(An excerpt from the new book by Steven Hayward available now)
The Environment in the Context of Christian Social Action
Recent Christian interest in the environment is another instance of the crossroads of faith and politics, and as such it is useful to place the issue in long-term context. Christian faith has always been closely involved with current political and social issues, despite the apolitical teaching of the Gospel. In part, this represents working out in real time the implications of Christ’s enigmatic counsel to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” In part, it also represents the recognition of social conditions that are an impediment to fulfilling Christian faith, and hence the imperative to work to change those conditions—a proper expression of “works” to manifest our faith, as the Apostle James counsels. Thus, Christian faith can be seen to have played prominent roles in the American Revolution, in the Abolitionist movement, the Temperance movement, and the civil rights movement, to name only four American examples. A generation ago, the threat of catastrophic nuclear war preoccupied the attention of many leading Christian thinkers and activists; although the threat of nuclear catastrophe has not fully receded, the issue gets much less attention today. So it is not surprising or unusual that Christians would turn their attention to environmental issues.
But Christian concern for a current issue does not automatically suggest a clear answer or answers to the problems set forth, reminding us that Christians need to apply the virtue of humility when thinking through what to do. Individual Christians and different denominations have not always been on the right side of some issues, or have been badly divided about what policy conforms to Christian teaching. Rule by the divine right of kings, which today appears as peculiar as leechcraft in medicine, was once accepted as a political postulate of Christianity. But within a century—the blink of an eye in the time-scale of the Christian church—new ideas of democracy and individual rights swept away this old foundation of political legitimacy, with Christian political thinkers in the lead. Both ideas could not be correct, even “for their time.” More recent examples should also engage our humility. Even as Christian faith played a central role in the movement for the abolition of slavery both in the British Empire and in the United States in the nineteenth century, there were still many Christian voices that defended the “peculiar institution” as being compatible with, or approved by, Biblical Christianity. Both sides cited the ambiguous Pauline Epistle to Philemon, where Paul pleads the case for forgiveness of the escaped Christian slave Onesimus, in support of their opinions. Both could not have been correct as a matter of moral principle, as Lincoln memorably reminded us in his second inaugural address, noting that both sides—North and South—read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.
Today, Christians are divided over issues central to what is called the “Culture War,” such as abortion, gay marriage, and the status of women in the church. Some denominations are literally breaking apart over these issues. There is a fine line between applying biblical faith to social conditions in the service of God’s purposes, and becoming an adjunct of current secular political and social trends. A spirit of discernment is the most needful thing when considering the intersection of Christian faith and social issues, lest Christian thought become reinterpreted and subsumed as a mere component of contemporary social idealism. Indeed, the allure of compelling secular perspectives on social issues, usually and confusingly derived from the Christian heritage of Western civilization, needs to be regarded as a classic form of temptation. Often there will be overlapping aspects of Christian and secular approaches to social issues. The primary task of a Christian thinker, therefore, is to focus on what is distinctive about a Christian approach to an issue.
There is a notable irony to the recent environmental interest among Christians. Many young Christians especially find the environment to be a less acrimonious field than the stalemated social issues of the “Culture War” such as abortion and gay marriage, and therefore a potential avenue to building common ground with the wider culture. Yet, nearly every aspect of the wide bundle of issues that compose the broad field of “the environment” is disputed or contestable, from the basic scientific facts (is catastrophic global warming firmly established? How great is the toxic risk from synthetic chemical compounds? What are the actual rate and principle cause of species extinction? What are the best policy approaches to solving environmental problems?) to the social values we apply to environmental issues, especially the basic issue of the relationship between humans and the natural world around us.
As we shall see, the biblical understanding of humans and the natural world differs in fundamental ways from many “mainstream” environmental views. Christianity places humans—made in the image of God and therefore sharing, to some extent, God’s creativity—at the center of creation, whereas most secular environmentalist exalt the natural world in such as way as to make humans a subordinate part of nature, and often as only destructive of nature. This does not mean that Christians will or must be at odds with mainstream secular environmentalism, but it does mean Christian environmentalism will not be uniform in its application.