Thursday, January 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Christian environmental ethics

The emerging ecological crises have brought a renewed focus on an ethics of the environment. An ethics of the environment and Protestant Christianity are often perceived to be at odds. An often-cited reason is the thesis by Lynn White that Christianity is responsible for the current ecological crises. This thesis has been discussed and refuted previously, but still commands a lot of attention. An alternative Christian ethic on the environment is emerging as evident by certain educational programmes, such as this one at ICS (youtube) and recent work at the University of Exeter.

What does concern is that certain long-term developments within mainstream Protestant Christianity theology and practice itself that does not lend itself easily towards a worldview integrative enough to include the whole of the cosmos. Protestant Christianity has a lot to offer in the development of an environmental ethic, but is plagued by certain internal obstacles. At least two of these obstacles need further elaboration, namely a narrow focus on personal redemption and the Platonic eschatological idea of a sinful earth that will be exchanged for a perfect heaven.

This contrasts with another view within Protestant Christianity that redemption includes the whole of the cosmos and that the future will be a renewed heavens and earth, restored to Gods original intent at creation.

It is my view that such divergent views on the nature of redemption and eschatology have had profound impacts on the development of a Christian ethics on the environment, and need to be critically discussed and where possible corrected for further contributions to the field of environmental ethics from an integrative Protestant-Christian worldview.


Jan Bredenhof said...

I agree that the issue of Protestant Christianity and environmental ethics needs to be discussed. It is a sad fact that sometimes Christians who desire to integrate an environmentally sustainable consciousness into our lifestyles are looked at with suspicion.

The most common argument I have heard against Christian environmentalism is that if we worry about the state of the earth, we are denying God's promise to Noah that the seasons will always continue, and that we lack faith in the providence of God. It is impossible, some argue, that anything really terrible could happen to the earth, because God is in control. There is truth to those statements, but I believe this faith should give us hope that faithful efforts on behalf of the earth will be blessed.

I look forward to any insights you may have on this issue.

Martin de Wit said...

Thanks for your comments, Jan. You raise some interesting points and I share your insights. It would be fruitful to understand the true source of the suspicion you are referring to. In practice, is this just another defense of current lifestyles, a fear of pantheistic ideas or a real faith in God's providence? This may differ per person, but overall I am not so convinced of the motives. Further, in case there is clear motive and a real faith in providence, on what basis is it argued that responsibility and respect for God's creation is not included? I think the certainty and hope of a restored creation is a key element in driving christian ethical choices here and now. It is this sure hope that should drive our ethics.

farfetched said...

This was an interesting read; thanks Martin. I also think that the share scale of modern Protestantism contributes to the insensitivity that is many times critiqued. Modern Christianity has lost, in my opinion, the quietness and reverence for those around us and the environment. A frantic preoccupation with a retributory eschatology might be a possible explanation; that modern churches don't believe they live under a friendly heaven.

I reckon that there is a growing awareness that the true church lies in the folds of popular history and that interest in ancient Christian mysticism might revive our ethical debacle. Think of St. Francis and his approach to his greater environment. The same can be said for madame Guyon, Francois Fenelon, st. John of the Cross, etc. These all practiced the stillness and contemplativeness that I believe still places Christianity in a place to contribute loads to a fuller understanding of our place in the natural environment. Finding a new monasticism is crucial!

Look for example at the work these guys are doing in the poorest areas of Philidelphia, US. Apart from driving a veggie van, and having urban gardens and other traits of sustainability, they go by these fundamentals:

1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.

2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.

3) Hospitality to the stranger

4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.

5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.

6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.

7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.

8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.

9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.

10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.

11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.

12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.


I hope that more Christians will harken to messages like these and take up a more responsible role in society.