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Christian responses to environmental concerns

Background information

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Overview:

Most Christian churches have been rather slow to recognize the gravity of the ecological problems facing the earth. 1 and to respond to them in an effective way. 2 So far, they have not spoken extensively about global environmental destruction in a forthright and un-ambiguous manner. 3 Christian leaders often condemn the spirit of acquisitiveness and materialism which co-exists with appalling poverty. However, the environmental problems are looked upon exclusively from the human perspective; this fails to reveal the extent of damage to nature. 4

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Reasons for this lack of concern:

There are three main reasons for this lack of emphasis on ecology by Christian faith groups:

bulletReligious beliefs can spawn behavior which is destructive of the earth:

Lately, the content and frequency of churches' teaching on the environment has increased. 5 However, there is still a feeling that church leaders have little useful to say on this topic. There is little indication that many Christians have realized the scale of the problem. The message is certainly not getting through to the wider community. The neglect of the "theology of creation" has rendered the Christian voice almost silent. 6

In addition, Christians who see salvation exclusively as an other world reality, which is immeasurably more important than earth life, are not easily challenged in their faith by injustice among people or by the destruction of the earth.

The situation is put in perspective by the following question asked by John M. Cuble:

How [do we] fit together an eschatological perspective with our responsible steward-ship of the environment? 7

bulletThe Roman Catholic church's population policies:

Rapid human population growth is one of the most serious ecological problems. It is one of the principal causes of environmental degradation and species extinction. It causes an increase in human demand on the Earth's limited resources. It is not only a problem in its own right, but it  also prevents the Catholic Church to play a decisive role in dealing with the wider ecological damage. It causes various pro-life groups to lead the public astray, away from the real problem. It is highly probable that the Catholic position on birth control, as announced in Humanae Vitae, is one of the main reasons why the Catholic Church has been so slow to enter the ecological debate. 1,8

Church dignitaries have questioned whether the increase in population is really a problem at all, and followers were warned against a ‘certain panic’ deriving from the studies of ecologists. Sean McDonagh commented:

"In setting out to defend human life in a narrow anthropocentric context, we might be creating the conditions that will, in fact, endanger all life on earth. This possibility has not been faced by Humanae Vitae nor by any document from the [Roman Catholic] Church magisterium. Is it really pro-life to ignore the warnings of demographers and ecologists who predict that unbridled population growth will lead to an increase in the infant mortality rate for succeeding generations?” 1

From the day it was published, Humanae Vitae has created a huge controversy in the Church. In North America and Western Europe, few priests preached the encyclical, and most Catholics simply ignored it. When a very high percentage of Christians feel unable to follow a particular teaching, this surely raises questions about the teaching itself.

In 1930, the Anglican Communion approved the use of contraception in limited circumstances. Since then, most Protestant groups have come to approve the use of modern contraceptives when couples do not desire children at the time. 9 However, the Catholic Church remains implacably opposed to all artificial forms of contraception.
 

bullet

The Bible-based tradition to avoid serious question about nature.

This has made Christianity the most anthropocentric religion in the history of the world. 10 Christian theologians and church leaders are often embarrassed when it comes to discussing such topics as animal protection. 6

Christianity inherited from Judaism a widely accepted theory of creation based on a literal interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis -- the first book in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). In 1991, a Gallup Poll in the US, published in Los Angeles Times of 1992-MAY-02, showed that 47% of American adults believed humans were created by God within the last 10,000 years; 25% of American college graduates agreed. According to the Bible, no resource or life form on Earth had any purpose other than to serve man’s purposes. 10

Christianity not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper end.

Those who try to interpret the biblical perspective on the natural world in a manner more friendly to ecology do not take into account the environmental factors that gave the Bible its somewhat excessively anthropocentric emphasis. In the inhospitable plains, barren deserts and desolate steppes of the Middle East, the early settlers had to channel all their efforts and energies into dominating, controlling, and taming the natural world. This was essential so that the natural world might be productive and support the emerging civilizations. At the same time, there was little danger to the continued fruitfulness of the natural world. The revelation as it is presented in the Christian tradition carries the limitations of the Bible:  its language, tribal culture, pre-scientific knowledge, and of the conditions at the time when it was written. It does carry within it a trans-cultural message. However, it is a message that is still profoundly limited by the circumstances in which it was given. 2

A Christian can grow up believing that humans had no basic relationship with the natural world, no responsibilities to the natural world, and no sense of identity with the natural world. This is partly because many Christians do not study the Bible fully, but dwell on passages that support their chosen way of life and belief system. 8

One person who rebelled against the dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over nature, was Saint Francis of Assisi. He tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of the world and its life forms. 10 He failed. The key to an understanding of St. Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonaventura, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism.

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What is needed:

We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we fully reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. What we need is a theology that sees the preservation of the Earth and its life forms as man’s overriding duty 11 We must accept that no creature exists in a vacuum. All living things are part of a complex, delicately balanced network (the biosphere) that is composed of ecosystems. Changes cannot be achieved by papers and books by prominent Christian theologians, or even by Pope’s speeches and dispersed comments in the encyclicals – a binding declaration with full ex cathedra authority is needed. In other parts of Christianity denominational statements and full funding of church departments on the environment are needed.

As expressed by Thomas Berry:

“If God is speaking to us through the universe, and if we are now seeing that the universe functions differently from what earlier Christians thought, then we must have a different way of articulating our Christian belief.” 2

The Christian religion has undergone profound changes in the last 300 years and will continue to do so. However, there is an immediate need for it to speed up the process in this area.

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Conclusions:

Biodiversity is ‘the variety of life’. It is the great biodiversity on Earth that allows for sustainability and complex biological processes to occur. As human continue to destroy habitats and entire ecosystems through deforestation and development, the Earth is rapidly losing its biodiversity.

Our industrial, consumer oriented and throw-away society is acting like the parasite on the rest of the living world, consuming it and often damaging it in ways that are irreversible. All the Christian Churches would do well to raise believers’ consciousness about what is happening to the earth.

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A search of the Amazon.com data base shows the following books on Christian responses to the environment:

At least, it should. Sometimes Amazon returns the strangest selections.

If you see a generic Amazon ad below, please click on your browser's refresh key.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Sean McDonagh, "The Greening of the Church," Geoffrey Chapman, (1990).
  2. Thomas Berry, et al., "Befriending the Earth," Twenty-Third Publications, (1992).
  3. Richard Dawkins, "A Devil’s Chaplain," Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (2003).
  4. Sean McDonagh, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  5. Sean McDonagh, "Care of the Earth Moves Higher on the Church Agenda," at: http://www.columban.com
  6. Andrew Linnzey & Dorothy Yamamoto, "Animals on the Agenda," SCM Press, (1998).
  7. Russell C. Train, "The Environmental Crisis: A Challenge to the Churches," Woodstock Report No. 211, 1990-MAR.
  8. Sean McDonagh, "The Death of Life. A Challenge to Christians," at: http://www.columban.com/
  9. Wikipedia, "Birth Control," at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  10. Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (# 3767), 1967.
  11. Edward Goldsmith, "The Cosmic Covenant," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/

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Site navigation (Partial list):

Home page > Environment > Religion > here

Home page > Science/religion > Environment > Religion > here

Home page > Morality and ethics > Environment > Religion > here

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-16
Latest update on: 2006-AUG-27
Author. Vladimir Tomek

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