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Theology of Environmental Responsibility

Andrew Basden

Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems,
University of Salford.

This was prepared for a lecture delivered to M.Div students at Kosin University, Busan, S.Korea, 29 May 2014, but has been extended.

Contents:

1. INTRODUCTION

This article outlines theological issues related to environmental responsibility, which includes issues like:

What is written or taught here might be controversial; I have never put this together before in this way.

1.1 Current State in Theology

I see theology as a theorization of humanity's experience with God in His creation. It treats that as an area of study, and seeks general understanding (theories and rules) by analytical thinking and critical discourse. Scriptures are an important part of its material. In principle, theology can occur in any religion (even atheism), not just Christianity. Theology, morality and philosophy cannot be reduced to each other.

Leaders, pastors, missionaries, etc. need to understand, in order to give direction, rightly critique error, engage in self-critique, and "give a reason for the hope that is in you" [II Peter]. Hence theology is important to them. I direct theology to understanding of, and discourse about:

(These overlap. And they could be expanded or augmented with other issues, such as role of God's people (Israel, church), motivation for missionary work, relationship with the 'secular' world, the nature of sin, etc. But such are arguably covered within these five.)

How we understand these is influenced, and influences, how we interpret Scripture. My approach to Scripture is 'face-value', 'everyday'.

Three main limited theologies, or attempts to theorize 'movements' of God:

(There are others. For example, a theology of missionary activity links with each of these, but probably cannot be totally reduced to any of them.)

1.2 My Journey Towards a New View

However, I didn't find any compelling basis for taking environmental responsibility seriously in any of the three theologies. I wanted something compelling, otherwise I should not waste my time with it. So I decided to work it out for myself by looking at Scripture and history in a new way. I developed the ideas with a careful eye on everyday experience and practice, as well as existing theologies. (I dubbed it 'new view' early on for want of a better name, but it has stuck so far. None of the individual pieces below is entirely new, but perhaps it is new in the way it is brought together.)

As I developed my ideas, I found each of the three limited or flawed in other ways too, and yet each provides some insight that is found throughout Scripture and cannot (should not) be overlooked. For example, each emphasises only one dimension of salvation as expounded in Romans 8), and none provide compelling basis for being involved in academic work.

Steps towards this 'new view' theology were:

What got me going to develop this 'new view' was the sudden realisation that the same word radah is used in both Genesis 1:26-28 and Ezekiel 34 to describe the rulership that we have over creation and that shepherds have over sheep. I realised there were two questions:

Sheep and shepherds:
Which has dominion?
Are sheep there for the sake of shepherds, or are shepherds there for the sake of the sheep?

This suggested that the rest of creation is not there for us, but we are there for its sake, even though we are given 'dominion' over it.

The rest of creation might be more than animals and birds, and extend to aspects of human life like art, economics, technology, politics, academia etc. "For its sake" could mean: 'Open up the potential of the creation, for its own sake under its Creator'.

The journey continues ...

In what follows: look at three main kinds of theology, their spheres of interest, why they cannot be the basis for a genuine theology of environmental responsibility, and why we need one. Then we look at the 'new view', which does give such a basis, followed by a discussion of climate change and implications for leaders, pastors, missionaries, etc.

2. THEOLOGY 1, SOULS, HEAVEN AND ACCEPTABILITY TO GOD

Caricature: This theology focuses on the destiny of us as souls - heaven or hell - which is decided when God judges us after the end of earthly life on the basis of God's Law. Our bodies are deemed unimportant, and this life is seen primarily as a brief period in which their destiny is fixed. The primacy of soul over body. In this theology the main argument is whether acceptability by God is by church, faith, works, religious rituals etc. It ignores environment as totally irrelevant.

Versions: Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Anabaptism, Contemplativism, (Pharisaism, Islam, Hinduism?)

