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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?

“Providence”
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.          

“Stewardship”
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.

“God’s creation”
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.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

12 Comments

  • Jim says:

    “God gave Noah the rainbow sign:
    No more water— the fire next time.”

  • Timothy Van Deelen says:

    Home run Debra! I think you nailed it.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks, Debra. I’m going to use your outstanding essay as a springboard to publicize Reformed Journal’s next Meet and Greet event, where Steve Bouma-Prediger will be speaking on “Water, the Bible, and Virtues: Learning (Again) from Scripture,” Thursday, March 28, 7 pm at Third Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Debra, for a helpful article. I do think Christians (especially Reformed ones) get caught between a rock and a hard place. We want to talk out of two sides of our mouth at the same time. Like you suggest, we make God the protagonist or leading character, but also recognize human or even Christian responsibility for our world.

    Those apart from religion, atheists or deists, simply take God out of the picture. Either there is no God, or God has stepped back from his creation and has left the created world to run according to his (or natural) laws apart from his direct involvement. So the care of nature or the created order is totally up to humanity. So whether it is a matter of the human body, our world, or our universe we are the stewards, according to those apart from organized religions.

    I think deep down Christians feel much the same. Christians feel a human responsibility to stop or prevent the abuse of the created world. I think, less and less, Reformed Christians really believe God is going to intervene in our behavior or misbehavior toward creation. I think Christian theology (and perhaps Moore’s thoughts in regard to “providence”) is reflected in the adage, “Pray as though is all depends on God and act as though it all depends on you.” If actions speak louder than words, then we realize that the care of the universe really does depend on human responsibility. Our prayers to God is not much more than lip service. And as humans, we had better get busy before it’s too late.

    So whether one is a Christian or is non religious, the fact seems to be that unless our theology puts a greater emphasis on human responsibility we will make little progress toward the care of our world.

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you for this Debra.
    I especially welcome your call to move beyond stewardship. Might that include nurturing a more loving, even mystical relationship with our fellow creatures? Rather than stewardship of creation we ought to speak of God’s covenant with creation and humans as part of that covenant community. Richard Cartwright Austin wrote: “The ethics of stewardship are too narrow a context for nature, because the natural world is something much more than something for humans to take care of. Our earth is a congregation of lives called by God to nourish each other and challenged to respond to God’s will” (Hope for the Land: Nature in the Bible, John Knox Press, 1988).
    And another resource to consider: Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press) by Leah Schade. She’ll be leading a preaching workshop in Albany Synod on May 20.

    • Debra K Rienstra says:

      Thank you so much for these references. There is so much good work going on. And yes, the theme of kinship will be an important one in this new Beyond Stewardship book.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Prima.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thank you, Deborah, for writing this. I have been thinking and reading about the issue of climate change and evangelicals for a considerable time and confess to a great amount of frustration with the church on this issue. I heartily recommend Katharine Hayhoe’s writing and videos – she is a real treasure and provides thoughtful analyses of climate change issues. While I appreciate your discussion of stewardship, I think that viewing climate change through the lens of social justice is equally important. Those of us who been privileged to live in industrially developed countries are largely responsible for the problem of climate change and we need to recognize that. We also need to understand our obligation to future generations, which is an exceedingly thorny subject. Social science research conducted over the past decade or so has clearly identified that the issue of evangelicals denial of the reality of climate change is not the result of theology, but is the result of political party affiliation. Evangelicals deny the reality of climate change because they are largely affiliated with the Republican party, not because of their theology. If anyone wants references or examples of this, I am happy to provide them.

    • Debra K Rienstra says:

      Thank you, Tom. My reading and experience certainly confirms what you are saying here out of your much more extensive knowledge. Kathleen Moore has a very helpful section in her book about how to respond to the deniers. She teases apart the claim of insufficient evidence and exposes the actual moral issues beneath. Very helpful and explanatory.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells me the world ends in 12 years unless we give her the keys to the kingdom. (She is not the first to make such claims.) Are you saying that I should believe her (remember that anyone who disagrees is a denier)?

      • Tom Ackerman says:

        Matt, dragging Ocasio-Cortez into this discussion is bizarre. We could spend hours trading quotes from politicians whose comments one or the other of us deems to be inane. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that your real concern is my comment about those who deny the reality of climate change and that is why I am responding.
        All good scientists are scientific skeptics, but not deniers. Skepticism in science involves critically challenging scientific results, including, especially, one’s own results, particularly those results that are new and/or that challenge existing understanding. Implicit in that skepticism, however, is a methodological challenge. Why are the results being challenged incomplete or incorrect? What new analysis or data or mathematical modeling will confirm or alter the conclusions? Epidemiological scientists first connected smoking and lung cancer through statistics. There were many skeptics who questioned the statistics and the physiology. Further research confirmed the physiology of lung damage and the statistics to the point that there is largely no current scientific debate about the increased probability of suffering lung cancer if you are a smoker. If one wants to say that he or she is skeptical about this conclusion, then the proper response from a scientific perspective is to ask what data do you have that shows otherwise?
        Denial, on the other hand, is the systematic rejection of scientific evidence to avoid personally undesirable conclusions. if you state that you don’t believe smoking causes lung cancer because you want to justify continuing to smoke, this is denial not skepticism.
        So back to climate change. All the climate scientists that I engage with are skeptics. We all challenge each others’ research and conclusions. If you doubt that, you are welcome to read the literature or the anonymous reviews of papers submitted for publication. Our skepticism is constrained by the need to present methodological and rhetorical criticism of results. I cannot simply publish a research paper stating that I don’t like my colleague’s results. The heavily weighted consensus of the climate science community is that climate change is real, the physics are inescapable, and human activity is the predominant cause. Furthermore, there is an urgent need to address this issue because the climate system has long timescales and we are building in warming from which we currently cannot escape. Saying that you disagree with these conclusions in the absence of presenting a methodological criticism is denial, not skepticism. Saying that climate scientists are perpetrating a hoax or are biased is not skepticism, it is ad hominem denial.
        If we are to move forward on dealing with this issue, we need to move past denial and move to discussing options to address the problem.

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