[Editor’s Note: When God created the world, he saw that “it was good.” In this series, we want to explore how our faith in Jesus helps us celebrate and enjoy what’s good in creation––but also work as stewards to help it thrive to its fullest potential. Caring for our planet, including plants and animals, fungi and microbes, ecosystems and people, is a high calling from God––a calling in which we can engage out of love and not fear. The gospel gives us hope that what is broken can be restored, and even now, we can enjoy what has been given to us. Join us as we #celebratecreation.
This article was written by Dr. Richard Bernier. Dr. Richard Bernier, a Montreal native, has taught at McGill and Concordia Universities in the areas of environmental ethics, spirituality, and religious studies. His current research focuses on the ethics and theology of governance. He has a longstanding involvement in campus ministry and spiritual direction, and worked in the public service at the House of Commons for several years before undertaking his current role in Concordia’s administration.]
My journey into environmental ethics began when I was a young teenager and felt a strong connection to the beauty of the natural world––especially the woods and waterways near where I grew up, just outside Montreal. I felt a sensitivity for the pain animals experience, especially at the hands of human beings. Such strong connections are part of the way we know and relate to the world as human beings.
As I thought more about these matters, I realized that my strong feelings were not enough to persuade anyone else of the importance of the environment; nor did my strong feelings give adequate guidance as to what I should do about the problems I saw.
That’s when I started exploring ethics––not necessarily knowing it at first, since that vocabulary came later, but doing ethics just the same. Ethics means asking, “How should I act?” and “Why should I live that way, and not another way?”
While the importance of animal welfare and the beauty of the Earth were obvious concerns to me, I wasn’t aware of climate change when I was younger. At that time, we were only just discovering the magnitude of the problem––the evidence is hidden in mountains of data, which needs to be collected and analyzed. It’s this “invisible” aspect of climate change that makes it easy to ignore or even deny. I don’t personally “see” the Earth growing warmer, and I don’t directly observe the connection between warming temperatures and consequences, like extreme weather and rising sea levels. Climate change is a problem most see only after deciding to weigh and consider the evidence presented by scientists in the field over many years. As such, it took time for me to recognize and accept that it was indeed an urgent problem.
As someone who became a Christian about the same time, I also wrestled with the fact that some followers of Jesus seem convinced that animal welfare is not really a problem worth worrying about, and that climate change is a hoax, or at best an overreaction.
The reasons for this are complex:
- Some Christians think human uniqueness in creation means that no other organisms deserve care or concern.
- Some Christians believe that human authority over creation means that we can do anything we like with the natural world, and that the Creator would not only approve, but would prevent any real harm.
- Some Christians feel climate change is just part of a political and philosophical worldview that is hostile to religious believers––so recycling, reducing waste, and moving away from fossil fuels is at best pointless and laughable, and at worst, a kind of persecution.
- Some Christians genuinely care about stewarding the planet, but disagree with the evidence for rising global temperatures and its consequent harms.
At some times and in some places, such Christian voices have seemed louder than others, and this made it hard to figure out what I believed or how I should aspire to live.
Over time my views on stewardship, climate change, and environmental issues were formed by clear, reasonable, and evidence-based arguments from Christians who are both serious about their discipleship to Jesus and about our human obligation to care for this world. I was also helped by bringing what I was learning through ethics and philosophy into a conversation with Jesus Christ and his gospel.
In what follows, I’d like to sketch some of what I have discovered over the years.
Ethics is as old as philosophy itself, but environmental ethics (EE) is a much more recent endeavour, asking how we live rightly in our relationship to the natural world. Those sorts of questions only became a priority for ethicists once we began to realize that the natural world is in trouble on account of our way of living—pollution; rising sea levels; disappearing habitats; agricultural practices that cause erosion or great suffering for animals; and so forth. EE appeared near the beginning of the 20th century and really developed after the 60s and 70s. Just as there are a few ways to do ethics, there are a few ways to think about EE:
- Anthropocentric: concerned with the impact of environmental factors on human beings (anthropoi, in Greek).
- Sentiocentric: focusing on all sentient beings (those capable of experiencing pain or suffering).
