Is the Earth Just for Us?

Last week I opened the door on a discussion of environmental philosophy. In that post I mentioned an article by Jim Moran (“Three Challenges for Environmental Philosophy,” Philosophy Now, Jan.10, 2012) which presents those challenges as something folks ought to be concerned about if they are serious about the environment. This is the first of three posts which will ask us to think about the supposed problems from a Christian perspective.

But before beginning, I want to say a few words about what is intended in this conversation, which is to build a bridge of sorts between academic discussion and where people actually live. If scholars are those who come up with the big ideas and/or explain them to one another, I am not a scholar, nor do I have ambitions of joining the ranks; instead, it seems to me more needful to translate some of those big ideas into the terms that matter to the rest of the population. We’ve all been made aware in recent years of threats real and imagined confronting the maintenance of a healthy place for humans and other species to live. And, if we are honest, there has been a bit of reluctance within some segments of Christianity to believe any of the warnings at all. Some of this skepticism is due to a wariness concerning the philosophy that sometimes accompanies the claims, some of it because the link to anything scientific is automatically rejected. Some of the wariness may be justified; but that should not lead us to dismiss outright all of the reports on the condition of the physical planet.

Let’s look at the first of Moran’s three challenges, which he describes as “the struggle to overcome an anthropocentric view of nature.” Translation? The author believes that it is both mistaken and harmful to believe that the planet we live in was created for or exists primarily for sake of human beings; such thinking must be put aside. Now that presents an interesting question for Christians. Does the Bible indeed require us to believe that the earth, and perhaps by extension the entire universe, was created solely or even primarily as the home for human creatures and serves no other purpose? To put this in other terms Moran uses, does the earth have intrinsic value (value for its own sake and in its own right) or does have merely instrumental value (value only to the extent it serves human purposes)?

The effects of thinking one way or the other could have significant impact on how we approach questions related to maintaining the integrity of our environment. Should we preserve the environment to the extent that is deemed necessary to continue to provide for our needs? Or does the earth have an integrity of its own which ought to be respected independently of the satisfaction of human needs or desires? Another major debate revolves around the idea of value itself. Simply put, if there are no humans, who/what determines value in nature? In that regard at least, one wonders whether there is anything other than man-centered view can be conceived?

As I indicated earlier, it is difficult to ascertain from the Bible the exact purpose for which God created the heavens and the earth. We accept that it is the arena of our creation, fall and redemption; but is that the only value it holds. And what does Romans 8:19ff. contribute to this topic? Does the groaning of creation until the sons of God are revealed indicate that the earth has an integrity of its own (as God’s creation) which we have compromised? If so, does that indicate that its restoration is something that should be of concern to us, or is it something that must await God’s own personal work of restoration? What do you think? Is Moran correct in thinking a man-centered view must be overcome?