A cohesive environmentalism: Some preliminary concerns

In this paper, we are asked to consider what are, by my lights, four questions pertaining to the relationship of Christian faith to environmental concerns and that which is sometimes called the “eco-justice” movement. I would break the block of questions out this way:

1. Do you agree that we humans need to make dramatic changes in the way we use and relate to earth and everything on the earth?
2. What, for you, is the most convincing or fundamental explanation for our overuse and destruction of natural resources? Is it that we are greedy? Do we feel we have a God-given right to use the earth for our own benefit? Both?
3. How should we think about our relationship with the rest of nature? Do you think of human beings as superior to or more valuable and important than other species? Are we, in other words, “above” the rest of nature in some sense? What do you think of the idea of living “in courteous communion with all other creatures” (Fischer/Hart 186-187)? What for you would be a good (balanced?) way to think about our relationship with nature?
4. What does it mean for you to be a “steward of creation?”

It may be useful at the outset to place concerns about the world into perspective. Yves Cardinal Congar’s evocative description of the Church as a liferaft for a world destined to sink tells us lyrically of what is to come, 1 but the traditional Mass and burial service are frank and direct in the prayers Dies irae and Libera me: The end will come, “that awful day when the heavens and earth shall be shaken and [He] shall come to judge the world by fire,” “[t]he day of wrath, that day [that] will dissolve the world in ashes.” At this terminus, heaven will not descend upon the Earth à la Gallifrey in The End of Time, but rather, the righteous will be taken to heaven. 2 Our Savior appears to confirm this when He tells he apostles that having returned to the Father to “prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” 3 and one would seem on firm ground to observe that the Father Himself implies it in negativo when He says that “[w]hile the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” 4

Nevertheless, “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” 5 As the late editor of the journal First Things, Father Richard John Neuhaus, was apt to observe, with a God to whom “a thousand years … are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8), it is wise to remember that for all we know, “we may well be living in the first days of the early church!” 6

These two observations will serve nicely as parentheses around Christian consideration of our relationship to the environment. The world is ultimately going away, and it is wise that our conscience be clear as if Jesus was coming back tomorrow, but it would be irresponsible and almost selfish to live as though the second coming were happening tomorrow; we must, therefore be good stewards of the creation that God has placed at our service.

“Stewardship” is the key concept, in my own view. Interviewed recently, Senator Angus King of Maine said: “I think we have an opportunity, a moral obligation to pass the planet along to our children and grandchildren in as good or better shape than we found it,” and that’s a nice way to express the point. 7 Having established some Christian parameters to the debate, we must next observe that any Christian perspectives on the debate must start with and harmonize with divine revelation. For that, we turn to the book of Genesis.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth; he thereafter filled the Earth with assorted flora and fauna. 8 But then God creates man after His own image and likeness, and says: “May he have dominion over” said flora and fauna. 9 God then relates to man directly what we have just heard as the internal conversation of the Holy Trinity before the act of creation, directing man to not only “fill the Earth, but to “subdue” it, and “have dominion” over its flora and fauna. 10 God further underlines man’s position in regard to creation by having him name the animals. 11 Finally, skipping forward several generations, God makes a covenant with Noah, a eighth-generation descendant of Adam. 12After the great flood, God tells Noah:

The fear of you … shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 13

Fischer & Hart aptly remark that “We do not look to Christian faith for a detailed program of action regarding environmental problems, but rather for insight into the place of nature in God’s plan,” 14 but their general approach epitomizes the troubling attitude of modernist “___[-ist] theology” theologians of their time. The Genesis passages, as Fischer & Hart observe, have survived “several attempts to reinterpret” them in order that they might better conform to the spirit of the ages. 15 Often this has taken form that we see in Fischer & Hart: Acknowledging the clear texts that cut against them as a thesis, cobbling together scraps of poetic texts to fabricate an antithesis, and then declaring that because thesis and antithesis are in equipoise, they are free to cut a “synthesis” from whole cloth.

