I’ve had an old post based on an older idea brewing for several years, and in honour of Blog Action Day, I’m pressing myself to rework and publish it. Blog Action Day is an experiment in response to the premise, “What would happen if every blog published posts discussing the same issue, on the same day? One issue. One day. Thousands of voices.” The issue? The environment. As I write, there are 11,320 blogs participating… I don’t know what that number will when it’s published.
I recently wrote On the Loss of Wonder and its follow-up visiting distinctly environmental themes just ahead of my mention of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, birds, and the environment. Thoughts on the environment in connection to the Christian faith go back some way, but unfortunately there’s been a period of chosen ignorance on the matter. I hope to continue with corrective thought.
In 1973, Larry Norman released So Long Ago the Garden, which included the Bob-Dylan-inspired track, “Nightmare #71.” It’s a strange song, really, like a dream with nonsensical images strung together to somehow contain a message. More than 30 years on, the salient bit is a marionette of Harpo Marx who comes alive to speak these words:
With the continents adrift and the sun about to shift,
will the ice caps drown us all or will we burn?
We’ve polluted what we own will we reap what we have sown?
Are we headed for the end or can we turn?
We’ve paved the forest killed the streams,
burned the bridges to our dreams.
The earth is bursting at the seams,
and in pain of childbirth screams,
as it gives life to what seems
to either be an age that gleams
or simply lays there, dying.
If this goes on, will life survive? How can it?
Out of the grave, oh who will save our planet?
Larry and the Harpo marionette have a bit of dialogue, at the end of which the marionette says “exactly eight-nine words:”
Let the proud but dying nation kiss the last generation.
It’s the year of the pill, age of the gland;
we have landed on the moon, but we’ll clutter that up soon.
Our sense of freedom’s gotten out of hand:
we kill our children, swap our wives;
we’ve learned to greet a man with knives;
we swallow pills in fours and fives;
our cities look like crumbling hives.
Man does not live, he just survives;
we sleep till he arrives.
Love is a corpse, we sit and watch it harden —
we left it, oh so long ago, the garden.
The song closes when Elmo Lincoln, the first actor to portray Tarzan in the movies (silent, 1918) walks up and says, “I beg your pardon, but we left it, oh so long ago, the garden.”
Silent images breaking their silence to speak a message we didn’t want to hear then and only reluctantly acknowledge now, though our response remains muted. Who will speak for the environment, the silent sufferer? Do we continue to listen to silent film stars content in the knowledge they don’t speak? If they did, it might be a nightmare. On Friday, Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, perhaps a timely recognition that Truth is inconvenient, not to mention controversial.
What’s had me concerned for quite some time is the way in which Christians don’t want to talk about environmental concerns much, if at all. A while back, Andy Crouch’s article “Environmental Wager” considered this theme… “Why evangelicals are—but shouldn’t be—cool toward global warming.” He got some backlash, with a certain fundamentalist speaking out against the article, its publisher, global warming in general, or anyone who wants to talk about it. He derided it as “junk science”, which doesn’t bode well for anyone of his stripe being willing to consider environmental issues in general. A year and a half later though, the New York Times ran a story, Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative.
Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”
Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
“We have not paid as much attention to climate change as we should, and that’s why I’m willing to step up,” said Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, an influential evangelical institution in Illinois. “The evangelical community is quite capable of having some blind spots, and my take is this has fallen into that category.”
Some of the nation’s most high-profile evangelical leaders, however, have tried to derail such action. Twenty-two of them signed a letter in January declaring, “Global warming is not a consensus issue.” Among the signers were Charles W. Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It’s unfortunate that there was some controversy even over this, but it’s a step in the right direction for the many who signed on. The environment has been an unpopular topic in these circles for some years already… enough so that I was initially inclined to keep my early ideas to myself on the matter. I found in my notes dating back to 1995 references to an idea I’d been nurturing about “ecological sin,” something which the Bible admittedly does not call by name, but which I think exists conceptually. And if we can call it a sin, maybe even the fundamentalists could muster up some concern.
No matter how you interpret Genesis on the spectrum between literal and metaphor, mankind was placed in a garden that did not belong to us, and told to look after it. Not solely perhaps, but the original sin had to do with ecology… there was only one tree from which we were told not to pluck fruit, and we did it anyway. The ecological repercussions are there as well… we still have to tend the garden, but it no longer responds properly; it’s no longer easy, we have to work it. Having impaired the environment, it becomes more difficult to manage. No matter how many years you consider to have elapsed, from that day to this, mankind continues to deny the effect of his sin on the world around him, including the world itself.
