A Theology of Tree-Hugging

Nathan Brown, Editor, Signs Publishing Company, Warburton, Victoria, Australia

Summary: As Christian stewards we should be using the many choices in our lives, our consumer power and our political voice, to work against the blind disregard of environmental responsibility in much of the world.

The natural world

In 1992, seventeen of the world’s leading scientists—including one-hundred four Nobel laureates—met to consider the state of the natural world. They concluded their gathering with this warning: ?A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.?[1]

While some may quibble about the edges of our looming environmental tragedies, the broad scale realities are increasingly beyond debate. Faced with the degradation of so many aspects of the natural world, it is significant that these eminent scientists—many of whom would be considered and consider themselves non-believers—should employ a term such as ?stewardship? to describe our relationship with the world around us. It is a word that should awaken in Christians echoes of their God-assigned role from creation. Unfortunately, it’s a warning that demands a change of attitude for too many Christians and Christian organizations.

At creation, God gave a charge to humanity: ?Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters over the fish and birds and all the animals? (Gn 1:20, NLT). To many people—both inside and outside Christianity—this is the assumed Christian attitude to the world around us: subdue and master; use and abuse. But this attitude ignores the more tempered and stewardly tone of the next chapter: ?God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and care for it? (Gn 2:15). It’s a different way of interacting with the world.

Living carefully

Significantly, these gathered scientists called for a profound change, not just a fine adjustment. So much of how we live our lives is indefensible, self-centered, and simply wrong. In much of the Western world, and perhaps even more broadly, ?we are engaged in a mania of consumption?. More and more people own houses that are larger and larger, and ever more crowded with stuff.?[2] And while some of us may espouse the fashionable garb of environmental concern, most of our lives deny the reality of God’s creation and our responsibilities: ?Much of our contemporary creative work seems to presuppose an absurd or meaningless world, a world in which particular acts matter very little or have no larger significance. Our practices, as when we engineer or modify habitats and organisms or when we produce substandard and therefore wasteful products, suggest we see the universe as ours to do with as we please.?[3]

Such an attitude is profoundly anti-Christian: ?The scriptural view that the whole creation belongs to God and that our role within the creation is limited, but also ennobled, to that of steward or servant, seems to make little practical difference in the way many people order their lives.?[4] Whatever attitude we may adopt or preach is worthless in the face of a contradictory practical living.

Yet we are enmeshed in a self-defeating and planet-destroying culture and economy. Responding as Christians to the ?mania of consumption’ may not always be straightforward, but minimizing our participation as much as possible is a first step. Author, Dallas Willard suggests a useful attitude for personal living: ?a gentle but firm non-cooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong.?[5] In the context of environmental degradation, there are some big picture issues that everyone knows to be wrong: ?Economies built on destruction and exhaustion must be replaced with economies that model hospitality and care. We need to see that our economic lives give the most honest portrayal of how we understand salvation.?[6]

Celebrating life: celebrating God

Before we get down to the serious business of environmentalism, perhaps our first task is to reclaim the wonder of creation. The Bible is filled with the celebration of the natural world—both by God, such as in Job 38-41, and people, such as Psalm 148. Jesus also drew from the natural world, examples of God’s goodness and care (i.e. Mt 6: 26, 28-30) commending both our reliance on God and an appreciation of the simple gifts that surround us with wonder.

Former prominent American agriculturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey recognized this unique relationship between a follower of Christ and the natural world, arguing that ?a man cannot be a good farmer unless he is a religious man.? And possibly a good farmer—or those who live with such an appropriately steward-like attitude—is one most open to the religious aspect of life: ?To live intimately and sympathetically with the earth is to see that we are surrounded and sustained by gifts on every side and to acknowledge that the only proper response to this unfathomable kindness is our own attention, care, and gratitude.?[7]

In much of the world, we live in an artificial, unsustainable, and thus unreal environment. We have cut ourselves off from the real world from which we draw our life. Sometimes the holiest, most profound, and most important moments in our lives must be watching a sunset, feeling the rain, listening to a chorus of frogs, or even hugging a tree. Such moments are celebrations of the abundant creativity of God.

?For God so loved the world?

As stewards of God’s creation—?those who are gentle and lowly? and as such ?the whole earth will belong to them? (Mt. 5:5)—we should have an unrivalled global focus. We no longer need to ask, ?Who is my neighbor?? (Lk 10:29). For we live with the increasing realization that we are all in this together: ?There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically speaking there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.?[8] We must be alert to the prospect and reality of ?vast human misery? and acknowledge that they are us.

We are undeniably mutually dependent. How we live in comparative affluence impacts directly and indirectly upon the lives of millions of others and upon the limited resources of our world. As Christian stewards we should be using the many choices in our lives, our consumer power and our political voice, to work against the blind disregard of environmental responsibility in much of the world.

When Jesus said ?For God so loved the world?? He used the widest possible meaning of ?the world? (Jn 3:16). This includes all the people of the world, and may well also extend to the natural world. Such an all-encompassing view of salvation is suggested by Paul’s assertion that ?all creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay? (Rm 8:21). In light of such texts, even those who see some kind of apocalyptic sense in the destruction of our natural world must ask themselves whether God has some bigger purpose.

Christian tree-hugging

Christianity is often seen in opposition to ecology. In many intellectual circles, Christianity is looked upon as being synonymous with capitalism, consumerism, Westernism, industrialism, imperialism, and even militarism. In reality, Christianity should be at the forefront of protest against these destructive attitudes and practices. As stewards of the earth, servants of all humanity, and disciples of Jesus, we must be agents of an all-embracing change in our world.

Environmental activists have often been lampooned as tree-huggers. But if that’s what is needed to reforge a sense of connectedness to the natural world and precipitate the urgent steps that will follow from a renewal of that realization, perhaps Christians should be setting the example. As Christians, we can out-hug any tree-hugger. But it’s not just about the tree. When we realize it’s about the tree, the life it supports, each of our fellow tree-huggers and our-selves, and all the work of an all-loving Creator—then tree-hugging and all that the term has come to represent will be rightly regarded as most significant acts of worship.

[1] ?World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity? <www.ucsusa.org>.

[2] Thomas Hine, I Want That: How We All Became Shoppers—A Cultural History, Harper Collins, p.158.

[3] Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.14.

[4] Wirzba, pp.14-15.

[5] The Divine Conspiracy, Fount, p.313.

[6] Wirzba, p.20.

[7] Ibid, p.72.

[8] Ibid, p.77, quoting Wendell Berry.