“Oh yeah, Christians totally hate the environment. You didn’t know that?”
I overheard this statement after Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Part One was released in theaters, and it bothered me.
Tolkien’s rich, imaginative work, along with his beloved hobbits who are central to it, is hugely pro-environment, pro-nature, and immensely green. As a person, he was even more than that: he thought nature was to be appreciated for its beauty, not merely a resource to be exploited; he abhorred the kind of industry that dehumanized (think Mordor versus the Shire); he was cautious of the idea that technology and progress were humanity’s solution to everything (because it can make us lazy); and he thought food and drink were not mere fuel to power our busy frenetic lifestyles, but rather the stuff that invaluably aids in making our lives more enjoyable. Tolkien made creation look good.
Coward that I was, I didn’t take the opportunity to mention to the folks I overheard that not all Christians abuse the environment. I didn’t explain Tolkien’s idea of nature, and then point out that he was—handy for me—a Christian. I kick myself again, right now, for failing to employ the opportunity to engage with them.
As a kid, I knew of a couple of Christian writers, such as Wendell Berry, who touched on earth keeping. I also remember being taught from my rural parents that the Bible had some things to say about proper stewardship when it came to the environment—like wasting food or wood or other resources wasn’t smiled upon by God. Truthfully, though, I didn’t really do a lot of looking into the matter. Then, later in life, I came across the assertion that Christians are pretty sucky at caring for the earth.
I had read, from the early and respected pioneer of environmentalism, Lynn White, that for the Christian it was axiomatic that “nature has no reason for existence save to serve man[kind].” For him, and others who assert similar, this necessitates that Christians will have a drastically damaging perspective of how to interact with the environment: according to White, Christians will see it as something to exploit in any way they wish. It is theirs, by rights, to do with what they see fit, whether to waste, abuse, or ultimately destroy.
My question, then, was this: Is this the case? Is this what the majority of Christians think? That nature is meant only to serve our needs?
I have read all kinds of differing opinions coming from the Christian community about the issue. Terms like steward, guardian, and earth keeper seemed to appear most frequently.
But while I do think the word stewardship includes many positive connotations, to me—and to others—this word still has the whiffs of control. It might not include ownership, but I have seen too many people abused during their time under a supposedly benign authority. Whether this was under some government or church guidance, the person or thing subordinated to a guardian or whatever still could be ill-treated, abused, etcetera rotten etcetera.
It confuses me how, despite sentiments asserting things like, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” I still see how abusively many Christians treat “the Lord’s” land.” I wonder, am I missing something? This is not saying I have been utterly innocent.
One thing that has really helped me change the way I relate to the earth is the idea of nature as sister. G. K. Chesterton, following St. Francis of Assisi, argued that we will treat the earth better if we think of her as our sister. In Orthodoxy, one of Chesterton’s better known works, he says, “Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity…To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
In other words, Chesterton suggests we will not only enjoy nature more, but we will respect and cherish her because she, like us, shares in being a creation of God. We both share in value, not mere usefulness. A sister is not merely a useful part of the family; she shares in the sacredness of being created. When a child begs his or her mother for a baby sibling, they want somebody to play with, somebody to share with, someone to grow up with. Sure, teasing and bugging usually go on, but in a healthy home this is not the defining characteristic of a sibling relationship.
When I think about how I relate to my sibling, I think in terms of relationship and how being part of the same family enriches our lives. I do not think about my sibling in terms of what I can get from him or her, but in terms of what characteristics we share, how we relate to our parents, how we’re different, and how we move about in the world. I think about the welfare of my sibling; I question after his or her health and well-being. My sibling is a person with whom I share a history: someone I care a great deal about, somebody I want the best for.
Similarly, when I think of the metaphor of earth as sister, I am better able to relate to the earth in terms of relationship rather than mere functionality. This is valuable for me, because when I step away from the whole stewardship mentality and toward a sibling mentality, I am challenged to treat the earth differently. I find that, just as Chesterton predicted, I take more care to treat her tenderly, but I can also stand back and be a little playful. I want to both minimize my pollution as well as increase my experience of her gifts. I think about habits that destroy her health as well as habits of becoming better acquainted with her beauty. And when I think about it, I suspect Tolkien’s hobbits might model this attitude toward nature quite well: the attitude of protection as well as delight and intrigue.