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Exploring environmental stewardship (with Dr. Nathan Howell)


WORLD Radio - Exploring environmental stewardship (with Dr. Nathan Howell)

How does the news cover environmental topics? What makes these issues so contentious among believers? We’re joined by environmental engineer Nathan Howell to explore a Christian stance toward the environment.

KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.


KELSEY: Today, we also have a guest with whom we’ve been chatting over the course of the last few months. Together, we want to model a conversation you might have with your teens and students. But before we dive in, we want to invite you to write or record your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: So you may remember a few weeks ago, we just dipped our toe into environmental topics when we talked about light pollution and creation stewardship. And that was prompted in part by our conversations with Nathan Howell. Nathan is a professor of Environmental Engineering at West Texas A&M, and his questions and comments have been so good. They’ve helped us think through these topics. And so today, we’ve invited him to come on the show with us, so we can collaborate with him through this conversation and explore this area where our Christian worldview intersects with the environment, with creation.

KELSEY: Welcome, Nathan.


KELSEY: As you and I have been corresponding, I’ve glimpsed a wealth of knowledge behind your reflections and thoughtful questions. And for the benefit of our listeners, I just want to ask if you’d be willing to tell us a little bit more about what got you into your field, how you developed your specific interest in environmental engineering, and give us a sense of your area of specialty. And just to warn you, we may have to cut in and ask you to define some terms as we go, to make sure we’ve got a great base level of understanding. So first, tell us a little bit about yourself, and what got you into your field.

NATHAN: I’ve lived in Texas all my life, and from growing up around Texas, like normally you live out here and there’s a lot of wide open spaces. So I certainly was surrounded by the environment and got really interested in it, at least for the level of being kind of like a naturalist. I was in Boy Scouts. And I just loved to sit and experience the quiet outside. And at some point in school, I was grabbed onto by a chemistry teacher in high school. That was pretty influential in my life. He was a Christian man, and got me to thinking a lot about how your faith can relate to your profession in some way. What is the way to pursue a profession Christianly? He was a good example for me in the field of chemistry.

So through that experience of just loving chemistry so much, I decided to go to college in chemical engineering, because I always loved math a lot. We had someone that came and talked about environmental applications of chemical engineering, and I didn’t think much of them. I thought, “Well, this just sounds like feel good something. It’s not real engineering, or it’s not real enough for me.”

So when I got done with school, of course, you need to get a job. So I found the only job that I could find at that time, which was at an environmental firm in Houston. And their specialty was groundwater remediation and monitoring. If you know much about groundwater, then you know that it’s very expensive to clean up the pollution from it. So if you can not pollute in the first place, that’s the best thing. But we had a lot of small mom-and-pop dry cleaners that had had issues, so I worked on technologies to help clean up that groundwater and to monitor our progress over time, and then also to work in environmental litigation with different large companies that were basically suing each other to see whose responsibility was the most for cleaning up water. So thankfully, at least somebody knew that it needed to be cleaned up. It was just a question of who and how much and what time in history was that release back in the ’60s that happened. I spent a lot of time reading really old industrial memos about some guy like, “And we released this thing accidentally one day,” and tried to use that as like a smoking gun to explain something in a litigation environment.

I wasn’t satisfied in that company long term. I knew about things like Engineers Without Borders and those types of organizations. I knew I wasn’t really trained in like seminary, but since I had all this engineering training, I thought there had to be a way for me to be income involved in that, but I didn’t think I had enough training on my own. If you know anything about missions and international development, you’re kind of isolated. So you need to know how to operate more on your own. And I didn’t. So I knew that if I learned some more about water, at least water almost was always relevant wherever you go. So I went into graduate school in the University of Houston, and I ended up getting to work in pollution issues related to fish consumption advisories in the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

I spent many years collecting fish from gillnets and fighting off crabs that were trying to get me when they come in the nets there. And I learned how to drive a really big boat and how to keep the Coast Guard happy, because we had to go into some pretty secure areas and they’re just really serious people with guns, and they don’t mind sciencey people coming, but they don’t mess around with it because they deal with life and death every day, those guys.

