The environment is not usually regarded as a religious issue but the Bible makes it clear that care for creation is not optional. Professor Sam Berry tackles the problem of environmental apathy
Nearly twenty years ago, Mrs Thatcher remarked that ‘we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.’ She was speaking soon after the publication of the Brundtland Report prompted the idea of sustainable development, recognizing that ‘the environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions and needs… the ‘environment’ is where we all live; ‘development’ is what we are all trying to do to improve our lot within that abode.’
We obviously did not hear Mrs Brundtland’s message: we still insist that ‘growth’ is necessary for economic survival and we still shunt the ‘environment’ into a category of things best dealt with by experts (‘environmentalists’). But environmental issues are becoming ever more assertive: droughts, floods, hurricanes, energy needs (nuclear or not, the price and availability of fossil fuel, renewables), erosion and soil instability, waste, transport and congestion, hunting (never mind shooting and fishing), noise, air quality, insurance costs, airport expansion.
The experts do their best. In February 2005, the General Synod ‘challenged itself and all members of the Church of England to make care for creation, and repentance for its exploitation, fundamental to their faith, practice and mission.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury has repeatedly emphasized that ecology and economy cannot be separated; Prime Minister Blair has acknowledged the error of governments concentrating exclusively on economic growth.
A former administration used almost theological language (in the national submission to the ‘Earth Summit’): ‘Mankind has always been capable of great good and great evil. This is certainly true of our role as custodians of the planet. The Government’s approach begins with the recognition that it is mankind’s duty to look after our world prudently and conscientiously.’ Sir David King, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, is explicit that climate change is ‘the most serious and catastrophic problem we face today. Unmitigated climate change will both magnify humanity’s existing scourges – poverty, disease, famine – and add new ones, such as through increasing climate extreme events, rising sea levels and flooding on a scale beyond human experience.’ The UN estimates that by 2010 there will be 50 million refugees driven from home by environmental pressures.
The Christian view
Yet for all but a small group of often irritating enthusiasts, these concerns are simply part of the backdrop to our understanding of everyday existence – important but not fundamental. There are many possible reasons for this attitude, but we should note that it is unscriptural and un-Christian. There is a long-standing tradition that God wrote two books: a Book of Words (the Bible) and a Book of Works (Creation). The different languages in which they are written makes reading them together a considerable challenge, but they have the same author and there can be no intrinsic conflict between them. Moreover, they are both about the same subject: God’s relationship to and communication about his work.
The first command given to our first parents was about taking responsibility for other creatures; Adam was put into the garden ‘to till and look after it’; the consequences of disobedience as recorded in Genesis 3 were all about failures in relationship. The saga of the Promised Land is an extended allegory of interactions between humankind and the environment, and, as Walter Bruggemann avers, ‘conventional Christianity has always wanted to talk about Yahweh and neglect land, while secular humanism has always wanted to talk only of land and never of Yahweh.’ Paul tells us that Christ reconciled all things to the Father by the shedding of his blood on the cross.
Bishop Tom Wright suggests that Paul had the Exodus story in mind in Romans 5–8, drawing a parallel between the redemption experienced by the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land with the redemption of all humankind in the new creation of which we are heirs. He grieves that Romans 8.18–28 ‘is regularly marginalized in mainstream Protestant interpretations. If you insist on reading Romans simply as a book about human beings getting ‘saved’ in the sense of ‘going to heaven when they die,’ you will find that these verses function as a kind of odd apocalyptic appendix. That in consequence is how the tradition has often regarded them, both in the ‘radical’ scholarship of Lutherans like Bultmann and Käsemann and in the conservative readings of much evangelical scholarship. In fact the passage is the deliberate and carefully planned climax to the whole train of thought in Romans 1–8 as a whole.’
A call to action
Another reason for Christian disregard for environmental matters sounds odd to modern ears. We firmly profess God as ‘Maker of all things in heaven and earth’ but we have been immunized against looking closely at how God relates to his creation by the seemingly endless debates over evolution – although we spend considerable energy on particular aspects of the relationship, such as the effectiveness of prayer or the work of the Spirit. It is inept to dispose of the Divine Watchmaker while still behaving as if God is a Great Magician.
Overall, there is considerable Christian involvement with environmental issues, but little coordinated activity. The response to the support and materials produced by EcoCongregation has been disappointing. In contrast, A Rocha has caught the imagination of many with its message of ‘hope for the planet’ and demonstrations of how this can work out. Tearfund has clearly seen that relief and development efforts cannot be separated from environmental protection. Operation Noah is striving to raise awareness of climate change. The Diocesan Environmental Network is working on an energy audit of all Anglican buildings. Christian Ecology Link labours hard to increase political awareness of environmental issues. The John Ray Initiative has begun to dent the assumption that environmentalism is a New Age plot. Many local churches have excellent projects. But the environment is still not seen as a religious matter, unlike, for example, personal piety. We need support and guidance from Christian leaders at all levels. Only then will we be able to translate positive utterances on the subject into practical commitment and teaching throughout the Church. Creation care is much more than an agenda item; it is a mandate laid by God upon us all, individually and corporately.