Christian Conservationism vs. Secular Environmentalism by Dr. John Murray 8/20/10


What should be the attitude of the Christian sportsman toward efforts intended to maintain, protect, or preserve the outdoor environment?  In many areas a strained relationship or sense of antagonism appears to have developed between traditional hunters and the modern “environmentalist” movement.  This is somewhat in contrast to past years when hunters (i.e., Teddy Roosevelt) were often at the forefront of conservation efforts.  Today many Christians, though wishing to preserve our natural resources and the beauty of the few remaining wilderness areas, still feel ill at ease with some aspects of the modern environmentalist movement, especially the more radical fringes.  I believe that the source of this conflict can be found in the clash between basic Christian teachings and the secular philosophies which are espoused by many modern environmentalists.

The Bible teaches that God created the heavens and the earth.  God created man uniquely in His own image and gave him a special relationship with the rest of His creation.  In the beginning, man was instructed to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28 NASV). Man fell into sin and the ground was cursed on his account (Gen 3:17), but even as Noah exited the ark, God again instructed him, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given.  Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant” (Gen 9:1-3). Man was sanctioned to kill and eat both plant and animal life.  He was instructed to subdue the earth, but he was also instructed to “rule over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  Rule implies freedom to use nature for our benefit, but also a responsibility to preserve it from harm.  The Christian conservationist takes delight in nature because it is God’s creation and in it he sees the beauty and handiwork of God.  He may kill and eat and he may shape nature to meet his needs, but he avoids wanton destruction of wildlife and “habitats” for several reasons: 1. He recognizes a need to preserve natural resources for his own benefit and the benefit of future generations. 2. He does not want to mar the natural beauty of God’s creation. 3. He sees his position of “rule” over the rest of creation as a position of stewardship and trust from God.

In the past, secular conservationists sought to preserve natural areas and wildlife for much the same reasons as above.  Even though they may not have acknowledged God, they recognized a responsibility to preserve the beauty of nature for others who would come after themselves.  More recently however, new elements and philosophies have arisen within secular environmental movements.  This is not to say that all non-Christian environmentalists would espouse all of these ideas. There is certainly a great deal of variety within the environmental movement.  But understanding some of these philosophies can help us understand why the more radical environmental groups take some of the stands that they take.  It can also help us to understand some of the inner discomfort we feel when confronted with these stands.  I believe that there are at least two basic fundamental errors which have found their way into many segments of modern secular environmentalism.

The first error that I see is the failure to recognize the uniqueness of man and his special role in governing the rest of creation.  The assumption is that man stands on an equal (or sometimes less than equal) footing with the rest of creation.  After all, if mankind evolved along with the rest of creation without the hand of God, they have no right to “exploit” nature for their own benefit.  They have no right to “rule over every living beast.”  The extreme extensions of this philosophy include militant vegetarianism and the animal rights movement.  If this flawed assumption is accepted, we have no right to eat meat, no right to wear leather or wool clothing, no right to use animals for scientific research or medical treatments, and no right to use hunting as a form of wildlife management.  Less extreme environmentalists sometimes seem to base their more reasonable arguments upon this same dangerous assumption.  They sometimes argue for the protection of the habitats of the black capped vireo or golden cheeked warbler or spotted owl, not because these are beautiful, valuable parts of God’s creation, but because these species seem to have as much or more right as we to their habitats, or because if we discriminate against another species we are guilty of “speciesism” or something akin to genocide.  Christian conservationists may often accept the value of protecting various species from extinction and work together with other environmentalists toward similar ends, but they work from a different set of motives.

The second error that I see is the elevation of nature to the level of deity. In their refusal to acknowledge the living creator God, they reach out to nature as a substitute deity.  Some new agers actually propose worshiping the “earth goddess” in a formal sense.  Less extreme (or less crazy} “secular” environmentalists will still often reverence the “life force” (a la George Lucas} or “spirit within all living things”.  If we accept this error, then it becomes not just a poor choice of location, but a “sacrilege” to build a highway through a forest.  They may find the idea of hunting wild game to be not only personally distasteful, but a “sin against nature”.  Concepts of wildlife and game management are put aside, because man should not “manage” that which is holy.

C. S. Lewis, in his book, Miracles, argued that we must have a (Christian) perspective in order to really appreciate nature: “…only Supernaturalists really see Nature.  You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back.  Then at last the true landscape will become visible.  You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.  To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see…this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads.  How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality?  How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself.  Offer her neither worship nor contempt.  Meet her and know her.  If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.  But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed.  The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence.  She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilized.  We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself.  And that will be a merry meeting.”

I believe that Christians have the greatest opportunity to really appreciate nature in its proper perspective as the creation of God.  We should acknowledge our own position as stewards over creation.  We do have important responsibilities to conserve the beauty of nature and our natural resources.  Often we will need to work side by side with secular environmentalists to achieve proper, common goals.  We must avoid at all costs, however, getting so caught up in secular “movements” that we forget the basic rationale for our conservationist concerns.




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