How do environmental ethics work out in practice in Christian contexts?
We can often see tension between caring for the environment and focusing on human concerns.
In the past, environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would not focus on human problems, while world development NGOs would show little apparent concern for the environment.
Now it is recognized that there is considerable interaction between what is good for humans and what is good for the environment.
Similarly, there is often tension between evangelism and environmental action, “saving humans or trees.” Holistic mission sees evangelism, social concern and creation care as important, and many denominational mission statements include these.
The Five Marks of Mission from the Anglican Communion are an example:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the Earth
The Lausanne Movement 2011 Cape Town Commitment affirms environment as a gospel issue. “We care for the earth and responsibly use its abundant resources, not according to the rationale of the secular world, but for the Lord’s sake. If Jesus is Lord of all the earth, we cannot separate our relationship to Christ from how we act in relation to the earth. For to proclaim the gospel that says ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to proclaim the gospel that includes the earth, since Christ’s Lordship is over all creation. Creation care is thus a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.”
The environment concerns many people, not just Christians.
Often it is an area where Christians can work together with people of other faiths or none.
Frequently, the environmental practice of Christians and non-Christians will be similar, although there may be some surprising differences in the underlying ethics.
A question that sometimes arises is whether Christians should work with Christian environmental agencies or secular organizations.
Working in a Christian agency increases potential for shared values and activities, such as corporate prayer.
Many secular agencies are larger and more influential, and Christian involvement increases engagement with society.
In practice, many Christians are involved in both Christian and secular agencies.
A rapidly growing secular environmental organization is the Transition Network, which aims to make communities more sustainable through a network of local groups.
Starting in Totnes in Devon in the United Kingdom, it has spread to become an international movement; there are now 290 initiatives in the U.S. Although it is a secular movement, many Christians have been involved.
At international climate change meetings and on marches and demonstrations worldwide, Christian agencies are often heavily engaged.
As we conclude this series of articles, we can draw together a number of significant factors.
First, it is important to understand where environmental ethics “fit” within wider ethics.
Environmental ethics cannot be fitted within human ethics as these are by definition anthropocentric ethics. The true position of environmental ethics is to be the wider framework within which human ethics fit.
A failure to understand this has often led to the side-lining of environmental ethics as practitioners could not connect it with their existing ethics.
We would like to encourage Christians to reorientate thinking on ethics to see this wider framework.
Second, it is essential for those exploring Christian environmental ethics to understand these within the concepts of the wider discipline.
Christians need to address historical views and their influence on current thinking in different church traditions. This includes a study of the reception history of texts as well as seeking accurate exegesis.
Within the Protestant tradition, an affirmation of the doctrines of justification, salvation and redemption will only be strengthened when put in the context of creation, incarnation, resurrection and new creation.
In many traditions, the worldview of church members has been heavily influenced by dualistic thinking, placing a low value on this world and seeking a higher spiritual reality.
Regular preaching on the goodness of creation, the physicality of incarnation, bodily resurrection and creation renewal and redemption will address this problem. This resonates well with a gospel focus that includes social action and can be broadened to include environmental action.
Christian doctrine, properly understood, should make Christianity the most “earthed” of any world religion.
In looking at relationships between Christian and secular environmental ethics, there has been some cross-fertilization.
The stewardship ethic undergirds much secular thinking in seeking a balance between ecocentric and anthropocentric values. Its influence can be seen in the development of the sustainable development goals and ecosystem services.
It is important for Christians, working within this framework, to continue to argue for the intrinsic value of nature. Otherwise, commercial drivers may override real care for nature.
In this sphere, Christians have an advantage in having environmental ethics that combine anthropocentrism with ecocentrism, giving significant missional opportunity.
Overall, the task is urgent and time is short.
Future generations will see our current environmental crisis as the biggest issue of our age. They will ask what Christians did to respond.
Christ holds creation and calls us to be his church, bearing witness to new creation in our care for his world now. Let us share this task together.
Martin J. Hodson is a plant scientist and operations director for the John Ray Initiative. He has more than 100 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues.
Margot R. Hodson is an environmental theologian and an Anglican pastor of six churches near Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The Hodsons have jointly taught environmental ethics at Oxford Brookes University and are authors of several publications in this area, which can be found through their website (Hodsons.org). You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinHodson1 and Margot @MargotHodson.
Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of the more detailed Grove booklet, “An Introduction to Environmental Ethics” E184, by Martin J. Hodson and Margot R. Hodson. It is available in PDF format at Grove Books and is used with permission. It is the fourth of a series of articles drawn from the booklet. Part one is available here, part two here and part three here.