Will Barret, the central figure in Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, is driven by an insatiable desire to be a true gentleman, to live a right and righteous life, but he is crippled by his inability to distinguish the practical steps that this would entail. Christians may often feel like Barrett when they reflect on complex environmental problems, such as global warming, deforestation, or species extinction. Christians may feel a deep love for God’s creation and yet feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of environmental problems and by the contradictory information they receive from competing sources. For example, should an educated layperson follow the thousands of scientists who believe in anthropogenic climate change or the hundreds of scientists who deny it?
Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to answer all of our environmental questions. There is no substitute for careful investigation of particular environmental issues and a substantive dialogue between Christian ethics and the natural sciences. Indeed, Christian environmental theology and ethics provide critical insight for environmental stewardship precisely because they do not lead to a robotic moral calculus. One of the things they do offer is an anthropology of paradox that illuminates the inherent tensions of environmental stewardship. Human beings transcend the rest of the creation as creatures made in the image of God. At the same time, human beings are creatures bound inextricably to the rest of creation and its fate.
How does an anthropology of paradox help Christians who are struggling with Will Barret’s dilemma? It certainly does not determine how one should assess the Kyoto Protocol or cap and trade mechanisms under the Clean Air Act, but it lays an important foundation for Christian environmental ethics and action. First, an anthropology of paradox emphasizes the fact that there can be no static formula for ordering the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation. Rather, human beings must live out of the tension created by their authority and power on the one hand and their membership in the community of all creation on the other. Second, the difficulty of living out this paradox forces Christians back to the central hope of their faith, namely that God is in the process of redeeming the creation from the forces of sin and death. Environmental stewardship is, therefore, a labor of imagination and hope oriented toward God’s coming kingdom. For this second reason, much of the work of Christian environmental stewardship needs to take place in communities of faith as people gather in hope around the Eucharistic table. By starting with issues of local and immediate concern, these communities can explore the kinds of compromise solutions that are sensitive to the details of that place. These compromises can, in turn, inform broader Christian environmental engagement.
Much of the argument presented here is drawn from the contemporary Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who challenges the dualistic tendencies in Western thought, including the tendencies to understand God over and against the creation, human beings over and against nature, and the human mind over and against the body. For Moltmann, Genesis provides a critique of western dualism without denying the essential distinctions in these relationships because it describes them as fundamentally paradoxical in nature. God transcends the cosmos, yet God is fully immanent in the creation. Human beings are made stewards of the earth, yet they are also what Aldo Leopold called plain citizens and members of the earth community. The human mind transcends the body in acts of self reflection, yet it is inextricably linked to body. These paradoxical relationships help to advance and revise recent work in environmental philosophy to extend the idea of human health to the environment metaphorically.
God and Creation
Moltmann’s challenge to Western dualism is rooted first and foremost in the paradoxical relationship between God and creation. His doctrine of creation is important for orthodox ecotheology because he insists that there is a middle ground between the tradition of absolute monotheism, in which God transcends the creation impassively, and the tradition of pantheism, in which the identities of God and creation are collapsed into one. Moltmann’s alternative approach, which he calls “panentheism,” emphasizes the paradox of God’s simultaneous transcendence over creation and intimate presence in the creation. While his panentheism is not without its own theological problems, it is instructive for Christian environmental ethics.
Moltmann uses the differentiation of the Trinity to help clarify God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence. “In the beginning,” Genesis reads,“God created the heavens and earth.” The Christian tradition generally has held that God created the world ex nihilo—out of nothing—emphasizing God’s transcendence over all creation. Here it is God the Father who, in complete transcendence, resolves to create the heavens and the earth, yet when the Father calls the world into being, it is through the intimate work of the Spirit and the Son. The Spirit, Genesis 1 reads, is God’s breath that hovers in darkness over the waters. The Spirit is God’s presence at the dawn of creation. The Son, John 1 reads, is God’s Word through which the creation is given form and meaning.
