Evolution and Environmentalism (RJS)

I am reading through a book of essays, Theology After Darwin (available from amazon UK or, as pointed out by a commenter, a search of Abebooks.com on author = Berry and title = Theology After Darwin will yield a USA-based source for a new copy of the book at a reasonable price (HT PB)). The fourth chapter, written by Ellen F. Davis is something of a sidestep from the general topic of evolution and theology. Nonetheless the issues she raises in her chapter Reading the Bible after Darwin, Creation and a Culture of Restraint raises some questions well worth considering.

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. According to her bio on the Duke Divinity School web site:

…her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. Her most recent book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.

Dr. Davis’s  chapter in this book reflects her research interests. She suggests that reading the bible after Darwin, in the light of what we learn about creation from science, should lead us into a greater understanding of our role within creation and of the need for restraint.

My Purpose in this essay is not to add fresh fuel to the Bible-versus-biology debate. Rather I intend to consider how a Christian sense of the human place in the world may be clarified, and our sense of responsibility deepened, by reading the Bible in the light of modern biology and ecology, as those disciplines are informed by Darwin’s thought. (p. 58)

Do you agree with Dr. Davis that our reading of the Bible and our understanding of modern biology should lead us to an active concern for environment?

These ideas are expanded on just a little later in the essay:

Again, Darwin has taught us that humans share a complex history with other life forms, and that all are subject to the same laws; when species exceed the limits of their environment on a regular basis, they will die.  … But we have very recently come to recognize, and in a way very different than Darwin himself could possibly recognize it, just how fully this applies to us humans. As terrestrial ecologist Peter Vitousek has recently observed, now for the first time the human species as a whole must find the will to make a drastic change in our behavior in order that life on our planet may continue to be viable and to some degree lovely.

There is no biological or theological reason, according to Dr. Davis, for humans to expect to be exempt from the normal biological processes or from the consequences of actions exceeding the limits of the environment.

Dr. Davis sees three points of correlation between the biological  views of material reality and biblical views of material reality (paraphrased from the text):

1. Both modern science and the Bible say that the world is ordered as a complex and internally dynamic system, or a set of interlocking systems. (p. 59)

Her biblical support for this ideas comes from Genesis 1, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Colossians.

2. Both modern science and the Bible agree in their affirmation that humans occupy a distinct but not separate place within the created order. (p. 61)

Here she looks at the creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Both affirm that humans and animals share a relatedness. This she also finds in Genesis 9, Psalm 36, Hebrews 7, Colossians 1, Ecclesiastes 3.  The implication is that it is a thoroughly biblical idea embedded within the text.

3. Both modern science and the Bible say or imply that the fit between a creature – Homo sapiens included –  and its place in the created order has much to do with the act of eating. (p. 63)

Dr. Davis touches on many ideas here – from the original implication of a vegetarian diet in Genesis 1,2 to the animal sacrifice by Abel found acceptable to God (vegetarianism is not the general ideal). Yet there is an ethic of restraint. She thinks the food laws are something we could learn from. After condemning many modern practices for meat production (confined animals contributing to the poisoning of rivers, forests razed to grow livestock feed) she notes that the food laws restrained consumption by limiting the kinds available for food and through the rather restrictive commands with respect to the slaughter of animals. She concludes:

Thus the Bible consistently affirms that eating the flesh of another creature is a covenantal act, a privilege granted by God that must be exercised with mindfulness and restraint. (p. 65)

She concludes her essay considering the idea that Sabbath introduces a culture of restraint. There are material limits and we would do well to recognize them and live within them. After the Exodus God provided manna in the wilderness. But the manna was provided on a daily basis. Taking more than necessary was forbidden. The manna rotted overnight. But the Sabbath is an exception. Here “every Israelite is to relax in the holy presence of God;” leftovers are permitted on the day of rest.

The intertwined symbols of manna and Sabbath point to the biblical understanding that only an economy disciplined by restraint does justice to the God who created heaven and earth, and therefore to all the creatures that God sustains in life. Like Deep Darwinian thinking, the manna economy and Sabbath observance bespeak an understanding that the existence of life remains a mystery, a gift beyond calculation. A living world with sufficiency for all is a trust and a responsibility, not simply a resource. (p. 71)

The bottom line as Dr. Davis sees it is that both scripture and our modern understanding of biology and ecology cohere in a call for restraint and responsibility.

