"Creation Sunday", April 24, 2005
This past Friday, millions of people around the world celebrated the 35th annual "Earth Day. "Being a Friday this year, most events here in Japan were held this weekend. As today is the Sunday closest to Earth Day, many churches around the world are celebrating a Christian version of Earth Day called "Creation Sunday. "Exactly when this developing tradition began, I'm not sure, but it is a recent innovation that obviously is in response to Earth Day.
According to the Earth Day website, "The Earth Day Network was founded by the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 to promote environmental citizenship and year-round progressive action worldwide. Our mission is to build broad-based citizen support for sound, workable and effective environmental and sustainable development policies. "
You'll certainly not get any argument from me about these being laudable goals. I think we could all support these goals, and as stated there, I believe that this mission statement is quite compatible with biblical mandate we have to be good stewards of God's creation. Nevertheless, when it comes to the practical out-workings of these goals, some major differences appear between those with a biblical worldview and those without. According to Genesis, we have been given "dominion" over the earth and its life and resources. Unfortunately, secularists have often portrayed this teaching as though this phrase is the rationale for rampant exploitation of the environment, particularly by those of us in the West — the "Christian" West. In its proper context, of course, the Bible says nothing of the kind — at least not with the connotation that is usually given the word "exploitation," anyway. The mandate by God to take care of his creation by having "dominion" over it is for the purpose of benefiting the "crown of his creation," mankind. And so in the good sense of the term, we are to "exploit" (that is, to utilize) the riches of creation that God has provided for us — but only in a responsible way. The kind of destructive exploitation we so often see ends up only benefiting a relative few in the short term while being detrimental to all in the long run.
So, how are we to understand the environmental mandate we have been given? It is at this point that I part ways with at least the more radical environmentalists. In fact, the divide that separates us is really based in fundamental differences in worldview. And it is this aspect that I want us to focus on today. When you really get down to it, everything really ends up depending on one's view of the world. It is the very same divide that is the basis for the vociferous debate between "scientific materialism," which denies any kind of cause that is beyond nature, and Christian theism, where both natural and supernatural causes are allowed for. Likewise, the debate between random-chance, purposeless, Darwinian evolution and any form of creationism is also based on this same difference in worldviews.
It all comes down to one's view of human origins and what our purpose — or lack thereof — is. Are we special creations of a transcendent being we call God, endowed with an eternal spirit created in his image, and destined for a glorious existence in a promised new creation? Or are we the accidental result of blind chance that "didn't have us in mind" — a physical entity only, with no purpose of existence beyond what we create for ourselves? Our answers to these questions are the foundations of our worldview, and it is that which determines how we address a whole range of important issues, including our response to the environmental crisis.
I have no problem in principle with "evolution" as a process, namely a gradual unfolding of God's creative power over vast eons of time. In fact, I'm thoroughly convinced that the record of nature clearly testifies to life having developed over a time span of some 3. 8 billions years. In principle, God could have controlled this development from behind the scenes in a way that would not be directly detectable by scientific means. In other words, if that were the case, the mechanism of evolution would appear to us to be totally natural. And if the record of nature actually showed this kind of complete gradualism, with no sudden appearances of radically new life forms, and if there were numerous fossils, as there should be, showing this sort of gradual transformation of one life form into another, then I would happily endorse evolution as the scientific explanation of our origins. The more that is discovered, however, the less likely it appears that totally gradualistic processes alone can explain life's history. In fact, if one has an open mind about the range of possibilities that exist — namely natural only, supernatural only or some combination of the two — I believe that a combination of supernatural input and natural law working together is the best explanation for all of the evidence we observe in the natural world. Exactly how the two factors work together is, of course, something that will take a lot more research to figure out.
Such a conclusion, however, is ruled out-of-bounds by definition by those who embrace the worldview of "scientific materialism," namely the idea that — to quote the late Carl Sagan — "the universe is all that ever was, is or ever will be." If this is a basic assumption behind one's philosophy of life, then it logically follows that one would have to believe that there is no such thing as ultimate purpose in anything and that all ethics and morality are relative. In the end, there would be no absolutes, and everything would be relative and subjective. This is the essence of what's called "post modernism," the movement that is currently in vogue in much of the academic world. When you begin analyzing the various issues that are so much a part of the news we hear every day, they all can be traced back to this same basic divide in worldviews.