So it was a lot of good experiences from doing that, and it built my confidence a lot as an engineer. So I had mixed all this field work with taking those fish and crab samples back to the lab, then trying to create models and analyses that I could take to a regular public meeting where they were talking about contaminated sediment or contaminated fish, and trying to explain to people—how bad was it? How likely was it that they would be able to fish there in the future? What was the government actually doing about it? And a lot of those questions were very difficult, because people had a lot of emotional reactions to polluted sediment in their neighborhood. And it was hard to explain the details of what was really going on without just losing them. So that was something I had to learn gradually. I think through all that, I learned a lot about engineering and understood that environmental engineering is very much about the science, but it connects a lot with people and their lives in really intimate ways, like the air they breathe, the food they eat, the water they have. And trusting a supply chain of food all the way through, like ensuring that food is really safe—all those are environmental engineering kind of questions. And it’s good to care about the details, to make sure that people really can trust what we provide.

KELSEY: That sounds like some life or death issue there to me, between water and air and food source. So it seems to me that you would be good colleagues with the Coast Guard you mentioned. So thank you for the way your efforts are applied towards sustaining life and discerning what is a healthful and—to put it in the best words—a solution that goes towards human flourishing. And we’ll talk some more about that concept.

So as you have provided us with some background and specifics, the distinctions between the role of an environmentalist versus the role of an environmental engineer have really become apparent. But I think it’d be important for us to clearly make that distinction. So let’s define environmentalist versus environmental engineer in terms of their vocation or functioning, their expression. How might we compare or contrast their methodologies, or dare I even say, philosophies, for instance, between those two roles?

NATHAN: Well, it’s a question I deal with quite often around the university where I teach, because we get people that are interested in environmental engineering, or engineers that would be great in environmental engineering, like I was, but have a bit of an allergy to the term because of the conflation of these ideas.

I guess, to give an example, there was one time I tried to make a dramatic example in a class my friend was teaching. He was teaching a freshman level class related to environmental engineering. I knew that he was going to be covering this kind of stuff that day, and I actually came in with some protest signs about pollution in the atmosphere and was like yelling and chanting. And I would say, “You guys, you know, this is an example of environmentalism” once they got over the shock of it or something like that. Because I wanted to challenge their notions about environmental things in general, because I knew they were thinking about this kind of stuff.

So that’s some of the distinction that I would make. Environmentalism is anybody who has an advocacy for the environment. To me, that’s kind of key. There’s something about the environment that you’re concerned about in some way, and you’re advocating for it in writing or through speaking or through political policies. It doesn’t have to capture a particular view of the environment other than the environment itself is worth protecting and stewarding in some way. There’s probably a lot of different flavors of philosophy that come into it, I would say.

KELSEY: So you just right off the bat discuss that there’s a difference in terms of expression, methodology. We’re talking about advocacy, maybe even to the point of activism, versus the interventions that are the outcome of the scientific methodology of the environmental engineer. You’ve helped to even create in your students a sense of dissonance in order to help them understand the difference. I appreciate that application of cognitive and even behavioral dissonance that you operated with when you entered the classroom. So the questions born out of that is—we sometimes are absorbing these things and need that experience of dissonance to extricate what we have sponged, and to think about our thinking, think about what we’ve absorbed, think about our feeling.

The news, unfortunately, often stirs us towards certain types of thinking, or we absorb it and don’t realize that we’ve begun to function within a certain type of thinking. So help us with some observations. What have you observed regarding how environmental topics are covered in the media in general?

NATHAN: Well, one thing I can say is that, more often than not, environmental topics in the media are covered in terms of policy more than anything. Like, should a policy be enacted? Should the EPA or some other agency, should they have the power of enforcement that they have? Or another example is someone talking about the way an environmental policy is harming another person there, another party, like maybe in an unintended way, or maybe there’s an implication that somehow it’s meant to be for that for that purpose.

So there’s frequently this discussion of policy costs and trying to find blame, a lot of times is what I see most commonly. And I would contrast that with what I would like to see more of, which is just trying to understand a lot of environmental concerns. You can find definitely articles in Scientific American or a lot of online publications that just talk about the science of environmental things, but it’s the shift between understanding an environmental issue and who’s responsible for it, and therefore what should we do about it—that all happens in kind of a blurred seamless fashion. So it moves between science and solution, or science and advocacy, maybe not in a way that’s intended to obfuscate, but that needs to be sometimes broken apart so that you can think about it clearly.

