of ways to pursue selfishness, it’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that God’s plan for the world is holistic and goes beyond ourselves. It requires real sacrifice. There are many people who say that it’s not that hard to be “eco-friendly” – all you have to do is change your light bulbs and buy Fair Trade goods, and maybe bike or walk a little more. While those things might be helpful, on their own they won’t solve the problem.
Living in a way that sustains the earth requires hard work and simplicity. That’s not a popular message in a consumerist society that encourages people to make things as cheaply as possible so that everyone has to buy more and more stuff when their original cheap stuff gets worn out. People don’t value things, so it’s no big deal to throw stuff away. Waste isn’t considered a bad thing, it’s a sign of a growing economy. If we are going to deal with environmental degradation, we are going to need a different mindset than that which glorifies self-gratification above all else.
This holistic change in mindset isn’t a position our politicians can advocate, if they want to be elected. That isn’t a position our business people can stand on without public support. This is a position that has to be picked up by a cultural leader. Someone who can exist without public support, who endures economic downturns, who believes in sacrifice and selflessness. Is this profile sounding familiar? The church, unlike politicians, business people, or self-centered culture, does not need public support. In fact, the church has thrived most under persecution. God has placed the church in the perfect leadership position, given it a standard of selflessness and clear mandates of stewardship, and provided it with members all over the world. The church is positioned so strategically in support of this issue that it’s hard to believe that Christians have not taken a unified stand on it.
In conclusion, I’d like to remind us that while God has positioned us to take on stewardship of creation, God doesn’t have to use us. Just like the stones will cry out if there is no one else to sing God’s praises, God could very easily use someone else to do this task. This is not a requirement for us, it is a joy. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (paraphrased from Ephesians 2:10). Entering into these good works God places before us is a joyful endeavor, because we know the One for whom we are working. That’s why Christians have a unique ability to be on the front lines of this charge in support of environmental protection. We can find so much more joy than nonbelievers in this difficult work of stewarding creation, knowing that we are participating in the new heaven and the new earth to come.
May it be said of us that we did our work well and in the spirit of humble love.
If you’re interested in opportunities at Wheaton to practice creation care, get connected with Wheaton’s A Rocha chapter on Facebook or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!