How should Christians think about creation care? More importantly, should Christians even bother with creation care? What is the state of the Earth? What does the Bible say about these issues? These are the primary topics which Steven Bouma-Prediger turns to in his work, For the Beauty of the Earth.
We are on Earth, and it is a place full of the glory of God. For the Beauty of the Earth (hereafter FBE) begins with a call to marvel at creation. Bouma-Prediger traces the beauty of the earth through ecological inter-connectedness of animals, plants, and geography in mountains, forests, and lakes. It is truly astounding to think of how the world interacts as a unit; it is still more fascinating to reflect upon how even the–to use a Biblical phrase–“least of these” has an extremely important part to play. I was reading this book while on a camping trip, and it was wonderful to resonate with FBE’s discussion of the wonders of the natural world. But what’s the point?
Bouma-Prediger notes that “We care only for what we love” (21). If we do not love the Earth, we will not care for it. Moreover, he points to the interconnections found throughout the world as a reflection of the importance of all things to creation. He draws ten primary points of importance, including a rejection of the notion that things can be “thrown away”–all things go somewhere; the fact that our actions never affect just one thing; the finitude of resources on the Earth; and the amazing complexity of Creation (19-20).
Having reflected on our place on Earth, FBE asks: What is the state of planet Earth? Put simply, it is not good. Population is booming while per-capita grain production has not increased, the extinction rates are vastly larger than ever in the past, deforestation is cutting down state-sized holes in the world forests (which leads to a decrease of plants capable of producing oxygen), water consumption is increasing exponentially, topsoil is eroding more quickly than it can be produced, and more.
Bouma-Prediger is careful to present a significant amount of documentation for the claims made in FBE. Consider “Global Warming”- there is an observable upward trend in the average global temperature. There is a real consensus on this topic, although there are always who will disagree with a consensus. It is important to note that “Global Warming” is something of a misnomer because it does not reflect the complexity of the issue. “Climate Change” is a better description, which captures the full range of the impact on the planet.
These issues remain controversial, but those who wish to deny humanity’s impact upon the planet must contend with all the lines of evidence. Bouma-Prediger notes that “The real scientific debate is not over whether global warming is real, but rather is over how much and how fast average global temperature might rise, whether other factors in the climate system will counter or amplify a temperature rise, and what the specific effects will be” (52). [2014 edit: it is interesting to observe that there seems to be some increasing skepticism among scientists over the phenomenon of global warming.]
Finally, he notes that the news is “not all doom and gloom,” for there are many bright spots regarding our care for the Earth as well. Unfortunately, “the case is overwhelming that we humans are responsible for the damage to our home planet” (55). The question it raises is: what now?
The charge has been made that Christianity is bad for the environment. That is, Christian belief tends to denigrate creation and thus should be rejected, for it cannot provide answers to the ecological crises discussed above. Bouma-Prediger presents a number of ways this objection can be stated and responds accordingly. The complaint ranges from charges that Christian eschatology entails a lack of concern for the current creation to (a very interesting) complaint that because a Christian worldview helped the rise of science, which has itself been the source of many things which harm creation, Christianity is to be blamed for the current crisis.
Bouma-Prediger offers multiple responses. Most importantly, the notion that there is any single root cause for our current ecological crisis is hard to sustain. He offers other responses related to eschatology and more. Christian theology, he argues, in fact gives extremely solid motivation for creation care.
Interestingly, at one point he notes that perhaps substance dualism could be divorced from Christianity (a thesis against which I have argued here). His argument is brief and largely just notes that there are other strands within Christianity which do not rely upon this substance dualism.
Finally, in an interesting spin, the charge is made that materialism actually denigrates the environment. In particular, materialism in the form of economic materialism: when wealth drives worth, the environment will suffer, period. Now, the book does not make the charge that this is the only or even the root cause of our crisis; instead, the point is that when one does value economic gain over other ends, the environment will suffer.
The Question for Christians
Clearly, the most important question is whether or not there is any reason for Christians to care about creation. Interestingly, Bouma-Prediger places this section towards the middle-end of the book as opposed to the beginning. In it, he offers an analysis of several Biblical texts to show that Christians should care for and about creation. Central to this is his conclusion that “Individual creatures and the earth as a whole have an integrity as created by God and as such have more than merely instrumental value” (136). When we view creation as a gift from God–a good gift–we see that no individual part of that creation should be denigrated or seen as merely an instrument.
He goes on to offer a number of ecological vices of excess and deficiency regarding a number of areas related to theology and ecology. These include addiction, belief in autonomy, and more.
A Vision for Creation Care
Finally, Bouma-Prediger presents a brief vision for creation care. He places this squarely within the context of the vice list and Biblical theology. Christians are to act in humility, wisdom, and virtue. As such, they are to care for that which God has given them and be aware that one should not destroy that which sustains oneself. Christians are called to emulate God’s benevolence and love for all creation as illustrated throughout the Biblical text. As such, to be dismissive of individual species or parts of creation does not line up with a Christian worldview.