KELSEY: So what I’m hearing is that there’s a lack of scientific methodology played out, spelled out for the sake of the reader to follow.

JONATHAN: You know, on our podcast, we always try to sit for a bit in observation and analysis before we move into that response. So it sounds like what you’re seeing in the news is, we’re rushing right into our responses, but we’re not really taking time to understand what’s going on.

KELSEY: So when you go to ask questions of either a specific problem that you’re seeing, or the reporting on a specific problem, from your specific perspective, or point of view, what questions do you ask as you interrogate things and make your observations?

NATHAN: Well, I frequently will ask, “Do I understand the science behind the problem there?” and try and relate it to something fundamental that I already know. I know the most about pollution probably. So if someone is talking about pollution from an industry, then I’ll try and see, well, what does that industry actually do? And if they’re saying this kind of pollution comes from it, well, why is that? What is it about their process that creates a kind of pollution? And then the existing enforcement or permitting programs that I know about, I’ll say, are they already part of that program? Have they already been cleared by that part? And why would there be a problem with some kind of pollution if they’re following the law? Because those kinds of things, there are frequently—there’s someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and yet there’s still some kind of blame that’s being given to them.

And probably one other thing I would say is, there’s frequently a discussion—like a good example of one in the last 10 years that used to bother me when I was in school is BPA in plastics. If you’ve ever heard of Bisphenol A, most people have seen it as a sticker or something on plastic. We spent a lot of time in graduate school trying to study it, not as part of our research—we just saw it talked about in a consumer context. And it’s basically put on a sticker, “BPA free,” as if saying, “free is better; it’s not there.” It’s just “generic chemical that sounds scary.” And a lot of the research we looked into was that, in order to get enough Bisphenol A in your body to actually harm you, you had to heat it up to ridiculous temperatures in like a dishwasher, and so that it wasn’t actually that much of a problem. But it was put that way. And then once the public believed it was a problem, then there was this commercial and industrial inertia. “Well, now we’ve got to get rid of it.” So there wasn’t even any need to actually put a law about it. All the companies did it voluntarily because this viewpoint had just come out about it that didn’t have enough evidence between the toxicology and the chemistry and what was actually in the product itself.

KELSEY: So I hear the importance of these observation questions. And even in just what you were speaking, I heard the who was mentioned in between the lines, but the what, the when, all of these things are a part of a slow process that informs our thinking and our action carefully. So I kind of feel a little bit proud of myself in terms of our sort of methodology, slowing us down to think carefully, and how well aligned that is to a scientific methodology. So kudos to us a little bit today. I’m just thankful for the affirmation as we seek to engage well with what is before us, and to steward what is before us with intention and wisdom and careful observation.

So there are more questions that have come out of your process that I’d really like for us to tackle a little bit today, because you are such a thoughtful question-asker. And so we are deriving much of what we’re going to continue to do through this and a future conversation from these questions you’ve shared with us. So listener at home, these are very suitable for you to use in extended conversations, either at home or in the classroom. And we plan to use them all in the Concurrently Companion, so that you can tackle them and do further research in a more generous amount of time, which they well deserve.

So to launch into some of the questions you shared with us: Why is there little consistent messaging of preaching, consistency of action, or perception or even particular relationship of the church with climate change, as well as other environmental issues?

JONATHAN: That’s a great question, Nathan. And it makes me wonder: What have you seen, from your perspective as an environmental engineer, from the church? What have you observed from the church on environmental topics? And how has that affected you, as a member of your profession?

NATHAN: I think what I’ve observed is, the things that are connected most to people directly are what I see come out most easily in the church. So something that’s more local, like drinking water supply, or—like a good example is, most people in the church that I talked to about the Flint water crisis in like 2015 or 2016, there wasn’t much conflict around just agreeing, this is a problem, and we should do something about it. These people don’t deserve to have so much lead in their water there. And that was a good point of agreement there. Some of that devolved into whose fault it is, unfortunately. Some of that then goes away from the people being affected and to just dealing with the things of criminality or negligence, which is okay. But I think as Christians, a lot is understanding the suffering of people who don’t really understand that much about where their water comes from. And what I discovered from investigating the issue further was even a lot of the engineers who worked in that plant, they didn’t have a lot of control over what was what was going on there. So that was kind of frustrating.