Throughout the Bible, the Spirit appears as God’s creative and immanent presence, and the Holy Spirit is still the link we now experience between God and creation. Indeed, Moltmann explains,“the whole creation is a fabric woven by the Spirit” (Moltmann 1993, 99). Although Moltmann draws heavily on the Orthodox tradition, in which the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is more prominent, his own Protestant tradition long has emphasized the Holy Spirit’s sustaining presence. As one Reformed theologian writes:
This inward, invisible something [that sustains the universe] is God’s direct touch. There is in us and in every creature a point where the living God touches us to uphold us; for nothing exists without being upheld by Almighty God from moment to moment… And as the Holy Spirit is the Person in the Holy Trinity whose office it is to effect this direct touch and fellowship with the creature in his inmost being, it is He who… sustains the principle of life in [every] creature. (Kuyper 26)
In other words, the creation and each creature in it is threatened by the possibility of non-being, and it is only the presence of the Holy Spirit that protects the world from this fate.
God’s presence or dwelling among His people, his shekinah, illustrates something further about the way in which the Spirit is bound to the creation. God made his dwelling with His people in the Spirit, and the Israelites experienced Him as both “the Lord” and “Israel’s servant.” Israel therefore understood that “God was suffering with them” (Moltmann 1993, 49), and it was the Spirit’s self-limitation and faithfulness that made such an experience of God possible.
The same Spirit that was present with Israel and led them into the Promised Land is present in and faithful to the entire creation: “the triune God not only stands over against his creation but also at the same time enters into it through his eternal spirit, permeates all things and through his indwelling brings about the community of creation” (Moltmann 1992, 181). Furthermore, the Spirit of God is the guarantor of God’s promise for creation’s fulfillment. The sustaining presence cannot be understood as a conservation mundi alone, as if God simply preserves the world for its own sake. God preserves the creation in light of its eschatological future: the “original creation and its preservation serve a goal… God preserves his creatures for their consummation. His preservation of creation is itself already a preparation for their consummation” (75).
Just as it is God’s Word that gives form and meaning to creation in the beginning, it is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, that gives form and meaning to the new creation. The incarnation reveals, in Christ’s flesh, God’s immanence and God’s unwavering commitment to the creation. In Christ’s death and resurrection, we see God’s triumph over the forces of sin and death that distort not only human beings but the whole of creation. What is more, Christ’s resurrection goes beyond the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit in history. It is the beginning of the new creation—creation nova. This new creation is our redemption and our future, and we share it with the earth.
A robust articulation of creation nova challenges the tendency in Western Christianity to understand the work of Christ solely in terms of individual redemption, because it recognizes Christ as both creator and redeemer of the whole creation. As one theologian explains, Jesus Christ “is connected with nature because he is its Creator, and at the same time connected to grace because, as Re-creator, he manifested the riches of grace in the midst of that nature” (Bratt 173). This is essentially a paraphrase of Colossians 1:15–20:
[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (1:15–20, NRSV)
Thus, Jesus Christ as the creator and redeemer is reconciling the world to God not so that human beings might escape from the earth to heaven, but so that the entire creation might be consummated in a new heavens and earth. This is why Paul writes in Romans 8 that the entire creation groans under sin and death, waiting for the liberty of the children of God.
Humanity and the Nonhuman Creation
God’s presence in and commitment to the creation offer hope for the earth’s future and defies those strands of Western Christianity that have viewed God as a detached and dispassionate creator. God’s relationship to the earth also challenges any understanding of human beings as detached and dispassionate rulers of creation. If God Himself is bound to the creation, then how much more are human beings, God’s creatures, bound to the rest of creation?
Western theology and culture, particularly since the dawn of the Enlightenment, have employed a dualistic model in which the human soul, or mind, is understood over and against the body, and the rational human being is understood over and against the irrational, non-human creation. Moltmann argues that this model has encouraged “a one-sided relationship of domination” (1993, 2) between humanity and the nonhuman creation, to the detriment of both.
The dualistic model is wrong not only because of its consequences; it is wrong because it is fundamentally distorted both biologically and theologically. Biologically, human life depends upon relationships with other forms of life. This means, Moltmann insists, that humanity must be understood in its dependency for life on the non-human creation and that the non-human creation, with its web of connections and relationships, cannot be understood as merely an object of inquiry (1993, 50). Theologically, human beings both transcend the nonhuman creation and are at the same time inextricably linked to it. Pointing to the Genesis account of creation, Moltmann affirms the essential identity of human beings as creatures who have been made in the image of God—imago dei—but he also insists that human beings have an equally important and often overlooked identity as creatures that have been made in the image of the earth—imago mundi. The first identity is one of transcendence; the second identity is one of immanence. In the Genesis account humanity does not stand outside of “nature” or the “environment” but is an integral, though distinct, member of it, both imago dei and imago mundi.
