Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Calling for Stewardship Without a Master

Recently, I received an online invitation to complete an opinion survey from a foremost, international, conservation organization of which I have been a member for many years.  The invitation explained that the purpose of the survey was to [with emphasis mine]

improve our story and the language we use to inspire support and action globally.  We seek to enhance the description of the organization and its vision in ways that…[are]

authentic, [distinct], emotionally compelling, [and] …successful at presenting the benefits of what we do and the case for why people should care and support our mission.

From the above excerpt of the survey, we can see that this particular conservation organization aims to sharpen its bid for support in two ways.  First, to clearly define its mission and its vision; and second, to present a more “authentic” and “compelling” appeal to its constituency on behalf of caring for the environment.   In short, if you care about the environment, and “buy into” our mission to care for it, then you will decide to support our efforts.

The online survey was one of the best I’ve ever completed.   Following a number of well designed inquiries to measure my response to the organizations’ priorities and language, the survey presented an essay summarizing its rationale, mission, and current conservation activities.  I was directed to use the cursor to highlight in either green or red any particular words or phrases in the essay that elicited a positive or a negative response, respectively.   I was also asked to write a rationale for each of my responses.

Finally, the essay was divided into paragraphs and each was presented individually along with hypothetical responses and a request that I select the response with which I could most closely identify.  The following hypothetical response was of greatest interest to me because it seemed to address most closely the goals of the survey (emphasis mine).

BROWN (fictional name) believes this earth is a special place where life is possible.  More than that, Brown believes it is an incredible and precious gift and that every one of us has the personal responsibility to protect it and to live our lives in a way that ensures it will remain healthy for future generations.  We are all stewards of the earth.

I am in general agreement with the thrust of this statement; but, I must contend that the organization offers no foundation or worldview that is sufficient to uphold the claims of the statement.   First,  hypothetical “Mr. Brown” values Earth because he “believes [it is] a special place”—one that presumably has the unique conditions necessary to support life as we know it.  Although it seems plausible that the so-called anthropic principle is true, our limited sampling of the universe prevents us from validating the claim with certainty.   Therefore, Mr. Brown needs a more convincing appeal on behalf of the environment, and he moves right to it.

Second, just as Mr. Brown believes Earth is unique so also he believes it is a precious gift.  Here, I believe Mr. Brown’s claim is without foundation on two counts.   First, it is not clear why “believers” like Mr. Brown believe that Earth is “unique” and “special.”  Is their belief based on science, or faith, or some combination of the two?  If faith is involved, Mr. Brown’s belief would appear particularly unfounded in the eyes of naturalistic, evolutionary scientists who generally deny the role of faith in science.  They would also deny any role for supernatural causation in the work of evolution to which they attribute the marvelous biological systems of planet Earth.  Nothing “unique” or “special” in that

Mr. Brown’s claim that Earth is a gift is even more precarious and unfounded than his “belief system” unless he accounts for “a giver” of this gift.  But to name a “giver” or “Giver” or “Creator” would be out of the question within a naturalistic worldview.  Furthermore, to presume that humans out of all the evolved species are the recipients of this gift of nature only further affirms an anthropocentric ethic which many blame for the environmental fix we’ve gotten into in the first place.

The third appeal from Mr. Brown is based on the rights of future generations.  Few can deny that this is a strong argument, particularly to those who have children and grandchildren, or who love the younger generations in general.  However, this claim too has its limitations, particularly when we realize how poorly we can predict either the future needs of humankind or the amazing ability of technology to open whole new avenues to meet those needs.

Finally, as if to place a capstone on his earlier claims, Mr. Brown states that humans are stewards of the Earth.   Humans as stewards are supposed to realize that they have a responsibility toward planet Earth like a servant to his or her master.  As such, humans are to manage the affairs on the master’s behalf.  The concept of stewardship is as old as the history of master-owner and master-slave relationships.     Stewards were required to be faithful in managing that which did not belong to them; but instead belongs to—whom?   Who exists in the role of master?

Here, we find two more problems within Mr. Brown’s use of the concept of stewardship to appeal to us as would-be caretakers of nature.  First, as history affirms, stewards are required to manage things that belong to someone else.  But Mr. Brown has just claimed that the Earth is a gift to us to cherish and conserve.  Gifts are given with the understanding that the recipient can claim ownership.  But if we are owners, the very point of the concept stewardship is dulled.  Brown’s stewardship is further diminished by the fact that he doesn’t mention an owner—someone (Or is it “Someone?”) who delegates authority and responsibility to stewards and provides objective, ethical and ecological guidelines for judging proper management of Earth’s environment. 

In summary, we have attempted to point out that fictitious Mr. Brown’s appeal, one that is commonly expressed in some form by conservation organizations and government agencies, is philosophically and ethically weak because it lacks foundation and consistency.   The devil seems to be in the details, creating subjectivity and confusion with respect to (a) the uniqueness of Earth, (b) the role of faith or belief, (c) the uncertainty of future generations, and (d) confusion regarding the notions of gift and steward.  Unless these concepts are resolved, the appeal offers only good-sounding words that echo from a time when words like belief, ownership, and stewardship meant something much more.  Let’s look back into the history of another conservation organization at a time when this richer meaning was still included.

