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“Pack a lunch and you will need your own hammer” he told me. So I dove my teen-aged self to Gemmen’s Hardware and stood in front of a wall of new hammers of every sort, evaluating heft and feel and trying to pick one out, supremely aware of price. I paid twenty-two bucks for it, a lot of money for me at the time.
Mr. Aukeman was a builder and my friend’s dad and he hired me during summers to help build houses and do occasional remodelings. It was among the most singularly valuable experiences I’ve ever had. I am forever grateful.
I learned how to build stuff, and the internal mathematical logic of building materials, and how to be efficient, and how knowing the bones gives one critical confidence to puzzle it out. And I’ve benefited from that knowledge and confidence over and over again, remodeling, repairing, and building useful stuff on my own and with friends and family – that hammer hanging from a loop on my belt or within easy reach.
The hammer is my go-to example of a thing which has instrumental value (it’s a useful tool) and it has great sentimental value to me. If I gave it to you, the sentimental value likely wouldn’t transfer.
This week I was part of two conversations lamenting and puzzling over why wealthy western Christianity seems indifferent to climate justice. The first was among a small group of Reformed Journal familiars and the second over a beer with my own pastor.
I don’t have an answer. But the question refracts through my profession and my teaching. In North America, our legal systems view non-human creation largely as commodities, “things” that can be bought and sold, used and used up. These things are owned individually or collectively but owned nonetheless. We call them “resources” with little self-reflection (like a hammer). We are free to attach other values and connections but those are self-referential (like my fondness for my hammer) and secondary.
The wrinkle in wildlife conservation is that wildlife professionals make much of the fact that wildlife are a public trust. In the U.S. and Canada, wild animals are formally owned collectively by the people of the state/province to be managed in the public interest by professionals (people I train) at the direction of elected officials. The roots of this system trace back to the Magna Carta (it’s an interesting history) but the goal is to ensure that “use” of wild animals is widely and democratically available. And to be clear, use is understood in the historical context of hunting for meat or sport, a commodification.
The legal tradition makes no space for an intrinsic value – a value in and of itself apart from human interest. Even in the case of endangered species, the common question of “what good is it?” begs an instrumental justification so we talk about “ecosystem services” and the possibility of a use we might discover in the future (like the cancer-fighting chemical found in Pacific yew). More and more, I teach about the difference.
In Genesis 1, the Creator observes five times that various parts of the creation are good (!) before humans even enter the scene. And perhaps I am reading too much into the text, but I find it interesting that in verse 31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That implies that the goodness was intrinsic at the very creation and not a declaration that God adds after the fact.
How is it that the intrinsic value of creation isn’t a fundamental and controlling principle of Western Christian theology? For Christians, creation is a divine trust (and I intend that phrase with all the Reformed gravity that it implies).
But returning to the question, I suspect that Western Christianity sits too comfortably with the commodification of creation. This commodification/ownership business is fraught because ignoring intrinsic value offends it and can enable abuse. Human slavery is a most obvious and egregious example, but unsustainable exploitation, environmental degradation, and inhumane treatment of animals also applies. Without intrinsic value, there’s no need for moral consideration. I’d be hard-pressed to do moral damage to my hammer.
But capitalism demands commodification. And here too, I suspect that Western Christianity sits too comfortably and uncritically with its own history, maturing as it did in a culture of colonial exploitation and extraction, ruthless capitalism, and scientific reductionism. Extreme views of ownership license exclusion and accumulation and even give them a gloss of virtue. What would our culture look like if we were more humble about it? What would we think of our borders and belligerent nationalist championing if we took the opening to Psalm 24 seriously?
We need food, water, and materials from creation to live, no doubt. And the Creator says they are there for us to use. But recognizing intrinsic value among these things sets up a natural tension. And I wonder if the tension isn’t purposeful – to remind us of connection. But the way we’ve navigated that tension has largely been to merely acknowledge it (at best) and make it subordinate to our self-interest, creating injustices and damages and systems that are now driving a climate emergency and an extinction crisis.
And so, some part of our problem is that we lack imagination and connection. And on that point, I offer a favorite thought experiment since we at the Reformed Journal are imaging our own future: What would modern Christianity look like if it re-imagined its posture toward creation as leaning into Native American principles of reciprocity, respect, and restraint deliberately rather than slouching further towards capitalist principles of accumulation, consumption, and growth?