Environmental Ethics: Bringing Creation Care Down to Earth

By David P. Gushee

Flourish magazine, Fall 2010

Prior to the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s, Western Christianity had lost touch with the resources for a creation care ethic that were present within the Bible and scattered in our theological tradition.

We did not preach, teach, or practice “creation care” because we recognized neither the contemporary need to do so nor the demands of our faith that required it. Of course there were exceptions, but these were few and far between. Western Christians joined Western culture in its unthinking drive toward modern industrial capitalism and the good life as defined by its technological advances. This is a cautionary tale in Christian cultural captivity.

Some have argued that Christianity was more than a passive bystander in this process of ecological degradation. The Bible has also been charged with encouraging a dualistic (spiritual vs. physical) view of reality that encouraged a contempt for this world, and with nurturing an eschatological framework in which Christ’s second coming distracts Christians from an ultimate commitment to the well-being of the on Earth on which we actually live.

Facing such criticisms over these past 40 years, as well as recognizing deepening environmental problems, more and more Christian thinkers have worked through these issues in search of a Christian theological-ethical posture adequate to address them.

Theocentric approaches. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 ESV). Theocentric approaches emphasize that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). Human beings must respect and care for creation precisely because it is God’s creation. God is the source of creation; it is his amazing handiwork, and to God belongs ownership and rule over what he has created. These facts should be clear to all people, but Christians especially must be in the vanguard of those who, when they look at the world around them, do not claim it as “mine” or “ours” but instead see it as belonging fully to God its maker.

Properly understood, stewardship is a theocentric form of a creation care ethic. A steward is someone who manages something for someone else. Christians who emphasize environmental stewardship recognize both that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps. 24:1) and that “the earth he has given to human beings (Ps. 115:16). The earth has been “given” to us, but only in a provisional sense, for God remains its owner. Stewardship is trusteeship—responsible management of an enterprise that preceded us, will succeed us, and to which we have temporary responsibility, not on our own behalf but on behalf of its owner and beneficiaries.

Anthropocentric approaches. Where theocentric creation care is motivated by a desire to honor God as Creator and obey his commands in relation to creation, anthropocentric approaches elevate human well-being to the center of creation. As we honor our Creator God and obey God’s commands, we act in ways that advance human well-being.

This works out, however, only if human well-being is properly understood. We need an understanding of human well-being that attends to all human beings, in long-term and intergenerational perspective, with attention to every aspect of human well-being. As we think about the care of God’s creation, attending to this more holistic vision of the human good creates a morally constructive kind of anthropocentric ethics. It also generates pivotal moral norms such as environmental justice, intergenerational moral responsibility, and ecological sustainability.

Environmental justice, biblically understood, begins with the recognition of the dependence of all human beings on a healthy environment. Humans need clean air to breathe, sufficient clean water to drink, fertile and healthy soil to till, healthy neighbor-creatures for clothing, food, and medicine, reasonably stable climate systems, and temperatures within a livable range. Lack of access to these basic goods that sustain life and health can be seen as an assault on the physical well-being of persons, and perhaps also as a particularly painful example of poverty.

The grave environmental problems we now face raise questions about the overall ecological health of the planet. If such problems continue unabated, or if they worsen, they will become environmental justice issues understood in an intergenerational sense—we may leave our grandchildren an unlivable world, enjoying our short-term lifestyle advantages at the expense of their very well-being. And if even then we do not act, the language of justice hardly will seem adequate to describe a world in which fewer and fewer people and finally no human being at all can thrive (or survive). This is why ecological sustainability is such an important moral norm, for it speaks to preserving the global conditions for any and all human beings to live and flourish. Sustainability is the sine qua non for any talk of justice. For that matter, ecological sustainability is the sine qua non for any talk of any other human or ethical concern. If we destroy the conditions of human life on the planet, no other concerns will be relevant at all.

Biocentric approaches. Quite on the other end of the spectrum one finds a range of approaches that have attempted to find ways to ascribe intrinsic moral value to the other living creatures, the various species, and the planetary ecological order itself. These are sometimes called biocentric approaches because of their celebration and valuation of life, in all of its various forms, as well as their effort to address the significance of the biosphere as a whole.

For those who believe that biblical faith’s primary sin was in desacralizing nature, robbing it of the felt sense of the divine presence, one option is to retrieve or create nature religions that redivinize nature in its individual parts or as a whole. We are witnessing a revival of nature religions in our time, such as is found in New Age thought, Native American spiritualities, some Eastern religions, and neo-pagan religions such as the Wiccan movement. The visibility of these movements has hurt the cause of creation care among evangelicals for a long time.

