We joke fairly regularly in our home about my Ashevillian heritage. My husband will shake his head and snort whenever we pass a Bohemian gift shop in downtown Boulder, since always react like child passing a novelty toy store. I also receive regular eyerolls when I introduce new eco-conscious products or systems into our house, like when he recently found bamboo toothbrushes in the bathroom cabinet. (I won’t be living that one down for a while.)
This gradual shift toward what I call “sustainable living” in the Hageman house is not, however, something that can be attributed mainly to my hometown influences. Rather, it began a couple of years ago when I read the short but brilliant book by Francis Schaeffer entitled Pollution and the Death of Man, which is a treatise on the Christian’s theological responsibility to steward the earth as well as possible. I won’t be able to do a formal theological deep dive into that subject here, though, so if that is your interest I would highly suggest finding a copy of Schaeffer’s book or reading this article published by the Acton Institute.
Something mentioned by both the article I just linked as well as Schaeffer is that many Christians (especially Christians touched by modern cultural conflict and/or neo-Platonist philosophies) associate terms like sustainability and eco-conscious with negative earthly stereotypes, usually ones involving politics. And I understand this, as it is unfortunately true that many of the voices promoting environmental concern believe in the figure of Mother Nature or Mother Earth, whether figuratively or dogmatically, and base their environmentalism on either a lowering of human value or a false elevation of the natural world to human or even divine levels. Their arguments for why we should care about the environment hinge on attitudes of fear/dread (i.e., “We need to save the planet or else we are doomed”) or genuine worship of creation as described in Romans 1 (i.e., “We owe it to Nature to treat Her with respect”).
But as in any other area of life and theology, we do ourselves and others a disservice when we formulate our convictions in reaction to a falsehood rather than to the original issue or question. Man-made, man-centered theology bases itself in responses to other human beliefs when it should be basing itself ultimately in the whole counsel of God through Scripture study and fervent prayer. This is a theological error that is currently pervading a wide range of denominations – yes, even the Reformed tradition – and the subject of environmental stewardship has not been left untouched by it.
In conjunction with the two resources I mentioned above, I just want to assert outright that Christians actually have a moral obligation to concern themselves with creation’s wellbeing. The fact that such an assertion is often met with scorn or even anger by many Christians is a testament to how we have been influenced by worldly philosophies in our relationship with the rest of creation. What’s interesting is that Christians make excuses for indifference toward (or outright exploitation of) creation with appeals to the image of God – the imago Dei – that humans alone possess. Ironically, if we believe in the importance of our image bearing, it should actually make us more intent upon good stewardship of creation rather than more careless.
Let me back up a little . . .
Throughout all of human history, but especially in the past few centuries, people have used their exceptional intellect and creativity to create new methods of producing goods and providing services (items and services being the basis of an economy) on a scale that is truly impressive and generally good. It is part of our God-honoring, God-imaging purpose as human beings to innovate and create solutions to problems. This is why there is dignity in the work of the plumber or janitor just as there is in the work of the surgeon. We are doing something inherently good and right when we use our brains, hearts, and hands to establish culture and perform services for others.
However, it is naive for us to pursue progress just for the sake of progress, as all of the good things that humans have accomplished will almost always have some potential for harm by necessity due to the world being broken by the curse of sin.
The rise in the use of plastics is an excellent example of this. Plastic goods have some exceptional qualities that make them truly useful in medicine, in construction, and so on. But this very durability, while it contributes good to the rest of creation, also has major potential for harm because it takes hundreds of years (or more) to break down. In a perfect world, we could use plastics only inasmuch as it is beneficial and we would reap great reward. But because our sinful tendencies toward overconsumption, our obsession with convenience and accessibility, and so on, we use and dispose of plastics in ways that reap more harm than good when looking at the bigger picture. And that is only one example of how our dominion over creation, when twisted by sin, gives us potential to harm creation just as much as we can cultivate and care for it.
The correct response is not to rage and despair, as the world does. We shouldn’t practice total asceticism and pursue some (nonexistent) lifestyle that guarantees we will never take anything from creation that we cannot give back. That is why the “zero waste” lifestyle is misleading and ultimately unfulfilling, as there is no way to actually live (even survive on a base level) on this earth without using its resources. Created things are means, not ends. But, from a biblical perspective, we are accountable to our Creator for how we use earthly resources, whether they are natural resources, financial resources, or some other tool. To deny this is to forget that we, too, are creatures. We are not God, though we image Him. We own rights to nothing that doesn’t ultimately belong to Him.
Of course the practical question of how we steward creation is not going to look the same for everyone or have any simple, clear-cut answer. My argument is just that we each have the responsiblity as image-bearers of God and as descendents of Adam and Eve, who were tasked with “working” and “keeping” the garden, to be mindful and intentional and balanced in how we care for the world God entrusted humanity with. That looks different for everyone depending on their budget, the availability of resources around them, and so on. But I would challenge you to actually push yourself a little in this endeavor and not fall into the idolatrous trap of always elevating ease and convenience above the higher, broader obligations you have to good stewardship.
Again, this obligation doesn’t stem from some responsibility to “save the planet,” because it isn’t in our power to do so. Saving and stewarding are two very different concepts. We should care about preserving creation as much as we are realisically able to because creation is supposed to display the glory of God to the world (Rom. 1) and it is going to be less effective at this job when it is exploited and ravaged by human self-worship. But I also want to go further and affirm that the common environmentalist catchphrase “There is no Plan-et B!” is simply not true in the Christian worldview. As we do what we can to steward creation while lamenting our limitations, we can look forward in hope and joy to the coming redemption of creation by Christ. Even this promised reality should convict us when we are tempted to believe that God only concerns Himself with the redemption of one aspect of creation.
Revelation 21:1-8 (ESV) reads:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
Until then, may we live in the already-but-not-yet of this earthly life with a sense of both concern and hope.