Question: The charge has been made that Christianity is anti-environmental. In fact, there are those who blame the current environmental crisis on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Certainly some Christians have used the words of Genesis 1 about subduing the earth and having dominion over it as license to take what we need from it. Other Christians have regarded the earth as just a way station on their journey to heaven and have not felt a responsibility to take care of it. How do you answer these charges?
Frank answers: This is a timely question for Earth Day (April 22). It’s a day on which, since its first observance in 1970, we have together as a nation, and as a global community, considered the threats to our environment caused by mismanagement of the earth’s resources and developed ways of addressing the harm that has been done. But dealing with the threats that lie ahead, complicated by climate change, will require massive changes in our attitudes and way of life.
The question contains two somewhat contradictory assertions that level an environmental indictment of Christianity: (1) that the biblically-mandated domination of creation by humanity encourages thoughtless exploitation of the earth’s resources and (2) that the otherworldly orientation of Christianity encourages disregard for the earth.
The first indictment refers to the texts of Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth,” followed by Genesis 1:29: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” These “have dominion” texts, it is argued, have encouraged human exploitation of the earth’s resources and creatures.
However, the earth is not humanity’s. As far as the Bible is concerned, the earth doesn’t belong to man. To the question, “Who owns the earth?”, the answer of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is clear: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Humankind was tasked by the Creator with stewardship—taking care of the place. In that sense, man was put in charge as manager. But this wasn’t a license to pollute the environment. That’s bad management. Humankind may be justly accused of poor stewardship, and this is a sin against the Creator as well as the creation.
The second indictment points to Christianity’s otherworldly preoccupation, such as “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” and “put to death whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Colossians 3:2-5). Otherworldly preoccupation, it is argued, have caused Christians to lack concern about the environmental crisis we face today.
This text from Colossians isn’t exactly otherworldly. St. Paul is saying that we should fix our minds on heavenly things as opposed to worldly vices. The list of “earthly things” that should be “put to death” in the Colossians text are social vices, not a love of the natural world. One of those vices is greed, which has certainly contributed to the current environmental crisis, especially in the examples of strip mining and deforestration which are the most visible evidence of a thoughtless use of natural resources.
Deforestration in the Amazon region. What species would eliminate its habitat?
The present environmental crisis cannot be laid at the door of Christianity as such. If anything is to blame, it is the combined technological, industrial, and urban revolutions of the last several centuries—which have been centuries of increasing secularism in the developed nations of the world. People tended to take better care of the earth when they had a direct connection to it and regarded it as something sacred. This relationship with nature was broken by industrialization and its attendant social and environmental consequences. This occurred in Western countries but also in Eastern countries; in capitalist societies and also in communist societies; in countries with a Christian heritage and also in countries with minimal Christian influence.
Air pollution in China. What species would poison the air it needs to breath in order to live?
One of the countries with the worst pollution of air, land, and water is India — the ancestral homeland of yoga! Since I am a practicing yogi I will address the relationship between yoga and the care of the earth farther down in this article.
To their credit these large nations with serious environmental issues have taken steps toward addressing these issues. But we need a compelling philosophical and theological basis for the human responsibility to care for the earth.
We are of the Earth
The second creation story in Genesis 2 pictures the Lord creating Adam (the man) from the dust of the earth. Whatever is in the earth is in our bodies. So whatever else might be said about humankind, we are earthly creatures—creatures of the earth. In Gaia thought we are part of the biosphere, not separated from it. The fate of the biosphere is the fate of humanity.
We humans live in a symbiotic relationship with all life forms on Earth. Probably the most fundamental example of this relationship is that plants take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen and we take in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide. So, yes, hug a tree. Trees and humans need each other to go on living. (See the Excursus below on the Green Man.)
Christians need to realize that our destiny is not some other world, but this one. “We await a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The Book of Revelation pictures the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, coming down to earth. The earth is our present home and, if Christians took their Bible seriously, it is also our eternal home. We are not made for heaven; we are made for earth. We should take delight in the home we have, feel at home in it, explore its wonders great and small, and strive to preserve it for future generations.
As the earth is polluted and raped, it too looks for redemption. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21-22). As the children of God hope in the resurrection, so the whole creation longs for its renewal.
Responding to the Environmental Disaster
Just as Christian social ethics encourages planting signs in this world of the coming reign of God in our care of one another, so also it encourages planting signs in this world of the renewed earth. Since the first Earth Day recycling has become a way of life, people are making an effort to clean up after themselves, stores are trying to reduce their use of plastic containers, automobile emissions have been reduced, homes and businesses are trying to reduce their use of energy, there is increasing interest in renewable sources of energy, and governments are mandating cleaner ways of extracting coal and oil from the ground. There’s a long list that could be made. But three general principles would seem to be in order.
First, as the psalmist says, “The Lord is King, let the earth rejoice.” There is One who stands over the earth as its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, and the earth itself is happy and grateful for God’s rule. Christianity rejects any pantheism that regards the earth as divine; the earth cannot save itself any more than we humans can save ourselves. Creation depends on the grace of its Creator for its preservation and renewal. We are summoned to worship the Creator, not the creation. But we can behold God’s glory in the creation. As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” To spoil the creation is to diminish God’s glory.
