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Explore the Christian rationale for environmental ethics and assess its
strengths and weaknesses.

The current environmental crises facing the earth today are well known and frequently

reported on and written about. The problems that are presented are a threat to the way of life of

virtually every person on the planet. They are also enormously diverse, including issues such as

climate change, pollution, soil erosion and deforestation (the added impact of which on climate-

related natural disasters has been highlighted recently in Burma1), species extinction2 and the

drain on natural resources amongst others.3 It is widely accepted that the human impact of

population, technology and industry are at the root of the causes of these problems,4 although

there have been more specific suggestions about human attitude being more important than

these. 5

This essay agrees that the search for an ethical basis to any Christian response to this is

essential,6 and proposes that a hybrid of some of the current ethics being proposed is the most

suitable. This involves a consideration of both anthropocentric and biocentric approaches.7

Humanity clearly has a distinct place within God’s creation as the main thrust of the biblical

narrative shows, but that place is not one of exploitation, and its distinct nature does not equate

with exclusive rights to creation’s resources. I have rejected some of the popular secular ethical

approaches such as; technological pragmatism (fixing what is broken), evolutionary humanism

(humanity as the peak of evolution controls itself and the environment as it sees best) and

1
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7385315.stm - last accessed 7/5/08
2
See McDonagh SSC, S., The Death of Life
3
Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, Sharing God’s Planet, pp.1-15
4
Moss, R.P., Environment, in Atkinson, D.J. & Field, D.H., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology,
pp.349-51
5
Northcott, M.S., The Environment & Christian Ethics, pp.40-1
6
Moss, R.P., op. cit.
7
Deane-Drummond, C., A Handbook in Ecology and Theology, pp.73-8
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ecological mysticism (the worship of nature/earth),8 as they do not constitute a Christian

rationale.

There are two main streams of Christian ethical thought in relation to the environment;

liberal and conservative,9 although the latter has received more attention and has more subsets

within it. The liberal perspective is most well known through the work of Matthew Fox. Fox

reworks evolutionary humanism using theological ideas and language. He rejects, at least in terms

of the environmental debate, the historical Christian emphasis on the Fall and consequent need

for redemption in reference to both humanity and creation, seeing them as pessimistic and

cynical. He prefers the concept of ‘original blessing’, and reinterprets the message of Jesus’

incarnation and salvation act in terms of reconciliation with the whole of creation.10 This

panentheistic (God-in-all) view of the environment sees the environmental problems outlined

above as being the result of the ongoing act of creation: “In nature, in creation, imperfection is not

a sign of the absence of God. It is a sign that the ongoing creation is no easy thing.” 11 This

understanding of environmental problems requires Christians to let go (or at least loosen their

grip) on the concept of God’s created order being ‘good’ (Genesis 1-2), as it involves a continuing

creation-act of God being imperfect, rather than having become imperfect after its creation.

Coupled with the rejection of the concept of Christ’s redemption of all things (which I shall later

argue should be central to any Christian environmental ethic), Fox’s approach approaches a sub-

Christian understanding, but at the very least pushes Christian theology to a limit within traditional

understanding of the activity of the Trinity. As such, other approaches must be considered.

8
Moss, R.P., op. cit.
9
ibid.
10
Hart, J., What are they Saying About Environmental Theology?, pp.67-9
11
Fox, M., Original Blessing, p.111 cited in Hart, J., What are they Saying About Environmental Theology?, p.67
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Conservative responses can be separated into consequentialist/utilitarian, deontological,

eco-centric and relational subsets. Conservatives make frequent reference to the concept of

stewardship as the human responsibility towards God’s creation,12 although the liberal response

also makes use of the term. This concept is based on the premise that the created order ‘belongs’

to its creator (God), and therefore that “*t+he human role is… exercising dominion under God,

whose rule is sovereign.”13 A proper understanding of dominion is essential to this, and an

explanation comes later.

The consequentialist or utilitarian approach is not only found in conservative Christian

writings, but also in many governments’ responses to environmental issues.14 Here, any activity is

done in an attempt to maintain or improve the standard of living of any individual or group (of

people). The cost of this action, whatever and to whoever that may be, are weighed against the

benefit, and the action which is deemed to be of greater benefit is chosen. It is, perhaps, the

epitome of the anthropocentric approach. Similarly, the threat that environmental factors pose to

humanity’s ‘way of life’ is the motivating factor for the preservation of that environment, rather

than inferring and value in creation itself. The Christian version of this approach is slightly less

mercenary in its understanding of nature, as a result of its being God’s good creation. Yet

consequentialists also understand humanity’s unique characteristic as being in the ‘image of God’

as justification for such utilitarianism. The main problem with this approach is that its

effectiveness is limited by an inability to know the full implications of our actions. In an attempt to

improve human life at the expense of the environment, we may damage it in a way that causes

12
Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, Sharing God’s Planet, p.16
13
ibid.
14
Northcott, M.S., op. cit., p.90
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humanity more harm than the intended benefit. Despite this, it remains the dominant modern

paradigm for a Christian environmental ethic.15

The deontological approach, by definition, applies some absolute statements to create a

Christian ethical approach to the environment. The primary claim is that all life is of value and has

an equal right to life/existence. Therefore, it is a moral requirement of all people to refrain from

any practice that kills any other living animal. There are obvious problems here; not least that the

hunting and eating of other life forms is inherent in the natural order – “animals will continue to

eat other animals even if humans stop.”16 Another deontological perspective is that humans, being

“apart from nature in that we are self aware and have power to make conscious decisions about

how to change the natural world,”17 have a right (and some would say a God-given right as we

have seen) to exercise authority over the environment. That is added to a deontological respect

for nature that suggests that unnecessary exploitation must be avoided. This brings into question

the biblical reference to mankind having dominion over creation (Gen 1:26, 28). Dominion does

not mean exploiting, per se, and subduing doesn’t mean destroying. In fact, as we have already

observed, what God has created is ‘good’, and the role that we have been given is that of a

steward who utilises, but also protects and works with the environment.