- Biocentric: focusing on living things in general, not primarily on human beings or animals.
- Ecocentric: valuing systems and communities of living things, rather than individual organisms.
Christian ethics overlaps extensively with ethics in general, but also makes some unique and robust claims arising from the gospel of Jesus and the confessions of faith of the Christian churches. Christian ethics is not just mainstream ethics done by Christians; neither is it some completely new and unheard-of strategy for resolving moral problems. Christian ethics takes part in the universal conversation about doing good, but it brings a unique perspective born of what it has learned from Jesus of Nazareth.
So, when it comes to EE, Christians share many of the insights and values that inform the different ways of doing ethics, although certain ways are more adjacent to Christianity than others:
- Anthropocentrism: resonates strongly with the Christian belief in the primacy of human flourishing.
- Sentiocentrism: finds a sympathetic hearing among Christians, because Jesus is so attuned to the sufferings of the vulnerable, and he urgently calls his followers to alleviate suffering wherever possible.
- Biocentric and ecocentric: with their tendency to subordinate individual organisms to the species, the hive, or the ecosystem, these find less of a foothold in Christian ethical sensibilities. This is not to say that a synthesis is impossible; one pioneer of Christian environmental ethics—Albert Schweitzer—famously sought to live in peace with every living thing, a philosophy he called Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, or “reverence for life.”
Still, the ethical values that are most central for Christians affirm and prescribe a preoccupation with justice and alleviating suffering, especially for vulnerable persons—those who will be most affected by climate change, pollution, and rising sea levels. “Justice,” says Christian theologian Cornel West, “is what love looks like in public,” and seeking justice for vulnerable persons is the foundational Christian ethic.
“Justice,” says Christian theologian Cornel West, “is what love looks like in public,” and seeking justice for vulnerable persons is the foundational Christian ethic.
To think adequately about the gospel’s view of EE, we must examine the Scriptures and the key credal statements in which Christians have affirmed and explained their faith in Jesus over the centuries. From these sources, we can identify Christianity’s newness, the good news, for human beings and for the world we live in.
I’d like to highlight four themes in particular from the Christian view of things that make a difference to environmental ethics: creation, incarnation, resurrection, and metanoia/grace.
Christians believe in the Jewish Scriptures and in its vision of the cosmos. All that exists is either God, or is created by God: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The world––the physical universe––is a creation of God and thus is good, loved, and beautiful. This means that the natural world is no prison to be escaped, no illusion to be dispelled, but is good and is where God’s care has placed us. This emphasizes our responsibility to honour and care for the Earth, our common home.
Jesus of Nazareth is the centre of the Christian faith. Christians believe that in Jesus, God became a human being and entered this created world. The Greek Scriptures call the Son of God “Logos,” which means “the Word,” and affirm that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14). This means that this world we daily experience is not just good because the Lord created it, but it is holy because the Lord became part of it. Christians see Christ’s footsteps on every path, his baptism in every stream, his parables and his craftsmanship in every tree, and feel the air he breathed in every breath. Care for this natural world is thus a reverent and “sacramental” act––a material action that mediates grace.
An ancient Byzantine Christian prayer sums up the gospel in the following powerful claim: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and to those in the tomb, giving life.” This echoes the very first recorded sermon by Jesus’ followers, preached by the apostle Peter:
Jesus of Nazareth…, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope.” (Acts 2:22-26)
The word “gospel” means “good news,” and the good news par excellence of Chistianity is that death will not have the final word; we are made for life and Christ conquered sin and death to bring us life. Not only does this sanctify and elevate physical life itself, but it affirms that this world, transformed (Revelation 21:1,5), is destined to be our eternal home. It is not to be trashed or dismissed, because it is the forum for our flourishing.
Metanoia is the Greek Testament’s word (see, for instance, Mark 1:4) for a profound change of heart. It’s the conversion or transformation that brings a person to follow Christ and marks their life as a disciple of Jesus. This change of heart is not something we achieve, though it is something we must cooperate with. Rather, it is something made possible by grace.