Other kinds of church-related response or preaching-related response is, the general concept of stewardship is talked about in there. And the idea of creation being a gift that we’re to use and to develop and to bring the potential out of, I do definitely see that. And it’s—I don’t know that it comes up often, or if it comes up in a way where it’s like, well, how do I actually do that? And especially how do I do that at an individual level, or a family, or a company? I think it becomes really difficult. And I don’t know that it’s even like pastors’ or church leaders’ faults. Like it’s—a lot of environmental things are an aggregate of many choices that many people make. So it’s not like being just honest as a business person, or being faithful as a parent. Many people’s actions together is what actually addresses some problems that we have.

JONATHAN: I’m so glad to hear you’ve experienced that response of stewardship and creation care in the church. I know there have also been environments in the church where there’s a suspicion towards talk of environmental issues. You kind of hinted at how sometimes there can be that conflict, or that inconsistency, and that’s something I’ve definitely seen for myself as well, that when you get a little further away from talking about the issues that specifically affect people, there can be kind of—should we really care that much about the environment? Does this matter? There’s all sorts of different reasons. We’ll get into that. But I don’t know—Kelsey, I was interested in hearing your thoughts on that as well.

KELSEY: So I’ve had both experiences. As I observe over the course of my years, some of the churches that I have been around or experienced, or some Christians with whom I’ve spoken, they have this “everything is going to all burn” mentality, which is such an interesting thing to talk about. Dissonance. That, to me, was dissonant with my own experience of teaching in the area of creation and the care of the world that is ours to perform as image-bearers. So I found that was difficult, to try to figure out how to integrate with the influences of, like, my father, who was a pastor all through my childhood. And one of his major influences was actually Francis Schaeffer of L’Abri in Switzerland. And he was one of those who, in his day, had a very different expression of that theology of creation, image-bearing engagement with the world, and what that looks like in terms of our relationship with even the Father. So I grew up with what you would call a more Reformed outlook towards the creation and our stewardship of it.

JONATHAN: And, Nathan, your question was really getting to the why: why there’s not a consistent message from the church on environmental issues. And that’s obviously a big question. I’ve taken a crack at reading some things, trying to explore that. And there have been conflicts from both sides—from the church and from environmentalists—that have ended up driving a stake between the church and environmental issues where there doesn’t necessarily need to be one.

So there was an article from The Conversation about the way evangelical views have shifted over time, and that in the 1960s and earlier, it wasn’t uncommon to see Christians speaking openly about caring for the environment. You mentioned Francis Schaeffer. He wrote books on this issue. And it was in the ’90s, where we saw a lot of figures like Jerry Falwell and the late Pat Robertson, who just passed away, who were marrying Christianity and politics, and there began to be a stronger movement away from environmentalism as parts of the evangelical church, very vocal parts of the evangelical church, began moving closer to the political right.

But you also see on the other side, in 1967, there was an essay by Lynn Townsend White. He wrote an essay called “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” And this, from what I’ve been reading, had a really big impact on the way a lot of secular environmentalists think about Christianity. Because White’s whole thesis is that the Christian idea of man as rulers of creation, of man as being apart from and over creation, has actually led to our current ecological issues and has led to abuse of the environment. So that was a really impactful essay that created a lot of suspicion, in some people, toward Christians, and kind of made the Christian worldview a bit of a pariah in some environmental communities.

So I guess what I’m driving at is, I see there have been movements away on either side, where in the church you started seeing some more political affiliations that made creation care a more conflict-prone subject, and then on the environmental side, you see things like the Lynn White thesis that created suspicion toward Christianity. We can get into scripture more specifically later, but I think it’s sad, because I don’t think there is as much conflict there scripturally as there has been created by these historical circumstances.

KELSEY: I agree. In terms of my own observation, it has been more related to a politicization of ideologies that the problem exists, instead of seeing how science and faith really engage very well together. You know, what science says is true about humanity is in keeping with biblical truth. When we observe things at the smallest level, we see that it reflects the things the Lord proclaims about who we are, whether that is our identity, or whether it’s the stuff we’re made of. And I think about that, in very simple terms, the stuff we’re made of, the molecules, the matter—you know, we’re made of the same things as the rest of creation.

