Our planet is in peril. Christianity is the world’s largest religion. A crucial question of our times is whether this faith will have a constructive or destructive impact—or end up an indifferent factor—in how the global environmental crisis will play out. So far, when it comes to ecology and environmental care, Christianity is sending very mixed messages. It is proving to be an ambivalent religion.
Trends in climate change, reductions in bio-diversity, pollution of water and air, deforestation, and soil degradation are all ominous. The growing population of the world, combined with the consumerist habits of this ever-increasing population, means that our current way of doing life are simply not sustainable. Already there is disturbing deterioration in the quality of life of many people, especially the poorer and relatively powerless members of the global community. Many thoughtful people are now convinced that the problem now exceeds any administrative, political or scientific solution; that, ultimately, it also requires a religious or spiritual revolution—the kind that alters the way whole civilizations see and do life.Despite widespread secularization, and the territorial gains of Islam, Christianity remains a massive ideological, institutional and sociological force in the world today. The question is whether in the big picture and over the longer term it will prove helpful or harmful. Christianity, as a humanly-constructed sociological phenomenon in the world today, carries within it the seeds of both ecological destruction and harmonious possibilities for planet earth. The future of humanity on earth may well depend on which side prevails. The pivotal issue is which inferences Christians of this and subsequent generations will draw from the wellsprings of their faith. Some of these inferences have been, and continue to be, dangerous to the environment, and threaten to imperil life on this planet. Other inferences constitute intellectual foundations for responsible creation care, and grounds for hope that life may thrive and be extended well on into the future. Among the sinister inferences are these: first of all, that the early chapters of Genesis authorize humans to exercise dominion over the rest of the earth, to use it as they wish. In addition, many Christians infer that salvation, which is of paramount concern, is a matter of soul-flight to heaven and evasion of eternal fire below. The created order is a convenient but temporary backdrop for the great drama of salvation history. Significant numbers of Christians believe that creation care only distracts from evangelism; that the planet is doomed anyway; that its preservation is the sovereign God’s responsibility, not ours; and that Christians are called to love not the world.
But the Christian faith also contains within itself positive potential to contribute to a healthy, sustainable natural order. It teaches reverence for human life, based on humanity’s unique Godlikeness. This estimate of humanity, combined with an awareness of how embedded we are in the larger eco-system, can lead to concern for the environment as a human survival strategy. Many Christians believe that God appointed humans to function as subordinate administrators and responsible care-givers of earth in his name and on his behalf, and that we will someday be held accountable for our performance of duty. Moreover, simplicity and contentment are important Christian virtues—and both are very good for the environment. Christian virtues of unselfishness and empathy can sensitize Christians to the need to preserve the planet for future generations. The Christian faith holds out hope of the eventual restoration of all things. In the meantime, the church is to function as an early prototype of the Kingdom still to come. We are to live proleptically—that is, as though the future has already arrived. This responsibility is ours regardless of how much more the environment degrades, because it is a matter of obedience and calling, not calculated outcomes.Which way will Christianity tilt? Which direction will this massive, ambivalent religion go? There are powerful pressures today to opt for short-term personal comfort and convenience, and these may prove overwhelming for Christianity—embedded as it is in the more affluent and powerful countries of the world. But there are hints of a sea-change within even the conservative evangelical wing of Christianity. A cross-section of conservative leaders signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006, and just last month, March 2008, a Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change acknowledged that “our cautious [past] response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed.” Stay tuned; but for now, the Christian ambivalence continues. Meanwhile some Westerners who care deeply about the planet are seeking support from the enchanted worldview of neo-paganism, the virtue of harmony pursued by Taoists, and the simple, gentle demeanor cultivated by Buddhism.