Adam’s character as imago mundi, and therefore his connection to the earth, is demonstrated by several details of the creation account. First, his very name refers back to the adama, or earth, out of which he was formed. Adam is connected to the earth because he is formed out of it. Moltmann argues that the author makes a special point of this to correct the tendency to elevate human beings too far above the rest of creation, since none of the animals are described as being created out of the ground (1993, 187). Second, Genesis
1:30 and 2:7 show a clear link between Adam and the other living creatures, for God gives them both the “breath of life.” This emphasizes the biological link between humans and animals in their dependence on the earth for air, food, and water, thereby highlighting their shared creatureliness. Third, God’s command or blessing to be fruitful and multiply is given twice in the creation account, first to nonhuman creatures and second to human beings. This basic gift of procreation and flourishing is part of what we share with other living creatures.
Parenthetically, it is curious to note the similarities and differences between God’s blessing to Adam in Genesis 1 and God’s blessing to Noah in Genesis 9. To both, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” yet the blessing continues in two very different ways. God speaks to Adam in the imperative: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” In contrast, following the command “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” God speaks to Noah in descriptive terms: “And the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens, in all that crawls on the ground and in all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are given.”
The clear parallel between the two creation narratives are not accidental, so there is good reason to think that the differences between the accounts are important to the author of Genesis 9.1 Clearly by this point in the Genesis narrative, human beings have not only demonstrated their dominion and conquest over the earth but also have used their acquired power to conquer and kill one another. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” We are left to wonder, then, why God commands Adam to conquer the earth and hold sway over its creatures but does not repeat that command to Noah. The primary event that separates Adam in Genesis 1 and Noah in Genesis 9 is sin; thus, one possible interpretation is that human beings, acting under the power of sin and death, should no longer be commanded or encouraged to conquer the earth because the history of our conquest is checkered.
Nonetheless, even though human beings use power over creation for evil as well as for good, God has not abandoned human beings. We cannot, despite our sin, escape our role as God’s image bearers precisely because this identity is not ours to possess or to lose. The imago dei is sustained because it is rooted in God’s ongoing relationship and faithfulness to human beings.
There remains, then, a fundamental distinction between humanity and other living creatures described in Genesis, and this distinction always comes in the form of a call to image God, the great gardener and caretaker of creation. Indeed, Moltmann argues that because of humanity’s dual identity, we act as priests who mediate between God and creation (1993, 185–190). We represent God to the creation through the imago dei, and we can represent the earth to God through the imago mundi. Beyond this priestly metaphor, human beings are clearly mediators between God and creation because God has deigned to make us stewards or vicegerents of the earth. God’s command in Genesis to conquer, serve, and till the earth makes it clear that human beings are representative rulers over the earth and are qualified for the job precisely because we were formed out of the earth and share in its fate. Thus Christian environmental stewardship, based on a biblical anthropology, stems from obligation to God and, in a subordinate sense, from obligation to the earth.
Understanding this relationship helps to explain why Paul, in Romans 8, suggests that the creation’s redemption is somehow tied up with human redemption. Creation waits for “the sons of God to be revealed.”
Living Out the Kingdom of God
For the Will Barrets of the world, humanity’s paradoxical identity may add one more layer of confusion because it does not provide a formula for righteous living. On the other hand, it may also be liberating because it suggests that lacking a formula is no cause for anxiety or despair. Want of a formula does not doom us to failure. Indeed, our lack of clear, formulaic directions fosters two critical attitudes: it engenders humility, and it deepens our longing for a new heavens and a new earth. Said another way, in reflecting on our clear limitations, we are driven finally to the foundation of Christian faith, which is God’s faithfulness to us.
Understanding environmental stewardship as a labor of hope requires some considerable imagination, for we labor in hope of that which we cannot see. Paul reminds us that this is the very meaning of faith, for we have caught a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we still see through a glass darkly. Or, as academic theologians put it, God’s Kingdom is proleptic. It is already here among us, but it is clearly not yet here in fullness. The creation groans, Paul writes in Romans 8, as in the pangs of childbirth, and the long awaited child in this image is a new heavens and earth that is free from sin and destruction.
