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?

6 thoughts on “Is the Earth Just for Us?

  1. Because I read from the TNIV, I see “children of God” in Romans 8:19. I think a “man-centered view” must be overcome, but going in a totally different direction than your post. I appreciate your gender inclusive language in your writing because it allows me to be part of the story. I have no wisdom to offer here; just stopping by to say thanks for wording things so carefully. Your posts are a joy to read–pilates for the brain.

  2. That is a hard question, in fact I don’t really like the question, I would rather answer an easier question please… however,

    My preliminary answer would be that that it must be overcome, but not necessarily for reasons that would make Moran happy. Gardening & Farming and my wife’s herbology bring me to consider design and intent quite a bit in this domain. I would say the obvious, this place isn’t ours, it is God’s, even the most detailed land laws of the OT would make one believe that no person actually owned the land, family lines did in the simplest view . The West derives much of its view of land alienation and tenure from the Romans (who would be the Whore/Beast in Revelation), and I fear that is what is going on “all the way down” as Sire would say.

    What Jesus said about marriage navigating between the schools of hillel & Shimei his statement “from the beginning it was not this way” comes to mind here a bit, tending the garden seems far from what is going on.

    Your choice of Romans 8 makes this all the harder, here are some of the most incredible commitments and explanations in early church theology intertwined with the earth, possibly related to Hosea 2:18 “At that time, I will make a covenant for them with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creatures that crawl on the ground.” Hosea makes me believe that it has so much integrity that it has to be mediated by God (again).

    In the US, Evangelicals have a particular nuance in this in their reading of Revelations, summed up in “it’s all going to burn”. We’re going to get a new one.

    I have a different view, based on big sweeping canonical storylines “new” is like 2Cor5:17 “new creature”, a work of God and work of man in sanctification. Prepare yourself for a “heaven” that may require a lot of scrubbing on our part. I personally would love to see a Chesapeake as described by the early explorers of America, that’s going to take some elbow grease.

  3. I’d just like to say that I like the way you talk about translating the “scholarly” ideas for us–then you actually do it!

  4. I know this is over-simplified, but…

    Of COURSE the purpose of the earth is not for mankind’s benefit. The purpose of creation is to glorify God. So, yes, we should take good care of things that glorify God, and not solely for our own benefit.

    When we mar creation, we destroy what God created and what God has called “good.”

    The question still comes down to: What does that mean from day to day? Does taking care of the earth mean “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Having a garden and doing home-canning? Buying local? Picking up litter on the side of the road? Joining an environmentalist cause? What does it look like to treat the physical world with respect? And how do we do that while still fulfilling our mandate to preach the gospel and make disciples? What do we do when protecting God’s creation would be at odds with saving a person’s life? Is there even a case where that could be possible? (I can imagine “protecting the earth” being at odds with “protecting a person’s way of life” or “a person’s livelihood,” but not actually a person’s physical or spiritual life.)

    I think the earth is important. I just don’t know what to do about it, and I tend to place a much higher priority on taking care of human beings. I don’t think that the call to defend orphans and widows and look after them includes helping baby seals, even though I do think that the physical world isn’t just a backdrop to the human story.

  5. I’d like to leave another piece here, stolen from Baukham’s interpretation of Revelation chapters 4 and 5.

    “It is worth noticing how far from anthropocentric is this vision of worship. Humanity is radically displaced from the centre of things where human beings naturally tend to place themselves. At its heart and in its eschatological goal the creation is theocentric, orientated in worship towards its Creator. But even among the worshippers human beings are not pre-eminent. The four living creatures who lead the worship of the whole creation are not portrayed as anthropomorphic beings, as angelic beings often are. Only the third has a face resembling a human face. The others resemble a lion, an ox and an eagle, and with their six wings and myriad eyes all have a heavenly superiority to all earthly creatures (4:6-8). Their representative function is to worship on behalf of all creatures, and therefore it is fulfilled when the circle of worship expands to include not only humans, but `every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea’ (5:13).”

    Richard Bauckham. The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology) (Kindle Locations 442-448). Kindle Edition.

    This is a pretty humbling picture.

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