Granby/Faith Matters: Biblical underpinnings for environmentalism run deep
April 18, 2008
Many readers of this newspaper will already know that we at St. John’s Episcopal Church have been spending a lot of time recently learning and thinking about environmental issues.
It can be a tricky thing for a church to explore public policy questions, since they are so often partisan, and St. John’s, like most churches in Grand County, I imagine, has active and committed political liberals and political conservatives. (One of the great joys of Christian community is to see how these differences pale in the face of our common commitment to the Gospel.)
But we are coming to see that environmentalism, ecology, and energy efficiency are important to all of us. How do we know they are important? Well, apart from our own individual feelings about the environment, we know it because the Bible tells us so. It is remarkable how consistent is the biblical witness for the stewardship of the environment.
The very term “steward” has powerful ecological implications. The word is derived from the medieval manorial office of the ward, or caretaker, of the sty. The “sty-ward” was the person in charge of the pig pen, who was responsible for seeing that the garbage from the kitchen was fed to the pigs and that the wastes from the pigs was used in the fields to grow crops for the table. This was a very primitive, but very fundamental, process of recycling.
And we know from the Creation story that the earth and all of life are valued by God. “And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” [Genesis 1:31] Furthermore, God declared the earth good even before humans were created, which undermines an anthropomorphic “humans only” ethic. The resources and life of the earth are good even apart from their usefulness to us. And we are only tenants on the land, which belongs to God. [Leviticus 25:23]
That Christians are to have a basic reverence for the earth follows directly from the Creation story. But the Bible contains other key environmentalist ideas. The fundamental interconnectedness of life and the need to preserve the diversity of species is at the heart of the story of Noah’s ark, which is far more than a cute story for kids. Noah’s message is that all life forms are to be preserved. And the covenant made after the flood is not between God and Noah; it is between God on the one hand and Noah and all living creatures on the other. Humans are linked to other animal life forms and not set over and apart from them. [Genesis 9:15]
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Another basic principle of contemporary environmentalism is the obligation we have to future generations, and this is reflected in God’s promise to Abraham that the land is given not to Abraham alone, but to Abraham and to his descendants forever. [Genesis 13:15] Clearly Abraham cannot use or abuse the land in any way that would violate the rights of his descendants, to whom God has given the land as much as he has to Abraham.
In the 25th chapter of Leviticus, the law is given to the Hebrew people that they are not just to observe their own Sabbath; they are to give the land a Sabbath every seventh year. This sure sounds like a soil conservation project to me. The Hebrew people understood that they were to care for the land.
A stronger Bible scholar than I could undoubtedly find further ecological and environmental implications in scripture, but we have already seen that much of a modern environmentalist ethic is soundly based in scripture. (In addition, our own Anglican theological tradition emphasizes the incarnation and how God’s presence as a fleshly fully material human conveys dignity on the entire world. We are not dualists, holding up the Spirit as good while putting down the material as somehow evil. And we are a sacramental church, finding that many passages of the Bible, like much of the psalms or the Gospel of John, emphasize how the Spirit of God is to be found in all the earth.)
There will still be disagreements among us, of course. One can be committed to a common goal and still disagree about how to reach that goal or about what kinds of sacrifices should be made to get there. But honoring the environment puts us all on the same side of this question at least.
St. John’s will be considering how we can move ahead as more faithful stewards of the environment, and we look forward to finding ways to work with others, both within and without the Christian community, as we seek out this path. And we will do this for its own sake, for our own physical survival, and our own spiritual well-being.
The heavens (and the earth, too) are telling the glory of God.
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