INTRODUCTION - Gordon College Faculty

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INTRODUCTION - Gordon College Faculty


     Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 25.1 (March 1973) 4-9.

    Copyright ? 1973 by American Scientific Affiliation, cited with permission.

    Biblical Perspectives

    on the Ecology Crises

    Carl E. Armerding

    Regent College

    Vancouver 8, B.C., Canada


    Is There a Crisis?

     Professor Kenneth Hare of the University of Toronto lrecently answered the question by dividing people and

    publications into 3 categories. First, and perhaps most vocal today, are the alarmists, many of whom are prof- iting immensely by writing and speaking on a kind of apocalyptic level, who see the technological society as having created a monster which, if unchecked, will swallow up both man and nature within a few short years. Hare suggests that much of this group's concern is with what he calls "nuisance pollution", i.e., the kind of thing like cloud or smog factors created by man in a city resulting in a slightly decreased aesthetic or com- fort state, but hardly a major threat to life.

     A second group consists of those who attempt to de- bunk the whole pollution effort. There is still land for more people, there are still many resources for develop- ment, and we have always been able to develop new methods and resources when the old were exhausted. After all, when coal supplies ran short, we hardly noticed the loss. Why not recognize that new forms of energy, new synthetic materials for construction, new ways of increasing our ability to feed ourselves, and new social structures making it possible for even greater,




    numbers to live on this planet are all just around the corner?

     In a third group (the golden mean) Hare places himself. His concern is with what he calls "transcendent" pollution--i.e., the relatively few but vitally important factors that affect not one area but the entire ecosphere. In such a category he would include the population explosion, the problem of non-renewable resources, and the problem of atmospheric and water pollutants now present in the world-wide system of the earth's surface. It is not my purpose to referee this debate. Rather, I should like to suggest that, whatever our view of the seriousness of the problem, there is an area in which we must develop a response. Even the most optimistic 'de-bunker' of the ecology crisis is functioning on the basis of a philosophy--usually a philosophy built on an unlimited confidence in man and his ability to control his own destiny. And, because our response inevitably involves values, and values in our Judeo-Christian society have always related to Biblical religion, I feel we can and should begin our search for a value-structure at that point. Especially for us, as evangelicals, there is a mandate for a fresh look at our sources, partially be- cause they are under attack in ecological circles, but more basically because we purport to find in them "all things necessary for life and godliness".

     What then does the Bible say to guide our response to the problems of ecology? Does it speak with a clear voice in favor of concern or does it, perchance, leave us in the embarrassing position of 'drop-out' from the company of the concerned, or worse yet, does it provide us with a mandate for exploitation of the worst sort? To these questions my paper will attempt an answer.

    Approach to the Crisis: Ecological or Theological?

     Perhaps at this point we should pause to consider the criticism of the "theological strategy" offered by



     2Prof. Richard Wright in a recent article. Dr. Wright

    suggests that an "ecological strategy" (i.e., educate people to see that a proper use of their environment is beneficial in terms of their own quality of life) is more effective than a theological one, as Christian churches have neither the ability to agree on a particular theolog- ical strategy, nor the ability to influence the secular majority in our society. The theological approach must be, therefore, merely a supplement to the more prag- matic, realistic appeal to self-preservation which secular man can understand.

     I question whether one can separate the two, even to the limited extent proposed by Dr. Wright. If ecological decisions are to be made at all they must be made in the context of a human value system. Who is to say that self-preservation is a strong enough motive for action, especially when, for those in affluent parts of the world, it usually is a problem of assuring the next generation's survival not our own? What will convince the consumer of wood and paper, the traveler in his fume-spewing automobile, or the land-speculator pro- tecting his investment that to modify his behavior severely is necessary? I suggest that a theological con- viction, though traditionally limited in its appeal, may make more sense in the context of an increasingly apocalyptic debate than even the appeal to an en- lightened self-interest. Though we may never convert the world, we may, as Christians, better set our own response and activity in the context of a Biblical world- view, and thus convince contemporary leaders to follow after what we believe is good. It was not, after all, through the conversion of all England that Granville Sharpe, William Wilberforce and John Newton brought about the end of child labor and the slave trade. It was rather by formulating a course of action growing out of a Christian world-view, convincing themselves and some influential contemporaries of its rightness, and



    then seeking legislation on the subject. Thus, I opt for a theological approach. But, which theology shall we espouse? At least three options are available and I shall discuss them in turn.