What do you think? Is Dr. Davis onto something as she describes the need for responsible use of resource, sustainable farming and husbandry, maintenance of Ecuadorian rain forests; as she sees the command for environmental responsibility embedded in scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • scotmcknight

    I’ve not observed with any force (that I can recall) this theme of restraint of consumption in the Bible that Ellen Davis brings out. Some see this same restraint — or avoidance of death — in the food laws. Did she at all touch on food laws in this regard?

  • rjs


    She does see this in the food laws quite strongly. The laws that limit meat consumption to specific species and that require specific methods used for slaughter teach and enforce an attitude of restraint in consumption. She also sees in this respect for all of creation – as co-creatures.

    I wonder though how much she is reading present day concerns back into the text.

  • scotmcknight

    One thing is clear, though, about Israel: death mattered. So minimizing death, which is a form of restraint, could be at work.

  • pds

    It is foolish to try to draw moral imperatives out of Darwinian theory. We have seen where that has led in the past, most notably in the eugenics movement.

    She is highly selective in her moral lessons from Darwinian theory. Natural selection means that survival is the highest and only goal of evolutionary processes. The environment is merely a tool for winning and survival.

    In Christianity, the highest goal is to love God and love others, and creation care grows out of that love and service to others.

    We need to educate Christians about history, including our eugenics history.

  • DRT

    I find much more justification for taking care of the environment in the parable of the 10 virgins and planning ahead to have oil for their lamps. We need to take care with our resources in order to be prepared for what the Lord has in store for us. We don’t know when, so we need to be prepared.

  • pds

    Darwinism is consistent with the gospel too!

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but survive unto eternal life.”

    God’s Judgment and Election are the ultimate Natural Selection.

    Believing in Jesus is the survival mechanism that enables us to out-survive the competition.

    This is fun!

  • rjs


    She discusses Herbert Spencer, social Darwinism, and eugenics and points to why she thinks these went awry.

    But the main point she makes is an interconnectedness between humans and the rest of creation. We ignore this to our peril, she suggests, whether we look at scripture or science. I am not sure this is directly related to Darwin’s theory (and is the same if we take an ID point of view or an evolutionary creation point of view).

  • pds


    Ok, but does she critique Social Darwinism and eugenics using Darwinian principles? Which ones?

    My basic point remains: It is foolish to try to draw moral imperatives out of Darwinian theory.

    What should we learn from nature? According to Paul in Romans 1, we learn that there is a Creator with moral standards. He speech in Acts 17 is consistent with this:

    “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

    24″The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him . . .

  • rjs


    I agree with you that it is not wise to draw moral imperatives from the theory of evolution. I almost didn’t post on this essay because I thought the connection was rather weak.

    However, there is a related issue worth considering. We understand much more about ecology and environmental chemistry/biology than was understood in the past. Should we allow science – here ecology – to interact with and inform our understanding of scripture? Are there biblically based moral conclusions to be drawn?

  • DRT

    In reading all of this again I am struck by trying to understand the other side of the exposition. It seems irrefutable to me that we should take care of the planet and environment if we want to have a great place for countless generations to live. I also know that there are a great many people who do not take care of the environment but I tend to attribute that to greed and selfishness. Are you saying that there are people who think it is consistent with the bible to and life to take as much as they want in the present?

  • I am also struggling with this idea that evolution has built-in moral imperatives. Where did they come from? How does it fit with natural selection? If we as humans destroy the other animals, then it proves they were a weak species and needed to be eliminated?

    I do think there is a theology in Scripture for Creation Care. We are stewards of God’s creation. I also think the prohibitions against gluttony and drunkenness have at their core the idea of self-restraint.

    In all I think we go to theology for Christian support of creation care, because I do not see how evolution provides any help.


  • pds

    RJS #9,

    Absolutely, we use our knowledge of science to better live out Biblical teaching. Does science change the moral imperatives? I don’t see how.

