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“Does ‘image of God’ make us lazy?” I jotted this in my notebook earlier this week, between phrases like “hinge point in history” and “geophysical tipping point.” I was listening to a lecture by Kathleen Dean Moore, a moral philosopher, nature writer, and environmental activist. She was urging us to action in response to climate change, claiming that we humans are writing the story of the future. What kind of story will it be? she asked. A crime novel, a tragic drama, a love story?
Moore taught philosophy for decades at Oregon State, and these days she writes and speaks to audiences of all faiths and no religious faith. So she relies on warrants and rhetorical methods that will resonate with a broad audience, and not on the usual theological and biblical arguments I hear in Christian college and church circles. I found it invigorating, this approach absent of what we might call “pious shortcuts”—those little tag phrases and proof texts we allow to stand in for complex theological concepts. It made me wonder: do pious shortcuts weaken rather than strengthen Christian formation and witness?
For instance, while Moore was developing her analogy about writing the story of our planet’s future, proposing that we are the protagonists and that this story is surely going to be a thriller, I was thinking, “Around here, we wouldn’t make people the protagonists. We would be talking about the future God is writing.” Which is right and true. God is sovereign. History is God’s story. Yes. But Moore was emphasizing human agency in order to get us feeling the urgent need for responsible action. This raises the question: is it possible to lean on the precious assurance of God’s sovereignty to the point of passivity, even sinful passivity?
I’ve heard from my students that in some Christian circles, they are offered the following reason for ignoring climate change: “God won’t let us destroy the planet.” Really? God seems to allow humans quite a long leash when it comes to causing suffering and destruction. And have you not read Revelation? Even if you were to point to the Noahic covenant with its rainbow promise, you have to admit, God says nothing there about destruction by heat, drought, war, soil degradation, nothing about not letting us destroy the planet. Instead, God makes clear in that covenant that we humans will be called to account for our treatment of animals and each other. So the belief that “whatever happens, God is in control”—when it comes to climate change or any other ominous matter—can be distorted into an excuse for dampening human moral responsibility: if God is in control, I don’t have to do anything.
I spent last summer working with a group of eighteen people trying to suss out the weaknesses in this concept. In some ways, the idea that humans are stewards of creation has helped moderate Christians’ tendencies to participate happily or just unknowingly in an abusive, unsustainable extraction economy. Even so, overcome with our cultural idolization of growth and luxury, it’s easy even for Christians to turn “stewardship” into “use resources efficiently for maximum profit (for some).”
At our best, we resist that complicity, correcting distorted versions of Genesis 1:28’s dominion with Genesis 2:15’s call to serve and take care of the earth. Nevertheless, the notion of stewardship has not moved the needle much with Christians. Perhaps it has something to do with the obligatory feel of the term, as if we must be motivated more by task and duty than love and beauty.
In any case, we need to move “beyond stewardship,” which is precisely the title of the book our group will be releasing this summer. With notable exceptions, American Christians, especially the more conservative ones, are at best trotting along behind other faith groups, entrepreneurs, and activists all over the world who are doing the innovative and determined work needed to build a survivable and just future. At our worst, Christians are the holdouts, the indifferents, the deniers.
You can’t talk about “nature” around Calvin College without calling it “God’s creation.” I get it; we’re trying to signal why we honor the value of the created world: because it belongs to God. But I wonder if we fall into the habit of using that phrase like a pious genuflection and then walking on. We give thanks for seasonal weather phenomena in Sunday morning worship. We take selfies at the scenic turnout on the highway. We gape and marvel at the pretty parts of nature, as framed for our leisure enjoyment. We have thus done our part. However, if we believe that God loves the creation, then what does it mean if we have failed to practice enough human restraint to honor and protect it? Is that not also a failure of love for God?
“Made in the image of God”
I hear this one evoked far too often to mean “so we should all be nice.” Or to garner a few moral superiority points by noting that some reviled other-group is made in the image of God and thus not to be reviled. Rarely do I hear much reflection on exactly what human faculty constitutes this divine image. Reason? creativity? self-consciousness? language? moral responsibility? All of the above? Once again, our status as made in the image of God is a rightly treasured and beautiful truth. But when we allow it to serve as a shorthand for “and thus should be valued and respected,” it can make us lazy in our affording of value and respect to nonhuman creation.
The Bible is full of testimony that God has a cherished relationship with this world apart from its usefulness to humans, even apart from human beings at all. Consider the story of Job, who came to God with his bewildering agonies, pleading for an answer to the mystery of human suffering. God at last replies, not with philosophical discourse, not even by remarking on Job’s particular anguish, but by celebrating, in four bracing chapters, the magnificent, wild specificity of the world: ostriches, crocodiles, lions, the springs of the oceans and the storehouses of storms. I think of the Psalms, the prayers that gather up our little human lives into a kinship of praise—lightning and hail, mountains and hills, sea monsters and flying birds. All that has breath. All that has being. We are special, but we’re hardly the sole measure of value.
There are other shorthands we could examine: “we’re all sinful” and “Christian hope,” for example. Obviously, I have no intention of jettisoning the truths we point to with these shorthands. Quite the opposite: I want to challenge us to ponder them more deeply, live into them more fully. Christian theologians and writers have already done wonderful work bringing the riches of the faith tradition to bear on the “Great Work” ahead of us. Their writing and speaking deserve more attention. We have all the resources we need right in our own faith tradition: the practice of lament and repentance, convictions about human moral responsibility, warrants for valuing all life, divine calls for justice, biblical testimony of our kinship with all creation, practice in building community, and—indeed—a story arc of hope. We can write this love story together. We need to get in shape, though. The Great Work ahead of us will demand rigors of the mind as well as the spirit.
I recommend Kathleen Dean Moore’s book Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change (Counterpoint 2016).
For an example of Christian theology on earthkeeping, I recommend Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Baker 2010).
Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care will be published this summer by Calvin Press.
Katharine Hayhoe is a Christian climate scientist with extensive resources on her website.
The Young Evangelicals for Climate Action is an exciting, relatively new group. Their website also features many resources.