Theological Approaches

     1. Attack the Judeo-Christian tradition. Attacks on

    the Judeo-Christian tradition and its view of nature are by now familiar to most of us. Wright (and others) 3quotes Ian McHarg's Design with Nature in which

    man's "bulldozer mentality" is traced to Genesis 1 and its alleged "sanction and injunction to conquer nature-- the enemy, the threat to Jehovah". We shall have more to say presently about this kind of reasoning; suffice it to note for the moment that such a charge is certainly open to question, Biblically if not also historically.

     2. Modify the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not all at-

    tacks on Biblical theology have come from outside the Christian church. It is significant that Lynn White, in some ways the father of modern discussion of the sub- ject, recognized that the roots of the problem were religious and himself claims to be a faithful church- 4man. His thoughts on the subject have been reprinted in the Journal ASA and the questionable nature of their claim to represent Christian dogma faithfully has already 5been examined. However, it should be noted that many who claim to follow the Christian tradition are, in one way or another, supporting the contention made by White. A United Church minister in Vancouver recently called for a rejection of Genesis 1 as the basis of a new theology. On a more academic level, Frederick Elder, 6a Presbyterian minister, in his book Crisis in Eden, has

    zeroed in on the so-called "J" account of creation, as contained in Genesis 2:4b ff., with its anthropocentric view of the world, as the real culprit. Elder sees some hope for redemption in the "P" document from Ch. 1 (despite its offensive vv. 26-27), an account in which



    man is at least placed on some equal level with other parts of creation. Man is at least chronologically last in the "P" version, in opposition to the "J" document wherein Adam is first to appear and he then names the animals (a very significant function in light of Hebrew psychology surrounding the name.)

     Elder goes on to divide mankind, and especially theological mankind, into two groups. The "exclusion- ists", represented by such "traditional" Christians as Harvey Cox, Herbert Richardson, and Teilhard de Chardin, advocate the kind of anthropocentrism of Genesis 2. To them man is king, his technology repre- sents the height of redemption from the old "sacred grove" concept, wherein God and nature were never distinguished, and his dominance of the physical world is but a step in the direction of the ultimate kingdom of



    God. Of course, there are major differences among such thinkers as I have mentioned, and Elder would be the first to acknowledge such, but all have in common a view that God has somehow ordained that man shall be the master of nature and, as its despot (whether benevolent or otherwise is debated) does the work of God in subduction of what is basically a godless and hostile entity.

     His second group, styled the "inclusionists", represents Elder himself, along with such Christian and marginally Christian thinkers as George H. Williams, McHarg, Rachel Carson, and Loren Eiseley. Theologically he finds roots of the position in Calvin and H. R. Niebuhr, in each of whom there is present that holy regard for Mother Earth that Rudolf Otto has called a "sense of the numinous".

     Elder is suggesting that Christian theology must rid itself of its anthropocentrism and begin to see the earth as a self-contained biosphere in which man is little more than a plant parasite (to use McHarg's terminology). He must see himself no longer as custodian of but rather a "part of the environment. Along with this de- throning, or more properly abdication, of the king of the earth, will come a fresh sense of man's worth as an individual, unique in his ability to perceive eternity in various forms of natural history, and set over against a view of man as the collective, the mechanical, the technical master of the world's fate. In short, there must remain in man that mysterious sense of wonder as he stands before the burning bush, though that bush be the 7heart of a simple seed.

     A critique of such a view must consider first whether it is Biblical and second, whether it has drawn adequate and accurate conclusions from the sources it has used. Turning to the second point first, I would contend that Otto's "sense of the numinous" is by no means restricted to persons with a so-called "biocentric" world view, nor



    is there any real conflict between a truly Biblical anthro- pocentricity and the concern for ecology Elder sets forth as a goal. Certainly Calvin, for one, quoted by Elder as having an "inclusionist's" sense of wonder at creation, was firmly in the anthropocentic camp when he wrote ''as it was chiefly for the sake of mankind that the world was made, we must look to this as the end which God 8has in view in the government of it." Although any

    attempt to see in Calvin the concerns of modern ecology is doomed beforehand, there is still here a valid example of what I should like to show as a Biblical anthropocen- trism combined with the necessary attitudes for dealing with today's heightened concerns.