    We also should use new scientific discoveries to better articulate the design arguments Paul makes in our current culture. The design arguments that Paul makes in Romans 1 and Acts 17 are even stronger today. I think that is the case even if you accept that evolution explains big chunks of biological history.

    What do you think?

  • I’m not persuaded that care for the environment was a concern for the biblical world. Genesis 1:26 talks of exercising “dominion” (radah) over creation. Literally means to “tread down.” Most uses of it elsewhere are in the sense of subjugate and bending others to your will.

    Genesis 2 talks of tending the garden but is the garden a metaphor for all creation or is the garden a spot carved out in the middle of the “wilderness” for humans to live? I think it is the latter. Thus, the natural untended world is a scary intimidating place. If anything, I think the command to multiply and fill the earth has overtones of bringing the unruly places under dominion for human habitation.

    I also think that while purity codes may have had positive health and environment impacts, I’m unconvinced that was their intent. Some seem to have this effect and many have no bearing at all. Any attempt to find these codes as intentional environmental protection acts is highly tenuous in my opinion.

    All that is to say that I think most of what we have to suggest we need to care for the environment comes from science, not the Bible.

  • “There are material limits and we would do well to recognize them and live within them.”

    This gets into economics in a big way. The sentiment here is Malthusian. There is a fixed amount of X. Population is growing and people use Y amount of resource X per year. Eventually we will use up all of resource X and everything will collapse (frequently cast in apocalyptic language.)

    But if a commodity is becoming depleted relative to demand what happens to price? It gets higher and higher. Over the past 150 years commodity prices have been in steady decline, occasional shocks to the markets notwithstanding. Many are 1/10 or less what they were 100 years ago.

    As demand increases more economically efficient methods emerge for the extraction, processing, application, distribution and recycling of resources. Should a resource start to become scarce, substitute resources that were once thought too pricey become more attractive. More time and energy is invested in perfecting and economizing on the substitute resources. And as Donald Hay of Oxford noted 20 years ago, nearly every material we use today can be made of renewable resources. We simply haven’t been compelled to move to that level yet. Human beings are highly adaptable and simply projecting current status into the future is useless.

    We are not using up resources at some unsustainable rate. We may, however, be damaging habitats and species beyond repair. That needs to be incorporated into our economic concerns so that this is minimized, but we are not on the verge of some Malthusian apocalypse.

  • One more comment. Economics deals a lot with production, consumption, and distribution. Until the last couple of centuries, production per capita was largely considered a fixed quantity. There was also a fixed amount of land that produced predictable amounts. Therefore, biblical ethical considerations overwhelmingly focus on issues of consumption and distribution (particularly with needing to be generous with others so all have at least minimal level of consumption. It was a zero-sum game when it came to distribution.)

    Over the last couple of centuries we have discovered that through specialization of labor, technology, and expanded trade, that production per capita can be radically altered … in ways utterly unimaginable in the past. Prosperity has mushroomed. Infant mortality rates dropped from 250/1000 to less than 10/1000 in developing nations and it is plummeting to well under 50/1000 worldwide. Worldwide life expectancy at birth has risen from 30 years to nearly 70 years … pushing 80 in developed nations. Global per capita annual income (inflation adjusted) rose from $90 in 10,000 BCE to $180 in 1750 CE. In the last 250 years it has risen to more than $7,000. The percentage of people living on a dollar a day is shrinking and global inequality has been falling (despite the constant mantra to the contrary.) Keep in mind that this all happened during an era where the global population grew from less than 1 billion to nearly 7 billion.

    What I perceive that many Christian environmental activists doing is reading the steady-state nature of the biblical world as God’s design for humanity. Markets and technology are viewed almost exclusively as damnable deviations from God’s design for a “sustainable” world. They are purely marked by greed and selfishness. The modern economy is hell bent on destroying the world.

    It is possible to have expansive economic growth that neither depletes resources nor destroys the environment. What I find objectionable is the anti-technology, anti-growth, Rousseau like naturalism being read back into Scripture.

  • Brian Volck

    Michael #13

    It was Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” that Lynn White, Jr. fingered as the blueprint for environmental degradation in his influential essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” While there were and are some who use Gen 1:28 as the proof text for human maltreatment of the planet, I find White’s thesis deeply problematic and simplistic at best. Whatever its merits or lack thereof, White’s essay gave many environmentalists a villain to blame for the earth’s woes: Christianity. It’s a pity that some, perhaps many, Christians are guilty as charged.

