Environmental Ethics: More than Birkenstocks and Granola Bars

I live in two very different worlds: in one world, I teach science, and I am expected to think, speak, and act in a certain way.  In the other world, I am a person of faith, and I am expected to think and act in a very different way.  Many people see the two worlds as constantly on a collision course, or at best, as some uneasy, unbalanced binary star, wobbling precariously and threatening every planet in their/its system.  But there are many aspects of these worlds that overlap, and provide more mutual support than many people will recognize.

For example, science dictates that observations, hypotheses and theories be carefully and objectively made, and are subject to review and revision.  I view matters of faith in no different light.  The unexamined faith is not worth holding.  If I have only blindly followed a philosophy or religion, how can I be sure I really believe it?  I believe the most valuable faith is the one that is explored from as many angles as possible.

Someone might say, “But faith, by its very nature, defies measure.  It is the evidence of the unseen.”  And yet, the exercise of that faith can be measured.  How we act toward others, what we do for others, and how we treat the natural world all speak volumes about what motivates us.

Consider the area of environmental ethics.  Some people read Genesis 1 and either consciously or sub-consciously focus mainly on a single verse, verse 28, which says, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  They view this as an excuse, even a license to use and abuse, to pillage the Earth’s resources and pillory its living components, binding, shackling them to our narrow and anthropocentric whims and desires.

But as I read the chapter, I am struck by several other comments, that some might see as little more than filler statements, off-hand remarks, self-evident truths that require little reflection.  In verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25, the various physical and biological aspects of this world are described very simply, in words that would ring true to a primitive people who would be exploring it and marveling at it: “And God saw that it was good.”But notice the assessment of the creation at its completion: in verse 31, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Each part is “good” in itself, but as a whole, this reality, this creation, this world is “very good.”  There is significance in that.  It speaks of harmony and flow, of integration, interaction, and interdependence. It speaks both of beauty and function.

And then there is the comment in chapter 2, verse 15, that seems to stand in stark contrast to the concept of dominion that some would support.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  Mankind was given a paradise with the stipulation that he “work [tend, care for] it and keep it.”  However, through selfish pursuits and the deceptive desire for greatness, humankind lost its perfection, and in so losing, lost its paradise.

Back to the idea of dominion, several years ago, in the now-defunct Nashville Banner, I read a letter from a well-meaning lady who could not understand the position of the “tree-hugger” crowd.  God gave us dominion, so we must be able to do anything we want and it will be well with us and for us.  I replied to her letter with comments much like I presented in the earlier discussion, that 1:28 presents a privilege, but 2:15 presents a responsibility.  When I taught Environmental Science at the Harpeth Hall School, we studied the creation stories of several of the world’s traditions to understand how different cultures saw their place in the natural world.  I asked the girls there if there was a conflict between the two verses.  In one of the wisest comments I have ever heard from any person of youth or years, one girl said, “The first verse tells what to do, the second tells how to do it.”  I don’t think I could have expressed it better.

But there are other subtle hints at an environmental ethic in the Old Testament.  For example, Deuteronomy 22:6 enjoins, “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.”  Why is that important?  Why was it a law?  Because it requires the Israelites to provide for a replenishing of the resource, to allow the adults to continue to reproduce and act as the basis for the population’s recovery.  It is in essence the earliest discussion of what we today refer to as “sustainability.”

But there is even more said regarding sustainability.  In Leviticus 25:4, the Sabbath year is instituted: “…in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Was this just a way of telling the Israelites to be frugal and store away for six years, and be ready for a famine at any time?  Was it a way to tell them to trust God for their provision?  Was it only a reminder of the constant replay of the pattern of sevens? Environmentally, it had the effect of allowing the land a chance to recover from intensive cultivation, to recharge its nutrients, and allow for continued productivity.

Humankind comprises the only species on Earth (that we know of) capable of reflective thought on its actions and impacts on its suroundings.  Other species merely affect the environment and respond to the changes without consciously weighing their actions.  We can see the damage we cause, and we can implement measures to mitigate our negative impacts.  Indeed, we have the responsibility to do it, based on the directive in Genesis 2:15. Although humankind lost its paradise, its responsibility only increased.  The charge for dominion does not only carry with it the right of harvest, but the responsibility of sustaining.

In Romans 8, all of creation is said to have been subjected to futility, being in bondage to corruption because of humankind’s fall, and that it eagerly awaits its return to a state of perfection, perhaps a demonstration of grace toward that which was once said to be “very good.”  In what I consider to be one of the greatest discussions of the miracle of nature, C.S. Lewis said,

“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… the astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you have ever thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women. She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.” – C.S. Lewis, Miracles

We are tied to this Earth with bonds stronger than our dependence on its various consumables. Lewis rightly points out that we have conflicts with Nature, but she is our ally, and even our “foster-mother.”  How do we treat one who cares so deeply for us and loves us and provides freely for us?  We could be the ungrateful whelps, biting the hand that feeds us.  Or we could give back, the loving child caring for and returning the love that has been so freely shown us.

Religion instructs us to care for our world, that we are stewards minding a trust.  But that responsibility also requires that we learn, that we must know all that we can in order to be able to accomplish our task. And so, faith and science must work hand in hand.  Together, these two great forces from  seemingly disparate spheres of human endeavor must cooperate to achieve what neither alone can.  With feet firmly planted in both worlds, I call on both to listen and work together for a common good.  If we, by reason of suspicion or mistrust of the other fail to join hands in a common cause, we will have sealed our fate.  If we overcome the prejudices inherent in either side and take a broader view, the environment will prosper, faith will be strengthened, and understanding will build bridges for civil dialog.  We owe that to the Earth, to ourselves, and more importantly, to our children, who will inherit whatever world we make, whether one restored to near-Eden or a dismal Abaddon.  As for me, I hope it’s a good one.


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