Why The Church Should Not Embrace Environmentalism

earthrise-wide This is a response to this article at Venn Magazine and this post has been submitted to the magazine for consideration. 

Words matter.

In our communications driven culture, it’s important to use the right language to convey our message. When we read certain words, we bring to the reading experience a host of associations, feelings, and memories. These are not easy things to ignore, and that makes the task of carefully choosing our words an important one.

Such is the case when we talk about the Church and environmentalism. The word “environmentalism” is fraught with political connotations, and is steeped in a long history of liberal progressivism. While the Church is given a charge to take care of our earthly home, the principles and language of this movement run contrary to God’s word.

In America, environmentalism began its political journey in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, which was a time of seeking spiritual fulfillment in anything but Christianity. In this atmosphere, environmentalism was infused with a spiritual quality of finding oneself through unity with nature, which has continued to this day. In this regard, environmentalism began as a movement that was about treating nature as deity, which flies in the face of a Christian ecology.

But in principle, shouldn’t at least some of the tenets of environmentalism appeal to Christians? After all, on the surface it’s about sustainability and making sure that the natural resources we have now are there for future generations. It’s about getting pollution out of our water and air so that we can breathe a little easier about the future of our world. Isn’t that something we should want? And on the surface, the answer is yes.

This is a world that we as Christians are absolutely called to preserve. There are hundreds of references throughout Scripture to Creation reflecting the glory of God (try Psalm 19 on for size). God created our world and took care to make it beautiful. He specifically told us to take care of the Earth, and to nurture it (Genesis 1:28). In fact, the first man Adam was primarily a gardener, whose task was to improve the Garden. Many of the patriarchs in the Old Testament were farmers and ranchers, who developed and cultivated the earth to bring forth abundance.

But the reason that Biblical Christianity stands in opposition to environmentalism is because a Biblical understanding of the world places the environment under the care and nurture of humankind, while still recognizing the inherent value of nature because God created it. Environmentalism in its widely understood form is practically a religion in of itself that places worship of nature above that of the Creator. In his book, Pollution and the Death of Man, Francis Schaeffer understood the modern environmentalist movement to be glorified pantheism (meaning it was an attempt to find salvation through a sense of oneness with nature). But Schaeffer also said that while man and nature are distinct, we have a responsibility to recognize that nature has value because God created it.

It is because of this spiritual ethos surrounding environmentalism that we should seek to stay away from aligning it with a Biblical view of ecology. Traditionally, Christians have used the terminology of “stewardship” to refer to our responsibility regarding nature. The terminology of “environmentalism” brings echoes of something very un-Christian with it and we should seek to avoid parading any “ism” around without investigating its roots. We want a Christ-centric view of the environment and because Christ has redeemed us in our entirety, including our speech, we should be careful to use words that reflect a Christ-centric ecology.

This is not just a matter of preference since the language of environmentalism is steeped in the counter-culture tradition of the 1960’s and a pantheistic view of the world. The associations, feelings, and historical meaning of “environmentalism” won’t go away simply because we start slapping a Christian label on it (just think of the debate among Christians about the pagan origins of our various holidays, a debate that has raged for many, many years). The language of stewardship rightly puts the emphasis on our God-given responsibility to care for what He has given us.

Let’s celebrate our Christian heritage and our charge from Jesus to take care of our home. Let’s recognize that nature has value because God created it. But let’s remember to use language that draws attention to the Creator over the creation.  

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4 thoughts on “Why The Church Should Not Embrace Environmentalism

  1. I enjoyed reading your article, but I can’t help but disagree with some of your analysis.

    You have two strands of analysis here: (1) Christians should avoid using the term environmentalism because of the word’s inappropriate roots in the 1960’s counter-culture movement; and (2) Christians should use the term “stewardship” rather than “environmentalism” to emphasize the glory of God.

    Your reasons for avoiding the term “environmentalism” are not that strong. Semantic drift occurs for all sorts of words: negro (now a pejorative word), geek (previously referred to a circus performer), grieve (antiquated terms for harm or oppress), or take (means “to steal” or, conversely, “to give”). Word meanings change over time, and there is no reason to focus on the old meaning of those words long after that meaning is irrelevant.

    Furthermore, you imply that using the term “environmentalism” somehow validates the narrow set of pantheistic beliefs. This, too, is not strong reasoning. In the same way, fundamentalist Muslims – who call themselves Muslims – might fall under the umbrella of Islam, but this fact does not (or at least should not) suggest anything about others who observe the practice Islam. Similarly, “environmentalism” may refer to “pantheism,” but this narrow meaning has almost no relation to the more modern and comprehensive meaning of environmentalism .

    However, your second point – and your overarching point – is irrefutable. Word choice does matter. After all, people choose to refer to themselves as “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” with the obvious implication that their opponents are “anti-life” or “anti-choice.” So, while I disagree with the reasoning of your article, I think you nevertheless arrive at a sound conclusion.

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    • Thanks for your feedback! I think I may have been a little vague because I’m not sting that we shouldn’t use the terms of environmentalism because of where it originated, although that’s important, but because it still carries a spiritual and pantheistic quality to it. My point is that pantheism undergirds even modern environmentalism, and is only with that frame of reference that it can properly be understood. Thanks for reading!

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  2. I have to ask clarification on what do you mean by “Church”?

    I mean, is environmentalism even within the job description of the four-walls-church? I understand caring for the environment and being a good steward of the earth–on an individual Christian level. I think that is what you’ve argued for here.

    However, as a “Church” collective, I’m not sure if it’s more secondary than of primary importance to the Gospel. In other words, caring for the environment is more of a consequence of the Gospel, rather than the gospel itself.

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