Grace is the action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, minds, and wills––making us more and more like Christ. It is a free gift of God’s love and goodness, and not something we can ever earn. Faced with our own betrayals and shortcomings, the easiest thing in the world is to give up, to say that we are too far gone; but the call to metanoia and the promise of grace lifts us out of this fatal complacency and assure us that God is with us.
What is true of our personal shortcomings is also true of what threatens our human family and common home: faced with our destruction of the natural environment and the runaway consequences of pollution, the easiest thing in the world is to give up and say there is nothing more to do, except perhaps to plan (implausibly) to relocate to Mars. Christ’s call to metanoia is a call to live in the world in a way that is temperate, sustainable, just—safeguarding the world for future generations, while seeking justice for our vulnerable neighbours on this planet now. If it seems too hard a task, then we have understood it correctly, but this is no reason for despair. The promise of grace is the promise that God is with us in our pilgrimage to live rightly, according to the gospel: in justice, peace, and wise stewardship of all we have been given.
Christ’s call to metanoia is a call to live in the world in a way that is temperate, sustainable, just—safeguarding the world for future generations, while seeking justice for our vulnerable neighbours on this planet now.
This is all very well, but isn’t this all rather idealistic? Aren’t Christians who care about the environment an exception, fighting a losing battle against the indifference and complacency of their coreligionists, maybe even against their outright denial that there is a crisis to be concerned about?
To some extent this is true. There is a current of scepticism about the climate crisis and about animal welfare, some of it theologically motivated, among Christians. However, it has rarely been the case that the Christian pursuit of social justice has been the common or popular view. In most cases, the churches as institutions have not been at the forefront of social justice, of civil rights for minority populations, or of the abolition of slavery––in many cases, they have been actively complicit with these harms! However, Christians have been on the front lines of these movements, often leaders in them, even to the point of imprisonment and death, motivated by the gospel.
These prophetic voices––for a prophet is not someone who foretells the future, but someone who sheds light on the present––may have been a minority, but they embody the clear and emphatic affirmation of Christian ethics in favour of justice and respect for human dignity. The churches in Germany may have been largely and scandalously silent about Nazism, but prophetic voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sophie Scholl revealed what the true Christian attitude to Nazism should be. European and predominantly white North American congregations may have historically been largely silent about the evil of slavery, but prophetic voices like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp spoke from deep Christian conviction about the rights of all human beings. Christian churches may have largely acquiesced in social inequities and in arms buildups, especially during the Cold War, but prophetic voices like Dorothy Day courageously sang a different tune, moved by the gospel of Christ.
The duty of every Christian is thus to ask not, “What are the political and ethical assumptions of most of my fellow Christians?” but, “What are the political and ethical stands I must take if I am to be faithful to Christ and to God’s love for his people and his creation?”
The way we are living now, especially in more affluent societies, threatens the survival and welfare of human beings, especially the most vulnerable. It fails to offer compassion to other sentient beings and endangers the capacity of the natural world, which is the work of God, to manifest God to humanity.
While even church institutions may at times be complicit with these harms, the call of every follower of Jesus and of every community of Jesus’ followers is to ask prayerfully and in the light of the gospel, “What must I do now?”
Some suggestions for further reading:
Bartholomew, Patriarch. Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew (ed. by John Chryssagvis). (Eerdmans, 2003). (Collection of writings by the Patriarch of Constantinople, one of the weightiest voices in Orthodox Christianity).
Brown, Edward R. Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation. (InterVarsity Press, 2008). (Evangelical perspective on environmentalism).
Camosy, Charles. For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. (Franciscan Media, 2013). (Exploration of human obligations to animal welfare in terms of Christian ethics).
Francis, Pope. Laudato si’: on care for our common home. Available online. (Official letter from the principal bishop of the Roman Catholic Church).
Rolston, Holmes III. A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth (Routledge, 2012). (Not specifically Christian, this is a very useful overview of environmental ethics by a philosopher who is sympathetic to and knowledgeable about faith-based perspectives).
Wilkinson, Katharine. Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. (Oxford University Press, 2012). (Sociological study of the emergence of ecological movements within Evangelical Christianity).