Take, for instance, the recent case of Terri Shiavo, the Florida woman whose life was taken by withholding basic food and water because her husband claimed that "she wouldn't want" to be kept living in the "persistent vegetative state" she was stated to be in. I found it indeed ironic that at practically the same time her feeding tube was removed, a similar feeding tube was inserted into the dying pope to maintain him for as long as possible. It was almost like God was orchestrating this timing to make a point — and perhaps that is how best to describe this "coincidence." The rhetoric over Terri Schiavo was indeed heated, and I was, of course, appalled by the "culture of death" that pushed this agenda forward. But I was also appalled by the actions of some who likewise thought that taking her life was wrong but who then did such things as send her husband death threats. It was a tragedy no matter how you slice it. We in the public only know what we've been told, and so a lot depends on how accurate that information actually is. But from what I have heard reported, the feeding tube was originally inserted not because it was a medical necessity, but for the convenience of those caring for her. She was perfectly capable of swallowing food and water on her own and was in no sense dying because she could not get nutrition any other way. In this sense, she wasn't being kept alive "artificially" — anymore than a baby who needs someone to feed her is being kept alive "artificially." Likewise, the fact that her husband had been living with another woman for several years, even having a couple of children by her, was also quite troubling to me. His motives for carrying this through — even though he had the legal right to do so — were highly suspect in my view.
Now, I don't know enough about Michael Shiavo to judge his motives, and even if I did, that is not my role to do anyway. Such judgment in that sense is up to God alone. Nevertheless, we can analyze the worldview that has been behind all of this. It all comes back to that same great divide that is based on what explanation of our origins we believe in and what understanding of the purpose of our existence we hold. The United States, where this drama took place, was founded on the biblical principles that all human beings have basic rights endowed by their Creator and thus have intrinsic worth. The American constitution states that all persons are created equal — an idea that is based in principles taught in the Bible. That doesn't mean that we have equal potential and abilities, of course, but that we have equal value in God's sight. Sadly, these principles were not always applied to all people, as one look at such evils as slavery testifies to. But with the rise in post-modernism in recent years, this is all being turned on its head. It is, in fact, the logical outcome of the worldview that is behind it.
If we take the view that we are the accidental product of blind evolutionary forces — which, when you cut all the rhetoric away is what Darwinian evolution logically requires — then it follows that the Bible and the religions it inspires are not the products of God's interactions with mankind but are instead purely human works based in nothing more than human attempts to come to grips with the unknown. And if that is the case, then there is nothing absolute. The Ten Commandments, upon which the judicial system of the United States and many other countries is based, are thus viewed as simply human constructs that merely express the cultural consensus of the time. And thus, we are free to decide to come up with whatever standards of right and wrong we find convenient. This is nothing new, of course, as people have been doing that in one form or another from the beginning of human history. The Scriptures make reference to those "who do what is right in their own eyes," and it tells us what the final result is as well. "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." (Proverbs 14:12) I like what Proverbs 26:12 says about this kind of human wisdom. "Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him."
If we analyze the foundational worldviews that lie behind the "culture war" that is now raging particularly in western societies, it comes back to this same divide. While the consequences of each may not be immediately obvious, one eventually leads to death while the other leads to life. All of the various moral issues of our day are deeply influenced by this, whether that be abortion, gay marriages and the other "lightening rods" of the debate, or the somewhat more subtle issues such as the environment and our responses to the various issues related to it. I don't intend to take on the "hot potato" issues of euthanasia, abortion, etc. in this message, however, as that would take more time than we have. (And I'm not always sure how to negotiate those minefields anyway!) So let's just concentrate on the "warm potato" issue of the environment. After all, today is "Creation Sunday." The Creation Sunday website states that the goal of this observance is to "help churches and individuals develop an understanding of the Christian joy and responsibility of caring for Christ's creation."
The main point I want to emphasize concerning the environment is that of maintaining a proper balance between human welfare and the environment. Clearly, if we don't take care of our environment, it cannot take care of us. So human welfare depends on taking good care of the natural world and all of the life forms that it sustains.