Theology of Souls, Heaven and being Acceptable to God
Issue Seen as Why Not Environmental BUT ...
Character of God God as all-powerful Judge, Law-giver, tempered with mercy.
A spiritual being.
"All that matters is my being spiritually acceptable to God"
"God's not interested in earthly things like environment (so I shouldn't waste my time on it)"
"God has compassion on all he has made" [Ps 145:9]
"God so loved the world ..." [John 3:16]
Nature of Creation "Souls are what's important" .
"Will not this earth burn up and be forgotten? [II Pet 3:10]"
So the earth, and environmental health, seems unimportant.
Rest of creation seen as irrelevant except as "backdrop for the drama of human salvation" and not worthy of study nor protection.
God is expected to make everything OK in eternal heaven, so we don't need to exert any effort here; in fact, we shouldn't.
Importance of the earth, the land and nature [Leviticus 25:2, Job 39].
"The land mourns" [Hos 4:3]; "The land will have the rest it did not have" [Lev 26:43]; "The creation groans" [Rm 8]
II Pet 3:10 Greek in some manuscripts is not 'be anihiliated' but 'by revealed by fire', c.f. I Cor 3.
Role of Humankind Dignity: To be accepted by God.
Destiny: As a soul going to Heaven.
Responsibility: To 'obtain converts' and "keep oneself unspotted by the world" [James].

To keep the Law of God / to obey what God tells us to do (and not question).
To attend to our souls and ignore body (contemplativity, 'witnessing', asceticism).
Nature and secular seen as unimportant, purely to serve :

Since nature unimportant, "I shouldn't waste my time on it." Romans 8:19-23, also many prophecies; the Incarnation
Scope of Salvation Only souls, Mainly for next life.
Atonement, new birth.
Earth will 'burn', be destroyed eternally.
Pre-fall state no longer pertains.
Juridical metaphor: justification.
Arguments over basis of juridical justification obscure wider issues, such as sanctification, holiness, value of all creation to God.
Humanity's mandate in Genesis 1,2 is deemed 'set aside'
Three dimensions of salvation (see "www.abxn.org/nv/3ds.html").
Resurrection of the body, of the rest of creation [Romans 8].
New heavens and earth [Revelation]
Humanity's mandate still applies, even though we are fallen.
More than juridical: is the Gospel Good or Bad News?
These times in God's Plan 1500s-1800s Rediscovery of salvation by faith. Calvin also recognised some of theology 3, and Luther, some of theology 2. Salvation by faith seen as the one-and-only big theological issue.
This focused minds on the 'free' individual.
Environmental concern and other secular issues (e.g. academia, economics, art, politics) are set aside as unimportant, except perhaps to curb sin (Augustine) or harnessed in support of arguments (e.g. Reformers used printing).
Salvation by faith necessary but not sufficient (see theologies 2,3,4);
Nature and everyday 'secular' spheres of life worth study and attention [c.f. Dutch art and the rise of science]
See Politics of Eternal Significance ("www.abxn.org/politics.html".

This theology is deeply influenced by Greek form-matter dualism, which has a pagan rather than Biblical root, and also by the Scolastic nature-grace dualism. [See Clouser, 2005, The Myth of Religious Neutrality].

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3. THEOLOGY 2, EXPERIENCE OF GOD HERE AND NOW: ABUNDANT LIFE

Caricature: This theology is based around God being active in our lives here and now, and our ability to experience Him, rather than just justifying us for eventual 'heaven'. This manifests itself in diverse things in which theology has a valid interest, like the work of the Holy Spirit (gifts, fruit, conviction, etc.), santification (holiness), miracles (signs, power), blessing, how God interacts with us as individuals, etc. It ignores environmental except that it contributes to our 'abundant life'.

Versions: Methodism of 1800s, Holiness movements, Revival movements, Pentecostalism, Prosperity gospel, (Spiritual warfare), (Sufi Islam?)