The essayist, novelist, poet, and agrarian Wendell Berry describes the human predicament with language that Lutherans should recognize, for he draws our attention to two kingdoms: the kingdom of the sinful earth and the Kingdom of God. For Berry, the earth’s kingdom is delineated by the industrial economy. This economy fails, he insists, because it is an impostor. It claims to be sufficient; it claims to be comprehensive. But the industrial economy fails to care for the earth and its creatures—including human beings—precisely because it is not comprehensive enough. As Berry puts it, the industrial economy fails because it “tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and… it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend” (Berry 54–55).
What the earth needs, Berry argues, is another, larger economy. It needs an economy that takes all things into account, thus it needs nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Only God’s Kingdom, or economy, is comprehensive enough to grasp the entire earth in all of its complexity and diversity and to rightly order the earth’s complex relationships. The Kingdom of God is, in fact, the creation’s true purpose, and we cause harm and suffering when we violate its principles and order. Our problem, Berry notes, is that by definition, we cannot know “all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them” (54–55).
What makes Berry so helpful is that, at the end of the day, he is using the Kingdom of God as a theological metaphor to describe our concrete ecological predicament. He uses the Christian eschatological hope to spark our stewardship imagination. Berry suggests that there is one driving principle of God’s Kingdom that a limited human economy can emulate, and that is permanence and stability. It is important to note that he does not use these terms to denote something static or immutable, for he recognizes that the earth is dynamic and even chaotic. As he explains, a “good human economy… conserves and protects its goods. It proposes to endure. Like the Great Economy, a good human economy does not propose for itself a term to be set by humans. That termlessness, with all its implied human limits and restraints, is a human good” (60). This echoes Aldo Leopold’s famous statement of environmental ethics: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 262).
Contemporary ecology and environmental philosophy suggest that proposing to endure—what these fields currently refer to as environmental sustainability—is indeed a complex and dynamic task. Philosopher Bryan Norton explains it this way:
Sustainability is a relationship between dynamic human economic systems and larger, dynamic, but normally slower changing ecological systems, such that human life can continue indefinitely, human individuals can flourish, and human cultures can develop—but also a relationship in which the effects of human activities remain within bounds so as not to destroy the health and integrity of self-organizing system that provide the environmental context for these activities. (Norton 25)
Neither human communities nor environmental systems can remain static without withering away. Instead, both human communities and environmental systems can endure only as long as they retain their ability to adapt and reorganize over time.
If this seems abstract, perhaps another metaphor from the contemporary environmental debate will help. Philosophers and environmentalists have tried to make the idea of environmental sustainability more accessible by extending the concept of human health metaphorically, or for some people literally, to the environment. Although the metaphor breaks down rather quickly, as many metaphors do, it has immense value because human health is at its root a concept of dynamic stability. Human health cannot be neatly defined, for it is not simply the absence of diagnosable disease. When most of us talk about health, we mean some set of conditions and biophysical relationships that promote human flourishing. The ambiguity and dynamism of human health is what makes the metaphor so useful, and it is worth discussing at least a few of the stewardship principles that the metaphor suggests.
First, caring for our bodies requires that we manage our bodies in the face of considerable uncertainty. This uncertainty, and therefore insecurity, is what makes us so vulnerable to health fads. Each time a doctor or guru offers a new formula for perfect health, whether it be a new diet, a new vitamin, or a new exercise routine, many of us rush out to the store to buy the new formula and all of its expensive accoutrements. The darkest part of our addiction to health fads is not simply the amount of money and energy we waste but our myopic tendency to abrogate responsibility for our health by turning all management of our bodies over to experts. I am in no way denigrating doctors, nutritionists, and fitness instructors; I am simply suggesting that human health is too complex to be turned over to a handful of experts. (Wendell Berry makes this point eloquently. See Berry 1977, 17–26.) What we ought to have learned from our disappointments, first with the low-fat diet and then with the low-carb diet, is that there is no simple formula for health.
