When materialists care about nature, and creationists don’t
My friend is a biology professor at a Christian university and recently shared that he struggled to teach about the natural world because he is so saddened by how much biodiversity is being affected by the reality of climate change. It was existentially daunting to him to see how the natural world was being ruined by powers that are abusing it.
I can relate to that anguish at the destruction of nature. I feel it too. I think we’re groaning along with creation at its own destruction. I think God is lamenting too. But the most fascinating thing to me is that, in large part, though their interest in climate change and the conservation of creation is increasing, it’s still relatively low.
At the same time, I’m fascinated by my friend’s interest because he’s not a religious person (he’s a formerly religious person, though). But it’s not just people who used to have faith that care about the environment, all sorts of people do, even those who never had faith. I’ve always found this passion interesting because I never understood the romantic view of nature without a belief in the metaphysical, in fact.
I suppose someone could have nostalgia about the state that nature is in because that’s all we knew. Or we could suffer because so much of it is being destroyed in preventable ways too. But I think the best argument against climate change is an anthropocentric one. That is to say, one centered in human kind.
Short of faith, anthropocentric arguments against climate change make the most sense
If I were a naturalist or a materialist, I would only see an anthropocentric argument for fighting climate change. Most species that have ever existed are now extinct. The romance I associate with a love for life and the diversity of life comes from my faith. So for me, apart from my faith, I don’t see any reason to not purely have an anthropocentric framework for climate change activism. That is to say, for the naturalist, the primary species that is disappearing that they might be concerned about are homo sapiens.
Some people argue that materialists live in a meaningless world and that any preservation of human life is in vain, but I can’t go that far personally. Belief in the metaphysical isn’t necessarily why we care about our loved ones and human kind. It might be a natural instinct that we have to care about the species as a whole (though if you evaluate human behavior over time, it would not seem to be very instinctive). Nevertheless, it’s not a huge surprise that human beings want their children to enjoy the earth just like they did.
I think an anthropocentric argument is indeed the best argument for the preservation of nature if you don’t have faith. So I am struck when other ideas about caring for nature present themselves. Perhaps it is just a façade to disguise what actually may be a self-centered reason for advocating against climate change, but it may be something more. I think that the longing and care we have for creation was actually placed in us by our Creator. We are bonded with the earth in a unique way. And when we separate that bond we are doing violence to the very way God created the whole world and cosmos.
We’ve separated humanity from the earth, and our bodies from our souls
I think that consciousness about our place of belonging in the created order is given to us from God because God had a plan for all of creation and humanity. I think in creating us with the rest of creation, God was saying, indeed, we are connected.
I’m afraid that we’ve disconnected ourselves from creation in a variety of ways. And even disconnected ourselves from our own bodies. We abuse our bodies like we do creation, supposing that they are as expendable as creation is. This isn’t just Christians that do this, but all humans. We don’t care for the earth that provides us with life and nourishment, nor even our own bodies.
Maybe it’s because we long for pleasure so much we are willing to pollute our bodies and the creation for its sake and we’ll suffer whatever consequences we incur. That seems to make sense to me, but it does cause me some despair that people would hate themselves so much that they would seek ephemeral pleasure at their own expense.
But the ephemeral nature of creation and human bodies that some Christians hold is exactly why they can eat beef and drive SUVs.
In fact, it’s rooted in Christian eschatology, and why so many Christians are not only skeptical or dismissive of climate change, but generally uninterested. To many Christians, though not the one writing mind you, this whole world is gonna burn as we end up floating off to the next one leaving the earth and our bodies behind. I don’t see much scriptural evidence for this, but it is largely why people think it’s OK to start the burning earlier. They don’t think their children will be affected much by it because their children will be with them in another eternal place altogether.
Jesus’ incarnation moves to care about creation
I, on the other hand, think Jesus is restoring this very earth. Jesus is restoring humanity, along with it. The Word, the Logos, the creator of the World, the Cosmos, entered the Cosmos itself to become like us, to show us how he cares for us and for all of creation. He gave it to us to steward and care for just like he gave us one another to care for. Thus Creation Care, as it is sometimes called, is a Christian conviction rooted in the very fabric of our being! We are created, we are called to love each other, and creation along with us. Caring for the environment is exactly the Christian thing to do.
Circle of Hope has been very committed to this conviction. We say: We are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.
We also have an Urban Farm Team committed to growing food and using the earth as it was intended. We have one committed to Watershed Discipleship, that is, seeing God in the very water that sources our whole region with life. And still another one, Development Without Displacement, that wants to keep Philadelphia affordable, accessible, and green.
So if you’re a materialist or a naturalist, which almost no one is fundamentally so, it seems to me that anthropocentrism is the highest ideal in moving your contemporaries to care about climate change. Talk about your kids and grandkids. Talk about the inevitable authoritarianism that is coming should we not stave off this imminent problem. I think those are anthropocentric reasons that appeal to people who may not have a belief or a passion for a higher power or something above the material.
I think Christians can really make a creation-based argument to fight climate change and care for what God entrusted us with, rooted in both the Age to come and the biblical command to care for creation, too; to love it, as God calls us to love one another, as we love all of creation. And if you are moved to care for nature and creation as it is, as if it has existential value like my aforementioned friend, perhaps it is a created instinct in us to care for creation, one that was given to us by a Creator. One in whom we all live, and dwell, and have our being.