There are many more themes found throughout FBE and in particular in the area of Christians and the environment. Overall, the book is an astounding, life-shifting read. It raises one’s awareness of the integration of their beliefs with the world around us. It is amazing to immerse oneself in a sense of place–be that a forest, mountain, lake, or elsewhere–and realize that this is truly a great good which God has created for us to enjoy. As embodied creations of God, we are to honor those other created aspects of His plan. We are to care for His creation. The book is commendable in its scope, erudition, and groundedness in those concerns which Christians would perhaps be most interested in. It comes highly recommended.
For the Beauty of the Earth.
Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.”
Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals– I write about creation care from a number of perspectives offered at a recent panel of prominent evangelical thinkers in this area.
The Biblical Witness
Having read a bit on this topic, I realize that many who are Christian materialists do not think that the Biblical data is conclusive. However, granting that this is their position, I would maintain that the Biblical evidence is very strong: we are more than a material body. Here, I will examine only a small collection of texts.**
Matthew 10:28- “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (NIV)
What does this text mean if the soul and the body are not different things which compose the human being?
Ecclesiastes 12:7- “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (NIV)
When we die, our bodies–made of dust–return to the earth, but our spirit returns to God. What does this mean on materialism? Which part of our material selves go to God?
Revelation 6:9- “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (NIV)
The souls of those killed for their faith cry out for justice from under the altar. The objection may be made that this is apocalyptic language. In answer, I would simply point out that even then it makes no sense on materialism even in that context. What are the souls that are crying out in this vision? What is the referent for the alleged metaphor?
In Matthew 17:1-8, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, who have died. Did God raise them bodily, and did they then die again immediately afterwards and decompose when they are no longer visible?
1 Peter 3:18-19- “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits…”
What was Jesus proclaiming the Gospel to? What is imprisoned? Where are the physical/material bodies in this passage? (Note that in context it is talking about those alive in Noah’s day–so again, where did their bodies go?)
Verses like these could be multiplied continually. Perhaps more telling is that the reasoning I’m using here regarding the texts and the distinction between body and soul is similar to the arguments put forth to justify the Trinity. That is, texts which discuss the Father and Son as different entities or even have all three persons of the Trinity in the same context are used to demonstrate that there really are three distinct persons in the Godhead. Yet this is exactly the type of argument I am here making for body and soul. They are used too many places together to be the same thing.
It seems to me utterly clear from the Biblical text that human beings are not purely material entities. Again and again texts can be shown to refer to the body on the one hand and the soul on the other. This is not to say that humans are necessarily one or the other; instead, it is to point out that humans are (at least) body and soul. (I say “at least” because there is a long tradition of trichotomy in Christianity wherein people hold that humans are body, soul, and spirit. I remain neutral in that debate and here only wish to show that humans are not merely material entities.)
The Philosophical Debate
Suppose that one maintains that the Biblical evidence is inconclusive. What then? Could we then say that Christianity and materialism are compatible, for materialism is not explicitly ruled out by the text? Here, I will offer two arguments against these conjoined propositions.
Identity Through Time
How do we maintain identity through time? Here, the problem must be answered by all materialists, not just Christian materialists.
The problem is, of course, that our bodies don’t maintain physical identity. We are continually replacing the physical parts of our body over time. Now, I am hesitant to make the oft-repeated claim that our entire bodies are replaced every so many years, as I have been unable to find any research confirming it. However, it simply is the case that large portions of our body are replaced. Given this fact, how do we maintain identity? What is it that keeps us the same person over time?
Another major problem is this: to which part of our body are we identical? Or, to put it another way, which parts of our body do we need to keep in order to be the same person? Here we can appeal to a thought experiment. A mad scientist has us captured and he wants to see how long we can maintain identity. Slowly, he replaces each part of our body with a new one with the exact same DNA, structure, etc. As he replaces these parts, he discards the old ones and destroys them. He starts with the legs. Then he moves to the midsection, replacing one organ at a time. Then the heart, the arms, the ears, the eyes. When he gets to the brain, he goes through and replaces only single neurons at a time.
The question is pretty obvious: When do we stop being the same person? The materialist simply has to admit that we are our bodies (for what else could we be?). But given that fact, to which part are we identical? The brain? If so, at one point in the experiment do we cease to exist? 51% of our brain is gone? 70%? All but one neuron? So is our identity grounded in that one neuron? If so, which one? Or is it just grounded in having any one neuron as the same? If so, how?
Frankly, I think this problem is devastating for materialists, but especially those who are Christians. Why would it be more acute for Christians? Well…
Central to the Christian hope is the hope for a future resurrection. The question which must be asked is this: Is this hope grounded in reality?