The theme of this year's "Creation Sunday" is "protecting God's endangered creatures." The website states: "God's word calls on all His creatures to praise Him." And "God's other creatures cannot praise Him if we extinguish them from the earth." After telling us that current extinction rates are 100 to 1000 times higher that they would be without the effects of mankind's exploitation, it concludes with, "Extinction isn't stewardship; it isn't creation-care. Extinct creatures cannot praise God."
Well, I certainly wouldn't argue with that conclusion, but we must also balance this with the realization that there is another of God's creatures that is called upon to praise God, and that is mankind, who needs to be given priority. I've read that there is really little actual data to back up these claimed extinction rates and that while the effect of mankind's activities is still by far the main cause of extinctions today, things aren't quite as bleak as those figures would indicate. Whatever the extinction rates are in reality, of course, they are still too high. For the irretrievable loss of life forms God has created as a part of the ecosystem that sustains our lives is a tragedy, no matter how you look at. Nevertheless, in order to maintain a proper balance between human welfare and the care for these creatures, we will unfortunately have to make hard choices, some of which may involve having to tolerate a certain number of extinctions. We are responsible to do what can reasonably be done, of course, but not to the extent of sacrificing the welfare of the poor.
Environmentalists who march to the beat of the drum of a naturalistic worldview, however, usually put the welfare of people — primarily in the third-world — a distant second to that of plants and animals. You see it in all sorts of actions, such as "animal rights" groups destroying laboratories that use animals in research to develop treatments for human disease, and "tree huggers" who try to save any tree they can no matter what the human cost. It is simply a logical outcome of their worldview, which claims that human beings are nothing special, but only an intelligent animal that chance created and that have no ultimate purpose. Thus, environmentalists operating from this worldview gravitate towards a view in which the natural world has inherent, absolute value that is unrelated to its support of human beings. If there is a conflict between saving some particular life form and providing human beings with the necessities of life, human beings are by definition the ones who should loose out. It would be "arrogant" for us to claim superior value over other creatures. After all, in their view, we aren't of any more value than other life forms because we are all the product of blind forces.
Now, I don't mean to imply that we should therefore focus on short-term human welfare alone, as our welfare and that of other creatures is ultimately interdependent. Thus, in many specific situations, environmentalists operating from a biblical worldview would support the same basic actions as those operating from a secular worldview. It's just that the rationale behind those actions would be different. One side wants to save habitat irrespective of human cost because of its intrinsic value, while the other wants to save that same habitat because of its value in maintaining the environment upon which human welfare ultimately depends.
Let's take a look at another important concept, that of "sustainable development. "It's a "no-brainer" that we should be in favor of "sustainable development," for the only people who are for "unsustainable development" are those focusing on their own short-term gains. The problem is, of course, that that tends to be most of us most of the time! It's not necessarily easy to see just how unsustainable our development of resources may actually be. And thus, when we realize we need to make adjustments to make our utilization of natural resources sustainable, that may very well mean lifestyle changes. The problem, however, is that for those of us in the wealthier societies of the world, that may involve such things as getting rid of our gas-guzzling SUV's and driving a fuel efficient car. But for people in poor countries who are barely surviving as it is, having to cut back on consumption in order to "save the environment" is akin to suicide. On the other hand, if they end up destroying their environment, that is likewise akin to suicide. For people caught in such a situation, it is a kind of "choose your own poison" scenario. And so, it is a matter of environmental and economic justice. Part of the mandate we have been given by God in having "dominion" over the earth is for the welfare of all of his creatures — particularly those "created in his image."
Thus, we are called upon to find solutions to the world's environmental problems that give priority to providing the basic needs of all human beings. And it is those of us with both the economic and technological means to assist people who are forced by circumstances to compromise the very environment they depend on to find solutions leading to sustainable development. That should be the standard by which we take actions to "save the environment." And it will be the standard by which we are all judged at the Final Judgment. Jesus said concerning that judgment, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." And likewise, "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." May God help us to keep this proper perspective on the environment as we deliberate on the actions we need to take in response to the various crises we face.