The place of humans
in the garden of God

by Ronald J. Sider
ncreasingly, people who care deeply about the environment are searching for deeper spiritual foundations to ground their crusade to save the planet
The pilgrimage proceeds in many directions. Some environmentalists are exploring Native American spirituality and ancient Druidism; others are trying New Age religion or ancient Eastern monism. There is a growing consensus expressed by Maurice Strong, head of the Earth Summit (Rio, 1992), that some spiritual foundation is essential. Strong said the Rio decisions require "deep moral, spiritual, and ethical roots if they are to be successfully implemented."
In 1990, a group of world-famous scientists including Carl Sagan signed an "Open Letter to the Religious Community" urging religious people to join the movement to save the environment. In their statement, the scientists acknowledged that the ecological threat is so massive that we cannot avoid disaster unless the religious community joins the struggle.
That is beginning to happen in important ways. On Earth Day 1994, Christians and Jews in the U.S. mailed out environmental kits to about 53,800 congregations all across the United States. A follow-up kit was mailed out in the Spring of 1995. This effort and a wide range of related activities are the result of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE). The NRPE is a coalition of four groups: The U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on Jewish Life and the Environment.

On the battle front

The major religious communities in the United States have joined the battle. As a leader in the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Christian Society of the Green Cross, I can say that American Christians are committed to environmental concerns for the long haul.
But that does not mean that all Christians are environmentalists. Nor does it mean that the environmental movement has found the spiritual foundation it needs. One central agenda for environmentalists in the next decade will be to listen carefully to each other in order to search further for ethical and spiritual foundations solid enough to sustain an enduring movement to save the planet. In that dialogue, we must respectfully share our deepest convictions, even when our viewpoints differ. An open, tolerant discussion of the major alternatives will help us more than silent avoidance of religious differences or vacuous generalities. In that spirit, I share my own perspective as a contribution to the developing dialogue.
I want to argue two theses: First, people who ground their faith in the Bible will, if they are consistent, be passionate environmentalists. Second, environmentalists searching for religious foundations will discover unexpected help in biblical faith.
Both claims may sound strange. Is not Christianity, as Lynn White suggested decades ago, the problem rather than the solution? Are not Christians who claim to be biblical some of the worst offenders? Is it not evangelical Christians who tell that the world will end soon and therefore we might as well use up non-renewable resources before God blows them to bits?
How then can today's Christians offer any hope? Many, I confess, including some of the most visible and vocal, do not. But the reason is not that a biblical framework is destructive to the environment. Rather it is that many Christians who are not environmentalists and many environmentalists who are not Christians have not carefully listened to what the Bible says about the creation and the Creator.
Probably nothing is more important for the future of the environmental movement than a proper understanding of the material world and the relationship of people to the non-human creation.
Christians have sometimes ignored the significance of the body and the material world, focusing all their energy on preparing the soul for some future immaterial, invisible existence in a spiritual heaven. Interestingly, there are striking parallels between such Christians and Eastern monists who tell us that the material world is an illusion to be escaped so that we can discover the divine spark within and eventually merge with the All and lose all individual identity. It is hard to see how either view would be of much help to environmentalists. If the material world is evil or an illusion, why worry about it?