    But so much depends on how one translates the Hebrew verb kabash, (rendered above as ‘subdue’) the meaning of which gets more aggressive in later biblical texts, though there are minority interpretations that associate verb with kneading or shaping pottery. One can make a better case for rendering male (rendered above as “fill”) as accomplish or complete. Still, the verse is troubling for anyone hoping to make a Jewish-Christian argument for planetary care.

    But Gen 1:28 doesn’t stand alone. The Noachic covenant, Gen 9:9-10, is made to Noah, his descendants, “…and with every living creature that was with you,” indeed, “every living creature on earth.” The Psalmist has God’s declare, “for the world (teval) is mine, and all that is in it.” And God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, Job 38ff, making it painfully, indeed humiliatingly clear, that the earth and its foundations are beyond human understanding, much less control.

    And control, from at least the time of Bacon’s New Organon, is what the scientific project has promised, one of the three powers of any successful scientific hypothesis: descriptive power, predictive power, and control power. There is a debate within science as to what, if any, “ought” one can derive from the “is” science describes, a debate embedded in the larger question of what sort of knowledge science actually provides. Is it knowledge of underlying reality independent of the observer, which has the promise, at least, of being universal, necessary and certain, or is it knowledge of experience, interpreted collectively and subject to historical revision or refutation?

    In any case, the ozone hole is directly caused by chlorofluorocarbons, not prayer. Oceanic dead zones off the coasts of the planet’s scientifically advanced nation-states are caused by nitrogen-phosphorous runoff, not fasting. To the degree human activity is changing global climate, the cause is mostly increasing CO2 levels from fossil fuel use, not liturgy. Yes, people cause planetary destruction, and many of the destroyers have, alas, been Christian, but the armory of that destruction is science applied to systems we are part of and do not properly understand, yet still desire to control.

    My point is not that science is bad; rather, that science is a tool from which we gain great knowledge and power which must be used with what the Old Testament calls Wisdom and Greeks called phronesis, usually rendered as “prudence,” a virtue that cannot be practiced alone, but only in concert with the other virtues. The internal debate I mention above and the baleful consequences of naively applied science leads me to conclude that scientific knowledge is a necessary but insufficient condition for wisdom or phronesis.

    Old Testament accounts identify humanity as the high point of God’s creating, but Genesis also assures us that God found all he had made very good. And Paul promises that Christ will reconcile all things (ta panta eis auton) to himself. Humans clearly shape the planet and have done so for many centuries, but to imagine humans might control the planet is far more than the Priestly source, the Psalmist, the author of Job, or Paul could have dreamed. The very idea would have struck them, I’m quite sure, as blasphemous, an example of what Augustine named libido dominandi.

  • Brian Volck

    Pardon the second post, but I should clarify that Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, distinguishes phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom as in right action) from sophia (wisdom as in right thought or contemplation) while insisting that these two intellectual virtues act in concert if they are to be properly practiced. I yield to any Old Testament scholars out there to help me understand how the Greek-influenced late Hebrew Wisdom literature understood the Wisdom of God in relation to these twin Greek concepts.

  • I think we should preserve the environment because it is eminently reasonable to do so. Doing that which is reasonable is also scriptural.

    But I agree with Michael that you would be hard pressed to find a biblical mandate specifically related to environmentalism. Whether you want to interpret God’s command as “to subdue” or “to shape”, there is no call to preserve.

    Many, under the guise of creation care, have elevated environmental degradation to a sin against God in and of itself. By my lights, this reasoning leads down a troubling path that usually ends in abject hypocrisy (Green Bible anyone?).

    On Darwin, to link evolutionary theory to creation care seem like a case of beginning with a premise and working backward. If God intended the food laws as a means of preserving his creation, suffices to say he expressed this fact very poorly.

  • rjs

    kevin s,

    To be fair to Dr. Davis, I think she was at a conference discussing theology after Darwin and she knows her link with that topic is tenuous. This is rather clear in her essay. She draws connections, but makes no claim of a direct pathway from one to the other.