Theology of Experience of God and Power of God Here and Now
Issue Seen as Why Not Environmental BUT ...
Character of God Active in our lives here and now.
Often seen as a kind (grand)Father who pampers his children and enjoys our worship.
Sometimes seen as an army general who commands his troops (angels and us) against Satan.
Leads to prosperous individualism.
Is God selfish? [Hannah Whittal Smith].
An over-emphasis on (glorification of) Satan.
All thes hinder incentive to take environmental responsibility seriously.
"God has compassion on all he has made" [Ps 145:9], Genesis 1,2, Job 39, John 3:16
Nature of Creation Nature is 'given' for our use and enjoyment.
Nature, art, technology, politics, etc. are only there to enhance or mediate our experience of God.
We feel guilty about enjoying nature, art, technology, etc. as itself, must always link them to 'sacred' things.
They are not worth studying or enjoying, except as a means to worship or to enjoy God more.
We forget our interconnectedness with, and that we are part of, the rest of creation.
There are many things that are meaningful to God but have little or no value to humankind [Job 39].
Animals and humans were created on the same day [Gen 1]; we are 'dust' [Gen 2].
The trees and seas enjoy God [Ps , Is ]; the swallow builds her nest in God's holy house [Ps].
Human sin affects not just our relationship with God, but also the fields, animals, birds suffer because of human sinfulness.
Role of Humankind Individualism.
Dignity: Princes with a Divine right to "abundant life".
Destiny: With God, worshipping forever (Scholastic) or 'progress' (Humanist).
Responsibility: To seek piety, to heal, to fight Satan with gifts of power.
We overlook the importance of structures of society.
Though aware of the beauty of the earth etc., we externalise (ignore) the indirect harm caused by our pursuit of 'abundant life'
(Indirect: --> comforts, conveniences, pleasures --> products --> manufacture, delivery --> harm).
So we refuse to get seriously involved in environmental responsibility.
The sin of Sodom, that got her destroyed: affluence, arrogance and unconcern for the poor [Ezek 16:49] (wilful ignoring)
The earth is the new 'poor'.
"The time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth." [Rev 11:18]
Scope of Salvation The individual:

  • Sanctification,
  • Indwelling of the Holy Spirit,
  • Experience of God, joy,
  • Gifts, healing, power.

  • Pietistic focus distracts away from environmental responsibility;
  • Leads to unconcern;
  • Impoverished view of structures of society;
  • Emotionalism, refusal to understand;
  • Resistance.

The rest of creation groans and waits for 'resurrection' (linked to humanity) [Romans 8:19-23]
"God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever receives him may not perish but have eternal life." [John 3:16]
These times in God's Plan 1800s holiness movements, 1900s pentecostal and revival movements, 1970s Charistmatic movements, Late 1900s prosperity movements Decline after initial spiritual health (e.g. Rwanda revival, genocide), leading to contributing to the problems of "destroying the earth" and injustice where not seen. The causal link between our sinful lifestyles and environmental damage [Hosea 4:2-3].
The dishonouring of God's Name by American anti-responsibility evangelicalism.

This theology is influenced by the Scholastic dualism of nature-grace or sacred-secular in what it finds interesting about the here-and-now. Humanist influence can also be detected in the hedonism that this theology encourages.

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4. THEOLOGY 3, JUSTICE AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Caricature: This theology emphasises much that theology 1 and 2 ignore, including the need for justice for the poor, the importance of structures of society (politics, economics, media). It perhaps over-emphasises these, and this life at the expense of the next. It tends to react against theology 1,2, so acceptability to God and experience of God can be ignored. The Humanist and Scholastic versions prioritise humanity over environment, or treat is a mere 'cause'.

Versions: Liberation theology, Social gospel theology, Kingdom theology, (some Judaism and Islam?).

A Theology of Justice in the World; God's Kingdom here and now
Issue Seen as Why Not Environmental BUT ...
Character of God Desires justice, concern for the marginalized ('poor'). Classes, the 'status quo' versus the marginalized.
Little role for nature, except to fulfil needs of the marginalized.
God loves all He has made.
Nature of Creation Power structures in society.
Conflict (marginalized v. the status quo).
The next life is less important.
Focus on power structures overlooks everyday life, and its aspects of harmony, generosity, joy.
Rest of creation recognised only because (a) it can serve the interests of the marginalized, (b) the status quo pollutes and despoils it.
Little interest in nature in its own right.
That nature only serves other interests, means that it is easy to replace it by other ways of serving those interests, e.g. technological fixes.
Job 39 again. Interconnectedness. Responsibility. Joy. Shalom.
Role of Humankind Social being, recognises 'the other'.
Dignity: Freedom from injustice or 'discrimination'.
Destiny: Progress (political, economic, technological, etc.).
Responsibility: To emancipate 'the other', by critique of status quo. Also, to be stewards of the rest of creation.
Christian and Humanist forms.
Rest of creation is ignored, except where it serves the marginalized, e.g. the rural poor.
Some seek other ways to emancipate the marginalized.
Would not angels be better stewards than we are? So, why did God give radah to humankind?
Scope of Salvation God's kingdom on earth ('Progress'?)
Reforming structures of society.
Tendency to rely on human strength and strategy.
Tendency to downplay sinfulness and attitude.
God's kingdom comes by God's activity, usually unseen.
These times in God's Plan Twentieth century: 'progress' in democracy, technology, individualism, freedom, economic growth and material pleasure. (Humanist distortion of these, e.g. sexualization.) Environmental issues are discussed but tend to be relegated behind issues of poverty and rights. What is of eternal value?
Many of these benefits are self-defeating or give other problems.