Another possibility, especially appealing to some, in view of the growing appreciation of the creation as a single intricate entity, a vast ecosystem that sustains all life (the “Gaia hypothesis”), has been a retrieval of a kind of pantheism in which God is all and all is God, or a panentheism in which God is to be identified with or experienced directly in everything that exists. The Earth is a single living Being, who must be revered and treated as divine.

A third move is toward a kind of feminist nature religion. Here the critique of biblical thought categories is further specified as a critique of the patriarchy or androcentrism that has distorted all of these thought categories, such as the dualism that diminishes the female in favor of the male, the natural in favor of the spiritual, the body in favor of the soul, and this life in favor of the next one.

Evolutionary approaches to life on earth have been embraced by some who then weave an eco-spirituality around evolution. All life is related to all other life, all life seeks to extend itself, and in the development and infinite elaboration of life forms on this planet one has much material for religious awe and wonder, as well as the basis of an ethic of reverence and respect for life in all its forms.

Another move suggested in recent literature has been more explicitly political. It involves a rethinking of political community to include all creatures. This ultimately leads to a reframing of the concept of citizenship, with animals included in a kind of global earth community with rights that must be respected even if they cannot speak for themselves.

Perhaps it is easy for evangelicals to dismiss all of the foregoing moves as dangerous overreactions. They should instead be viewed as relevant evidence of Earth’s distress and of culture’s responses to that distress. Some represent the retrieval of centuries of wisdom about sustainable human living on this planet. Even those that go too far should speak to us about our own need as perhaps more carefully orthodox Christians to respond far better than we have done.

The emergence of a sanctity-of-human life ethic
In late twentieth-century Christian ethics, a central moral norm emerged: the “sanctity of human life.” The impetus for the articulation of this moral norm in much of the Western world in the 1970s was the full legalization of abortion and, secondarily, the reality or possibility of the legalization of assisted suicide. Even today the term is often used, either by its advocates or its foes, as applying primarily to those two issues.

The working definition I have developed for the sanctity of human life has come to be articulated as follows:

“The sanctity of life is the conviction that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, nationality, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, sexual orientation, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as sacred, as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity. Therefore they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevated moral status, beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection, and flourishing of their lives.

“The belief that human life is sacred flows from biblical faith. In particular, life is sacred because, according to Scripture, God created humans in his image, declared them precious, ascribed to them a unique status in creation, blessed them with unique, god-like capacities, made them for eternal life, governs them under his sovereign lordship, commands in his moral law that they be treated with reverence and respect—and forever elevates their dignity by his decision to take human form in Jesus Christ and to give up that human life at the Cross.”

There are many reasons to embrace this ethic as a/the central Christian moral norm. And yet, it is not at all clear that this kind of Christian ethic is sufficient for addressing the particular challenges created by the ecological degradation of the planet that we face today and into the rest of the twenty-first century. In fact, it can be argued that a sanctity-of-human-life ethic is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. It would be quite a paradox if the highest expression of a Christian ethic that values human life turns out to be at the same time a source of the ongoing devaluation of the rest of God’s creation.

Problems of a sanctity-of-human-life ethic for the care of creation
Here are a few of the possible problems with this ethic:

First, it sharpens our sense of the immense value of the human person, but offers no account even of the existence, let alone the value, of other beings. We are trained to see human beings as the pinnacle of creation, the height of God’s creative work, and the center of God’s concern when it comes to the affairs of this planet—and indeed, of the entire universe.

As for the existence of other sentient beings, and the creation itself, this account of life’s sanctity remains silent. At least in Western Christianity we have lacked even the language to discuss that which goes beyond and yet includes both the vertical and the horizontal, the divine-human and human-human dramas. A sanctity approach does at least push Christians to pay attention to ethics and not just theology, to how people are treated and not just whether they believe in Jesus, but it does nothing to raise the visibility of the millions of other creatures with whom we share the created order, or the created order itself.

Even when Christians do move in the direction of a theology of creation and the other creatures, a common theological move is quickly to sharpen the ontological distinctions between human and non-human creatures. The first step in this direction is to define the content of the imago Dei through some delineation of the ways in which only human beings are made in God’s image. This is sometimes called “human exceptionalism,” or criticized as human egocentrism, or speciesism, and it goes deep in Christian thought.

This move toward a capacity-based construal of the divine image is also susceptible to empirical attacks from those who propose or show that the distinctions between the reasoning, creative, emotive, linguistic, relational, or even spiritual capacities of humans over against the higher mammals have been overdrawn. We end up risking a core element of our theology with every new discovery about the surprisingly advanced capacities of other creatures.