Dipping back in my archives to 1999, I find an essay, “The Earth is The Lord’s”, written under my pseudonym, even then. The remainder of this post is a slight reworking of my brief 1999 essay, which describes the concept of ecological sin. I use allusions to creation here, so if that bothers you, just think about theistic evolution and imagine that God lit the spark to “The Big Bang.”
When I borrow something, I use caution to ensure that I eventually return it in the same condition I received it. When I lend something, I expect the same consideration — I don’t remind the borrower, I just expect it. That’s the way it is with stuff you don’t own. You look after it. Is it not then, an affront to God’s generosity to treat with contempt that with which he entrusted us?
You know how you see something that belongs to another person, and when you are told who owns it, you say (or think), “of course, that’s just the kind of [pen, car, bicycle, book, whatever] that so-and-so would own”? If you’re gift-shopping and have a similar experience, you know you’ve found the perfect gift. You can tell a lot about people by what they own. This is all the more true if they have made it themselves, or in some way put their creative touch on it. When people decorate their homes, they look like expressions of who they are, what they like, and what they are like. I know people whose homes feel sterile, and for some of them, that’s who they are — distant and proper. I know people whose homes feel warm and inviting, and soothing. Calming — and that’s just the way they are themselves. This is the sort of thing I mean, like looking at a painting and being able to tell who the artist was. Or you could if you knew more about art… but even I can tell the difference between Monet, da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Dali.
When you look at the earth, you can tell a bit about the person who made it, who owns it… though it’s easier perhaps to tell when you look at some parts of it than at others. Funny thing about the earth, though…. even though God made it, there’s all these “bits” that he didn’t make — man did, and they cover a good portion of the earth. Man had to clear away a lot of what God made in order to make room for what he was making. That’s why we live in cities rather than in gardens. Problem is, we chose the city over the garden, and haven’t seen God ever since, as though we somehow deleted his signature from the blueprints.
Psalm 24:1-2 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” (NIV). Just in case we forgot Genesis 1-2. God owns it all. It’s got his fingerprints all over it – except of course, where we’ve erased them. Paul saw it that way. He wrote to the Romans,
For since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling a mortal human being and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles. (1:20-23, NET)
Paul was making a point about how man has exchanged the glory of God for a cheap substitute. This is what happens when we worship the creation over the creator: we call it humanism. Or we call it conservationism. Whatever. Paul stops to note that God’s fingerprints are so indelibly marked over all of creation that no one can fail to see them. I do think we can blot them out, though. True, we cannot erase the spectacle of a starry night sky… but it’s so hard to see such things from our inner cities. We blot it out, but it’s still there. It’s his creation, his expression of himself. We just have to look at it and ask, “what does this tell me about the person who owns it?”
The ownership of the earth is not in dispute, except perhaps by those who suggest that we come from “her.” Somehow we are bound up in “Mother Earth,” and she is in us and we are in her. We call that pantheism. Or we call it treehuggerism. Whatever. I say that even though we are but dust (Psalm 103:14), we have the breath of God in us (Genesis 2:7), so although we may have come in some sense from the earth, we are not of the same ilk. Even Charles Darwin apparently recanted later in his life, but the whole evolutionary idea had so much steam by that time that people stopped listening to its creator. Deja vu. [Note: my interpretation of Genesis 1-2 not as literal now than it was when I wrote this sentence.]
So if God owns the earth, he sure doesn’t seem to do a very good job of looking after it. Or so you would think. The real disgrace is that our judgment of him is our judgment of ourselves, since God delegated the job of caring for the earth to us. Remember in Eden, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). Take care of it. That would be the point. That’s the way it is with stuff you don’t own. You take care of it. This is one of the reasons you are here, according to Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (NIV)
The idea of creating man and of what man will do is all in the same breath, and it is therefore bound up together. But in order for man to rule over the earth, he had to be granted significant authority, and he was granted it by God. In fact, he was created so that he could be given this authority, so that he could represent God in the earth, ruling over the creation that God owns, expressing who God is and what he is like. And yet he is made up of dust and wind (read Genesis 2). Man is at once great and small, and this is so great a paradox that the Psalmist asks God,
Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them?
Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them,
and make them almost like the heavenly beings?
You grant mankind honor and majesty,
you allow them to rule over your creation,
you have placed everything under their authority,
including all the sheep and cattle,
as well as the wild animals,
the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea
and everything that moves through the channels of the seas.
(Psalm 8:4-8, NET)
Psalm 8 is regarded as a commentary on Genesis 1-2, so it is not surprising to find the notion of this vast extent of man’s delegated authority in both places. And man has certainly demonstrated some remarkable abilities as he has “subdued the earth.” Enough to make him self-important, anyway. We call that narcissism. Or we call it humanism. Whatever. Man has an atrocious tendency to think of himself far more highly than he ought, but when it comes time to take even half the responsibility commensurate with the position he has granted himself, he cedes his authority anywhere he can. We saw that in Eden. We still see it in those who subordinate themselves to creation, the very thing over which they are given dominion. There are those who worship the earth, and there are those who worship the creatures of the earth. It is the Creator that matters, that gives these things their value. How quickly we forget. The notion that we are on the same level as a tree or an animal is the ceding of our God-given authority, and the shirking of our duty to rule, to take care of the garden and its inhabitants. I have always wondered about the word “humane.” Why do we apply it to non-humans, as though animals deserve “humane” treatment – i.e., to be treated like humans. Newsflash: animals are not humans. I realize that the semantic range of the word “humane” includes the concept of compassion, but it is also founded upon humanism. It is this humanism that places our whims above all others and encourages us to save the whales and the seals but not unborn human babies. “Humane” treatment is often given to animals before humans. [Again, my views here have softened somewhat… but there’s an essential point which remains valid.]
Man’s rule of the earth is uncontested, for the most part. We are not under threat from apes (despite a certain 1968 movie due to be remade for 2001) nor from emus nor from cows (even mad ones) nor from ants nor from elephants nor even from dolphins. And yet it ought to be, we do such a poor job of it. Take oil, for example. We must first recognize that its provision out of the ground is a gift from God. Yes, we may use it wastefully, and we do irreparable damage extracting it, but these are from a lack of concern to do things properly. To simply say that we are killing “Mother Earth” misses the point — if this causes us to stop, we would merely be ceding our authority over the earth and subjecting ourselves to it, as though the earth owned us. To catch the point, we would use these resources in a way that impacts the environment as minimally as possible, because that is responsible stewardship of an earth that does not belong to us. The earth belongs to God, and we belong to God. And we rule over the earth — it’s just that we do it badly.
A friend of mine observed, “We seem unable to apply the micro to the macro. When we tour a garden we notice certain plants grow in specific soils. It would be unthinkable to plant a cactus in black topsoil, yet changing the Amazon Rain forest to grazing land seems to be acceptable.” This illustrates my point very well, I think. And I think that I may suggest that every ecological sin is humanistic — or at least the vast majority. We place ourselves at the center, with little regard to the generation before us or after us, and with no regard at all for the owner of the garden who will one day reclaim his property. In fact, he’s already told us that when he does return for it, he’s going to have to recreate it anyway, doing some significant repair work. In the meantime, we ought not to destroy the garden as we have been wont to do. The fact that one has already committed a particular sin does not excuse his culpability for continuing to commit this same sin.
Perhaps some may be uneasy with my use of the term “the garden” to refer to the earth, alluding as it does to the garden of Eden. True, the Edenic quality of the earth has been largely lost, but let us not forget that according to Genesis (regardless if the text is seen as Scripture or myth), we are the ones who invited the thorns and the weeds. It is noteworthy that after the Fall, the Curse affects the ground, not man’s job description. Man’s task just gets harder, it doesn’t change: there is still a mandate from God to care for the garden. For the earth. The failure to carry out a particular divine command is something we Christians call sin. It is rather more accurate to say God calls it sin. Whatever. In this case, with this particular injunction, to disregard it is something that some might call crimes against nature. Or pollution. Whatever. I call it “Ecological Sin.” Sometimes we commit this sin with such reckless abandon that it’s appalling. It is, however, a phrase that I believe needs to enter our vocabulary. And not as a crime against nature, but as a sin against God… you know, the owner of the garden?