And so this turns us a little bit towards the next question. I don’t want to turn too quickly towards it before giving Nathan a chance to speak to it as well. But when we’re thinking about the things of environment, in a sense of seeking after truth, you know, we’re seeing that the split comes with where we proclaim a difference about what truth is in other areas. And so begin to separate our camps, and be in opposition towards one another, and maybe proclaim things that we haven’t even really carefully thought through, just as a matter of showing that we are opposed to certain pieces of ideology—I just find that to be a travesty. But Nathan, I want to give you the opportunity to speak to this question that Jonathan might have to repeat if I’ve strayed too far from it.

NATHAN: Well, yeah, I know what y’all are saying in the sense of kind of like a tribal alignment. There’s one side of an issue that left or right may not agree with, and because it has connected with an environmental something, we just reject it, because it’s not on our side of things. And it kind of goes to what we’ve been saying about the need to carefully consider environmental issues. I mean, there’s no issue that I would think about the environment that I could say is terribly simple, either simple in physical chemical means or simple in terms of the way to address it with policy or behavior. So it makes me want to encourage the church in general to take each issue on its own, and not to worry who it makes you look like you agree with, I think, or what side it is. Because if something is right, it doesn’t matter who you’re agreeing with on it. It’s right because it’s right, because it’s based in truth.


KELSEY: That’s such a great thought. And I honestly just want to sit there, because the conviction that that brings to those of us who are so tempted, as I am, to want to categorize neatly, to make things simple, so that I can move on—we talk often about the complexities of the things we’re engaging with, and how you peel back the layers and you recognize how little you knew, how much more there is to learn, how much tension there is in the process of learning, what it looks like to try and maybe even to fail, as we seek to discern what Christian maturity and faithfulness looks like. And so another one of your questions really rubs into that well, which is: How should we, as Christians, balance degradation to the environment, degradation to environmental resources, with the need to promote human flourishing?

JONATHAN: This, to me, is such a good question, because it gets at the heart of where I think a lot of Christians can sometimes have a hang up with environmental issues. I hear often language from people outside of the church, environmentalists, who don’t seem very concerned with human flourishing, or who maybe even see humans as the problem, just hurting the Earth. And so I think this tension, between fighting the degradation of the environment but promoting human flourishing, that’s a really important tension to explore.

KELSEY: It reminds me of the tension of the now and not yet. It feels like so much of Christian discipleship has us in the intersection of those intense places of tension. I’m going to make a stab at answering your question through the Redemptive Narrative, because, in my view, and I believe part of the coaching of that view actually stems back to Schaeffer’s work and its influence in my family—our understanding of the human place within creation is that our flourishing is actually wrapped up with the flourishing of all creation. And likewise, as creation flourishes, man also flourishes. And we’ll dip into some of the scripture verses we derive this theology from, but I’m just going to refer to my work on our blog, where I discussed the Redemptive Narrative in a way that I hope models that well through some illustration. Imagine this triangle in your head, where you have God the Father—God, triune, complete in His relational self, but who also created, for His own glory, creation and human beings as image-bearers within that creation, and that He was pleased, was delighted in it, named it as “very good.” This triad of relationship, where man served as steward and reflection of God’s image into creation, and then also served as something like a priest of creation back to God, so that, as man and creation engaged with one another, as man specifically and intentionally asserted dominion over this beautiful garden that he was given, that he glorified God, and brought out the best of creation for His glory.

Now, that’s an idealistic picture. But it’s such a beautiful one. And it’s one that I truly believe is not pure idealism, but really reflects the intent of the Author of all creation. Now, it goes on, and we’re living in the midst of the results of sin, the outpouring of the curse. It goes on to help us recognize that that relationship is broken. And even all of our ways of trying to sort out the current brokenness of those relationships, even those things are broken, so that it feels like brokenness just increases exponentially. Sometimes I feel like we’re just digging ourselves a hole, and just burying ourselves in it.