Even in its evangelical versions, this theology tends to be deeply influenced by the Humanist dualism of human versus non-human, control versus freedom.

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5. A NEW VIEW IN THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE

Theology 1 has no place at all for a theology of environmental responsibility. Theologies 2, 3 have a place for it, but it is usually 'bolted on' to their core interests, of either individual experience of God or justice for the marginalized. For example:

Some in Theology 3 might extend "Love your neighbour" to animals by redefining 'neighbour' - but such redefinitions are not compelling. Neither do I find the utilitarian reasons given by theology 2, whether about prettiness or e.g. as a source of future medicines.

A 'New View' in Theology and Practice
Issue Seen as
Character of God Love, so 'Reality Rejoices' [Ps 98:8, Is 55:12]
God is Love [I Jn], so wanted an Other to love, so created - but strong love.
God gives dignity to the Creation.
God looks beneath the surface to the heart.
Nature of Creation 'Relatedness, Responsiveness'. Interconnected, So all we do has repercussion; hence normativity and Responsibility. 'Sin' is when we go against God's laws (different kinds of sin, c.f. Dooyeweerd's law-spheres ( "http://www.dooy.info/aspects.html".)
Because of interconnectedness, justice is because of, not despite, God's love.
The dignity of creation is to be able to function 'as it is intended' without God always pushing.
Role of Humankind Dignity: Image of God: to represent God to the rest of creation.
Destiny: Working with God in His creation (now a in the next).
Responsibility: 'Radah': Rule or order the rest of creation for its sake, not ours, thereby imaging to it the agape-love of God. 'Open up' the potential in the rest of creation, e.g. economic, technology, art, justice.

Many who reach for a theology of environmental responsibility use the idea of humanity as stewards of the rest of creation under God. But:

  • Would angels not be better stewards than humans are?
  • Stewards don't love that which is stewarded, in the way the Owner does.
  • It separates radah from imaging God.

New View sees humanity as shepherds rather than stewards of creation. It also makes the link between Radah and Imaging God necessary rather than contingent.

Scope of Salvation 'Rich Redemption'. Three dimensions (Romans 8):

  • D1: "No condemnation" [Rm 8:1-3]
  • D2: The Holy Spirit, God as "Abba Father" [Rm 8:14-17]
  • D3: "Creation eagerly awaits" the mature sons of God, who are made so by the Spirit of God [Gal 5:22-23, Rm 8:19-23]

"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, so that those who believe should not perish but have eternal life."

The three dimensions are not independent of each other, for example, D1, D2 are needed for sustainable effective D3, while D3 gives meaningfulness to D1, D2. For more on this, see Three Dimensions of Salvation ("http://www.abxn.org/nv/3ds.html" and Romans 8 ("http://www.abxn.org/nv/romans8.html").

These times in God's Plan God's Cosmic Plan is for a rejoicing reality, both current and renewed, in which humanity represents God to the rest of creation, without turning away as Adam did, but in loving obedience to God and interconnectedness with the rest of creation made possible by the Anointed One, Jesus Christ.

This age is different from previous ones, in that (a) humanity is "destroying the earth" [Rv 11:18] as has never happened before, (b) D1 and D2 have been revealed and worked out, and are now ready for their fulfilment in God's Cosmic Plan.

D3 becomes important today in a way that was not possible before. However, there have also been echoes of it earlier, e.g. Francis of Assissi, William Wilberforce.

Representing God involves:

  • Showing what God is like, modelling God
  • Telling God's messages
  • Achieving God's plans.

See "http://www.abxn.org/nv/representation.html" for more.

