Stewarding God’s Garden (1): What is the Ideal World?

One of my reading projects for the summer is to spend some time looking at Christianity and its relationship to environmental issues. As I’ve started doing some reading already (it’s probably a sad reflection on just how dull I am that I’m blowing off finals by reading position papers on environmental issues), I wanted to start offering some preliminary thoughts which form the grid through which I tend to engage environmental issues. I’ve been pretty convinced of these ideas, and, barring major changes, they form the grid through which I’m planning to assess this summer’s reading. I’ll be writing a couple posts here, one on each issue.

If you’re interested in following along, I’ll show my hand up front and tell you the four questions I”m going to be asking:

  1. What is the ideal world?
  2. What is humanity’s role in this world?
  3. What sorts of things constitute real environmental issues?
  4. How should we assess specific policy suggestions to address these issues?

Without further ado, let’s look at the first question.

Question 1: What is the Ideal World?

The fundamental assumption of many in environmentalist circles is that the ideal world, the system in which things work best, is an idyllic natural environment completely unaffected by any sort of human action. It is something like the deep Amazon rain forest, with a canopy of trees overhead and insects buzzing around, where the dramas of nature play out without humanity interfering. The advent of advanced filming techniques in nature documentaries has helped to codify this vision: the only people who live in such a world are hidden behind the camera.

Put another way, the environmentalist approach sees humanity as existing in subordination to nature. This comes in all different shades; while few modern men or women would actually advocate that we return to primitive tools and swinging naked through the trees, many operate with the assumption that anything which changes the “natural” progression of things is dangerous and harmful. Typically, this is because nature ends up being the one with all the power – a “spaceship earth” on which one ill-advised open door could vent the whole thing into a black vacuum. We exist to serve the earth, or at least to do as little to it as possible.

In contrast to this, there is a certain progressivist vision which runs in a substantially different direction. In it, the earth exists to serve humanity. It has no value, and its natural systems are nothing but a challenge to be overcome in our own great march of progress. We can shoot animals for fun, chop down trees for sport, and pave paradise just because it provides more convenient parking. This vision assumes that any sort of humility toward or concern for the natural world is a denial of our rightful power.

The Christian vision is something different than either of these approaches. The problem with both of them is that they make human life a tug of war: nature is on one end and civilization on the other. The only difference between them is in who they are rooting for to win. In Scripture, however, a third actor is introduced into the story: God. In the biblical account, God made both the world and the human beings who populate it, and He made them both with purposes within this creation. God is the one with the power in this story. He is the one who demands our service.

The most important thing to recognize about this introduction of God into the narrative is that He redefines the purpose of both the other actors. Nature is not the ultimate good; it exists to glorify God and (in a sense, as we shall examine later) serve humanity. However, the service it renders is not one of subservience, but rather of enablement. Nature is the tool, the medium in which man is to work. At the same time, humanity is not the ultimate good either. We also exist to glorify God and (again in a sense) serve nature. But this service is not fearful subservience either, but is instead a tending and stewarding of nature to make it better than it would be without us. More on both those points in the next post.

The fact is that, when God is introduced, he redefines the purpose of both the world and we humans who inhabit it. He introduces a new ideal, an Edenic garden extended into the wilderness. Forests and cities are both beautiful in this world. Animals and people both have a purpose in it. The first key to Christian environmentalism is to recognize that God defines the goal of all our efforts: creation is to be a garden which we work and tend to make more beautiful and pleasing to God, in all the ways in which He has revealed what this beauty and pleasure means, in order that God might be more and more exalted in all of it.

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