This is one very good reason, by the way, for us to follow the suggestions of a number of biblical scholars that the image of God should be understood in terms of our unique responsibilities, not our unique capacities, which connects to the language of environmental stewardship. We image God as we bear God’s delegated authority to care for the earth and its creatures. This emphasizes our unique power and responsibility in the earth, rather than our increasingly tenuous claim to have unique capacities.

One consequence of defining the imago Dei in this better-than, over-against paradigm is the implicit or explicit degradation of the status and value of non-human creatures relative to human beings. Not made in the image of God, not destined for eternal life with God, they occupy an ambiguous and certainly less important role in the divine economy. Human uniqueness and status are bought at a high price here—the denigration of the status of each and every one of the other creatures on the planet.

Incidentally, this way of defining what it really means to be human has dramatic unintended consequences—especially a weakening of the moral status of those human beings who lose or never have those distinctive capacities that we have identified as constituting the image of God. A child in the womb does not qualify as imago Dei material as defined by capacities. A person in a persistent vegetative state lacks some or all of the capacities we have named. These weaknesses of a capacity-based defining of the image have been exploited ruthlessly by those who have had reason to do so, from the Nazis in their euthanasia campaign until today.

A review of our exalted definition of the sanctity of human life reveals huge implications for how human beings are to be treated by other human beings, but it sets no ethical framework for human responsibility to other creatures and the creation itself. We can see that each and every human being is to be viewed with reverence and respect, and to be treated in a manner that contributes to the preservation, protection, and flourishing of their lives. But how are we to view and treat the monkeys, rats, and dogs, or the roses, oceans, and air?

Broadening the Christian sanctity-of-life ethic
In biblical thought, the majesty and holiness of God, together with the free decision of God, entirely grounds any ascription of anything like “sanctity” to humanity. Therefore it is wrong to say even that human beings and their lives are somehow intrinsically sacred, if we are not at the same time saying that what makes human lives sacred is God’s action and declaration toward them. Perhaps a more precise way to say it is that in theocentric perspective all creational value is derived value, in that God the Creator is the one who authoritatively declares and demonstrates the value of all things that he has made. Only after we are clear about this can we then venture to say that an entity has intrinsic value, which means that God has already and permanently made his valuation of that entity clear.

Insofar as ecological degradation and catastrophe hurt human beings (those creatures toward whom God’s actions and declarations reveal such exalted value), Christians are duty bound to respond with steps to ease the suffering of their human neighbors. Therefore one of the best responses that concerned Christian environmentalists can make to advance their commitments is to (1) remind their fellow Christians of their sacred obligations toward their human neighbors, whom God loves so dearly, and (2) show concretely how ecological degradation is already sickening and killing those neighbors. Here the theocentrism and anthropocentrism come together.

But then we must also find ways to demonstrate biblically that the other creatures, and the ecosystems that sustain them, and the creation as a whole, are also in some sense sacred, as in, valued highly by God. Biblically, I believe it is important to say that they are not sacred to the same degree (cf. Lk 12:6-7) or in the same way that human beings are, especially if we tie sacredness in any strong way to the imago Dei, and if we preserve some species uniqueness as part of that divine image.

What makes creaturely life sacred is God’s relation to it, not any particular characteristic we might claim for ourselves or any other creature. Radical theocentrism therefore overrides chauvinistic human speciesism. All creatures bow before the majestic Creator who alone gives them value. In this way, a reframed sanctity of life ethic pulls together all of the themes we have been considering. It is simultaneously biocentric and anthropocentric because it is so deeply theocentric.

It is not too much to say that to the extent Christians have failed to acknowledge God’s sacred relationship to other creatures and the creation, we have failed God; we have sinned against him and against other creatures and the creation we share with them. Our sins demand repentance, which includes both grief over sin and new commitment to a different way of relating. We must learn to perceive our moral obligations as God’s people to those other creatures loved and valued by God, and to the ecosystems that God prepared and still employs to sustain all of our lives.

Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, a Christian scholar, teacher, activist, and churchman, serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University. Currently, his research interests focus on issues emerging at the intersection between Christian faith, ethics, and public policy. He published two books in 2008, The Future of Faith in American Politics (Baylor University Press) and The Scholarly Vocation and the Baptist Academy (Mercer University Press). His next book project, with Eerdmans Press, explores the theological and ethical roots and implications of belief in the sanctity of human life.

Taken from Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective edited by Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block. Copyright(c) 2010 by Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.


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    [...] care ethic that were present within the Bible and scattered in our theological tradition.”In an excellent piece in the Fall 2010 edition of Flourish magazine (excerpted from his book, Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective) [...]

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