Suppose materialism were true. If that is the case, then humans are identical with their bodies in some fashion. I am intentionally vague here because I admit I’m not convinced as to how identity works within a Christian view of materialism (see above). If this were the case, then when we die and our material body decomposes, it may go on to become all sorts of different things, which themselves later pass away (plants may grow from the nutrients broken down from the body; then those plants may be harvested and eaten by other humans/animals/etc, which then die and are broken down, etc.). In the resurrection, then, God creates our body anew, complete–I assume–with our memories, experiences, etc. built in (perhaps they are simply functions of our brain, which God recreated perfectly, which thus contains our experiences).
Is there actual hope on this scenario?
Suppose the mad scientist were to come and kidnap you. He gleefully announces that he is going to use you for excruciatingly painful experiments which will take place over several years until you die. But, do not worry, because once you die, he is going to create a new body which is an exactly perfect copy of you, which will of course have all your experiences (minus this torturous one) and memories in place, and then he is going to give you billions of dollars.* Would you be comforted by this scenario? After all, you’re not going to remember the pain and you are going to come out the other end extremely rich!
Well there is a problem: the new body is not you. It is just a copy. For any materialist, this is problematic. We seem to know that identity transcends the body. But let us not delve into that difficulty right now. Instead, we will focus on Christian materialism. Now, it seems to me that this problem is almost the same for the Christian materialist with the Resurrection. After all, we are going to die. But we are told, don’t worry, we will be raised bodily by God! But whose body is going to be raised? How will God gather the material from our body (and at which time of our body–see above) in order to recreate us? And will not this body purely be a copy, rather than actually us?
There is a real disconnect here. Christian materialism cannot offer us the hope of the resurrection, without which our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). Instead, it offers us the hope for our future copies, which will themselves have our memories and experiences, but will not be us. Our bodies will die and distribute throughout various portions of the world (even the universe–who knows if an asteroid might hit and distribute the molecules which made up our body elsewhere?). Then God will create us again in some fashion, and that body will live on in the Kingdom. But that body is not us. It will be a new body. This isn’t begging the question, it is merely stating a fact. The body that will be raised is not the body I have now. Thus, if I am my body, I am not raised.
Interestingly, Peter van Inwagen, a Christian philosopher who is himself a materialist, concedes the point I made in this section. In order to escape this extreme problem for Christian theology, he comes up with a rather unique solution: “Perhaps at the moment of each man’s death, God removes each man’s corpse and replaces it with a simulacrum which is what is burned or rots. Or perhaps God is not quite so wholesale as this: perhaps he removes for ‘safekeeping’ only the ‘core person’–the brain and the central nervous system–or even some special part of it… I take it that this story shows that the resurrection is a feat an almighty being could accomplish. I think it is the only way such a being could accomplish it…” (Van Inwagen, 121, cited below).
What response can we have to this? Well surely, it is possible for God to do this, but it raises all kinds of speculation. First, what Biblical evidence do we have to support that our bodies or our brains/nervous systems are transported by God somewhere in order to preserve them? Honestly, I think that someone who posits this kind of miraculous working holds a burden of proof to support it. Second, where is this storage yard of brains/nervous systems? This question is not intended to beg the question. Instead, my intent is to point out that they would have to be somewhere in the physical universe. Thus, we should be able to find a planet where all the brains/central nervous systems of everyone who ever died are being stored. Third, given this, could we potentially destroy this planet and thus destroy all possibility of the resurrection? Fourth, other than as a completely ad hoc measure to preserve the possibility of hope, what possible justification (philosophical, theological, and/or Biblical) do we have for this?
On the whole, it seems to me that Peter van Inwagen’s proposed solution fails. It fails because it is extremely ad hoc and because it may not even solve the problem it is intended to solve. Thus, it seems to me that Christian materialism fails as a worldview.
I have offered several arguments against the conjunction of Christianity and materialism. I think any one of these arguments is successful on its own (I should note that I also think the argument from the ego is successful–I have argued here against atheistic materialism, but this argument would be equally successful against Christian materialism). If any one is successful, the conjunction of Christianity and materialism must be false. Frankly, I think all the arguments are successful. I leave the Christian materialist to justify their position.
Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.”
If Materialism, are there Subjects?– I contend that a materialist worldview cannot account for subjects. This post was written specifically to address atheistic materialism, but is perfectly relevant for theistic materialism as well.
*I am indebted to Alvin Plantinga and Stephen Parrish for this type of argument.
**I am indebted to Kevin A. Lewis for his list of texts provided in his “Essentials of Christian Doctrine II” syllabus.
Peter van Inwagen “The Possibility of Resurrection,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 9:2 (1978), 114ff.