by Rusty Pritchard
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections called “Deep Down Things” (named from the poem “God’s Grandeur” by Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins).]
Here at Flourish, we regularly claim that the real Earth Day for Christians is Thanksgiving, when we celebrate the provision of God and the goodness of his gifts. (And, of course, the Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the “enoughness” of God’s creation, so it is like an Earth Day every week!) Gratitude should be the cardinal virtue of the Christian environmental movement, directing thanksgiving to the Creator of the universe.
According to Steven Bouma-Prediger, a religion scholar and teacher at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, the most compelling reason to care for the earth is out of a heart of gratitude.
This Thanksgiving season, it is worth quoting Steven at length. Why not print out this portion of his book, For the Beauty of the Earth, and read over it as you prepare for Thanksgiving celebrations?
Steven writes in his book that there are many compelling arguments for why Christians should care for creation. He caps his list with the “grateful heart” argument:
It claims that care for the earth and its inhabitants is a fitting response of gratitude for creatures who experience God’s bountiful and gracious provisions. In response to the gifts of earth and sky, hill and vale, tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of lights, we sing, “Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.” Gratitude is the grammar of a grace that fosters respectful care for God’s creatures. We care for God’s creatures because it is the appropriate and proper response to God’s providential care for us.Gratitude is the grammar
of a grace that fosters
respectful care for God’s creatures.
This is a very persuasive argument. Indeed, in my view it is the most compelling reason to care for the earth. The phenomenology of grace and gratitude, whether between humans or between humans and God, suggests that the experience of gracious provision readily and rightly evokes a response of gratitude and care. In other words, when given a gift, especially a valuable gift or gift that meets basic needs, the appropriate response is gratitude to the giver and care for the gift given. Grace begets gratitude, and gratitude care.
Christians within the Reformed tradition should especially find this argument congenial given that gratitude is one of the theological themes emphasized within that tradition. For example, John Calvin refers to creation as “this most glorious theatre” and “this most beautiful theatre” for which we should praise God. For Calvin, creation is “this magnificent theatre of heaven and earth, crammed with innumerable miracles,” valuable for its own sake as well as for its provisions to humans. …For Calvin, the created order is divine gift, and gratitude is the fitting response.
This spirit of gratitude pervade the most loved of the Reformed confessions, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism. Commenting on its three-part structure of guilt, grace, and gratitude, Henry Stob affirms:
“What drives the Christian to love and obedience is thankfulness. This gives to the moral life a characteristic note of joy. Appreciative of God’s mercy, thankful for his unspeakable gift, happy in his gracious conferments, the Christian seeks with might and main to show forth his [God’s] praises and to do his [God’s] will.”
God’s provisions—evident preeminently in the person of Jesus Christ but also manifest in the natural world—evoke gratitude and prompt joyful care for that which God has given to us. We live as we do not because we should but because we may. Not obligation but thanksgiving drives the Christian moral life.
One necessary condition for this [grateful heart] argument to be persuasive, however, is an acknowledgement of creation as a manifestation of divine grace—a recognition that earth and sky, hill and vale, tree and flower are in fact gifts. This itself presupposes both belief in God as Creator and some degree of knowledge of the earth as the intricate, interdependent, and truly amazing system it is. In other words, this argument is compelling only insofar as one acknowledges the Giver and the giftedness of creation. For Christians who have little concrete knowledge of how the world works, or for nontheists who know much about ecology, this argument will not have much persuasive force.
Despite this limitation, however, the “for the beauty of the earth” argument remains a compelling argument, for if we can overcome our collective creational autism and begin to experience in the wondrous world around us God’s extravagant and steadfast love, we will care for this provisioned earth not out of obligation or duty but out of gratitude and love.
Stephen Bouma-Prediger (Ph.D. Chicago) is the chair of the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. His book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Baker Academic, 2001) won an “Award of “Merit” from Christianity Today in the magazine’s “2002 Book Awards” program. He can be emailed at .