The Mortality of the Earth and Care for Creation
The notion that Christians ought to be concerned about care for creation, and to be concerned for specifically Christian reasons, has now firmly established itself in the ethos of large sectors of the church. This emerging consensus has been fueled partly by the work of Christian theologians—including Joseph Sittler, Paul Santmire, Sallie McFague, and Ivone Gebara—who have placed environmental concerns at the center of their work and partly by the fact that Christians across the denominational spectrum have found resources within their tradition for thinking about “green” practices as expressions of fidelity to God’s purposes in the world. Large numbers of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals, and liberal Protestants have found resources within their specific traditions for affirming the importance of creation care.
This is not to say that all Christians are environmentalists; clearly all are not. The reasons why many Christians resist prioritizing care for the environment run the gamut. Some of these reasons are dubious, such as the idea that “going to heaven when we die” means that the Earth is disposable once salvation history has played itself out. But some Christian uneasiness about ecological activism stems from the fact that the rhetoric employed by many environmental movements does not always cohere well with more essential Christian styles of thought. As early as 1954, Sittler was pointing to this very problem: “...the largest, most insistent, and most delicate task awaiting Christian theology is to articulate such a theology for nature as shall do justice to the vitalities of the earth and hence correct a current theological naturalism which succeeds in speaking meaningfully of earth only at the cost of repudiating specifically Christian categories” (Sittler 30). In other words, how to talk meaningfully about the need to care for the environment while still “speaking Christian” is a perpetual concern for those who wish to foster greater collaboration between the church and worthy ecological movements.
As with any dialogue between faith and science, the willingness to change must be present on all sides. Christians throughout history have changed how they think about God and ethics based on insights from more “secular” disciplines; however, on occasion Christians have also insisted that these insights be “baptized”—that is, translated into specifically Christian idioms—before they could be taken up as part of the church’s self-understanding. Science may change the practice of the faith; however, sometimes the church needs for science to learn how to “speak Christian” before its contributions can take on vitality within the life of the church. There is one important point of agreement among science, ecological rhetoric, and Christian theology, and it can be captured by a single truism: dying is what living things do. Mortality is built into the very fabric of life, and “mortality” at its most primal level asserts not simply the fact that that which is alive can die, but that it will die.
While ecologists have taken great pains to insist that life on earth cannot end, their rhetoric is haunted by the consistent testimony from various scientific disciplines that the earth cannot sustain life indefinitely. As William Stoeger points out, “From all the indications we have from the neurosciences, biology, physics, astronomy, and cosmology, death and dissolution are the final words” (Stoeger 19). The scenarios by which our planet might become incapable of supporting life are well-rehearsed and legion. The transformation of the sun from its current state to that of a red-giant (then white dwarf) would render the planet uninhabitable. Impacts by asteroids and comets could prove ultimately destructive. Meanwhile, the universe itself, should it follow observable patterns in evolution and dynamics, might well contract or expand indefinitely to the point where ongoing life on any planet would become impossible.
Even though care for the environment is a passionate avocation for the vast majority of working scientists today, the simple truth is that these hard-nosed scientific facts about the ultimate mortality of the earth provide little aid and comfort to ecology. This is largely because North American environmentalism in particular has, from its inception, emphasized the rhetoric of “conservation.” One of the signature moments in the development of the American ecological consciousness came with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who crafted the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities and who asserted, in his seventh annual message to Congress in 1907, that “the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.” This emphasis upon conservation, as it developed throughout the twentieth century, undergirded the thinking of ecology’s most significant champions (such as Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold). In our own day, it seems clear that most Americans, if asked to state a rationale for such eco-friendly practices as recycling and energy-use reduction, would reply using the language of conservation and preservation: “I want the earth to be a good place for my children to live.” “We need to preserve natural resources.”