The other theologies each recognise and tap into some aspects of how creation works, but ignore others. Might it be that Theology 1 takes a juridical standpoint, recognising the genuineness of guilt? Theology 2 may be said to take an aesthetic standpoint, enjoyment. Theology 3 may be said to take a moral standpoint, of self-giving to the poor, or perhaps a juridical standpoint of rights.

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6. APPLICATION

6.1 Example: Climate Change

We look at climate change (CC) from the perspective of the 'new view', as an example of how any environmental issue might be addressed. The following is a summary, but contains some polemic that not all might share. It is written to stimulate new ways of thinking about CC.

Note: Climate change has been analysed in this way. But other environmental issues, such as deforestation or over-fishing or pollution, could be analysed similarly. So can other major issues, such as how ICT is radically changing our lives.

6.2 Comparison with the abolition of the slave trade

William Wilberforce was a committed Christian and believed God had given him two objects in life: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of attitudes. In God's eyes, those are linked. It was his Biblical faith that pushed him forward and gave him perseverance in this. Many of the issues he faced are similar to those facing climate responsibility, from the state of the times to the excuses made by those who resist (including 'sound' Christians).

One important implication of climate responsibility is that we need to use our cars (and aircraft) much less than we do in the UK and especially the USA. Yet people in China, Korea, India, Brazil, Nigeria etc. aspire the car-dependent lifestyle we see there. Eric Metaxas suggested that when William Wilberforce sought to abolish the slave trade, it was as radical as saying that people should stop using their cars. See "http://www.abxn.org/discussion/slavcc.html" for how excuses made against climate responsibility match those made against the case for abolishing the slave trade. The left column is excuses mentioned by British MP Bannister Tarleton in a debate on the abolition of the slave trade (source: BBC Radio 4 on 25 March 2007). The right column is equivalent excuses today, especially in the UK.

Abolition of Slavery Reducing Road Use and Air Traffic
Slaves are not really badly treated. Driving my car doesn't do any harm. And in any case, it's not certain that climate change is man-made.
If you continue the debate about abolition you will repeat the Haiti slave revolt in Jamaica (a British colony of the time). You will just upset the drivers if you tell people to change their behaviour.
What else would Wilberforce abolish: theatres, dancing, fun, etc.? They'll be wanting us all to wear hair shirts next.
If the slave trade is abhorrent to God, why does the Church of England own sugar plantations? "Show me a climate change activist and I'll show you a hypocrite" [Daily Mail, March 2007]
Slavery has been in existence for thousands of years. We've been using cars for ages without problem.
Cultivation of sugar and cotton 'raises' the negroes. The developing countries have a right to what we enjoy.
Wilberforce would throw negroes back into barbarism. They just want to prevent developing countries developing.
There would be a 7 million loss to the British economy (a million those days, 1807, was huge) Any restriction on road use or on air travel would damage our economy.
Great cities like Liverpool would be ruined. We must have the fifth terminal at Heathrow so that it can be a hub airport like Amsterdam and Paris.
The trade, with all its wealth, would be taken to France. If we don't produce things, then they'll just be produced in China? And does not China built a coal-fired power station every week?

See "http://www.abxn.org/like.slavery.html" for detailed comparison of William Wilberforce's life, work and times with today.

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6.3 Implications for Leaders, Pastors, etc.

The following is not meant to be a final truth, but to stimulate serious, humble consideration and discussion.

This challenges Christian leaders, pastors, missionaries, etc. in each of the theological foundation points. It is not just a matter of being generally supportive of environmental responsibility, but of taking a lead in ensuring that what we understand, demonstrate and convey in each of the following is the full, rich view rather than the limited view of one of the main three theologies.

7. CONCLUSION

I have attempted to forge a theology of environmental responsibility. Not by 'bolting it on' to existing theologies, but by reference to a 'new view in theology and practice' that tries to be faithful to what God is and has been saying. It does not make environmental responsibility a singular, isolated issue, but sees it in the context of God's character, the nature of creation, the role of humankind, the scope of salvation and the state of God's Plan.

I believe that it is a theology that can operate across all cultures, and even enable genuine discourse with other religions and ideologies without compromise and yet showing the character of God.


This page is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: Counter.

Created: 13 May 2014. Last updated: 20 May 2014 revamped. 28 February 2015 correction.