The Knee-Jerk Reaction Against Ecological Concern
Many people who should be congratulated for their healthy concern for ecology and nature have been treated with undue suspicion and skepticism by much of conservative Christianity. It is no big suprise that in recent times it is perceived that conservative evangelical Christianity is the enemy of ecology and environmental concern. On the other hand, Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism are perceived as being friendly and condusive to ecology and environmental concern. Though that may not be entirely true, we must sadly admit that many in our ranks have earned this bad reputation by treating plants and animals in a way which is unfit for creatures which God made. To dig a deeper hole, many times we compensate for our ignorance on matters of ecology and the environment by merely increasing the tone of our pompous rhetoric about how those "tree huggers" can't be trusted. I certainly don't consider myself to be a "tree hugger", but at this point I'll just state that I'd rather be guilty of valuing a masterpiece of God's creative activity too highly than not highly enough.
Here are some points which I would like to share on this subject:
1. While the common perception is quite the opposite, Christianity provides a much more solid and meaningful basis for ecology than the Pantheistic religions do (mainly eastern and tribal religions that say "everything" is God). Only Biblical Christianity can maintain a proper balance between the dignity of animals/plants and the difference between mankind and animals/plants. As Francis Schaeffer presented in "Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology", the Bible presents a balanced view which accounts for both our "oneness" with nature in one sense, and also our difference from nature. In a highly condensed nutshell form: God is infinite and personal. God is infinite, and that distinguishes us from Him. However, God is personal, and we share that with Him, as we are personal too. That explains our likeness and unlikeness with God. When it comes to animals/plans and mankind, there is also likeness and unlikeness. In the sense of being creatures made by God, both man and animals/plants are alike. On the other hand, man is personal and animals are not, which accounts for our unlikeness with animals/plants.
2. It is a false dichotomy--as some Christians seem to want to assume--that we must choose between either (a) abusing nature, or (b) worshipping nature. Not all. In fact, the Christian worldview provides a basis for BOTH treating nature with dignity and have a proper non-romanticized view of it. As Francis Schaeffer said in the aforementioned book, "The value of things is not in themselves..but that God made them, and thus they deserve to be treated with high respect. The tree in the field is to be treated with respect. It is not to be romaticized, as the old lady romantacizes her cat (that is, she reads human reactions into it). This is wrong because it is not true. When you drive the axe into the tree when you need firewood, you are not cutting down a person; you are cutting down a tree. But while we should not romanticize the tree, we must realize that God made it and it deserves respect because He made it is a tree. Christians who do not believe in the complete evolutionary scale have reason to respect nature...because we believe that God made these things specifically in their own areas. So if we are going to argue against the evolutionists intellectually, we should show the results of our beliefs in our attitudes. The Christian is the man who has a reason for dealing with each created thing on a high level of respect."
3. Treating animals and plants with respect does not mean we are saying we can't have dominion over them or use them appropriately. Man's dominion over nature in the pre-fall world is plain and clear (see Gen.1:28). But what it is saying that we must treat nature in the way God has treated it. He made it. He treats it with integrity, creating and sustaining each thing in its own proper order. Francis Schaeffer makes a great point when he says that: "If God treats the tree like a tree, the machine like a machine, the man like a man, shouldn't I....do the same--treating each thing in integrity in its own order? And for the highest reason; because I love God--I love the One who made it! Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing He has made".
