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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?

Header photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

16 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. We need further explanation and exploration of that last sentence, perhaps in a future post, because it’s attractive and seems right, but it can also go Romantic and sentimentalizing in its potential assumptions about aboriginal religion and worldviews. In any case, you’ve got to be right that the Protestant captivation by capitalism is a huge part of the problem. And then Marxism gives no place to the intrinsic value of nature (or persons) either. And speaking of Gemmen’s, what about the muck? How much is it exploited (how much is left), and how might it properly be honoured? Put in hedgerows and tree lines for birds, to hold the muck against the wind, and harbour birds to eat bugs and reduce pesticides? But then no big tractors, and less profit, and having to pay kids (or Mexicans) low wages to top onions and weed carrots. So our very thick systems of laws, regulations, and economics stiffly resist our necessary changes.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Thanks Daniel. Your well-meant warning against romanticizing a Native American world view is important and I will be more careful. The 3 Rs are taken from Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes out of her Potawatomi tradition (Braiding Sweetgrass), and I should have cited her. But her writing also resonates from stories I’ve heard from Ojibwe people in Wisconsin and interpretations from biologist-friends who worked for the Ojibwe.
      With regard to the Hudsonville muck. Oof. What spectacular wetlands they must have been before they were drained. I think about that every time I am back. What I can’ abide is that that exceptionally productive soil, having been purchased at the cost of diverse wetlands, is now slowing being swallowed up by oversize houses on big lots.
      I’ll also note that ruthless Marxism isn’t the only alternative to ruthless capitalism (cf. imagination).

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        Indeed. As my native New Jersey went from being the Garden State to the Garden Apartment State. The Byron muck is all being built on. The Grant muck, where Melody and Renee’s grandfather had forty acres, is almost all blown away. So with your next post, do give us some of that Ojibwe stuff.

  • Carl Fictorie says:

    Amen!

  • John P. Tiemstra says:

    We use markets as a tool for allocating resources because it is a useful way to recognize and handle the problem of scarcity. Resources come with a price exactly because they are not unlimited in their availability, and they need to be carefully conserved. If those resources are being overused or depleted, we need to reexamine the rules we have put in place to govern those particular markets. We can deliberately keep some resources off the market in order to preserve them, as we do with, say, national parks. We also regulate the way resources can be used, for instance, limiting pollution. I think this essay is a rather simplistic view of the problem.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Don’t we also use markets to handle added value, as with say, converting grain to bread or beer, or iron to tools?

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      But the Market is not neutral. The Market apparently favours standardization. I’m not sure why, but it seems to. Unless you can pay premiums for the exotic. Peruvians naturally grew a great variety of potatoes in single plots, to survive pests and weather and balance nutrition, but the Market favoured single varieties, to the detriment of their local lives. And now it’s all for French fries. So the Market itself resists the rules and regulations we might put in place to govern them. Isn’t the simplistic view rather the reverse?

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      John: Fair enough. Though, in my defense I was trying for a point about the intrinsic value of creation, not a critique of markets. Every point you make about markets is true, but it’s true in the abstract. In practice, we’ve failed to regulate markets sufficiently to limit pollution and preserve scarce resources and in so doing we’ve created deep inequalities between haves and have-nots, creating sacrifice zones in poor neighborhoods and the global south to feed ever growing consumption – to the point that we are endangering life on the planet. I wouldn’t argue that markets as a tool should go away (certainly not completely) but using them to honor creation and implement justice is resisted by market-created wealth and power. Wealthy western Christianity needs to wrestle with that.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Tim, What a wonderful essay that expresses a bit of the glory I have had in the trees these last few weeks. With the snow, ice, icicles, and frost, they point up to their Creator in wonder.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    Tim, thanks for these reflections, and they reminded me of this insightful blog by Richard Silversmith in which he contemplates the Incarnation and Native American perspective on creation. https://dojustice.crcna.org/article/burnishing-god%E2%80%99s-word God actually became part of the created world; all the more reason to see the intrinsic value of creation.

  • CHARLES W VANNETTE says:

    Tim,
    Thank you for a wonderful, neither shallow nor romanticized. essay. Along with ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ I detect the influence of ‘The Need to be Whole’

    Chuck Vannette

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you, Tim. And yes to reading Braiding Sweetgrass—for its page-by-page wisdom. My goodness, what learning & unlearning we have to do. For onward.

  • John Breuker, Jr. says:

    Hi Tim! Was that Owen or Frank or Julian(Jupe) Aukeman who employed you back then? All three were carpenters and developers if my aged memory still serves.i grew up across thr road from the family dairy farm ln the Zuitphen parsonage + Jupe especially was a close friend. I started working the Hudsonville muck (Mart Ver Hage) starting in ’53. By the tornado ,’s devastation in April of 56 I h,eaded up the packing shed for Bosgraff Bros Superior Produce. Ken Maring, a fellow 12th grader at Unity ran the outside stuff. We worked til noon, sped home to change and eat, took a couple of classes in the pm and then worked again til dark. Adults were hospitalized or tending to family who were.. Unity and its teachers were VERY cooperative in working around our schedules that spring.
    So I worked with one crew during the day, then changed to help in the highland in the evenings. Good guys and girls good friends, good times!

  • Al Cornell says:

    As a preacher, I appreciate the post. I think a verse ‘lost in the tough book of Leviticus’ needs to be rediscovered by American Christianity. Lev. 25:23 with words attributed to God, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” That doesn’t mesh with what seems to me to happen. When the going gets tough, the current economic concepts always trump the ecological values without consideration of better alternatives — not good sharecropping.

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