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‘Earthkeeping and Character’

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Most of us wonder about the kind of person we have become and the kind of person we aspire to be.

Perhaps celebrating a new birth or lamenting the loss of an old friend, contemplating a job change or witnessing a wedding, reading an obituary or attending a funeral, we ask: Who am I, really?

What personal character traits am I proud of? Courage and compassion, humility and honesty, generosity and graciousness?

And which traits do I wish would magically disappear? Impatience and insensitivity, stinginess and self-deprecation, avarice and apathy?

Character traits lie at the heart of who we are. They mark us – for good and ill, to our credit and to our shame – as the unique people we are.

So, an ethics of character is not new or foreign to our lives.

Parents strive to nurture in their children commonly sought virtues, such as courage and compassion, honesty and hope.

Teachers endeavor to form students in certain ways, for example, by discouraging plagiarism and promoting academic integrity, even if the teachers think (falsely) that they are not in the business of moral formation.

Business owners set policies designed to cultivate certain virtues – for example, honesty, diligence and inventiveness – and, thus, promote particular practices and behavior in the workplace.

In short, character formation is taking place all the time, for better or for worse. What is new is that in recent years more scholars have given virtue ethics their attention, and scholarly discussions have shifted to recapture the virtue ethics tradition.

So, what I propose in this volume is a reframing of ecological ethics. I develop an ecological ethic centered on the virtues by drawing on the rich resources of the Christian faith tradition.

In so doing, I join a growing chorus of scholars (philosophers, theologians and ethicists) who advocate virtue ethics, including many Christian scholars.

I also join an increasing number of scholars (again mostly philosophers, theologians and ethicists) who espouse some form of environmental ethics.

There are, however, not many scholars who focus on the intersection of virtue ethics and environmental ethics – namely, environmental virtue ethics.

That is, there are relatively few who emphasize character traits (both virtues and vices) with respect to environmental issues.

And within the field of environmental virtue ethics, there are, as yet, few whose work draws explicitly on the Christian tradition.

With this book, I offer my contribution to our understanding of ecological virtue ethics.

Beyond mere understanding, important as that is, I hope this volume will, to use the words of David Orr in the second epigraph to this chapter, help nurture “the qualities of virtue” that will enable us to “do the difficult things that will be necessary to live within the boundaries of the earth.”

Why the title “Earthkeeping and Character”? And what exactly is meant by the subtitle “Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic”?

Of the many words and phrases used to express our care for our home planet, in my view the word “earthkeeping” best captures our human vocation to serve and protect the earth.

Coined by Loren Wilkinson and his co-authors in their groundbreaking book, the term earthkeeping, with its reference to the earth, is concrete, unlike the more abstract term “world.”

Also, earthkeeping focuses on where we actually live, this blue-green orb called Earth, unlike the hopelessly expansive term “creation.”

This focus on the earth, furthermore, includes the entire biosphere and all the interlocking systems and creatures that are an integral part of this thin slice of life-filled existence, thereby emphasizing both human and other-than-human creatures, unlike the term “nature,” which tends to assume a split between human and nonhuman.

Finally, the compound word earthkeeping accurately names our biblical calling as humans to preserve and protect (as well as use) the earth (Genesis 2:15).

In short, earthkeeping captures our calling to care responsibly for our home planet.

The third word in the title, “character,” points to the tradition of ethics most concerned with virtues and vices and the crucial role they play in our attempts to care for the earth.

The subtitle, among other things, names the academic territory: ecological virtue ethics.

While the commonly accepted term for the field is environmental virtue ethics, I favor the term ecological virtue ethics.

So, when referring to the larger world of scholarship in ethics, I use the more common term, even though I think the term environmental is a poor choice of adjective.

Words matter. As an ancient Chinese proverb puts it, “Whoever defines the terms wins the argument.”

The subtitle also states my perspective as a Christian scholar on this academic field of study.

Unlike some who argue that religion should be eradicated or at least kept private, I argue that the Christian tradition has much to offer contemporary ecological ethics, as do other religions each in their own way.

The Bible has more to say on earthkeeping than many people (including many Christians) realize, and the Christian tradition is deep and rich when it comes to virtue ethics.

My treatment of this topic, however, is a series of explorations, much like being a backpacker in the Sierra Nevada or a canoeist in Quetico.

What follows are excursions from a journey, like a series of day trips designed to reconnoiter new terrain.

The day was picture perfect. A brilliant sun was shimmying up a clear blue sky, the robins and cardinals were singing to their hearts’ content, and the temperature was in the low 50s.

My group of hikers – Hope College students and one other instructor on a May-term course called Ecological Theology and Ethics – broke camp and hit the trail toward our evening’s destination.

Late in the day, after many miles on the rocky trail, we rounded the bend and could not believe what met our eyes.

The campsite by the trail was absolutely beautiful. There was no litter in sight. A stack of firewood was neatly placed next to a small fire ring.

The old log lean-to was in tip-top condition. Tall white pines provided a protective canopy overhead. After a long-astonished silence, one of my students uttered the words in my mind, “What kind of people would have done this?”

In other words, what kind of respectful, humble, loving people must have cared for this place for many years?

With this heartfelt affirmation, my student gave voice to exactly what I was thinking. And she gave voice to an important way of thinking about ethics – ecological virtue ethics.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the introduction of “Earthkeeping and Character” by Steven Bouma-Prediger, ©2019. It is used by permission of Baker Publishing. The book is available here.

Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steven Bouma-Prediger (PhD, University of Chicago) is Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He regularly writes and speaks on environmental issues and is the author of "For the Beauty of the Earth" and "Earthkeeping and Character."