  • Dana Ames

    Well, whether or not she connects to Darwin, I think she is spot on about the food connection and restraint. I don’t claim to know what the sustainability point is, biologically or economically, but we are very cavalier about what we eat and where it comes from. I hear resonances with Wendell Berry.


  • DRT

    Michael and kevin s.,

    Clearly there is a line somewhere. I doubt that anyone would consider it a sin for me to dig a 2 foot hole in my back yard, but to remove the top of a mountain, mine it, allow the streams to be polluted and cause death and disfigurement to many species, and if done on a very large scale to potentially endanger the entire ecosystem through soil erosion and polution, that would be a sin.

    So, where is the line. The problem I see with the industrialization at its current state is that people and species without a voice are the ones that are paying, or will pay the biggest price for the damage. There is little doubt that the decrease in bio-diversity on the planet is wasteful, and that the species being eliminated have no say in the event. It is clear that the oil being pumped out of africa and spilled in their water systems is poisoning the poeple who live there. It is clear that as the atmosphere continues to be polluted along with sources of water and food that the generations that come after us have no say in whether it is right to do this. It is wrong to put the price for our comfort onto those unable to express a voice.

    But as I said, where is the line. Considering the practical irreversibility of many of the changes we are making it would seem prudent to be cautious in our approach. I think it is self evident that the people are putting the kabash on the environment in a wreckless way.

  • I disagree that your mining example necessarily constitutes sin. Where is the scripture that supports the idea that decreasing bio-diversity is a sin? If it’s a sin on a large scale, it is a sin on a small scale as well.

    You are correct that species do not have a say in their own demise. But it is also true that members of a species do not care if the species at large goes extinct. That is solely a human concern.

    Per Darwin, those species exist solely because of their adaptation to their environment. If that environment is destroyed or modified, that species becomes irrelevant. Again, it is a theological leap to make this a sin issue.

    If you want to argue that polluting the streams endangers the livelihood of someone else, and that the mining companies are doing so maliciously, then you have a sin issue. Sin emanates from the heart.

    I don’t see support for the notion that we can sin against future generations, so we would have to confine this idea to the people who are on Earth right now.

  • DRT

    “I don’t see support for the notion that we can sin against future generations, so we would have to confine this idea to the people who are on Earth right now.”

    kevin s., I think that being fruitful and multiplying is significantly hampered if future generations are unhealthy. Also, who is more my brother (am I my brother’s keeper?) than my unborn brother (literal)? So there is clearly a responsibility to future generations.

    As far as the sin of species extinction and environmental damage, I think Brian in #16 has a pretty good paragraph.

    But Gen 1:28 doesn’t stand alone. The Noachic covenant, Gen 9:9-10, is made to Noah, his descendants, “…and with every living creature that was with you,” indeed, “every living creature on earth.” The Psalmist has God’s declare, “for the world (teval) is mine, and all that is in it.” And God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, Job 38ff, making it painfully, indeed humiliatingly clear, that the earth and its foundations are beyond human understanding, much less control.

    At some level I agree with you that it would seem odd for us to preserve the way that the world currently is just because it is that way right now if one were a Darwinian. Clearly if a species is no longer suited to the environment and others become more suited to the environment then that change probably should happen.

    But I think the issue with bio-diversity has more to do with future generations than with current generations. The earth is a System that is quite complicated and tuned. Recklessly and unnecessarily changing the environment in ways that may have a significant impact on future generations is something to be taken seriously. Many of the medicines we have today come from the biosphere. Many of the pleasures we get in life come from interacting with other life forms. Elimination of some species has profound environmental impacts and this applies to plants as well as animals.

    I don’t know about you, but if we were to pave over the whole world and get rid of all the other life but we were able to still survive by making all the basic things needed for sustenance, then I would think that our life would not have been fruitful. Gifts should be appreciated.

  • Percival

    pds said,

    “Natural selection means that survival is the highest and only goal of evolutionary processes.”

