Environmental problems reveal the sinful nature of humanity that is characterized by greed, materialism, consumerism, and other harmful human activities. A response to the crisis, therefore, demands a radical transformation of character: people changing who they are in relation to the environment and becoming virtuous and faithful stewards of the creation of God.
Environmental problems such as global warming, loss of biodiversity, desertification, drought, and pollutions of water, land, and air are not primarily scientific or natural problems. These are mostly moral or ethical problems caused by the sinful nature of humanity (anthropogenic activities). They reveal a moral character of humanity—a character corrupted by sins such as pride, greed, materialism, consumerism, egocentrism, and indiscriminate use of modern science and technology. As Clifford Cain posits:
The environmental problems we see and know are but the symptoms of an underlying disease—a disease that, like a cancer, lies at the center of our social body and threatens the health of the whole organism, as well as the integrity of earth’s ecosystem: And that disease is greed, materialism, consumerism, and short-term thinking.1
Since environmental problems primarily emanate from human morality, to avert them demands a radical change of character—a change of who people are in relation to God, others, and the environment. This understanding of the ecological crisis suggests that instead of merely asking what should be done to address the crisis, people should first and foremost ask who they are in relation to the environment. When people are who God created them to be—that is, faithful stewards of God’s creation—they embody an ecologically friendly attitude and a godly spirit that delights in God’s creation. Who people are shapes how they behave. In other words, behavior is a reflection of the inner, core being—the character. As Steven Bouma-Prediger rightly points out, “How we live depends on who we are, and who we are depends on the stories we identify with. Practices are rooted in character, and character is rooted in a story.”2 People are shaped by their community and individual stories, which eventually become embedded in their identity and culture.3 An ecological response, therefore, calls for people to identify with God’s creation story, which then defines their purpose of existence—they are stewards of God’s creation (Gen 2:15).
Human ability to alter the environment has increased tremendously, whereas the capacity of the environment to cope with these alterations is limited. With the rise of philosophies such as environmental possibilism, people believe they are in control of all possibilities.4 Through the use of science and technology, they have assumed power to alter the environment for their own good.
Many modern cultures are driven by material possessions and economic productivity to the extent that identity and success are defined in those terms. In pursuit of accumulation, humanity has become more egocentric and exploitative of each other and the earth.5 Materialism takes away the joy and happiness of the society, which comes from being who God created them to be—faithful stewards of creation.
When people see that their identity and worthiness are based on who God created them to be, and they daily live as stewards of God’s creation, they are freed from the “bondage of a materialistic consumer society . . . a hedonistic culture based on creating insatiable human consumers.”6 Through this story, God calls people to foster a spirit of contentment, temperance, appreciation of the beauty of the earth, and cooperation with God in taking care of it.
Materialism creates a consumeristic culture that views the earth as having only utilitarian value. Richard Young argues that “the growth of science and technology . . . coupled with economic structure of our society, has obliterated any notion of intrinsic value in the subhuman world. It has turned nature into a secularized object be to observed, analyzed, controlled, exploited, and used apart from any reference to God.”7 Yet, the earth has intrinsic value. God did not only create the earth to be utilized by people but also for his own purpose and pleasure. The whole earth belongs to him.
All living things depend on a healthy environment for survival. In addition, there is interdependence and interrelatedness within the creation. When a person is created, he is called adam in Hebrew because he is made from ⁽adamah (ground). Therefore, people are not totally distinct from the rest of creation—they are part of it. The psalter says, “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:14).8 The only difference between human beings and other creations is the image of God in them. When the environment suffers, human beings likewise suffer. So, to exploit nature is to do injustice to ourselves, God, and to deny creation its natural right to glorify God (Ps 148; 150). One characteristic of a godly and righteous person is taking care of other creatures (Prov 12:10). Materialism destroys the communal existence of creation and robs humanity of the blessings and grace of loving and taking care of the earth.