In point of fact, this particular iteration of the form is doomed. A brief textual exegesis may prove useful. The Latin text of Genesis 1:26—on which we may rely in virtue of the Council of Trent’s admonition that the Vulgate must be “in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic” 16—uses the verb praesum in the third-person subjunctive, which literally parses as “let him precede,” but which has the sense of command or higher rank, sharing its root with words such as prelatus (“prelate”) and praefero (“I carry before”). The verb could equally be parsed as “I stand before,” “I preside,” “I rule over,” “I lead or command.” In verses 28-30, the imperative-mood verbs are subjicio and dominor, which respectively have the senses of “subject” and “rule, reign over, govern.” The makeweight passages adduced against the clear senses of these passages are trivial. 17

But whatever the methodology or its prima facie plausibility when applied to any given textual iteration, the fatal flaw is in the underlying approach, for it is never appropriate to begin with an ideological precommitment (“ecology,” “feminism,” “Ayn Rand”—whatever) and then seek to evade obstacles in divine revelation to that precommitment. 18 Any legitimately-Christian approach takes divine revelation as a given and a starting-point. We can and must believe ourselves to be “on absolutely safe ground when we say that what the Old Testament was to our Lord, it must be and shall be to us.” 19 We may not engage in dubious “reimaginings” of scripture, as though we wrote on a blank slate. 20 Nor can we treat scripture as an obstacle to the realization of some secular or secularly-derived goal, a problem to elide by clever exegesis.

Nor are the particular ideas for which Fischer & Hart would clear the road appealing in their romanticization and anthropomorphization of the natural world, and in their encouragement of the substitution of vague naturalism and “Gaia worship” for true faith. Fischer& Hart’s feint that what they presumptuously call the “sacramental” approach may be criticized as failing to “take seriously enough the awful oppression that is part of the mystery and splendor of the universe” exemplifies the former, and an idea attributed by them to Sallie McFague exemplifies the latter. 21 The lion is a splendid creature, to be sure, but to ignore the violence inherent in its feeding cycle is romanticization, and to suggest that the lion “oppresses” the gazelle is anthropomorphization. By contrast, it is not strictly incorrect to suggest that we “see the creator in the creation, the source of all existence in and through all that is bodied forth,” as Fischer & Hart have McFague say, but it seems dangerously misleading insofar as it seems calculated to produce an identification of God with nature, and so the substitution of nature for God. 22 At best, this produces the syncretic ersatz-catholicism that Fischer & Hart attribute to Chardin, 23 at worst, the substitution of Gaia for God. We must, then, rethink.

Taken seriously, the Genesis texts make short work of the questions that focus on “our relationship with the rest of nature” and whether “human beings [are] superior to or more valuable and important than other species? Are we, in other words, ‘above’ the rest of nature in some sense?” As we have seen above, that question is answered on the face of the texts. All creation is good, 24 and declares the glory of God, 25 but it is mankind that is made in the image and likeness of God and appointed captain of creation. And I chose that phrasing not merely for its felicitous alliteration: Like the captain of a ship, we have certain prerogatives, but also a heavy duty of care for our charges. I am unsure what “courteous communion with all other creatures” means, but we must certainly recognize that we have not been given stewardship of creation simply for our enjoyment, which certainly begins with an attitude of respect and thanks for that which God has given us, and a certain parsimony toward our expenditure of those resources.

Therein is a segue. Lurking in the Genesis texts is a point that is easily-missed: God gave creation over to man—not a man, Adam, not to one generation, but to mankind, to all generations. This allows us to straightforwardly answer the final question posed, to wit: What does stewardship mean? It means that each generation receives its inheritance from our ancestors and holds it in trust for our progeny. To be sure, this notion leaves a lot of play in the joints. The parable of the talents found in Matthew 25 demonstrates different ways to approach something over which one is given stewardship; arguments can be made for the approaches of each of the servants as a model for how each generation should handle its inheritance: The chastised servant who passed on exactly what he received, and those who burnished it and returned more. But what none of the servants did was to carelessly squander the money over which he had been made steward, returning nothing to his master. There is room for legitimate debate over whether and how we should seek to burnish our inheritance, but what is in no doubt at all is that, as stewards, we are not so much executors of the dead as fiduciaries of the unborn.

That observation brings us to the remaining questions. I am skeptical of the value of making any “dramatic changes” to any important system, because change brings unforeseen consequences, often detrimental, but always more profound and massive than expected. With Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshotte, Clinton Rossiter, and the other luminaries of conservative thought, I must warn that all change must be cautious, gradual, and organic. Too often, as libertarians such as Milton Friedmann and Friedrich Hayek have warned us, the “planners” make life worse for the intended beneficiaries of their well-intentioned schemes. I certainly cannot therefore answer the first question in the affirmative. I would, however, add that I can agree that we should consider making changes in the way we use and relate to earth and everything on the earth if our use fails the standards of stewardship that I outlined above, which obliges us to preserve resources for the future. Take, for example, fossil fuels. For years, we have been warned of the looming threats of “peak oil” and anthropogenic climate change, specters that always seem to hover just over the horizon; whatever one may think of these concerns, it is plain that any non-renewable resource, no mater how abundant, must at some point be depleted, and that any input into a system, no matter how small the input or large the system, must at some point have some effect. It is certainly valid in principle to be concerned for depletion of scarce resources and to ask “how may we as stewards best preserve our inheritance?”