    Actually, I think reproduction is the highest goal of evolutionary processes. Survival means nothing if not for reproduction. Survival of the species is a byproduct of the reproductive strength of the organism. An organism only needs to survive until it reproduces, then its life is meaningless. Are there moral lessons there? I don’t know, but reproduction is a very big theme throughout scriptures. But in contrast to today’s thought, the biblical view of reproduction seems to be uniformly positive. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” is a blessing pronounced by God, not a command.

    Michael Kruse,
    I appreciate your perspective on this too.

  • AHH

    I think a better place to find a creation care ethic in the Bible is our appointment to be images of God. The Bible makes clear that God cherishes, cares for, and provides for all of God’s creation (including the human part, but the other parts have value independent of humanity). So in our “image” status as God’s vice-regents, we should do likewise. Of course reasonable people might disagree as to what good stewardship might be in a given situation, but an attitude of exploitation at the expense of the rest of God’s creation is wrong.

    This perhaps provides an opportunity to recommend my favorite book on the theology of creation stewardship:
    For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger.

    And in reply to what Michael Kruse said, I think what economists often miss in dismissing the idea of limited resources is that switching to alternatives takes time in the real world. For example, as oil production peaks in combination with increasing world demand and population, alternatives can be developed in principle, but the expense and effort may well make the development too slow to avert a major crash.

  • “I think that being fruitful and multiplying is significantly hampered if future generations are unhealthy. Also, who is more my brother (am I my brother’s keeper?) than my unborn brother (literal)? So there is clearly a responsibility to future generations.”

    Your literal brother is clearly more your brother than a person that does not yet exist. Being fruitful and multiplying is also difficult if we don’t have access to energy resources.

    I don’t think these passages get us to the idea that we can sin against future generations. That is not clear to me at all.

    It is important to make a clear distinction between that which is not prudent and that which is sinful. It is quite serious to accuse someone of sin who has not committed one.

  • Dana Ames

    AHH, if we educate girls & women we won’t have to worry about population very much. But the Image of God aspect is a very much better rationale for the stewarding of creation, I agree.


  • I want to be clear that my points above were primarily directed at finding “environmentalism” in the bible. I doubt it’s there. To me, that is a different question from discerning what is ethical and prudent with regard to the environment.

    The whole idea of ancient magic was to be able to bend natural events toward your ends through supernatural means. Sacrifice to the gods had much to do with “controlling” nature by appeasing the beings who controlled nature. My point would be that nature was not considered a cuddly friend. It was a dynamic uncontrollable force that both enabled and threatened life. Nature was less something to protect than to be protected from.

    I also lift my point that as I read the ancient folks, they see the land as where they live and that is distinct from other places like the wilderness and the sea. Civilization was a enterprise to keep the chaotic destructive uncontrollable forces outside from consuming them. Our perceptions have changed.

    Through economic transformation and the application of scientific-rationalism we can now radically influence nature or adapt to it in ways that were previously unthinkable. Because of our competence we are capable of having impacts on the world that would also have been unthinkable. In a practical sense, there is no more wilderness. We have annexed the whole world into our “garden” and our science now lets us see how interconnected our “garden” is. So what does that mean for us today?

    Our ethics have been shaped by nearly 2,000 years of living in a world of static zero-sum economies where we had little power to influence the natural world. We now live in a world where we can radically alter production and increasingly have the ability to have significant impacts on the environment. The ethical questions have significantly morphed but too much of theological reflection seems to be about trying to fit the new realities into the old wineskins. Thus, the dynamism of market economies and ability to manipulate the natural world are, in large part, viewed negatively as departure from biblical ethics … evil manifestations of “theocapitalism” or scientific hubris. A heavy dose of Malthusian thinking (also pre-industrial) is throw in for good measure.

  • pds

    Percival #24,

    Sure, you can go into more detail, but if you are dead, you can’t reproduce. Reproducing 10 times is better that doing it once.

    Evolution works because of competition. The fit survive and reproduce, the unfit don’t. Competitive survival and competitive reproduction is not what Christianity is about.

    Ellen Davis’s thinking seems to be just a newer variation of Social Darwinism.

  • pds

    One more thought. In Darwinian terms, rape is “better” than celibacy. I don’t see that in the Sermon on the Mount.

