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Avoiding Earth Day extremism

A Christian perspective on environmental stewardship


Avoiding Earth Day extremism

In Scripture, we read, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). This truth provides a pivotal insight allowing us to discern the proper contours of an appropriate approach to the natural world. That’s especially true for a day like today, observed by some as Earth Day, when rival versions of creation and stewardship come to a head.

Because the Earth belongs to God, human beings are not free simply to do whatever we want with it. There are limits and boundaries God has set up in the order of creation. At the same time, because the world belongs to God and He has called us to care for it, we are not free to shirk our responsibility to develop and cultivate the Earth appropriately.

The basis of humanity’s responsibility to cultivate the world appears in Genesis 1. In the context of God’s creation of all things, He decides to “make man in our image, after our likeness.” The status of human beings involves some delegated responsibility, namely to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). In this way, God made human beings with a stewardship responsibility, which involves preserving and cultivating the latent potential of God’s original creation.

Part of humanity’s stewardship responsibility involves preservation: We are to take care to protect what God has given us. This means we cannot see the natural environment simply as a blank canvas for human enjoyment and exploitation. It is easy to fall into the trap of consumerism and hedonism. On the individual level, this temptation is captured in the motto: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). If there is no future life and no eternal destiny for humanity, then this life is evacuated of meaning. With such a view, this world effectively no longer belongs to God.

Because the Earth belongs to God, human beings are not free simply to do whatever we want with it.

Indeed, there is a temporal dimension to Christian stewardship. Our task thus also involves preparation as well as preservation. We must make sure the world we leave to future generations continues to be fruitful and allow for the flourishing and development of all of humanity. We simply do not know what we might discover in the future about alternative uses for things we take for granted now. Today’s trash often becomes tomorrow’s treasure.

As the Apostle Paul observes, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). We might think here of the parable of the talents as recorded in Matthew 25. The master entrusted his property to different servants in various ways, and we see examples of both faithful stewardship and that of a “worthless servant.”

This kind of perspective on stewardship has practical consequences. The extremes of secular approaches to the pressing environmental challenge of fossil fuels, for instance, would lead to radically different perspectives. On the one side, we find arguments in favor of prohibition and abstention from using coal, gas, and oil. On another side, we sometimes see careless disregard for their proper use.

A Christian perspective grounded in a proper understanding of environmental stewardship, by contrast, would inquire about the creational purposes and possibilities for such fuel sources and develop them in line with God’s will. We should neither leave fossil fuels untouched nor should we burn through them thoughtlessly or without regard to the consequences of using them.

Earth Day should be a reminder to avoid the extremes of environmental exploitation, on the one hand, and the disregard for Christian responsibility, on the other. Christians are called and equipped to act as God’s stewards in this world. That is a command from God to which we must be found faithful.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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