Though yet wasteful, the Western world has improved in managing world resources both
culturally (the norm and not the exception) and technically (how it’s done). Historically,
“environmentalism” (as an “-ism”) formed one part of the social fabric, and a liberal part at that. This
has changed in recent years and, for many, environmentalism is no longer a social option, but rather a
required, human activity.
Although Christian communities can adopt social movements, they often do so slowly if at all. It
seems that most in today’s Christian community have become supportive of environmental stewardship.
This does not mean that the Christian community is free from anxiety about the issue, perhaps because
Christian communities often arrive at changes in one of two (related) ways. In the first, accepting a
social movement like environmentalism results from shifted exegetical conclusions. We read the Bible
differently than we did. But, because interpretation can be notoriously intertwined with cultural
convictions, suspicions about the authenticity of such conclusions can linger.
Another path is some acceptance (at times tacit) of certain aspects of the culture’s identity. This
acceptance can be enacted without a fully-formed exegetical platform. The change just feels right and
resonates enough with one’s understanding of God’s community that internal conflicts are bearable.
Tensions can arise because Christianity so often represents a counter-cultural view of reality that to
accept a secularly-endorsed position can seem like a loss of Christian identity. As a result, communities
work on piecing together a biblical defense of the social position. This can lead to awkward exegetical
maneuvers, but it also illustrates that a Christian community does not long survive without an exegetical
basis for its actions.
It may seem odd, but the biblical text has quite a bit to say about environmental stewardship.
The reason I think that you may find it odd is because the Bible’s environmental concerns occupy a
different orbit than its secular counterpart. Environmentalism, although supported by ideologues, is
largely concerned with mechanical issues. A healthy biosphere requires that all of its constituent
elements, from glaciers to snails, function in proper mechanical relationship with one another, a
relationship biologists endeavor to uncover.
The biblical authors, aware of the mechanical nature of the created order, think of its
stewardship in different terms. Stewardship is an ontological and functional matter (humans are created
to manage the environment – Gen 2:5 and 15), but is also connected to covenantal relationship with
God. A striking example of this last point is found in Hosea 4:3, where the prophet suggests that
covenantal infidelity leads to the death of the “…beasts of the field, birds of the air, and the fish of the
sea” (a triad found in creation texts such as Gen 1:21-24 and Psa 8:7-8). Apart from the possibility that
Hosea was a hippie, this combination of covenantal fidelity and environmental stewardship is
compelling. Stewardship of the created order is linked with stewardship of the covenant.
While this may sound abstract, Hosea’s vision forces us to think about our worldview in ways
not exclusively driven by pragmatics but rather by ideals. This is an advantage, not a liability. It’s a
utopian vision, but what a delightful consternation! Would that the lion would lie with the lamb! What makes stewardship of the environment Christian is not that Christians do it (fine environmentalists are
built from non-Christian material), but rather that being Christian is to accept stewardship of the
environment. Hosea allows us to boast that we do this by virtue of taking communion. Oh, my. Recycle
and obey, O servants of God!