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Good to be Green?

There are many Christian environmentalists, and various Christian conservation groups and organisations; church bodies large and small often have environmental committees. There’s something obviously very good about all of this, and conservation is one of those things which seem immediately self-justifying, like the establishment of world peace or the ending of poverty; this, perhaps, is what makes me uneasy, for no reason that I can immediately describe.

It is clearly good and right that Christians oppose greed, waste, unnecessary destruction, and the despoliation of the world’s resources (and, indeed, the unnecessary destruction of things made by people, which can be beautiful and good).

Greed is a particular evil, and from Jesus’ words we hear, clearly and unambiguously, that Christians must fight strenuously against any such thing that may cause the misery of poverty, or any human suffering, to persist in our world.

Environmentalism is thus a Christian concern, since the values it promotes are ones deriving from the Lord’s own commands. But the problem is that environmentalism, as we have it, generally involves some other things as well, and it’s those that don’t fit so well with Christian beliefs; some, in fact, are downright anti-Christian.

Some conservationism (and it does quickly come to be an “ism”) is purely about the above concerns, the raising of awareness, and the influencing of politicians and rulers. But the problem of any “ism” is that it quickly gets elevated from practical matters into a world-view or system of values, which go beyond such things as energy, resources, and waste.

In the modern environmental movement, this surely happened very early on. Saving the earth (from humanity’s rapacious greed) soon became translated into the idea that the earth/world has some kind of ultimate value all of its own, beyond anything concerned with humankind.

From this, it was only a short step to relating these concerns to a pagan or pantheistic outlook, which implicitly (and even explicitly) regards the earth as some kind of god, or rather goddess.

Whether present-day environmentalism preceded the rise of New Ageism, or vice versa, is probably a question it is not possible to answer, but many within those movements would insist that you can’t have the one without the other.

Inevitably, in that thinking, the Judeo-Christian world-view is reversed: the earth does not exist for humankind, but for itself, and people are just a passing – and regrettable, because of their destructiveness – phenomenon.

This thinking, of course, chimes in with a materialist-scientific view: humans are just an accidental product of blind processes, and have no inherent value and purpose, or destiny beyond that of returning to the matter which makes up the earth.

New Ageism, I would argue, is an ultimately-materialist collection of philosophies, despite its great claims to the contrary, and any world-view which sees life and intelligence restricted to this present order, is ultimately materialist also – an ironic conclusion to be made about New Ageism’s soul-mate environmentalism, if (or where) we might legitimately extend it that far.

Part of our present misunderstanding, I would argue, of the value of the world, is the view of nature.

In modern times that reaction to Western industrialism we know as the Romantic Movement has looked at the world supposedly unmolested by man as being in some sense inherently valuable, “innocent”, indeed sacred; any kind of “back to nature” movement (and there have been very many) is rooted in this kind of thinking.

In earlier centuries, nature was seen as a mirror by which one might glimpse something of God, or (as in ancient times) a dark force which it was necessary to overcome (Europe was once covered in thick forestation, the clearing of which, alone, allowed civilised life to develop; agriculture – which produced the supposedly “natural” countryside we now value – was the means by which the hand of man wrested order from dark, malevolent, chaos).

As a result we currently have at present an all-but indelible notion that everything which can be said to be “natural” is somehow utterly good, original, innocent, and quite beyond questioning.
Attitudes to animals that are at times confusing and contradictory result from this. Animals, being natural, obviously behave in a “natural” (and therefore “good”) way. Many – strangely, it seems to me – consider that animals are as “important” as humankind (being simply another product of the blind processes).

Often such people work hard to prevent extinction of species (based, presumably, on notions of their inherent worth, and equality with all other life forms), or, they sometimes justify the killing of them on the basis that all animals are busy killing one another.

Often, wrong-headed Christian thinking gets enmeshed in all of this. We have the idea that we live in “God’s world”, that God created it and it is good; therefore, all life forms are good and valuable, this is what “natural” means.

In reality, of course, our earth is not the world that God created, nor are we the people that God created, nor is the world /life of his ordering.

Many Christians take much notice of the first chapter of Genesis, but ignore the subsequent ones.

The world, though good and beautiful in part, is a world corrupted and gone wrong, and people are no better; while God is in ultimate control of everything, for the present, things are left free to go to bad.

The world itself, rather than being a thing of self-evident, unquestionable goodness is a place of disorder, and the tendency of its “natural” products – the animals – to live by killing, is a prime indicator of nature’s lack of goodness.

Even materialist scientists are forced to concede that the world/earth/universe is no permanent end in itself, since disorder, decay and eventual extinction are inevitable (whatever humans do or do not do).

Christianity is not like this; it does not, as is the way of “nature religions”, invert the true values of things. The Bible gives us visions of a world which will not always be like it now is where animals will live in peace. This is the world-made-new that God promises us, the world of Jesus’ kingdom, where the last enemy, Death (so vital a part of the materialist scheme of things) will itself be destroyed.
When death is removed, humans – created to be God’s companions – can be what they were originally supposed to be, and the world – so dear to environmentalists and New Agers – will have passed away.

It is people, not their temporary home, which are of eternal value, thus C. S. Lewis reminds us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal and their life is to ours that of a gnat. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” (Sermon, The Weight of Glory, published 1941, 1949, etc.).

So Christians, I would argue, always have to be wary of environmentalism, for all too easily does concern for right stewardship become twisted into the perversion of means into ends, the replacement of the eternal with the temporal, and the substitution of the Creator by the created.

See also J. A. Walter, Quotes 18