  • I’ll also add this. There is what I call the “Who sinned?” mode of economic analysis. It postulates that most every economic challenge we face is because someone sinned. The aim is to identify who sinned, vilify them, and then to exhort people not to sin in that way anymore.

    In fact, I think many economic challenges emerge out of people doing what is individually prudent and responsible in their individual contexts but problematic once it expands to a community-wide practice. IfI am the only one of two million people in my community who drives a fossil fuel vehicle because it is the cheapest mode for me to use, no one will be harmed by this. Add a few more folks and we are still fine. But at some point we reach a critical mass where pollution begins to be a problem. Not because of evil malicious intent but simply because what is not of ethical concern when practiced individually creates concerns when everyone does it community-wide.

    Consequently, I think many problems we face emerge in this way, not from malicious capitalists, not from consumerism, and not from devilish scientists. They are economic/scientific problems to be solved through economics and science.

    With that said, I’m not saying there is NO merit to asking who sinned at times. Once an economic pattern is established it will create vested interests both for and against the pattern. Some will fight to preserve a destructive status quo even when the true impacts are discovered. Others will attempt to discredit an optimal status quo for their own gain. My challenge is to the “Who sinned?” mode as the driving ethical/theological engagement with economic and scientific questions.

  • DRT

    I am compelled by AHH’s image of god argument.

    Michael’s example, to me, begs for us to have some sort of collective control over the collective impacts that our collective actions produce. They need to be governed.

    Perhaps the tower of Babel is the best bible story here. When we have collaborated to the extent that we are impacting creation then we need to be broken up or somehow stopped

  • Adam Huschka

    Why do some Christ-followers need convincing that God calls us to live with restraint? It bugs me a little that in order for the importance of environmental sustainability to be a “Christian” issue that we must first demonstrate that God addressed the subject in our days’ ways thousands of years ago.

  • DerekMc

    Michael Kruse, thank you for your participation on this topic. It is good to hear an economic viewpoint. Any thoughts on the ecological concept of “carrying capacity” of a niche or ecosystem as it might apply to scarcity of resources? As a resource get more scarce the price goes up. Is it possible to posit a situation that the carrying capacity of a niche/ecosystem could be crossed before economic forces react?

  • #32 DRT

    Or maybe we need to evolve new societal and international relationships that help us manage our use of the world.

    I consider myself emergent when it comes to a broad range of human activities. The seemingly chaotic interaction of human beings gives rise to institutions that help coordinate more complex human interaction. The emergence and action of those institutions spawns new adaptations in human interaction which in turn impacts the complex organizations … and so on. Don’t think we can solve the problem by centralizing control (thus squashing innovation) or abolishing centralized control (thus thwarting critical aspects of cooperation.)

  • DRT


    I too am a fan of emergence and think that there will be an emergence of the proper governance. It’s just that I think, in this case, centralization is the type of governance that has emerged.

    What makes this paradigm different from past paradigms is that the costs are borne by the future generations. In this case there is a degree of forethought required.

    Perhaps there could be an emergent solution. I think we have been dealing with these issues since I have been in H.S. (70’s) without a resolution. I was very much a low centralization type of person back then, but am increasingly becoming a centralized person on certain issues. The reason is because of the scope of impact in terms of world and time impact.

  • #33 Adam

    “… we must first demonstrate that God addressed the subject in our days’ ways thousands of years ago.”

    I assume that was directed toward me. That isn’t what I said. In ethical considerations, William talks about a ladder of abstraction. For example, at the top of the ladder we might find the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Midway down the ladder we might find “there should be no poor among you.” At the bottom we find “leave the edge of your fields for gleaning.”

    We are no longer an agricultural culture. Gleaning no longer makes sense. So we climb up the ladder to those broader ethical imperatives and then figure out how to climb back down the ladder into our culture context and apply them.

    The profound changes we’ve experienced with production and technology have altered the reality at the bottom of the ladder. What are the ethical principles above us on the ladder we need to climb to in order to discern in our present context?

    My criticism is that two much of the conversation is driven by A) a failure to appreciate that things on the ground have changed from the biblical world or B) a predisposition to regard the changes as largely evil and destructive. That doesn’t help us descend the ladder into our context.

