By John Dickson
Christianity gets whacked from two different sides on the issue of the environment, and it's sometimes deserved.
French atheist Michel Onfray has said that Christianity has an ascetic streak that denigrates the body and the good earth. "Glorification of a fictional beyond," he says, "prevents full enjoyment of the real here below. The religion of the One God seeks to promote self-hatred to the detriment of the body, to discredit the intelligence, to despise the flesh."
Of course, there have been Christians like that. I could name them! The question is: Is that viewpoint logically consistent with Genesis 1 - the opening page of the Bible - which basically says that a good God graced good matter into existence, as a gift?
I can't think of any other traditional historical writing from Greece or Rome, or from the far East, that works so hard from the opening page to insist that physical creation is good.
Genesis 1 calls the physical environment - the creation - good no fewer than seven times. God made the light and the text says, "and it was good". Then he makes the seas, and they're good. The heavenly bodies and the animals are all good. And then, just in case you missed it, the last line of the whole thing says, "God saw all that he'd made and it was very good."
The Apostle Paul in the New Testament echoes the same theme: "For everything God created is good," he says, "and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving." (1 Timothy 4).
I can't think of any other traditional historical writing from Greece or Rome, or from the far East, that works so hard from the opening page to insist that physical creation is good - not haphazard, unpredictable, the enemy, accidental. No! It's a work of wonder, an artistry. It is good. A cause for gratitude; "Thanksgiving", as Paul puts it.
There's an equal and opposite criticism sometimes leveled at Christianity and the environment. Lynn White famously argued in the journal Science (March 1967) that Christianity is to blame for the West's rapacious approach to the environment. In an article titled, 'The historical roots of our modern ecological crisis', he writes:
"In antiquity, every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci - it's guardian spirit. Before one cut down a tree mined a mountain or damned a brook. It was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects."
It's interesting that Lynn White's argument is virtually the opposite of Michel Onfray's criticism. Christianity somehow manages to be so otherworldly it renounces earthly resources, and then turns out to be the cause of the ravenous exploitation of the earth. Can it really be both?
I think it's neither. I don't deny that some Christians have exploited nature in a mood of indifference. But is that logically consistent with believing Genesis 1? With believing the Apostle Paul, that the good God graced good matter into existence as a gift?
And I'd go further. In some ways, the Bible's greatest endorsement of the preciousness of physical creation comes not from Genesis or from Paul, but from Jesus. Now, Jesus didn't say anything directly about the environment, let alone climate change. So I don't want to claim too much here. But two things Jesus said elevate the importance of physical creation to a magnificent degree. First, Jesus studiously avoided teaching the normal pagan (that's Greek and Roman) view of an afterlife characterised by spirit, completely devoid of bodily and environmental life. Instead, Jesus reiterated the ancient Jewish conviction that the creator would not abandon creation in some ghostly eternal future, but promised to renew it. In Isaiah 65 in the Old Testament, this promised future is described as a new creation: a new heavens and a new earth. Jesus does something similar when he calls the future kingdom of God, "the renewal of all things" (Matthew 19:28).
The Greek term used here in Matthew is palingenesia - the word "again" and "genesis". It's "another genesis". The creation matters so much to Christ that what he promised was the renewal of creation, not its removal.
The other thing in the Jesus story that underlines the importance of physical creation is the very punchline of the Christian Gospel actually: Jesus rose again, bodily. All four Gospels and the New Testament epistles stress that Jesus wasn't elevated to a spiritual life after his death. He was raised in a body. The Gospels describe him eating a meal and showing his disciples his hands and feet. It's not a mere resuscitation either. The New Testament speaks of it as a renewal, a glorification of physical reality.
Now, I know plenty of people won't believe any of that, but my point is really simple. The Christian belief in bodily resurrection affirms the physical creation in an extraordinary way. It says that God loves material reality so much that He intends not to remove it, but to renew it from beginning to end. Christianity affirms the importance - the goodness - of physical creation. Christians have sometimes neglected this theme and denied and denigrated the good earth, that's for sure. Others have gone the other way and treated the creation as a thing to be exploited and abused. But both are Christian heresies, a skewing of the truth that the creation is a sacred gift entrusted to our care.