But when we look through the lens of the gospel, this Redemptive Narrative, we see something about what it means to return to that place, and to be restored to that place of stewardship, by the work that was done on our behalf in Christ, to move us back into that position of relationship with the Father, and restored hopeful engagement of this garden we’ve been placed in. So through that lens, I would say, as I look at what it means to balance my understanding of what we as humans, in our sin, and as an outcome of our sin in terms of that curse unfolding—I balance that with the need to promote human flourishing by realizing that, as we promote the flourishing of all creation, we promote our own flourishing. And as we promote our own flourishing, we should realize that that is only had through caring for, you know, the water that we need to drink, the air that we breathe, the food sources that we have. It is not something that we can extricate from one another. These aren’t categories that sit independently from one another. They are integrated fully. So I’ve had a lot to say, right there. Your thoughts on this?

NATHAN: One thing I could say is, from what I’ve been reading in some of Wendell Berry’s work that we talked about offline, is the concept of the humility related to creation. And the one example that comes to mind is endangered species, that there’s many times where those people who have endangered species on their land, or in someplace they want to use the resources, whatever that plant or animal is, it’s something that we could never recreate. If it’s gone, we just don’t have the power—we shouldn’t have that kind of power, I don’t think—to just create something like that. Part of the humility that’s related to what you’re saying, I think, about that there should be an alignment between creation care and flourishing, or preserving resources and human flourishing, is that there’s some kind of trust in God that if we take care of something, like an endangered species, there may be a cost at that moment—we can’t use that forest or we can’t use that water, we can’t use it the way we want to use it. But we’re honoring something that God made, that we can’t make. We may not know how it’s going to benefit us. But we’re somehow trusting God that, if He’s really over the entire world in the universe, He’s going to find a way to use it for our good in a lot of ways, because of the humility saying, “We don’t really understand how it all works together.” There’s still a lot that we just don’t know. We just see, “Oh, we don’t get to use that forest.” But preserving the amphibian or whatever it is—there’s more going on there than probably we’ll ever perceive.

JONATHAN: It takes me back to what you were saying about taking these issues as they come, one by one, not lumping them together. Looking at specific environmental issues, or specific policies or proposals, things done to protect a species or an environment, and asking ourselves: Is this actually hurting people, to do this protective action? Or is it just an inconvenience? Because I think in our modern American world—we’re speaking from a context here in the United States, I know we have listeners outside of that context—but in a lot of Western nations, we have a lot of convenience. And we’re used to having excess and surplus. And so where is our value? Is it in just modern convenience? Or are we having a bigger picture view of what is actually going to serve my neighbor, both here and in the future, and what is going to honor God’s creation?

KELSEY: It’s one of those moments where we can ask questions either related to digging towards those source idols, to lay bare what’s going on with us at the heart level, or even to ask some of those questions to interrogate what we’re really believing. And those relate to worldview. You know, what are we viewing as the problem here? Is the problem that I’m uncomfortable? Is the problem that I have to make hard decisions or even humble myself? And some of these questions, they attune differently, depending on what world we’re standing in. If we’re standing from a Christian perspective, some of these questions are maybe going to make us uncomfortable in terms of, how am I honoring the Lord with the choices that I’m making, along with those questions of how am I loving my neighbor? Or how am I caring for creation? All of those leading back to, what am I believing about who is ultimately in authority here? And then how do I align with that good authority? Lots of questions to kind of push into that area of discipleship, and we’ll include some suggestions in our Companion.

NATHAN: You’re talking about the convenience aspect. “This shouldn’t be difficult, it shouldn’t be inconvenient, things should always be progressing towards more convenience and more immediate immediacy,” those kinds of idols. On the other side of the issue is the need to please people, the idol of man and man’s opinions, where if you don’t subscribe to a current environmental something, or if you say, “It’s not definitely good, or it’s not definitely bad, but there’s more nuance there,” then maybe you’re not as popular, or the people that you traditionally side with, they don’t understand; they don’t buy what you’re selling.

I think that’s especially important for kids, because I’ve certainly experienced in my own life, there’s many times in school where I would learn something, come home and talk to my parents, and they would say, “Oh, they’re just trying to indoctrinate you,” or “What? I don’t even know what that is that you’re talking about.” My kids frequently, they’ll come talk to me about something environmental, like microplastics or something. And I generally agree with them. But if I ask them very much about, well, why does this matter to you? Why do you care? Then mostly what I get is, “Oh, somebody said it was really important,” or “All my friends are saying it.” It’s the difference between the outcome of their opinion and how they came to that opinion in the first place, wanting to know that you know why you are so strenuously advocating for something. Because if it’s just to please other people, then you’re not really pleasing God. You’re really using the environment to increase your reputation in some way.