In a similar way, uncertainty and anxiety about the earth’s future have led many of us to turn environmental care over to experts and made us vulnerable to environmental fads. In doing so, we risk reducing environmental stewardship to hybrid cars, energy star appliances, and two tickets to a rock concert called Live Earth. As with doctors, nutritionists, and fitness instructors, I am not denigrating energy-saving technology or concerts to raise awareness about global warming. Rather, I am pointing to the danger that these resources become the substance of our commitment to environmental stewardship and even become a costly indulgence to cover our environmental sin.
Second, caring for our bodies cannot be an isolated responsibility, as the health fads suggest. Instead, caring for our bodies is deeply relational, and we tend to succeed when we are supported by family and community. One of the more important and interesting changes in medical training in recent decades has been the growing emphasis on treating patients as whole people instead of as biological machines. Doctors today are far more likely to ask patients about stress in their families and work environments because they recognize that stressful relationships and work environments can be a very real health risk.
In a similar way, caring for the earth cannot be an isolated responsibility which we fulfill through our membership in the Sierra Club or tree planting on Earth Day. Environmental stewardship is collective and relational. For example, one interesting aspect of the 2007 US Farm Bill, considered in Congress last year, is the amount of money allocated to support local farmers markets, suggesting that the human relationships involved in food production and distribution may be as important environmentally as whether or not the food bears the organic certification. Indeed, one prominent food writer, Michael Pollan, argues that buying food locally from people that you can get to know personally is more important for both human health and environmental protection than buying organic food imported from Chile.
Third, human healthcare is a dynamic field that changes with new information and perspectives and with the recovery of older information and perspectives. Its progression is not linear improvement. Sometimes there are great improvements through technological or biotechnological breakthroughs, and sometimes these new procedures are demonstrated to have caused more harm than good. Healthcare changes as practitioners listen to and observe the effect of treatments on their patients. In a similar way, caring for creation is a dynamic area of human knowledge, varying over time and over space. Working with limited knowledge, land managers, even those with the best intentions, will cause harm instead of promoting health. Nevertheless, improvement of our stewardship is possible, especially when we pay attention to God’s creation. Like doctors, stewards of the earth can make progress by listening to their patients and learning from them.
Until God recreates the heavens and the earth, Christians will never be perfect stewards of the earth. In the meantime, we labor on in the hope that God ultimately will fulfill His promises to the creation, and we try to imagine and live out God’s Kingdom in a limited way. The doctrine of creation, which in the last century so often has been treated solely as a story of origins, provides Christians with a picture of how God manages the creation, and it is out of the doctrine of creation that we understand our calling to image God to the creation. Jürgen Moltmann’s Trinitarian doctrine of creation is an important resource for revising the Enlightenment’s articulation of God’s relationship to the creation and of our own relationship to the nonhuman creation. Understanding in each case that there is both distinction and intimate connection transforms the way that we value the nonhuman creation. As Christians, we cannot view the nonhuman creation dispassionately as nothing more than the raw material of our industrial economy; we must view the rest of creation as God’s creation, created first for God and His glory and second for our use and enjoyment.
Learning to care for creation as God’s creation is an uncertain process, but it is one that has a certain future. God, who has demonstrated His faithfulness through the act of creation and most clearly through the incarnation of the Son and sending of the Spirit, will be faithful to creation and will renew the earth. In our own struggle to care for creation, the church cycle of prayer—thanksgiving, confession, and supplication—is an important part of Christian environmental ethics. We offer thanks for the good things of creation and for God’s sustaining presence in the creation; we off er confession for our failure to image God in our stewardship; and we offer supplication for the health of the earth’s biotic systems and for wisdom in its care.
Jamie Skillen is a Fellow at the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.
1 I am grateful to my colleague Greg Hitzhusen at Ohio State University for helping me through these texts.
Berry, Wendell. Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point, 1987.
_____. “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character.” In Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.
Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Kuyper, Abraham. The Work of the Holy Spirit. Henri De Vries, trans. New York: Funk & Wagnells, 1900.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Norton, Bryan. “A New Paradigm for Environmental Management.” In Ecosystem Health: New Goals for Environmental Management, Robert Costanza, Bryan G. Norton, and Benjamin Haskell, eds. Washington: Island, 1992.
Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. Margaret Kohl, trans. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
_____. History and the Triune God. John Bowden, trans. New York: Crossroad, 1992.
Percy, Walker. The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006.