A distinct, but still in some sense deontological, approach is the eco-centric ethic.18 This sees

the environment as a whole as being of value, rather than individual and constituent parts of it,

including humans.19 What is ‘right’ here is any action that preserves, or doesn’t destroy, the

balance of life that exists within the ecosystem. Thus, as the ecosystem includes the activity of

predators and prey, that can be preserved, and human involvement in that process is encouraged

15
ibid., p.93
16
ibid., p.100
17
Deane-Drummond, C., op. cit., p.70
18
Hart, J., What are they Saying About Environmental Theology?, pp.103-4
19
Northcott, M.S., op. cit., p.106
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– but not beyond what would be understood as a natural limit. This approach gives humanity a

distinct responsibility as the life-form within the ecosystem that has the greatest ability to

influence it, but it doesn’t give humanity any particular benefit over any part of what it has a duty

to preserve. The source of the responsibility is unclear, though it can be assumed to be the same

self-awareness mentioned above.

Drawing on the positive aspects of the ethics that we have seen above, a final approach

needs to be considered. Where humanity sees itself as distinct, yet in relation with its

environment, opportunities for a mutually beneficial approach become clear, as is seen in many

‘primitive’ communities.20 It is a symbiotic relationship that is to be encouraged (rather than the

current, more parasitic, relationship); a relationship where the self-awareness of humanity seeks

its own benefit and the benefit of the environmental community through, once again, the concept

of stewardship. This draws on a better understanding of the permission or commission for man to

“fill and subdue the earth” that doesn’t understand the mutual benefit of caring for creation. It

also draws on the covenant relationship found in the flood narrative in Genesis, 21 and the promise

of a cosmic stability.22 Perhaps more importantly than this, it draws on the primary doctrine of

redemption, ignored in the liberal approach, widening the relationship between the environment,

humanity and God to speak of the temporal nature of the current environment (of which

humanity is a part). It looks to the time when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage

to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” 23 Finally we have a hope

for creation, and it is the same hope that Christians have, for it is hope in Christ. The whole of the

Christian faith is drawn into this ethic of the environment with humanity understanding its

20
ibid., p.116
21
Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, op. cit., pp.16-19
22
Deane-Drummond, C., op. cit., p.22
23
Romans 8:21 NRSV
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‘interwoven-ness’ with creation24 and its role of steward expounded as that of prophet, priest and

king.25

We have seen a number of strengths built into the variety of (currently) available Christian

environmental ethics. Having been relatively silent on impending environmental disaster, the

Church is beginning to face the same challenge that the rest of the world does, and is offering

some unique insights into understanding the planet that we share and how we should view and

treat it. Christians are able to speak positively of creation and, by and large, oppose its exploitation

for benefit without considering the costs and implications. But there are weaknesses. Many of the

vying ethics have a weak or undetermined understanding of humanity’s role, responsibility and

self-understanding in relation to the environment (despite oft-repeated claims of self-awareness

as a defining trait of being human). But it seems clear to me that there is a theological, ethical and

methodological implication of being made ‘in God’s image’ and of the inherent ‘goodness’ of

God’s creation.

The dilemma is to find ways of expressing these beliefs without contributing to the
human destruction of the non-human and without implying that the lives of all
bacteria (say) are worth preserving even at considerable risk to humans. Some degree
of anthropocentrism may finally be essential for Christian ethics.”26

That middle way, I believe, lies in the understanding of the environment-humanity-God

relationship and covenant, and the hope that that brings.

But here and now there is work to be done to restore us to that state. And Christianity-in-

relation speaks positively here too, as “*t]he reversal of the environmental crisis will not come

about simply by a change in our conception of nature, or by the relocation of value in the natural

24
Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, op. cit., p.18
25
ibid., pp.21-6
26
Gill, R., A Textbook of Christian Ethics, p.337
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world alone… It will only come about when we recover a deeper sense for the relationality of

human life to particular ecosystems and parts of the biosphere…”27 The challenge, then, is to

employ Christian virtues in our treatment of creation, including prudent use of it for our benefit, as

well as for its own.

27
Northcott, M.S., The Environment & Christian Ethics, p.122
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Bibliography

Atkinson, D.J. & Field, D.H., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, IVP,
Leicester, 1995.

Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, Sharing God’s Planet, Church House
Publishing, London, 2005.

Deane-Drummond, C., A Handbook in Ecology and Theology, SCM Press, London, 1996.

Fox, M., Original Blessing: A Theology of the Land, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1994.

Gill, R., A Textbook of Christian Ethics, T&T Clark, London, 2006.

Hart, J., What are they Saying About Environmental Theology?, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2004.

McDonagh SSC, S., The Death of Life, Columba, Co Dublin, 2004.

Northcott, M.S., The Environment & Christian Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Internet Resources

BBC News – http://news.bbc.co.uk

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