Christian Earth Stewardship—A Dead End
May 7, 2016 § 7 Comments
From 1990 to 1996 or so, I followed my initial leading to write a book synthesizing the work of Christian earth stewardship theologians. Reading it now after decades have passed, I am astonished at how thoroughly I internalized the Christian worldview to which I had been so hostile for so long and how comfortable I became speaking with a Christian voice. Reading it now pulls be back into that head space and reminds me how—joyful, really—it was for me to be there then.
I read those theologians, I followed the trails into Scripture that they had discovered and the trails that I found on my own, and I read some of their critics. And the more I read and thought while doing this research and this writing, the more I came to feel that Christian earth stewardship led to a dead end. I became a critic myself. Over time, the book became both a synthesis and a critique. And that critique inevitably became not just a critique of the Christian approach to earthcare, but of the Christian worldview itself. Again, I was the critic.
I had been a critic before; I had started out that way. But that earlier critique was shallow, ignorant, and hostile. Now I was inside. Now I felt I understood the assumptions behind the work and I had developed—or rather recovered—a profound love for the foundation, for the Bible, the love I had known as a pious Christian teenager. Now I wanted to speak to the tradition from the tradition about its own strengths and shortcomings and what I saw as its full potential.
In the book, I added chapters on Strengths and Weaknesses and on Assumptions, and I wrote detailed critiques of each of the Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship. I suppose I will publish these here at some point. Strengths and Weaknesses is ready now, so I’ll publish that one, at least.
But I had lost the passion I had started with. I no longer believed in the direction I was going. First, just as an observation, earth stewardship was a demonstrable failure. More than a generation had passed and the church still had not caught on—hardly at all. Lots of good theology and still no action. Relentlessly, I asked myself why.
I see lots of reasons, but the three that loomed largest for me were, first, that the foundational Christian paradigm of sin, salvation through faith in Christ, and deferred judgment simply crowded destruction of creation onto an already long list of more compelling, sexier sins without providing any real accountability here and now, in this world and time.
Second, that the sins of destruction were mostly collective sins, not individual. The basic unit of ecological action (or non-action) is the household, not the individual, not even the individual as consumer. As individuals, we are virtually powerless to change our civilization’s ways. This allows denial and encourages apathy.
As “household” I included, besides family households, businesses, governments, churches, nonprofits, and other corporate entities—any entity that produced, consumed, and exchanged using a system of its own governance. And then there was the infrastructure—the electrical grid, roads and railroads, the internet—and corporate capitalism itself as a system of production, consumption, and exchange—structures of civilization that were not even really under the governance of even the largest “households”. An individual corporation, for instance, could decide to go green, but they would still have to use FedEx and computers and the rest.
Meanwhile, Christianity had atomized the sin and judgment and salvation paradigm to the individual as the locus of action, judgment, and reward or punishment. Jesus had started it, to a certain extent, but Paul finished it when he said, “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile”. The people of Israel were no longer actors to be held accountable as a people under covenant, as they had been in the Jewish tradition for almost two thousand years up to that time. Thus Christian earth stewardship had no structures for meaningful accountability in the real world in real time, unless it chose to recover the ancient meanings and structures of covenant, beyond the rhetoric of the principle of covenant that they had articulated—but only as principle, not as concrete, practical plans for changing how we make ecological decisions as corporate households under God’s guidance and God’s judging eye.
The third main problem was that earth stewardship did not come organically out of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus himself has basically nothing to say about care of the earth. Oh, he does have a couple of stewardship parables, but they are really about the kingdom of God, and especially about money, not earthcare. And yes, he uses land-based and agricultural metaphors all the time. But again, they are about the kingdom of God.
It was telling that the earth stewardship theologians don’t rely on Jesus. They are quoting Hebrew Scripture almost exclusively, plus the “cosmic Christ” passages of Paul. Jesus has basically nothing to say about earthcare.
I came to believe that, if the message of earthcare did not come directly and organically out of the gospel of Jesus, Christians were not going to pay much attention; and they weren’t. If Jesus doesn’t talk about it, why should we?
So I dropped the project before really finishing the book. I told myself that I would now study the gospel of Jesus on its own terms and if I found something, I would follow it, but if I didn’t, I would lay the project down.
And so I started over. I spent years studying the gospels, trying not to force some revelation, but to read them in the spirit in which they were written, waiting to see what G*d would reveal, following the openings that G*d gifted me with. I did not find an earthcare message in Jesus’ gospel; it’s just not there.
But I found something else—two things, really. And they ignited a new fire that has yet to burn out. Not even close. That is for another post.