KELSEY: That segues really well into one of your questions. Where is the sin fracture and the repentance for the ways our actions have failed in environmental stewardship? So when we’re talking about idols, you know, right here, we’re rubbing right into—where is the sin fracture? Where’s the repentance that we need to be engaging, regarding our failure in environmental stewardship, or even our failure in our motivation, like you were pointing out? I think we’ve talked about that a little bit. But let’s see what else we can draw out here, because we’re moving into that area of response.

NATHAN: Well, one I would say that really haunts me—I keep this on my email signature—this quote from Gaylord Nelson. He’s one of the founders of the Earth Day. And he says “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” It reminds me of, I don’t know, the way that the Bible talks about generational curses and generational blessings. There’s a lot of decisions related to education, like the way I think about it as an educator—when I educate a student, I may be affecting generations by doing that. But for some reason, with a lot of environmental things, we don’t always think so much like that. And I think some of it is because, when it’s like education—like I’m going to educate myself, so that my kids will do better, so that my grandkids will do better. Well, I obviously get a benefit from doing that too.

But in a lot of things that are environmental, they may cost me something in the here and now, and there’s some uncertainty about how will that benefit 80 years from now? 150 years from now? And there, I don’t always see that—that’s one of the struggles with the Bible, is I don’t always see a lot of instances where Jesus or somebody said, “Hey, I’m going to preserve this thing, and we’ll see it 150 years from now, this environmental resource,” whatever it was. It seems like it’s important to love the people of the future that I will never know, and that God would certainly call us to that. But there’s the tension. If I’m asking somebody now to forego something that’s making life harder for them, or causing them to suffer, well, who matters more? That person or the person in the future?

That’s why, in some ways, I gave you a lot of questions, because in some ways, the questions are more important than the answers, just getting to where I honestly care about asking these questions.

KELSEY: I think it’s about that self-examination to such a large extent. It is being willing to ask: Am I willing to die a little bit today? You know, my death is not the salvific death of Jesus Christ. But He does ask for us, He even tells us that those of us who are following Him must take up our cross and, you know, die a little bit daily as we become more and more like Him.

So I think this also connects really well with some of the questions that you’ve asked about, what should we be praying? What does a mature discipleship response look like? How do we think of all these things? How do we repent over the things that we need to repent ever? What does it look like to engage maturely regarding these ideas of environmental resources? I think the beauty is in the question there as well, as you’ve mentioned. So much of even the scientific process, the strength of it is slowing down and letting the questions just bubble up. It’s the humility. It’s a posture of curiosity and wonder, and recognizing that we don’t know it all. But we have a God who is knowable, and who delights in being known, and making Himself known through His creation. And so we can have that confidence, to be able to ask those questions and wrestle with them, and even examine our hearts under the abundant provision of grace that we have in Him.

Let’s wrap up with some of the things that we think about from scripture, the things that provide for us a framework for how we think about the Lord’s world.

JONATHAN: My mind went right back to the beginning, to Genesis, after God creates Adam and Eve. Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.’” And you know, I mentioned Lynn White earlier. In his essay, he looked at that and said, “Oh, that’s bad. Humans are just subduing and using up creation and exploiting it.” But no. This is all under God. And in this, we see that we have a calling, like Kelsey said, almost that priestly calling, where there is an accountability between us and God. We want to take care of this thing well, and use it well in a way that doesn’t destroy it, because we are over creation, but God is over us.

KELSEY: Something that you might enjoy using, parent, teacher, mentor, is Romans 5, as we think about the fact that in one man’s sin all sinned, and sin was ushered into the world along with its curse, but that through one man’s righteousness, one man’s sacrifice, He also restored all men to our place within creation. Romans 5 is a great place to sit and think and to consider, how might that apply to these topics we’ve been discussing today?

Parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens, there is an abundance of provision in the Lord’s word as we tackle complex topics towards Christian maturity. And we want to remind you: He has equipped you for this work.

Show Notes

How does the news cover environmental topics? What makes these issues so contentious among believers? We’re joined by environmental engineer Nathan Howell to explore a Christian stance toward the environment.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week's downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

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Phoenix, AZ | 7/13 - 7/15 | Arizona Families for Home Education

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