Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 7)

I’ve tried to lay out two significant moral traditions that express themselves in two very different Protestant theologies. One begins with the earliest days of Western Christianity, and continues through religious and even nonreligious thinkers. It is a tradition that sees the greatest moral danger as pride, the cardinal virtue as humility, and the fulfillment of human existence as loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. The other crystallized in the English Enlightenment, and influenced European and American thinking, most prominently in the American Revolution, which was justified by appealing to its principles. This tradition sees conflict and oppression as the greatest evils, reason as the greatest virtue, and individual liberty and happiness (understood as a calm, sustained pleasure) as the best human life. I want to point out that there are resources within the Lockean moral tradition to start a conversation on environmentalism. Specifically, Locke’s defense of private property is limited by what he calls “the law of reason.” While a person has a natural right to whatever property his or her work has acquired and he or she can use, a person does not have a right to what cannot be used before it spoils.[1] He also discusses how some lands may be held in common for the good of all the people of a village or nation, which would justify public parks, federal forests and so on, with restrictions on the use of these by individuals.[2] But in the theological current flowing from Locke through Rushdooney into today’s federal government, it rarely does so. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this; first and most obviously, much of the theology is being funded by large corporate donors, and they donate to amplify the voices that are the most business-friendly; and second, there is a hermeneutical blindness that prevents many preachers and theologians from properly critiquing Locke’s writings. When Locke writes, for example, “God , …has given the earth to the children of men,” it is easy to see this as some sort of divine command which would therefore have no limits; the will of God transcends human reason. In fact, Locke means no such thing. His primary theological writing, The Reasonableness of Christianity, makes this clear. He vigorously rejects religious extremism, or as he calls it, “enthusiasm,” and argues for an understanding of God that is reasonable: no miracles, no arbitrary commands, no resurrections and no one person paying for the sins of everyone. The scissors Jefferson used to edit the Bible were forged by Locke. But to a fundamentalist super-patriot, like Rushdooney or Jerry Falwell, Locke’s words go from being a rational argument capable of rational limits to a divine fiat which treats any question as rebellion. And that is how environmental questions about this “subdue the earth” mentality are treated. As one example, I would point to Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the Council on Environmental Quality, who claimed that the belief in global warming was “a kind of paganism.”[3]

But even at its best, a social contract philosophy like Locke’s can only treat Nature as a resource for the enjoyment of humans, since only humans enter into the contract. And that is the real problem for theology in swallowing this philosophy, or any philosophy, without some hermeneutical consciousness: that one will try to build an understanding of God on a foundation that does not fit. The Augustinian moral tradition, by contrast, begins with an essentially spiritual foundation: the Platonic belief in the reality of transcendent Good, which makes itself known to those who are willing to receive it, coupled with the Abrahamic belief in one good, loving, personal God who created the world out of love, because it was good for these things to exist. From this perspective, the extreme individualism that Enlightenment social contract theory takes as its starting point is simply the first sign of pride, not an essential reality. The reality, or as Allen puts it, the moral perspective, is that humans are one part of the created order. They do not create order out of chaos by imposing or founding a social contract; they discover their parts as particulars among billions of other particular things, each of which is good in its own way and each of which is perfectly loved by God.

As I have indicated, this is not the theology underlying current U.S. government policies or much of Evangelical thinking. But it, or something like it, does underlie the environmental ethics of other strains of Christianity. The ecumenical National Council of Churches regularly publishes Earth Day liturgical materials, including a 2011 suggested Prayer of Confession which reads:

 

 

God, in all your Creation you have revealed to us the fragile interdependence of life. We confess, at times, we have rebelled against you with ideas of self-sufficiency and extreme individualism. We reap without sowing and do harm without knowing. Open our eyes and hearts to your Creation and all who labor to offer us daily with food, water, energy, and sanitation. Help us to build a just, sustainable community of equitable sharing, solidarity and gratitude.[4]

 

 

While NCC materials tend to focus on human needs and on preserving the environment to better protect the most vulnerable of us humans, they consistently emphasize human interconnectedness, first with one another but also with the rest of Creation, versus “our individualistic culture that is set up so that we will neither notice each others’ struggles, nor bear each others’ burdens.”[5] In Allen’s theology of perfect love, this extreme individualism is the de facto perspective; as he write, “My consumption of resources is well out of proportion to the available supply for mankind, yet I rarely give serious attention to the suffering of those I have never seen, even though I know in theory that their suffering is as real as any I have ever had.”[6] In both the primary religious task is seen as decentering oneself, turning away from excessive concern for oneself and consideration for the worldwide community. This is the Augustinian virtue of humility again, pulling the individual de facto person back from prideful self-love to make room for the moral life of perfect love of others.

An even clearer call to what Allen calls “perfect love” appears in “Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.”[7] It states:

 

 

Our faith urges us to strive for eco-justice: defending and healing creation while working to assure justice for all of creation and the human beings who live in it. This call is rooted in the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15, as well as Christ’s charge to work with and for the most vulnerable. Because of their love for Christ who is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God’s call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation.[8]

 

 

I don’t have any reason to think that the writers of this document had read Allen, but it seems clear they speak from the Augustinian moral tradition that he exemplifies. I find it remarkable how closely this justification for eco-justice follows Allen’s list of ethical implications of the experience of perfect love. The call to defend justice for “all creation and the human beings who live in it” reflects the humility of perfect love. Humans are to see themselves not as the beneficiaries of creation, those for whom all other things were created, but rather as one part of the vast created cosmos. The love of creation is referred back to the love of Christ, and all things done to harm or heal the Earth are seen as harming or healing Jesus himself (fourth on Allen’s list of five ethical principles). While some theologies discuss the believer in terms of ruling over Creation (an apocalyptic reference to the place of the saints in glory after the final judgment), the Earth Care statement discusses humans as servants, “tilling and keeping” God’s garden, not ruling over creation but “communing” with it as equals. As Allen said, we should not see ourselves as living in glory before our time; in this live we are de facto persons who are inclined to exploit, but in the afterlife we will be freed from this bondage to our egos and able to rule creation as God rules it—without selfish need, out of perfect love alone, as moral persons—-though of course without the omnipotence, still humble servants only.

All these documents we have examined so far have been supplementary educational materials. While all were available through my home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, some were originally published by the National Council of Churches and mention Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran leaders. This gives us some glimpse of the broad influence of the Augustinian moral perspective on environmental thinking within Christianity. Nature is valued and to be protected not merely because it is good for humans, but because it is good in itself. The last document I would like us to look at is the “Brief Statement of Faith” found in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions. It states:

 

 

Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.[9]

 

 

Again, the emphasis is not solely on human interests; instead, exploitation of both human and nonhuman creation is condemned, and God is said to act to redeem all creation.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter V, sect. 31-

[2] Locke, sect. 31-41

[3] Veronica Stacqualursi, “White House to Withdraw Environmental Pick’s Nomination.” CNN February 3, 2018 (https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/03/politics/nominee-withdraw-council-environmental-quality/index.html)

 

[4] National Council of Churches, “Where Two or More are Gathered: Eco-Justice as Community;” National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs (2011) Bulletin insert

[5] “Where Two or More are Gathered,” p. 6

[6] Allen, p. 77

[7] PC(USA), Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches, version 3, 2013 (www.pcusa.org/earth-care-congregations)

[8] Earth Care Congregations, “Why Should We Care for the Earth?”

[9] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1996) 10.3: 34-40 (emphasis added)

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