For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care
Author: Steven Bouma-Prediger
Publisher: Paternoster Press
ISBN: 0 801 02298 3
Book Review by John Hathaway, Visiting Lecturer at Redcliffe.
At a time when we are increasingly aware of our own human fragility in the face of natural disasters, and even the world’s only superpower has suffered a disastrous blow from Hurricane Katrina, environmental issues seem increasingly on the agenda for us as a species. We are forced more and more to accept how embedded we are in a whole network of ecological relationships that we can no longer take for granted, and while for many of us the Gaia thesis remains unconvincing, we cannot ignore that our actions as humans have had profound impact on our environment and, therefore, on ourselves.
What I have found so disheartening as a Christian is that, while many of my Christian friends and acquaintances do express interest in environmental issues and are keen recyclers and so on, very few make any link between their faith and their ecological actions. Many regard environmental action as a ‘good thing’, rather than being something that stems directly from their theology as Christians. It is encouraging, therefore, that For the Beauty of the Earth has significant value in articulating a Christian hermeneutic of reading the Bible that provides a sound theological basis for approaching environmental ethics in today’s ecologically-charged and troubled climate. However, before you get too excited, be warned: this book does not make a comfortable read, especially as it looks seriously at such allegations as the complicity of Christians in the environmental mess we find ourselves in today, and how past readings of the Bible by Christians (distinct from Christian readings of the Bible) have resulted in such a profoundly unnatural view of nature.
The book starts by arguing for the need to grasp an ecological perception of place, before moving on to examining some of the scientific evidence for environmental change. Whilst this is not on the scientific scale that some would like, it nevertheless remains a very readable and understandable account of recent scientific evidence. After this innocuous start, the third chapter is where I began to wince. This begins with a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach: “Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.” Bouma-Prediger then goes on to unpack how Christians have been responsible for producing and developing such an anthropocentric view of nature, exploring how we have abused scripture in our readings of terms such as ‘image of God’, ‘dominion’ and ‘rule the earth and subdue it’. Christian theology has been guilty of largely ignoring the environment, focussing exclusively on humanity, and creating a soteriology that ignores nature altogether.
From this rather depressing realisation we are led through a revisitation of some key scriptural texts, which challenge the human-centred view of much theology and establish a ‘green hermeneutic’ that is refreshing and sometimes surprising. We begin to see the basis for a biblical approach to nature, which is developed and transformed into a robust green theology in the following chapter. What struck me in particular was Bouma-Prediger’s assertion that Christ’s sacrifice was not just for humans, but for the whole earth:
Therefore, because of who Christ is and what Christ does, there is gospel for us and the earth. Because Christ is the one in whom all things hang together, we know that the world is a cosmos and not chaos. Because Christ died on a cross, we eschew domination and, by contrast, rule by serving others, including the earth.” (p125)
Likewise Bouma-Prediger asserts that when we examine eschatology, “A Christian view of the future is earth-affirming, not earth-denying.” (p125) Eschatological views have much importance in shaping our approach to nature, and here we have an approach that looks forward to a renewed heaven and a renewed earth for us as renewed humans to dwell in.
The rest of the book develops an ethical Christian approach towards creation care, formulating approaches as to how this God-centred green theology translates itself into practice. Whilst this section loses none of its punch, I was still left wondering what could be done about some of the complex issues that environmental ethics throws at us. In particular what is our approach to matters of eco-justice? For example, it is all very well for us in the developed West to argue for simplicity of living, but do we have the right to impose environmental limits on undeveloped countries in the two-thirds world that are just beginning to develop rapidly through the use of fossil fuels in exactly the same way that we have done already?
In summary, For the Beauty of the Earth is a theologically sound, challenging and, at times, discomforting book. My hope is that readers will feel encouraged by the strong environmental focus running through the heart of Christianity, and thus feel empowered to add a healthy Christian voice in the current environmental dialogue.
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