August 25, 2007

Pollution and the Death of Man

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:Francis A. Schaeffer

Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers.
We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect.
-- Francis Schaeffer

In 1967, two defining articles came out on our modern ecological crisis. The first one, by Lynn White, Jr., laid the blame squarely upon Christian attitudes of dominance over nature. The second, by Richard L. Means, came out 6 months later and not only reiterated White’s idea that Christianity was at fault, but took it a step further in advocating that because the root of the problem was moral, even religious, then the answer should likewise be moral and religious. Means believed that the hippies of the 60’s were on the right track in turning to Zen Buddhism because such a religious shift would lead also to a shift in cultural beliefs concerning the relationship between mankind and nature.

In 1970, Francis Schaeffer took on both White and Means in his book, Pollution and the Death of Man. He argued that though Christians had done a rather cruddy job of caring for the environment, he believed their actions reflected neither the Biblical mandate for mankind to care for the earth nor the Reformation theology that states that God’s redemption begins in the here and now. His book, therefore, not only responds to White and Means, but calls Christians to a more Biblical view of nature as well.

Schaefer's Response to White, Means, and Platonic Christianity

Schaeffer’s first two chapters are in direct response to the articles by White and Means. (Both articles are included in appendices at the end of the book. I’d recommend reading them first before starting in on Schaeffer’s response.) He walks through the articles, almost point by point, giving background on the sources that were used as well as agreeing that there is, indeed, an ecological crisis and religious beliefs do have bearing upon how we relate to nature. But he disagrees that Christianity is the root of the problem and that Buddhism (or Pantheism, as Schaeffer prefers to focus on) is the best solution.

Before getting into what Schaeffer believes is the proper Biblical response to nature in his last three chapters, he addresses the response of what he calls the wrong kind of Christianity. “Much evangelical Christianity,” he says, “is rooted in a Platonic concept,” and this Platonic concept, “does not have an answer to nature.” (This Platonic attitude can be seen in the documentary Jesus Camp when a homeschooling family poo poo's global warming. It is also a concept often maintained by many fundamentalist denominations.) Platonist Christianity spiritualizes nature; in other words, a tree has value in that it reflects God's creative nature, God's beauty or perhaps other things about God. The tree, however, doesn't have any value in it's own right, except to be used up for the benefit of mankind.

A Biblical View of Christianity and Ecology

So what is the "right" kind of Christianity? Schaeffer believes that it all begins with creation. Mankind was created in the image of God, which sets it apart from the rest of creation. But it was also created as a part of creation. Mankind is just as much created as animals and plants. We are, in his words, "equal in origin." We therefore share a unity with the rest of creation. Creation also has value, not because it contains a spirit of it's own (animism) or a bit of the spirit of God (pantheism), but because God made it and said, "this is good." God gave creation value and therefore it is valuable.

God has redeemed not only fallen sinners, but creation as well. This is not only Biblical, Schaeffer posits, but Reformed as well. As the reformers wrestled with concepts such as justification and sanctification, they came to believe that salvation wasn't only something that occurred in the afterlife, but that God's saving powers affected us immediately, sanctifying (purifying) us. Healing was not just a hoped for future, but a substantial part of the Christian's life today. In the same way, Schaeffer believes that a substantial healing of the earth today (not just in the future) is Biblical and reformed.

When mankind was given dominion over creation, it was not to abuse it as we please, but to care for it as one would care for something that is not their own, but entrusted to them by another. The dominion of mankind over nature should be a healing and productive process, not a scarring and destructive one. And of all the people who should be caring for God's creation, Christians should be leading the way. Non-Christians should see in Christians not only a reflection of God's redemptive power in their own lives and in their relationships with others, but in their relationship with the Earth as well.

By not getting our theology right in terms of nature, Schaeffer says, Christians have missed not only "the opportunity to help man save his earth," but we have lost "an evangelistic opportunity" as well "because when modern people have a real sensitivity to nature, many of them turn to the pantheistic mentality" (which was reflected in the recent movie, Evan Almighty, when Evan read that "God is in all things" and therefore he should protect the environment).

Schaeffer Then and Now

Though Schaeffer originally wrote this book in 1970 (under the title A Christian Manifesto: Pollution and the Death of Man), the book was republished in 1992 as the environment was finally picked up as an issue for discussion among wider circles of Christians. I can only imagine how cutting edge this book might have been for the 1970's Christian. Though there are several books on the topic of Biblical environmentalism today, I have yet to find anything else from this same time period on the topic. Schaeffer was clearly pushing the envelope given the state of the church at the time.

That said, I think the average reader today will find this book a bit thin compared to some of the other texts that are now available on the subject. Present day authors often quote Schaeffer, but it is clear that their thinking has grown from the seeds that Schaeffer planted into much fuller and richer concepts. I suppose Schaeffer could be considered, therefore, to be the grandfather of the Christian environmental movement. (Of course, that would make Adam, Noah, and Moses, among others, the great great (etc.) grandfathers of the movement.)

Book Recommendations for This Topic and Where Schaeffer Fits In

Of the books on Christianity and the environment that I have read so far, I would recommend saving God's green earth by tri robinson to any Christian who is new to the study of Christianity and the environment. Robinson's book is chock full of scripture that supports a pro-environment stance for Christians. Unfortunately, when I recommended the book to our church leadership for use in a Sunday school class, they immediately rejected it because of a mention of a "doe with this deep penetrating gaze" which Robinson mentions on page 40. As best I can determine, the reference to the deer struck the leadership as somehow animistic or pantheistic and, despite the fact that that wasn't at all the intention of the author, the book was tossed.

Another book that I'd recommend for those who enjoy deep, meaty theological discussions is Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship. This book is one in which Schaeffer's seeds grew furiously into well thought out, deeply theological bases for environmental stewardship. The authors also do a fantastic job of hitting specific environmental topics, especially land management, without pulling any punches. (In fact, I would urge even non-Christian environmentalists to read the book for this very reason.) But, and I cringe when saying this, I know not to even bother recommending this book to the church leadership, because within the very first chapter the authors mention global warming, and in a church where many people believe global warming is fiction, not fact, I know the book won't get very far.

So in the end, I come back to Francis Schaeffer with great hope. Schaeffer didn't hit specific environmental topics very hard and I don't believe he ever mentioned global warming. He did refer to the Reformation and even used it as a basis of his environmental thinking, firmly eschewing pantheism and animism. So though I think Schaeffer is a bit "thin," at the moment it is the only book I've come across that I think our church might be able to hear. The hope I have is that Schaeffer will provide the foot in the door into this issue for our church.