The December-January, 1970 issue of National Wildlife magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation, opens with the following words spread across several very colorful pages:

The hand of the Creator is seen in all living things,
An inquisitive ground squirrel, a striking egret;
A katydid’s song, or colorful violets;
Towering redwoods…and puny man.
But man is the lone creature with power to reason.
He has an awesome responsibility,
Because the Creator has made him steward.

The emphasis upon wonder, responsibility, and stewardship are evident in the statements of both organizations, but a four-decade span reveals the disappearance of the key element—our Creator.  In my judgment, the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian stewardship ethic is the missing piece in Mr. Brown’s confusing appeal.  The special revelation of the Bible teaches that God is the Owner and Master of planet Earth.  Genesis 1: 26-28 reveals that God gave mankind the dominion or kingship, and the power to rule over the land, water, and creatures.  Then, Genesis 2:15 further defines this dominion by explaining that Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to “till and keep” the land.  In Hebrew, “till and keep” are translated to our words “to serve” and “to preserve” in such a way that the land will “serve back” with a fruitful growth and harvest.  

We also understand from Scripture that God retains ownership of His creation.  Contrary to Mr. Brown’s claim, creation was not God’s gift to man.  Instead, man received the gift of relationship with God and the gift of being able to “serve with” creation to unlock its bounty for the benefit of all creation.

For the past five years, I have used my Oikonomia blog to express the content and relevance of the Christian stewardship ethic.  I have also cited the writings of many Christian environmental ethicists like Michael Northcott who argue much better than I that a biblical environmental stewardship ethic offers a better hope for the future of the world than a purely secular ethic.[1]   J. Baird Callicott wrote in his popular conservation biology textbook:

The Judeo-Christian Stewardship Environmental Ethic is especially elegant and powerful. It also exquisitely matches the requirements of conservation biology. The Judeo-Christian
Stewardship Environmental Ethic confers objective value on nature in the clearest and most unambiguous of ways: by divine decree.” [2] 

Although many secular ethicists have followed Lynn White[3] in blaming the Judeo-Christian ethic for leading western civilization to plunder the environment, he failed to realize that it was not the Christian ethic per se but the failure of the church to correctly apply it that has caused much abuse of the environment.  This unfortunate misapplication of the Dominion/Stewardship Mandate outlined throughout the Bible has also led those in leadership positions in the environmental movement to either ignore or reject it as having any usefulness in their appeal for us to care for the Earth.

And so the “Mr. Brown’s” of our world wonder how they can present a more authentic and compelling appeal to their constituencies on behalf of caring for the environment.  Might it be that today’s conservation organizations are like plants whose roots have been pruned to nonexistence leaving them “high and dry” without an objective anchor or foundation?  Although they use words that once had objective significance, their appeals are now subjective, largely anthropocentric, and uncompelling.  Perhaps Carl Pope, past president of the Sierra Club, speaking of his own generation of environmentalists, summarizes my point best in his apology to the Orthodox church:

We sought to transform society, but ignored the fact that when Americans want to express something wiser and better than they are as individuals, by and large they gather to pray.  We acted as if we could save life on Earth without the same institutions through which we save ourselves.[4]

Carl Pope’s words have not fallen on totally deaf ears.  In recent years, the environmental movement has recognized the importance of bringing evangelical leaders “onboard” to increase the impact of their appeal, particularly related to their concern about climate change.  Indeed, many climate scientists and politicians including the current administration in Washington have “come aboard.”  However, I fear that that the “environmental movement” may be going from a “rootless plant” to an “anchorless ship.”  Government agencies and NGO’s certainly have an essential role, but proper stewardship of planet Earth must begin within the hearts of transformed individuals.  As conservationist and ethicist Aldo Leopold stated:

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.[5]

Leopold was skeptical that government agencies and movements alone could produce such change:

Things that are done wholly by government are really not done, because any decent land-use is worthwhile, not only for its effect on the land, but for its effect on the owner. If the owner is an impersonal government, nobody is benefitted except the government employee.[6]

As I have stated elsewhere in Oikonomia, and as just stated by Leopold, real changes in attitudes leading to meaningful and effective stewardship of the environment cannot be fostered primarily by government.  Although it is unclear whether Leopold personally experienced spiritual transformation, such a change must begin with individual recognition of Who the Creator and Owner of creation is; and, an understanding of His plan that begins with a spiritual reconciliation between God and each fallen man.  Reconciliation begins with a conviction and recognition of our sin nature, followed by confession (owning up to) of his or her sin and need of forgiveness through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross(Romans 10: 9-10). 