But what happens to this language of conservation when it encounters clear-eyed assessments of the earth’s mortality? If dying is what living things do, including the living planet, then whither care for creation? This is, I would suggest, not simply an academic question. Those of us who have worked in ecological activism for a number of years have an intimate awareness of the fact that maintaining hope and avoiding burnout in this work is difficult. In my experience, the deadliest enemy of hope is the temptation to conclude that efforts on behalf of the environment, however successful in the short term, are finally futile. If such despair often arises in the face of the sheer magnitude of the environmental challenges facing our world (and the corresponding magnitude of many people’s unwillingness to admit that these challenges exist), then an even more fundamental threat to ecological activism might accompany honest acknowledgment of the earth’s very capacity to sustain life. Eat, drink, and be merry (and burn as much coal as possible), for in the end all will die. As Ernest Becker pointed out in his classic The Denial of Death (1973), the fact that we are haunted by mortality tends to drive us toward more and more frenetic activity with less and less existential joy.
But if Christian theology joins ecology and science at this precise intersection—the intersection where the rhetoric of “conservation” fails in the face of the earth’s mortality—then what new possibilities emerge? If the impasse between the science of mortality and the impulse toward conservation is itself “baptized” into the sensibilities of the Christian faith, then can a style of thinking that honors what is true in all three disciplines emerge?
The cheap and easy way to bring theology into scientific discussions is to use theology to “solve” science, and thus the cheap, easy, and thoroughly unsatisfactory solution here would be to invoke Christian hope in the resurrection in such a way as to eliminate the pathos of the earth’s mortality. It is true that the Christian scriptural witness testifies to the hope that all things, including a “new heaven and new earth,” will find renewal when the fullness of God’s Kingdom arrives. However, it is equally true that every pastor—and indeed, every spiritually sensitive person—knows that using hope in resurrection to deny the reality of mortality misses something essential about the human condition in the face of death. Easter might transcend Good Friday, but it does not eliminate it. This means that any simplistic attempt to shore up Christian enthusiasm for ecological “conservation” by allowing Christians to ignore science’s testimony to the earth’s mortality fails, and it fails not only on scientific and ecological grounds, but on Christian grounds as well.
A far more promising approach would be to ask whether Christian styles of thinking, when grounded in unsentimental acknowledgment of the earth’s ultimate death, might offer to ecological ethics a more evocative and authentic way of thinking about care for creation. The most distinctively Christian contribution on that front would be to press the issue to its full extent and assert that every act of care is an act not of conservation, but of care for the dying. Every act of care is an act of care for the dying, and this applies as much to the earth and its creatures as it does to the various people for whom we care (and to whom we must one day say goodbye).
To conceive of every act of care as care for the dying suggests a definitive style of understanding how and why “care” happens. To illustrate that style, we can briefly consider two biblical episodes.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), the man on the side of the road who is rescued by the Samaritan is not rescued into immortality. He is mortal, and he will die—presumably not from the wounds sustained during his beating (since he has been cared for), but from some other cause at some other time. The act of care given by the Good Samaritan is an act of care for the dying, but it is an act of care that affirms the value of life even in the face of that life’s inevitable end.
Even more significant is the account of the women who bring spices to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him following his crucifixion and entombment. This is an act of care for one who has died, which, as Kierkegaard reminds us, has a certain unique purity in that it is precisely an act that cannot be reciprocated. This kind of care is given in the depths of the effects of mortality, where resurrection occurs—not as a cheap evasion of death or mortality’s gravity, but as a divine act of rebellion against death’s reality. The women’s care for the dead Jesus creates a space in which resurrection becomes, not a possibility (for resurrection as such is never “possible”), but a salvific act of overcoming on the God of life’s part. Such spaces cannot be summoned, or manipulated, or even reproduced at will.* But they can occur.
And this is why considering every act of care as an act of care for the dying has profound significance for ecological ethics (and indeed, for Christian life as a whole). It is to renounce control over outcomes. It is to refuse to tie the value of an act of care—whether for a child, a tree, or an ocean—to its efficacy in conserving the cared-for thing. It is to celebrate care for its own sake, and for the sake of the possibility that the act of care might be the occasion for the creation of resurrection space. To relinquish “conservation” in favor of “care for the dying” is to acknowledge reality as we know it, but also to honor the hope that the reality that we know might not be “the final word” at all.
Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
* My thanks to the Rev. Callie Smith, who highlighted this point in conversation with me.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973.
Sittler, Joseph. “A Theology for Earth.” In Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, eds. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000.
Stoeger, William. “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in our Life-Bearing Universe.” In The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology. John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 2000.