4. If an ant is in your house, you kill it, and if a tree is needed for firewood, you chop it down. But, we need to use discernment and restrain our urges. In fact, it is easy to miss that much of the excessive strains on the environment actually come from sin--namely lust. Human disregard for the environment (excessive deforestation, unnecessary pain inflicted on animals may seem like an isolated issue. But it isn't. Ever since the fall man has been tempted to exercise a form of skewed and sinful dominion, instead of the proper dominion entrusted to him from God. Man wants to ignore the God-given value of the things he sees around them, and treat them as meaningless objects to fulfill his lusts. This is manifested in many ways: Some men treat woman as if they were mere objects to satisfy their desires. Some employers disregard their employees, and see them as nothing more than objects which they must squeeze every last ounce of energy for the motive of profit. In a different but somewhat related vein, some people and companies see nature as nothing but a convenient object to exploit. They care nothing of its inherent beauty. These are diverese examples, but they all demonstrate a basic tendency toward plundering people and things around us rather than treating them with proper dignity. It is wrong to treat a fish as if it were a human. But it is also very wrong to treat fish as if they were purposeless resources only meant to satisfy our desires. As Christians, our tendencies should not reflect this corrupted "dominion", but rather the true dominion consistent both of respect and good governance that demonstrates that we really believe God created all that is around us. Christians of all people should be characterized by their treating people and things with dignity. This doesn't force people to be vegetarians, but it should cause them to treat all creatures, no matter what their role, with a certain sense of dignity. Instead of seeing everything as a mere resource to exploit, we Christians need to exercise restraint. A Christian should treat the opposite sex with dignity, their employees/employers with dignity, the nature that surrounds them with dignity. This is a tall task, but this is part of the now-and-here healing that the Christian worldview brings to the world.
5. Some people abuse the environment and then turn around to defend their behavior by pretending that their behavior is justified because there is a distinction between man and creature. They are correct on one account: that man is to be distinguished from plants/animals the Christian worldview makes plain. However, they are exhibiting an apparent lack of one of the most pronounced differences between man and animal: Namely, animals pursue their needs with an unrelenting biological pursuit and give no attention to ethical considerations. Humans, on the other hand, have the facilities to self-impose conscious limitation. The ability to regulate and throttle the satisfaction of our needs for ethical reasons is really a definite difference between humans and animals. And true strength and character is demonstrated in restraint rather than consumption. The very principle of management or dominion presupposes that we are weighing and considering these ethical issues. Hence, the man that abuses nature thinking he is maintaining the gap between man and animal is actually showing little understanding of what it means to be man!
6. A Bible-believing Christian can be a naturalist (not in the philosophic sense which denies the existence of the supernatural, but in the vocational or hobby sense) or an ecologist. Perhaps I haven't put this strongly enough. A Bible-believing Christian should be the best naturalist or ecologist. This is because of what the Bible says about performing our tasks as unto God AND because a Biblical Christian should have the strongest sense of why ecology/conservation is important.
7. Francis Schaeffer asks a wonderful question when he says "You may or may not want to walk barefoot to feel close to nature, but as a Christian what relationship have you thought of and practiced toward nature as your fellow creature, over the last ten years?" Not only are we to have dominion over nature, but we share a common groan together for the deliverance found in Jesus Christ's return--deliverance from the curse (Romans 8). People have varying degrees of interest in the wildlife around them. Some people's vocations (or hobbies) put them in closer contact to the plants and animals around them. However, all Christians should be to some degree or another in admiration of the beauty and majesty of the things God created. We should not be characterized as destroyers, but rather by a deep respect for all of the created order. As Francis Schaeffer said: "We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm. But we should not cut down the tree just to cut down the tree...We have the right to rid our houses of ants ants; but what we have no right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it".
Yes, ants have a certain dignity! They are not humans, but they do derive dignity from their creator. Speaking of "honor" an "dignity" in regard to seemingly insignificant creatures may sound foreign to our highly industrialized sensibilities. But when we consider the glory and splendor of creation, it shouldn't sound so strange. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten the intrinsic value that animals/plants have--in and of themselves--they are not merely there to satisfy our desires for more profit, more possessions, etc. We must both uphold the dignity of creatures and the dignity of humans, each in their own order. As "vice-regents" of God on earth, we are in a sense sovereign over creatures. But our dominion over nature as a "vice-regent" is something we will be held accountable for. Man is not an animal and animals are not humans: they both have their own dignity in their own created order. Nature is neither a thing to abuse, nor a thing to worship. But we should never let our fear of "tree hugging" cause us to avoid a genuine awe and wonder at the beauty dignity of trees and other created things. As Christians we not only ponder the beauty of the plants and animals around us in and of themselves, but we can also see this beauty in each creature as a finite pointer to the infinite beauty of the One who created it.