It is unfortunate that the church also falls into consumeristic culture. When this happens, the church forgets God’s creation story and its stewardship mission and hence detaches itself from the rest of creation. It only focuses on its own redemption and forgets God’s comprehensive redemption (including creation). Furthermore, the church often keeps silent while the predatory economy destroys the earth. No other institution or community should better understand its living relationship with creation than God’s community. If the church lives out its holistic mission (Gen 2:15), its lifestyle of benevolence and creation care may transform the watching world.9 The church should take its role as steward seriously in order to show the world true worthiness and identity is found in God’s creation story.
Christianity and Ecology
Even though Christianity is said to be ecologically oriented, many Christians have not lived as faithful stewards of God’s creation. Their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors tend to portray Christianity as an anti-ecological faith. According to Kellert and Berry, when people attend religious services frequently, they become less knowledgeable about “environmental issues and are more utilitarian.”10 Christians who only focus on the redemption story tend to forget that the biblical narrative begins with creation and ends envisioning a new creation. When Christians neglect the creation story, there is a need for humility to redefine their ecotheology because the Christian faith is not ecologically bankrupt.
In Genesis 1:28, people are commanded to subdue and have dominion over the earth. This text does not encourage Christians to neglect or exploit the earth as some scholars, like Lynn White Jr., have suggested.11 Instead, the text commands people to exercise authority and rule as God rules. God is a King; his sovereignty is characterized by compassion, love, justice, patience, humility, service, mercy, honesty, power, and wisdom. Similarly, Bouma-Prediger points out that to rule and have dominion in this context does not necessarily mean domination but service. “For Jesus, to rule is to serve. To exercise dominion is to suffer…for the good of the other.”12 In Genesis 2:15, YHWH commands people to work and keep the Garden of Eden. According to Christopher Wright, the verb ⁽abad means to serve. Moreover, human beings “are servants of creation, and that is the way they are to exercise their kingship over it. The verb samar means to keep something safe, with protection, care, and watchfulness. It means treating something (or someone) seriously as worthy of devoted attention.”13 Christian Scripture is not ecologically bankrupt, nor does it perpetuate exploitation of the earth. Rather, it is the followers of Scripture who fail to be faithful to it. God calls people to be like him by taking care of his creation, for the story of God’s people begins with caring for creation.
One of the reasons some Christians may neglect the task of creation stewardship is misunderstanding of the doctrine of eschatology. They argue that since Jesus Christ is coming soon to take saints with him and destroy the earth, it is therefore pointless to take care of the earth. Texts such 2 Pet 3:10–13 and 1 Thess 4:13–18 are sometimes used to support such beliefs. An alternative reading of these texts, however, shows that the earth will not be totally destroyed, and the saints will not escape from it. In 2 Pet 3: 10–13, the writer says the earth will be found (eurisko), and it will be redeemed, restored, and purified by fire.14 God is not going to make all new things but rather all things new. In 1 Thess 4: 13-18, Paul is talking about Christians joining Christ in the royal procession and ushering him to the earth as he comes down to redeem the whole creation and reign on a renewed earth. The verb apantao (v. 17) means “to go out and meet a visiting dignitary in the final stage of his journey in order to escort him back to your city (e.g., Matt 25:6; Acts 28:15).”15 The New Jerusalem will come down and there will be no separation between heaven and earth. God will dwell among his people on a redeemed earth. Redemption and salvation is not escape from the earth: rather, the Lord will descend and claim it for himself.
Virtues and Ecology
Godly character is the foundation of human life and stewardship of creation. It is indispensable for a healthy relationship with others and with nonhuman species. In Gal 5:22–23, Paul lists some of the fundamental virtues (fruit of the spirit) people should develop in order to have a godly character. If people were to be shaped by these virtues, their relation to earth would be godly, and they could avert some of the environmental problems the world is facing.
One of the virtues needed to nurture a godly ecological spirit and attitude is love. God creates everything out of his divine love and for his own purpose. His unconditional love is perfectly manifested in his relationship to his creation. Creation “highlights God’s closeness to and almost motherly care for creation.”16 God demonstrates his agape love by calling his creation to participate in his divine creativity. The earth is commanded to produce all other species (Gen 1:11), and every living thing is commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Furthermore, God does not leave his creation to run itself—he is in charge. Bouma-Prediger notes that the universe is not autonomous: “It exists solely because of the continuous care and sustenance of God its Creator.”17 He is the God who is involved in the affairs of his creation; he is transcendent yet immanent to his creation.
