Is there a link between the way we care for the earth and our closeness to the creator?
Put another way, can we serve Christ and sully his creation?
The link between mankind’s spiritual health and the vitality of the earth courses through Scripture. John Milton, though blind, saw the connection. In his classic Paradise Lost, Eve, seduced by the idea of becoming a god, disobeys her creator, and nature “gave signs of woe.”
A short time later, Adam opts to defy his creator and follow Eve. The rebel couple “fancy that they feel Divinity within them breeding wings, wherewith to scorn the earth.”
Our disobedient ancestors did not bequeath us wings. Sadly, we inherited the scornful attitude. The moral of the story: a messed-up relationship with the creator leads to a messed-up planet.
From Hippie to Hybrids
We’d all like a clean planet, but that’s pretty low on the priority list. Certainly our desire to maintain our current standard of living trumps our concern for Mother Nature. In America we say, “Today or tomorrow we will go, buy and sell, and make a profit.” What we call ambition, the author of James labeled arrogance.
Sociologist Robin Williams (who is not half as funny as the other Robin Williams was) identified 10 core American values. In the top spot is achievement/success. A close second is activity/work. He noted that games such as King of the Hill and Monopoly feature competition and accumulation. I can’t think of any games focused on caring for nature, which, in Paradise, was humanity’s job. The Message version of Genesis 1:26 reads, “God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself.’”
Growing up in the Midwest, I thought environmentalists were pot-smoking, tie-dye wearing hippies with peace stickers on the bumpers of their lime-green VW vans. Now, after five decades on planet Earth, I am a Christian environmentalist.
Creation looks different to me, and I try (imperfectly) to obey God’s mandate to care for the earth. The air in Joplin, Missouri, smells dirty from car exhaust, so I ride my bike a lot. Here in Jasper County, during the late 1800s, zinc and lead mines created “more millionaires per capita than any county in the United States.” The money’s long gone, but the contaminated ground remains. I suspect most of the millionaires and miners were churchgoers who compartmentalized their work from their worship. They viewed themselves as owners of the earth, not cultivators; they didn’t feel responsible to God for the care of his creation.
While I don’t literally hug trees, I do respect them. No, I don’t drive a lime-green van, but I am pricing a Ford Fusion hybrid, paying as much attention to the vehicle’s environmental performance rating as I do its safety rating. The white windmills flourishing across Texas and Kansas look like gleaming altars to me. I pray climate change can be halted and that poor families around the world won’t be devastated by its impact.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The crescendo verse of Genesis 1 starts, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (v. 31). God creates, then man, in joyful subservience, gardens. Tree-
hugger, environmentalist, and conservationist describe the same person, someone who cares for creation.
Throughout Scripture, when the creator and his creation are in tune, nature sings, literally. Consider, for instance, the following verses:
“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:11, 12).
“The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).
In Luke 19:40, the followers of Jesus sing joyfully, for they are amazed by his miracles. When Pharisees protest, Jesus says, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” That’s not hyperbole from the young prince. The creator/hero/redeemer is in town. Nature can’t help but offer up glad tidings.
The flipside is the creator and creation are at odds. In Isaiah 24:5, 6, the prophet pronounces judgment, “The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.”
Hosea 4:1-3 graphically connects mankind’s actions and the health of the earth: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away.”
The Road Less Travelled
Scriptural precedent delineates two alternatives. We can live in submission to the creator and, like green pines and red maples, reach adoring hands to Heaven. Or like Noah’s neighbors or Hosea’s reckless contemporaries, we can do what is right in our own sight.
This is not just Old Testament history. It’s U.S. history. We might not be as crass as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, but our actions shout, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
The rush for material progress has dominated American history. Don’t take my word for it. Consider the observations of an outside observer. Alexis de Tocqueville was dispatched by the French government in 1831 to observe America’s prisons. He ended up observing Americans. He wrote, “A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach. . . . He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.”
This helps explain why, in my neighborhood, many garages are so crammed with stuff that two or three cars sit in the driveway. It also helps explain why The Great Gatsby—a tale of one man’s manic chase after the elusive American dream—is considered the great American novel. It explains a lot of our discontent.
Since becoming a Christian environmentalist, I’ve discovered I’m keeping good company. There’s a long line of Christian (and American) environmentalists. Preacher, essayist, and environmentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote words appropriate for our era of disbelief: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God.”
Henry David Thoreau, a man in tune with God and nature, knew that “money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.” When his time came to die, Thoreau wasn’t consumed with anxiety over the proper bequeathing of his worldly possessions. As the story goes, on his deathbed, when his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau gently replied, “I wasn’t aware we had ever quarreled.”
John Muir, preserver of Yosemite, beheld life from the creator’s viewpoint, writing, “When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with all other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”
Kentucky farmer and prophet Wendell Berry reminds us, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Knowing our acquisitive habits, Berry warns us not to “own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”
Ezekiel, Bearded Environmentalist
An outraged creator tells Ezekiel to proclaim judgment on the nation’s leaders. Their crimes? Desecrating the land while neglecting the weak.
In Ezekiel 34:18, the Sovereign Lord thunders: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” In Ezekiel’s era and ours, how we treat the least of these mirrors how we care for the land.
I don’t know if the author of James was an environmentalist, but, echoing Ezekiel, he warns, “The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse” (James 5:4-6, The Message).
At the end of Paradise Lost, our “lingering parents” are forced from Paradise at sword point as the divine curse of “torrid heat . . . began to parch that temperate clime.” Our first ancestors learned the hard way.
Maybe we can do better.
“God is in Heaven above; God is on Earth below. He’s the only God there is. Obediently live by his rules and commands which I’m giving you today so that you’ll live well and your children after you—oh, you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:39, The Message).
Jay Engelbrecht teaches British literature at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.