Once reconciled with our Creator, we can begin to understand our responsibility as stewards of (a) the message of the Gospel of Christ and (b) the material world and resources entrusted to us by our Creator.  Acting in complementary fashion with the local church (a fellowship of the “body of Christ”), we are nurtured by family and community relationships toward the development of godly character and ethical behavior toward God, our neighbor, and toward creation. 

Finally, as Leopold suggested above, the exercise of stewardship of the land is worthwhile, not only for its effect on the land, but for its effect on the owner.  What a bonus!  When we care for creation, we enhance our own strength of character and virtues.  Likewise, as we “serve creation,” creation “serves us back” with its bounty.  As I have written elsewhere[7], climate change or any environmental issue is best addressed beginning with a “change of character” that works its way out though godly living in family, church, and community.

Points for Comments:
1.   Of what conservation or environmental organization(s) are you a member and why?
2.   To what extent can an environmental organization “do good” for the environment without its philosophy and mission grounded in a biblical stewardship ethic?
3.   How would your rationale for caring for the environment or “creation” differ from that represented in the statement attributed to Mr. Brown?

[1]   Northcott, Michael S.  1996.  The Environment and Christian Ethics.  Cambridge University Press.
[2]  Callicott, J. Baird.  1994. “ConservationValues and Ethics,” pp. 24–49, 36 in Principles of Conservation Biology, 2d ed., eds. G. K. Meffe and C. R. Carroll.  Sinauer Associates, 1994).
[3]  White, Lynn Jr.  1967. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203–7, 1205.
[4]  Pope, Carl.  1998. “Reaching Beyond Ourselves: It’s Time to Recognize Our Allies in the Faith Community,” Sierra Magazine 83: 14-15 (November/December)
[5]  Leopold, A. 1948.  “The Land Ethic” in p. 201-214. :  A Sand County Almanac.  London: Oxford U. Press.
[6]  Leopold, A. “Letter to Douglas Wade, dated October 23, 1944,”  Leopold Papers 9/25/10-8 Box 1 Folder 3, 465. as cited at http://www.humansandnature.org/aldo-leopold--reconciling-ecology-and-economics-article-122.php
[7]  Silvius, J.  Creation Care and Christian Character.   Creation Care (Summer, 2007): 7-9.   Online Article HERE


Doug Sponsler said...

I resonate deeply with your thesis. Philosophical naturalism simply fails to provide a robust framework for environmental ethics--or any other ethics for that matter. I think my generation in particular tends to exhibit a strange combination of strong ethical sensitivity (at least with regard to certain subjects) and weak or nonexistent ethical theory. We feel things very strongly, but in the void left by popular rejection of traditional theism, we have no rational warrant for our feelings.

Zeal without knowledge is always destructive.

If mainstream secular society has passion without warrant, I fear that the Christian community has often been guilty of apathy toward environmental issues despite being in possession of the warrant the world needs.

I am reminded of Romans 2:12-24
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

I think it is reasonable to draw analogy between the secular ethicists of today and the Gentiles in the passage, and between the Christian community of today and the Jews in the passage.

I suppose that leaves the Church with an urgent mandate to both testify to a Christ-centered environmental ethic while faithfully exercising the demands of that ethic, lest "the name of God be blasphemed among the [secularists] because of [us]."

tammy said...

Wow, thanks, John, for your post, and Doug, for your thoughtful response.

Some of us were born to have a positive visceral response to the natural world, and it is easy for us to see why we should conserve it. For those who don't feel an emotional connection to the land, conservation organizations need to make their case for environmental protection. John's discussion shows how very unstable the foundation is that secularists must use to make their argument. To use the term "stewardship" without reference to a master for whom the thing is being stewarded shows how hollow and argument like this truly echos. As for the earth being a "gift," a gift must have a giver. Are people really this stupid? Arguments like this are like bridges to no where that never actually connect. Using words like these show that when people try to use truth-based words without reference to truth they are using wood from our woodpile to build their house.

Perhaps this is why secularists seek connection with Gaia, because the beauty of nature, at least in my experience, absolutely makes a person want to cry out, "Thank you!" to someone/thing, whom we know in our hearts must be responsible for all this. I am so thankful we can know Him!

How far are we really from the poor earthlings in Wall-e? The '70's wasn't that long ago, and to think that it was only a few years ago that it was OK for a mainstream conservation organization to ascribe the creation to a Creator shows how quickly political correctness can influence the conversations people are allowed to have. My hope is that people will "believe," as I did, that because creation is so awesome that there must be an infinitely more awesome Creator!

jib said...

Excellent post. The problems however run much deeper than just the secularists. Too many people who self identify as evangelical Christians have a poor understanding of doctrine and theology. As an example, this last summer the General Assembly of the PCUSA voted on whether or not to continue to call Christ "lord" because they thought calling him Lord implied owner ship or something. It failed this time. Thankfully. But next time maybe not. So your question about Mr Brown would hardly bother these folks because they would read into it "Christian".