In 1 Cor 13, Paul highlights the importance of love that is humble, kind, patient, and not envious. If people were to be shaped by this love, they would reflect the character of God to the whole creation. God is kind, loving, patient, and humble to his creation, hence, those who love God should be like him. To love creation does not mean deifying it but to see and value it as the Creator does; he delights in his creation (Gen 1:31).
Love is the greatest theological virtue (1 Cor 13); on it the whole of the law and prophets rest (Matt 22:36–40). When people have love, they seek the best interests and well-being of other human beings and nonhuman things. In addition, they care, respect, and value God’s creation for its intrinsic value and not only for its utilitarian values. With love, people are temperate and disciplined; they are capable of controlling their behaviors and actions for the common good of others. People display proper attitudes and behavior toward the things they love. Lack of love leads to egocentrism and a disregard for the well-being of God’s creation. It also leads to dishonest dealing with others, including exploiting the earth.
Other important Christian virtues are faith and hope. Christian faith and hope are rooted in the creation, redemption, resurrection, and eschatology narratives. Faith is the assurance and confidence in God who created the universe and sustains it. It is by faith that God calls his people to share his story—the story of creation and redemption. In participating in the story, people identify with it, and it shapes their character. The story then becomes part of their lives. Where there is faith, there is also hope. There is hope that God is coming again to redeem and restore the earth. The Christian life should be characterized by faith and hope in the promises of God who will bring a perfect earthly future. According to Cameron Lee, “Hope, reorients our existence so that we live toward the promise of a consummated Kingdom. We enter the narrative by faith, and in hope, we actively direct ourselves towards the climax.”18 Nonhuman species also share this faith and hope. The whole creation is groaning in pains waiting for redemption (Rom 8:21–23).
Faith asserts that people are earth-keepers, hence they are morally obliged to act responsibly, preserve the earth, and act for the common good of other creatures in such a way that other species will continue to exist in the future. Without faith and hope, people lose their godly identity and purpose, and consequently they cannot envision a perfectly future earth where the whole creation will thrive. Additionally, without faith and hope, people become destructive to themselves and the earth.
With virtues such as love, faith, hope, patience, self-control, and others, people are able to embody a virtuous practice and spirit of Sabbath or rest. Their souls are able to find joy, peace, and contentment in Sabbath. Sabbath then becomes part of their lifestyle. Sabbath is one of the rare lifestyle practices in our consumerism driven society. Workaholism and restlessness are often celebrated by our community stories. Sabbath provides an opportunity for people to reflect upon their true identity as children of God and what is meaningful in their lives. It calls people to focus on something greater than themselves and their materials needs. Walter Brueggemann points out that the Sabbath calls people “to an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”19 The foundation of understanding rest as a virtuous practice is the creation narrative in Genesis. After completion of creation, God entered Sabbath; he took time to celebrate, appreciate, and enjoy the existence of his creation. Likewise, Sabbath gives people time to heal, share, reflect, and enjoy the presence of God, others, and creation. Furthermore, it reminds people that while work is good, it is not the sole purpose of human life, nor is the acquisition of goods. The goal of human life is to have a meaningful communion with God, one another, and the earth.20
Sabbath gives people an opportunity to renew their trust and dependence on God. It is in Sabbath where people see God not only as the Creator and Redeemer of the universe but also as the Sustainer and Provider of everything. It is such trust in God which cultivates a steadfast spirit and content heart. The Sabbath reminds people that God is in charge of his creation and not them.
Sabbath also applies to nonhuman things under the care of people. In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites specific laws for taking care of the land and animals. This was meant to promote health and prevent creation from being exploited and overworked (Exod 23:10–12). Also, the book of Leviticus promotes proper sanitation. During wars, God demanded that the fruit trees not be indiscriminately destroyed (Deut 20:19–20). When the Sabbath becomes part of people’s character; they reflect the beautiful biblical narrative of creation, redemption, and imagery of well-being, gratitude, trust, faith, and love for God and his creation.21
In conclusion, our ecological crisis reveals the moral character of humanity. By our actions, we have shown that we have aligned ourselves with the consumerism story instead of God’s creation story. A response to the ecological crisis calls for a change of narrative and of character. It calls us to be virtuous and faithful stewards of God’s creation. And so, stewardship of creation becomes part of our identity and purpose. We share in the divine life and mission of God. We join him in cultivating and keeping the earth, and together we delight in the beauty of creation.