     Elder's view has many other problems, but rather than offer a critique of Elder I will suggest a Biblical alternative. Let me say at the start that I am convinced that all talk of man's abdication, of a biospheric world- view, and of a sense of mere equality with the animal and plant world is not Biblical, Christian, or practical. In the appeal to St. Francis of Assisi, in the blur created between man and nature and in the almost personaliza- tion of the natural world one senses more than a hint of a pantheistic response. I suggest that, in a Biblical view, nature has a derived dignity as the separate and sub- ordinate creation of a transcendent God. Man has his God-given role as under-Lord, as manager and keeper, and is possessed of a cultural mandate which includes submission of any hostile forces and just as importantly, dominion over friendly forces. In this he is a partner with God who created him and, were it not for the Fall into sin (which Elder and most theological writers on the subject seem to ignore), he might have brought about the kingdom of God on earth and found out the deepest secrets of his biosphere en route.





     Any Biblical perspective on ecology must begin with a Biblical view of God. In this sense, a Biblical world view is really theocentric rather than either anthropo- centric or biocentric. Significantly, Genesis 1 begins this point and I argue that any value system or truth structure without such a starting point must quickly reduce to subjectivity. The very extent to which nature is meaningful, whether in a pantheistic, animistic, or Christian sense, is a derivative of the view of God espoused. The God of the Bible is a God who is there prior to any and all creation. Though He can stoop to converse with his creatures (witness the anthropomorph- isms of Genesis 2, to say nothing of the incarnation of Jesus Christ) he is still consistently presented as above and beyond any and all of his works. In a masterful summary delivered on the Areopagus in Athens, St. Paul said of this God that He made the world and every- thing in it (Acts 17:24). He is the source of life, breath and everything else and He is the determining force in created history, but never can be reduced to any spatial context that man can identify and enshrine. Thus, our love of nature must be in the context of it as the handi- work of the Almighty and not as some part of God (i.e., pantheism).

     Such a view is important because it has not always been universally held, and we are in position to examine the results of alternate views. It should be self-evident that such a view of a Creator-God endows nature as well as man with a real dignity, but dignity for nature, at least, can also be derived from pantheism. But what are the implications if we lower God to the level of nature or raise nature to the level of God?

     We have a model for this in the Babylonian view of the universe. "Enuma Elish", representing Babylonian cosmology in the 3rd and 2nd millenium before Christ,



    has the usual pagan pantheon, but the notable fact is that the world was created out of certain gods and each element in the universe furthermore represented the personality and will of a particular deity. Thus, deriving from its view of god, the society came to view nature 9not as an "it" but a "Thou". Such language, reproduced

    on a more sophisticated plane, and overlaid with a residual Judeo-Christian world-view, is seen again in many of Elder's favorite "inclusionists", and even Lynn White himself seems to long for the good old days when the groves were sacred.

     For the Christian, however, God must be the God of creation. The grove may be perceived as a wonder of order and beauty, but it must never be given the robe of divine dignity. Its meaning to man must be derived from the fact of its createdness rather than its essence. Its mystery must be that God has created it and given it properties for man to study and marvel at,



    but never worship or fear. For the Babylonians no such confidence in the grove existed. It was feared, not ap- preciated. It was irregular and capricious in its person- ality, not in any sense the ordered subject of scientific investigation we know today. It possessed a sense of authority, but even that authority was no guarantee against the sudden return of chaos. All of this, which we call cosmology, is clearly dependent on one's view of God, and I can hardly emphasize sufficiently the force and majesty of the Hebrew concept of a depend- able and transcendent Creator as presented in Genesis chapter 1.

     Nor is the transcendence of God absent in the so-called 2nd account of creation. In Genesis 2:4 we find God again completely in control of His work, creating (lit: "making"; Hebrew 'asah) the earth and the heavens. No

    primitive mythology is here; rather there is a God who can be close to his creation and even direct its affairs personally, but who Himself is above it, beyond it and outside it. Again the view of the world is theocentric rather than anthropocentric or biocentric. It is this God who tells Adam to till and keep the garden.


     The inclusionists" tell us we must rid ourselves of Biblical views of nature and return to a kind of neo- pantheism, a resurrection of the sacred grove, which has to mean some kind of independent element of deity within the natural order. But what is the Biblical view? Is nature a worthless mass of material to be exploited and left to rot as man sates himself in luxury, while trampling underfoot his environment? Some would have us believe that this is the implication in Genesis 1:26-28. Elder attempts to convince us that the Biblical picture degrades nature at the expense of exalting man, but does the Genesis account actually reflect such a state of affairs?

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