Biblical faith

Biblical faith, however, is radically different. Every part of the material world comes from the loving hand of the Creator who calls it into being out of nothing and declares it very good. Unlike the Creator, the creation is finite and limited, but it is not an illusion. Nor is it the result of blind, materialistic chance, although the Creator lovingly nurtured it into existence over the course of a long evolutionary history.
In biblical faith, the material world is so good that the Creator of the galaxies actually became flesh once in the time of Caesar Augustus. Indeed, the material world is so good that not only did Jesus devote much time to restoring broken bodies, he also arose bodily from death and promised to return to complete his victory over every form of brokenness in persons, nature and civilization.
According to biblical faith, God's cosmic plan of restoration includes the whole creation, not just individual "souls." St. Paul says that at the end of history as we now experience it, Christ will return, not only to usher believers into a life of restored bodily existence in the presence of God, but also to restore the whole non-human creation. "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). In that restored earth, I expect to go sailing with my great grandchildren on a replenished Aral Sea.
The last book of the Bible uses a beautiful metaphor about the tree of life growing beside an unpolluted river, pure as crystal, that purges human civilization of its brokenness and evil so that the glory and honor of the nations may enter into the holy city of the future (Revelation 21:22-22:2). Unlike Christian Platonists and Hindu Monists who see the material worlds as an evil or an illusion to escape, biblical people believe that it matters so much that the Creator will eventually restore its broken beauty. Knowing God's grand design, Christians work to initiate now what God will later complete.
Few things are more controversial today than the status of persons in relationship to the non-human world. Others, including some Christians, suppose that the only purpose of the non-human world is to serve humanity. Therefore, they conclude, we can ravage and destroy species and ecological systems at will. A livable environment cannot survive another century of such thinking. At the other extreme are those who reject any distinction between monkeys, moles, and people, denouncing any claim to superior status for people as speciesism. If that is correct, then civilization itself becomes impossible. What right have we to use plants and animals for our food and shelter if we are of no more importance than they?
Biblical faith offers another perspective. The Bible teaches both that the non-human creation has worth and significance quite apart from its usefulness to humanity and also that persons alone are created in God's image and called to be stewards of God's good garden.
Anyone who thinks God created the non-human world merely for the benefit of persons has not read the Bible carefully. God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies (Matthew 6:26-30). God watches over the doe in the mountains, counting the months of her pregnancy and watching over her when she gives birth even though she never encounters a human being (Job 39:1-2). In the story of the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah and his family, but also with the non-human creations: "Behold I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth." (Genesis 9:9-10). Knowing that they all give joy to their Creator, Christians will treasure and protect every species.
The independent worth of the non-human creation and humanity's interdependence with it do not, however, mean that we should forget another central biblical claim: Human beings alone are created in the image of God and we alone have been given special dominion or stewardship (Genesis 1:27-28). If one abandons that truth, the whole project of civilization crumbles.
Genesis 2:15 says God put people in the garden "to work it and take care of it." The word abad, translated "work," means "to serve." The related noun actually means "slave" or "servant." The word shamar, translated "take care of," suggests watchful care and preservation of the earth. We are to serve and watch lovingly over God's good garden, not rape it.
The Mosaic law offers explicit commands designed to prevent exploitation of the Earth. Every seventh year, for instance, the Israelites' land was to lie fallow because "the land is to have a year of rest" (Leviticus 25:4).
Created in the divine image, we alone have been placed in charge of the Earth. At the same time, our dominion must be the gentle care of a loving gardener, not the callous exploitation of a self-centered lord. So we should not wipe out species or waste the non-human creation. Only a careful, stewardly use of plants and animals by human beings is legitimate.

Dealing with consumption

Biblical faith also provides a framework for dealing with the destructive rat race of unbridled consumption. The planet cannot sustain 10 billion people living the kind of ever-expanding lifestyle of North Americans and consumption-oriented systems on demand. The Creator who made us both body and soul wants us to enjoy the gorgeous bounty of the material world. At the same time, we are created in such a way that human wholeness and fulfillment comes not only from material things, but also from right relationship with neighbor and God.
The eighteenth century, however, abandoned the biblical world view. The isolated autonomous individual replaced God at the center of reality. The scientific method became the only avenue to truth and reality.
We can measure an ever-increasing GNP and an expanding stock portfolio. We cannot easily measure the goodness of community in the extended family or the value of caring for the neighbor, not to mention the value of a personal relationship with God. Frantically each individual seeks fulfillment in more and more material things even though our very nature makes it impossible for such things to satisfy our deepest needs. The destructive unbridled consumerism of modern society is rooted in this narcissistic individualism and materialistic naturalism that flows from the "Enlightenment." Biblical faith, on the other hand, provides a framework within which we can both enjoy material abundance and understand its limits.
I believe biblical faith provides a solid foundation for caring for the creation entrusted to us by the Creator. Perhaps if more Christians engaged in environmental practices that were consistent with biblical teaching, more environmentalists would be ready to explore again the claim that a biblical framework would offer our best hope for healing our polluted plant.

Ronald J. Sider is Professor of Theology and Culture at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His is President of Evangelicals for Social Action. He originally wrote this perspective at the request of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Reprinted from Summer 95 issue of Green Cross, A Christian Environmental Quarterly, 10 E. Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood PA 19096. Credit card orders call: (800) 650-6600.