  • #34 Derek

    Those are the really interesting questions, aren’t they? I’m not a scientist so I don’t know that I can address the science.

    What your describing is a negative externality … a cost that isn’t being captured in the economic transactions. There a variety of means economists suggest for making sure those costs are captured in economic transactions. The challenge, of course, is in assigning costs and implementing cost capturing mechanisms.

    I think we are in a global tug-of-war between achieving economic growth and incorporating our burgeoning understanding of environmental systems. That tension isn’t necessarily bad and its one that Christians should be actively engaging. Some are. But to me, there is far too much energy spent in moralistic tirades about the evils of our present life made on tenuous “biblical” grounds or conversely casting scientists as spawns of evil for pressing environmental questions. The challenge is in developing institutions that both preserve freedom and adaptation while allowing us to collectively address legitimate scientific challenges.

  • Adam Huschka

    #37. Michael, actually my criticism was directed at you in the least. I was simply responding to a resistance to consider what the author suggests because the Bible doesn’t directly address the issues she raises. In reading your post – thanks for the ladder explanation, very cool – it struck me that I think we’re on the same page.

  • Luke B

    (On dominion)My understanding is that most of the dominion uses are in the context of the rule of kings and queens, and can be good dominion or bad dominion. Good dominion enables the community to flourish. Most examples of dominion (both in present day life and in the Biblical narrative) are of “bad dominion”. I don’t think the garden metaphor for all of creation is inconsistent with modifications of the unruly places. (To use the ladder framework, ‘beating down’ I see as being at the bottom of the ladder in those very pre-industrial times, and ‘carefully shaping the world to be a better place for all creatures’ to be the bottom of the ladder now. Too much (or the wrong kinds of) modification results in creating unruly places where neither humans nor nonhuman creation can thrive, i.e. bad dominion leading to ecological collapse (examples in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse).

  • Luke B

    (on biodiversity): God’s love for God’s nonhuman creation is a very apparent theme for me in the canon. If this is granted, what is the implication for considering the impacts of our actions on not just our future progeny and fellow humans, but other creatures? A few examples: God’s concern for cattle (for their own sake, not simply as ‘resources’ for human consumption) at the end of Jonah, perhaps the longest direct God-speech in the Bible at the end of Job (which could be confused with a nature/ecology essay), references to God watering trees where no one lives, Psalmist depictions of non-human praise of God…

  • (#37) “Gleaning no longer makes sense”?

    Tell that to the very large numbers of people who are alive and healthier because of on-going, successful gleaning programs.

  • Steve Noren

    I believe God did set up rules in the Old Testament that deal with the environment, but He did it in a roundabout way. In Exodus 22:25 we find the ban on usury–no interest of any kind against a fellow Israelite. Think for awhile of the environmental effect of not having to push harder and harder, extracting more and more from the earth to cover principal plus interest. How much more care would go into business decisions if money had to come from partners one knows rather than a bank with anonymous money, even fiat money from fractional banking laws. All new wealth comes from agriculture, fishing, timber, and mining (including oil), i.e., debit nature and credit man. Economic activity comes from processing, distributing, and consuming those materials. Any time we attempt to have a lifestyle that is greater than the value of the raw materials times the multiplier effect from processing, etc., those materials (usually considered to be a factor of 5 to 6) we must borrow, with the interest payments attached, which then places back pressure on the economic system lowering the price offered eventually for raw materials, putting pressure on the raw materials producers to work longer hours, push the neighbors out of business, cut ethical corners, and rape the earth.
    Likewise, in Leviticus 25, we find laws that limit the size of businesses by requiring a sabbath year every seven years and a jubilee year every fifty. How large can a business grow if every fifty years the land reverts back to the descendants of the original owner? How much can your money earn if debts are cancelled every seven years? Can you picture what a slowdown that would be, what an opportunity for reflection, for more careful planning, for personal involvement instead of impersonal investments. While I don’t advocate going back to those particular laws, I see a lot of wisdom (God’s?) in having a few laws that hit at root causes instead of reams of laws jabbing at the results.
    Lest you find something here to protest, turn to II Chronicles 36:21 and see that God did take the sabbath rest for the land’s sake very seriously. It was one of the main reasons for the exile.