Ananias Moses lives in Oodi, Botswana, where he works as a minister. He also serves the community by facilitating health-related activities, particularly activities that sensitize and educate people about HIV/AIDS.
1 Clifford C. Cain, “Down to Earth Theology: Reclaiming our Responsibility for Creation and Embracing Biblical Stewardship,” American Baptist Quarterly, 30, nos. 3–4 (2011): 277.
2 Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian Vision for Creation Care (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 134.
3 In African culture, everything is summed up in the concept of God and religion. God is the Creator and Giver of every life, hence every life is sacred and should be preserved. There is mutual interdependence between human beings and the earth. The well-being of a person is closely connected to the well-being of the whole creation. In other words, a person is not distinct from his or her environment. The earth is considered to be the mother of all living things. She is kind, loving, caring, and generous to all her children. However, she is able to curse or withhold her blessings if she is mistreated or disrespected. Environmental issues such as famine, infertile soil, and rainfall variability are, therefore, seen as a sign that God and mother earth are displeased with the behavior of the earth’s inhabitants. When this happens, people have to pray and confess their sins to God. Some make sacrifices to appease the spirits (libations are poured to ancestors’ spirits). When mother earth is purified and appeased, the relationship between the mother and children is restored. Taboos are cultural conservation strategies which ensure that nonhuman species are protected and preserved from those who deviated from the cultural ecological norm. One should point out that this cultural ecological belief is changing due to the impact of secularization and postmodernity. In addition, the rise of industrialization has led to commercialization and consumeristic attitudes. Mother earth is less appreciated for her intrinsic values.
4 Environmental possibilism is a philosophical belief that human beings have the ability to change their environment to meet their needs. It emphasizes alterations of the environment, and it is different from environmental determinism, which states that the environment shapes human culture and behaviors. Charles Whynne-Hammond, Elements of Human Geography (London: Collins Educational, 1985), 6.
5 Earth and environment are used interchangeably in this paper.
6 Joseph K. Sheldon and David K. Foster, “What Knowledge is Required for Responsible Stewardship of Creation?” Christian Scholar’s Review 32, no. 4 (2003): 366.
7 Richard A. Young, Healing the Earth: A Theocentric Perspective on Environmental Problems and their Solutions (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 80.
8 All biblical quotations in this article are taken from English Standard Version (ESV).
9 Millard J. Erickson, “Biblical Ethics of Ecology,” in The Earth is the Lord’s: Christians and the Environment, ed. Richard D. Land and Louis Moore (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 76–78.
10 S. R. Kellert and J. K. Berry, “Phase III: Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes Toward Animals in American Society,” (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1980), quoted in Joseph K. Sheldon and David K. Foster, “What Knowledge is Required for Responsible Stewardship of Creation?” Christian Scholar’s Review 32, no. 4 (2003): 366.
11 Critics of Christianity charge that Christianity perpetuates environmental degradation in its endeavor to obey the Scripture. Lynn White Jr. blames Christianity for the rise of modern science and technology which have given people uncontrolled power to exploit the earth. Furthermore, he claims that Christianity is one of the anthropocentric religions. Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science, n.s., 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203–7.
12 Bouma-Prediger, 64.
13 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: a Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 51.
14 Bouma-Prediger, 68–69.
15 Bouma-Prediger, 69–70.
16 Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 73.
17 Bouma-Prediger, 135.
18 Cameron Lee, Beyond Family Values: A Call to Christian Virtue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 195.
19 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), xiv.
20 Fedler, 110.
21 Jama L. White, Amanda M. Blackburn, and Mary K. Plisco, “Rest as a Virtue: Theological Foundations and Application to Personal and Professional Life,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 43, no. 2 (2015): 115.