We have spoken of man as homo sapiens – “thinking humanity.” One of the consequences of the philosopher Rene Descartes’ discovery, Cogito, ergo sum (” I think, therefore, I am”), is that the mind has been disembodied. In the emerging scientific worldview our thinking mind has looked at everything, including the human body, as an object rather than as a subject with which we have a relationship. Humanity should more rightly be homo adorans — “worshiping humanity.” In adoration and praise we get out of ourselves.
Second, the agency most responsible for dealing with the environmental crisis is government because modern technology, industry, and urban life is too big to be regulated by individuals or groups. We may be subjects of a divine King, but we are citizens of worldly states and our voices need to be heard in the political arenas—not because we each have all the answers but because collectively, in our deliberations, we might come up with some solutions to the environmental crisis that can be acted upon.
The late Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin is considered the father of our national Earth Day.got involved because he saw the ecological damage that thoughtless logging in the north woods of his native Wisconsin was inflicting on the land, its people, and their economic well being. He recognized that only the federal government had the resources to create a true national framework for conservation and environmental protection; this was not something that well-funded private enterprise (which lacked the motivation) or well-meaning activism (which lacked the funding) could do on their own. Today we recognize that dealing with the environmental crisis requires the cooperation of all the governments of the world and all the world’s peoples.
The late Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin
Third, in whatever ways possible, we humans need to be reconnected with the earth. We are creatures of the earth, and earth’s fate is our fate, we need to be reconnected with the nature of which we are a part. We need to be outdoors enjoying whatever patches of nature, big or little, are available to us, so that we can appreciate the natural world of which we are a part.
It is good for us to connect our bodies directly to the body of the earth. There’s even an electrical charge that flows from the earth into our bodies if our bodies touch the ground directly. This is called “earthing.” That’s why it is energizing to walk barefoot through the grass or along a forest path or on the beach. We need to find a secluded natural place where we can explore nature in the naked state in which we came into the world. We need to breathe the air into our lungs, feel the breeze on our skin, sense Earth under our feet, smell the foliage around us which tickles our nostrils, hear the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the small mammals in the leaves that sends little vibrations into our ears.
Yoga and Nature (Added April 20, 2018)
Yoga originally had a connection with the natural world. This was lost as the practice of yoga turned inward. Most yoga practitioners today (at least in America and Europe) are sophisticated urbanites who drop into gyms and yoga studios to get their bodies in shape and their minds in order. Other than strolls in the city parks or tending their little gardens they have little connection with the natural world. Even if the yoga business was of a mind to get involved in environmental projects, it lacks the organizational mechanism to engage in clean-up projects such as churches and religious groups are able to provide.
Canadian yogi Matthew Remski has been a singular voice calling for more social activism from the yoga community. He has even suggested that every yoga studio should be a soup kitchen. With all due respect to Remski, who has important things to say about the real needs of modern householder yogis versus the renunciate tradition that was the basis of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras, I don’t see modern Western yoga developing a social cohesion that would promote social or environmental activism. But what yoga can do on the basis of its long philosophic tradition is help its practitioners to recover the connection between the human body and the body of Earth.
The yoga tradition itself is rooted in cosmology. Some yoga practices relate to the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and space (ether) in the yoga cosmology. Yoga has sought to help students sense these elements within our bodies. But the elements should also relate us to the external world in which we live. We should note that many poses are named after plants and animals (e.g. lotus, tree; lucust, cobra). Here Yogi Patrik Bitter of Essen, Germany is in tree pose out among other trees.
With millions of people practicing yoga the practice could be a mighty force for raising awareness of our relationship to the natural world. Teachers should find ways to get their classes outdoors, like this Earth Day class at Hays State University in Kansas.
Yoga can cultivate an “enlightened” attitude about our relationship to the earth that would encourage many of its millions of practitioners to find projects big and small that they can become a part of. Maybe one type of action yoga could undertake is for several yoga studios to have a combined outdoor class and after a concluding earth meditation (see Frank Answers About our Connection to the Earth) disperse everyone through the park or the beach to pick up trash and properly dispose of it. For some of us this would more likely be a summer activity than one on April 22. But Earth Day’s emphasis should motivate us to give constant attention to a clean and healthy environment.
Stewardship is what the care of the earth is about—managing what has been entrusted to us. We want to pass on a clean environment to our children. But we also have a responsibility toward our fellow creatures on this planet which is home to all things living—“all creatures great and small.” God put these creatures here and therefore we have a responsibility to value them for their own sake.
There are undoubtedly community-sponsored Earth Day projects for cleaning up the environment of the mess we have made. We should also spend some time being quiet in some natural area and meditating on our relationship to the earth and our God-given responsibility to care for it.
Pastor Frank Senn
Excursus on the Green Man
The Green Man is a pre-Christian pagan representation of fertility and new life. Green man faces, surrounded by vegetation, have been sculptured in trees and on churches.
Sometimes statues of the naked green man (or in this case a green boy) have been placed in gardens.
Here is an artistic photographic rendering of the Green Man, suggesting the symbiotic relationship between humans and trees.
Green man faces have become a symbol of the environmental movement. Let it serve as a reminder of our stewardship responsibilities for the care of the earth.