Finally, we are presented with a false dilemma: How can we explain “our” overuse and destruction of natural resources; is it greed? Selfishness (that “we feel we have a God-given right to use the earth for our own benefit”)? I think neither. It is more a question of habit and short-sightedness. We have already looked briefly at peak oil, which provides one illustration of the point, but another might be deforestation. On the one hand, it might seem obvious (insofar as forests are the primary means by which breathable air is produced) that depleting the planet’s lung-function is a terrible idea—but then again, people smoke, which does the same thing on a smaller scale: We trade long-term lung-function for immediate gratification. To be sure, the analogy is not exact, because logging has genuine utility while smoking is dissipation, but in both cases, the underlying problem is the same: People are terrible assessors of risk. 26 That is particularly-so when the resource appears unimaginably abundant. There are trillions of trees, so how can cutting down one tree be a problem? How could we possibly deplete this resource? This difficulty of connecting the unbearably-specific instance to the broader question—of course, it is never one tree that is being logged—makes it very difficult for us to believe that there is a serious risk of depleting a resource. Most people are not aware of the extent to which their lifestyles consume resources (for which reason, environmentalists have highlighted concepts such as “carbon footprints”), and even if they are, are not likely to believe that the resources can be depleted.

In fine


  1. See Richard McBrien, The Church 222 (2008).
  2. Cf. 1 Thess 4:17.
  3. Jn 14:3
  4. Gen 8:22.
  5. Mk 13:32.
  6. See, e.g., Timothy George, Avery’s Ten Rules, First Things. July 14, 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/07/averys-ten-rules (last visited Dec. 10, 2014).
  7. Sen. Angus King: Executive Action On Immigration Could Backfire, All Things Considered, Nov. 19, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/11/19/365271507/sen-angus-king-executive-action-on-immigration-could-backfire (last visited Dec. 16, 2014).
  8. Gen 1:11, 1:20, 1:24.
  9. Gen 1:26.
  10. Gen 1:28-30.
  11. Gen 2:19.
  12. Genesis 5 gives this geneaology: Adam fathered Seth, who fathered Enosh, who fathered Kenan, who fathered Mahalalel, who fathered Jared, who fathered Enoch, who fathered Methuselah, who fathered Lamech, who fathered Noah, making Noah the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson son of Adam.
  13. Gen 9:1-3.
  14. Kathleen Fischer & Thomas Hart, Christian Foundations 180 (2d ed. 1995). [Editor’s note: our principal textbook for this class].
  15. Id., at 182; cf. Rom 12:2.
  16. Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Ecumenical Council of Trent 19 (Waterworth, trns. 1848).
  17. Accordingly, the attack has frequently turned to the reliability of the Gensis text itself, either directly or through the proxy of “form criticism.” But the Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed this in its responses to eight dubia pertaining to Genesis in 1909. One is directly-pertinent: The commission concluded that it was impermissible to hold that the first three

    chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls.

  18. Cf. Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation 13(1997).
  19. W.H. Griffith, Old Testament Criticism and New Testament Criticism in 1 The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth 119 (Torrey & Dixon, eds., 1914), available at http://ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books%20II/Torrey%20-%20The%20Fundamentals%201.pdf (last visited Dec. 15, 2014).
  20. See James Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God 48-49 (1958).
  21. Fischer & Hart, supra note __, at 187.
  22. One also suspects that Fischer, Hart, McFague, et al would squirm somewhat if confronted with the fact (which they so carefully seek to dethrone) that if we seek the image of the creator, there is only one creature that is described as not only “good” but made in said image.
  23. Id., at 190.
  24. Indeed, in some senses, creation is in better shape than man: Having never fallen, it is not subject to the total depravity of sin and concupiscence that characterizes man. Fischer & Hart’s observation that “[t]he redemption accomplished in”—n.b., in, they say, not by—“Christ is not limited to the individual person, but extends to the whole creation.” Id., at 185. If that is intended to mean that the blood of Christ was poured out for the redemption not only of men but all creation, it reveals a defective soteriology, for one must ask: From what, precisely, do they think that part of creation that did not fall needs to be redeemed? And so from what, precisely, do they think that man needs redeemed?
  25. Ps 19:1
  26. See Eric Horowitz, Why Are People Bad at Evaluating Risks?, Psychology Today, Feb. 2013, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-inertia-trap/201302/why-are-people-bad-evaluating-risks (last visited Dec. 10, 2014).