Politics, Theology and the Environment

Senator Santorum raised questions about the President's theology, charging that his environmental views are out of line with the Bible. Here's a different viewpoint.

In recent days, politics and theology have become intertwined, with presidential candidates debating the theological veracity of their opponents.  The most telling example was Rick Santorum’s charge that President Obama has embraced a “phony theology” that isn’t in line with what the Bible teaches.  Elsewhere I addressed this charge, noting that to say that something is phony is to raise questions of a person’s religious integrity

When the “charge” was first made, the former Senator didn’t elaborate, but a few days later he backed off a bit and spoke of the President’s supposedly radical environmentalist world view that he believes is rooted in a theology (world view) that lacks biblical support.  In this clarifying statement  about what he meant by a “phony theology” that lacks biblical warrant, Santorum made the following statement: 

“That’s why I was talking about energy. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and being good stewards of the earth, and I think that is a phony ideal.” 

Many people believe that religion is private and should remain private.  I believe that religion is personal, but that it also has public implications.  What we believe about God impacts the way we see the world.  In this, I’m in agreement with Sen. Santorum, though I strongly disagree with the way he understands both the bible and Christian theology.  I will also admit that my politics is closer to that of the President than that of the former Senator’s.  But for a moment I’d like to have us put aside partisan politics and consider the theology of creation (I use creation here in a theological sense, not a scientific one). 

I believe that a good case can be made that concern for the environment is deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian Theology, and that it is a moral imperative for us to concern ourselves with protecting and preserving the environment.    

If the earth exists for the benefit of humanity, does that mean that it exists solely for our benefit?  Does it mean that we have the right and obligation to “husband its resources” without concerning ourselves with the long term viability of nature?

At the core of this debate is the definition of stewardship.  Does being a good steward mean taking good care of something entrusted to us, or does it imply use of something for our immediate benefit?   In answering these questions I would like to suggest that Sen. Santorum’s views, which he claims are biblical, could be out of line not only with Scripture, but also the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is a member. 

Before I turn to Catholic teaching on this issue, I’d like to suggest an alternative reading of the biblical story concerning creation and our responsibility to it.  In Genesis 1 we find the first creation story.  Throughout this beautiful poetic statement, we hear God say of nature – “It is good.”  As God concludes the work of creation God creates humankind in God’s image, male and female, and entrusts to them (us) the responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Stewardship doesn’t entail absolute rule.  There is always accountability to God, who created humankind to represent God in creation.  We are not above creation, we are part of it, and as part of creation, we have an important role, to respect, preserve, and use appropriately the resources present in the world around us.    

To add to this point about our place in creation, consider the message found in the designated reading from the Hebrew Bible for the First Sunday of Lent (this Sunday).  The text is Genesis 9:8-17.  It’s part of the Flood story, and as Noah, his family, and the animals disembark from the ark, God makes a covenant, not just with Noah, his family, and his descendants, but also “with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:9-11 Common English Bible).  God places in the heavens a bow, a rainbow, to serve as a reminder to God of this covenant, which God makes with “all creatures on earth.”  Humanity is, in this scenario, part of, but not the sole concern of God’s covenant with the earth. 

I take these texts as an encouragement to be good stewards of the environment.   Thus, I believe a truly biblical theology will recognize that our welfare as human beings is linked to that of the rest of creation.  My well-being is affected by the despoiling of the environment, whether that is pollution or overuse of natural resources.  Although the Senator suggests that global warming is not science but politics, I beg to differ.  If climate science is correct, we could be setting ourselves on an environmentally unsustainable course that could be as destructive to the future well-being of humanity as any other economic consideration.

I’ve mentioned but two biblical passages that, in my view, call for us to attend to the protection of the environment.  I would suggest that this is part of our covenant responsibility.  Yes, we do have a special role as God’s representatives in the world, but that responsibility is an ecologically sustainable one.  We can make use of earth’s resources, but we should do this in a wise and sustainable manner.  

I said earlier that a biblical case can be made for what is often called “creation care,” but it is also a central focus of Roman Catholic Social Teaching.  Although I don’t agree with the Catholic Church on every issue, there are many places where I am in agreement with the teachings of this church.   I would say that on the issue of the environment, I’m probably closer to the Church’s teachings than is Sen. Santorum.  In support of my claim I want to point out a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope John Paul II. 

First consider this statement from the USCCB on Caring for God’s Creation:

54. We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of God’s creation. Care for the earth is a duty of our faith and a sign of our concern for all people. We should strive to live simply to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live—to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development. As stewards called by God to share the responsibility for the future of the earth, we should work for a world in which people respect and protect all of creation and seek to live simply in harmony with it for the sake of future generations.

Pope John Paul II is even clearer and stronger in his statements about our responsibilities toward the environment.  These are stated powerfully in a 1990 address celebrating the World Day of Peace.  I’d like to share just the two opening paragraphs of this statement, and invite you to read the entire message in support of this statement.   The late Catholic leader declared:

In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.

Pope John Paul II makes the claim that our relationship to the environment is a moral issue.  He states that the future sustainability of this world depends on our ability to address this issue, including the question of climate change.  He also notes that how the developed world uses resources has implications for developing nations and for those persons living in poverty.  Thus, it is a matter of addressing the needs of “the least of these” (Matthew 25).

I recognize there are differences of opinion on matters theological and political when it comes to the environment.  But, a commitment to protecting the earth and its resources – a concern for the welfare of creation as a whole -- is not foreign to the biblical story or to mainstream Christian theology.  In fact, as I read scripture and theology, I would suggest that it is a divine imperative that we concern ourselves with protecting the environment as an expression of our calling to be God’s stewards of creation.  It is also, in our best interests to concern ourselves with this calling.    

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Seymour Concerned February 25, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Pastor Bob, How do you personally balance environmental science with geoscience and theology? In your opinion, how old is the planet Earth? Do you know how some religious people & leaders can refuse to believe the Earth is older than 12,000 (or so years) while at the same time accepting environmental science--which obviously uses millions of years of Earth's history in scientific analysis.
Bob Cornwall February 25, 2012 at 08:41 PM
Seymour, I trust the scientific consensus that the earth is billions of years old. I realize that there are some who embrace an environmentalist mission and a young earth vision. In an earlier posting on this site I wrote of my affirmation of the science of evolution. Theologically, I affirm God's involvement in the creative process. I don't believe that Genesis tells us how this came about. What I do know is that Genesis teaches us to be proper stewards of God's creation.


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