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Environmental Stewardship and Teaching Christian Geology . . .

Jeffrey K. Greenberg1

Teaching science or mathematics at a Christian college might conceivably be no different in content and method than at any other institution of higher learning. Mathematics is math. Geology is geology Ė basically the same discipline in any language or nation. The same fundamental principles, examples, and nomenclature must be taught in every context. However, geology has grown into a practical and value-laden science at the interface between nature and society. Decision-making and problem-solving abilities are just as necessary for the modern geology student as the memorization of technical concepts. There is, therefore, an advantage in Christian education where geological application is concerned. A strong emphasis on biblical wisdom can make a real difference. At Wheaton College the potential for truly distinctive geoeducation exists as a challenge to faculty initiative.

A desire to see people get excited about the natural world began in me before employment at Wheaton. Everyone should stand in awe of Creation as David (Psalms 8 and 104) or as Job before the Lordís rebuke in chapters 38 through 41. I now also realize that sanctified minds are essential in balancing attention to human needs with protection of a threatened environment. These concerns have become my motivation for teaching geology, and they have meant changing from a mostly academic-research orientation. Environmental stewardship has become a prime focus of the geology curriculum.

Practical experience shows that consideration of human needs demands care for the environment. A powerful example is the need for water. The worldís number one health problem is a lack of clean, adequate water supplies. This is a global geological problem requiring constant attention.

Both testaments of scripture portray nature in physical and spiritual interdependence with man. Desert, rivers, fruit trees, domestic and wild animals, mountains, caves, earthquakes, well water, and dramatic storms all have practical and symbolic roles in the Bible. People who take the words of scripture seriously realize the Creatorís loving concern for His work. In Genesis, each act of creation is capped off by the Lordís affirmation, "it was good." In Leviticus and elsewhere in the Pentateuch, Israel is provided Godís guidelines for carefully using nature. Animals and crop lands are to be treated wisely (for example, Leviticus 22:26-28 or 25:2-6). My own interpretation of scripture prescribes that mankind serve as responsible overseers (stewards) of all that surrounds us. "The Earth is the Lordís and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1) Ė it does not belong to us. We are not free to use nature unwisely or to abuse it; but we are also not to elevate it as equal to or greater in value than people. Yet, both of these false views have been more prominent, even among Christians than a true attitude of stewardship.

Conservative or evangelical Christians have been accused of espousing a dominion theology (based on Genesis 1:28-30) fostering environmental abuse. Mainline denominations and those of liberal theological perspective have conversely been the major proponents of the "green" ecological movement among Christians. This movement extends the previously mentioned elevation of nature to the point of deification. The ecological reverence derives from a pantheism similar to that of eastern religions. Thoreauís Walden Pond and Aldo Leopoldís Sand County Almanac (1966 edition by Oxford Press) are often credited as the greatest philosophical inspirations for the modern ecological movement. Biblical principles are neither directly incorporated or rejected in these books, but a mystical pantheism permeates each.

The philosophical, religious, and political trappings of environmental activists have probably done much to keep evangelicals from serious consideration of the issues. Such an impression has been gained from teaching geology at Wheaton College for five years and at Youth with a Missionís University of the Nations for the last three summers. Many evangelical students do not see the urgent importance of environmental action. In light of the wisdom in biblical stewardship and the overwhelming scientific justification for environmental management, it is imperative that all Christian students gain an understanding of critical issues.

I find it necessary to convince students of the mandate for Christian environmental activism. This is attempted by establishing the biblical context. A Jamesian admonition to act on our faith must first be agreed upon before other scriptural details are considered. Next we seek to identify, then acquire ("put on") the attributes of Christ as our preparation to do environmental ethics. Three Christ-like qualities that recur in class discussions are a sacrificial lifestyle, compassion, and a desire to see justice done. It is interesting to realize how close these are to Godís requirements for man in Micah 6:8. The first quality, perhaps equivalent to humility before the Lord in Micah, means that we are to prefer the needs and welfare of others before our own desires, especially where unessential. In simple terms, this may be contributing our time and material resources where needs exist. Some people, including denominational groups, demonstrate radical lifestyles of self-denial that can conserve ever scarcer resources for others now and in the future. We can all utilize certain goods, even if more expensive, that diminish pollution caused by cheaper, more enticing products. Should such activities by perceived as radical?

A soul of compassion derives from the model of Jesus and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Being made in the image of God, all humanity has the potential to feel compassion, but only the believer knows why we have sympathy for the poor or for oil-soaked sea otters. Micah expresses this as the love of kindness. The Lord loves and cares for all His creation.

To do justice is the exact requirement in Micah. If one asks what is just, the answers or guidelines to answers are again in scripture. The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia defines "just" or "justice" in terms of Godís character and His ways. To behave as the Lord decrees is therefore doing justice. Abuse or even benign neglect of anyone or anything is unjust. This is typically supported by a multitude of scripture passages with respect to human poverty or oppression (see Ron Siderís Cry Justice, InterVarsity Press). And as mentioned previously, scripture portrays Godís people as responsible stewards of all creation. Exhausting soil or leaving it susceptible to erosion is unwise but also unjust according to the verses on sabbatical field-rotation (Leviticus 25:35).

Probably the most provocative analysis of environmental ethics can be done in comparison of philosophical systems. I ask my classes to describe the two prevailing "schools" or systems of environmental opinion that they hear about. Our common experience is that the two are nearly at ideological poles. They are the pantheistic "greenies" and the utilitarian or pragmatic types, often characterized by the economic philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Students can easily see that hierarchical ordering of God, man and nature distinguishes a Christian ethic from the competitors.

A. Pantheistic B. Christian (Biblical) C. Utilitarian
God = Nature >= Man God >> Man > Nature Man >> Nature

For A, in the figure above, all is divine and has equal value status, at least theoretically. In practice, man is often relegated a position below nature if interests compete. For C, humans with policy-making authority can decide what utilization of nature will bring the most benefits (that is to the humans of concernĖ citizens, stock holders, royalty, etc.). There is no ultimate authority in C beyond the "golden rule" of those who have the gold rule. Only in B are there both absolute guidelines above human selfish interests and allowance for the wise use of natural resources.

I have had little training in applied geology, including environmental. However, my previous employment at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey involved project work in several environmental areas. While I was at the University of Wisconsin, the graduate student chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship asked me to present a lecture on environmental ethics. This challenge compelled me to an effort in the intregration of faith and learning. After extensive library work, I presented a lecture and led several subsequent discussion groups. Key insights gained from the University of Wisconsin experience have become the basis for incorporating environmental concepts at Wheaton College.

My main objectives in environmental education are the following:

  1. to build a biblical foundation for environmental awareness/activism (as discussed above);
  2. to promote environmental vocations. There is a desperate need to recruit zealots into steadily growing job fields;
  3. to use various issues as case studies. Students in our class on Environmental Geology do individual projects on pertinent topics. Team work and problem solving have been emphasized in this class, in Independent Study, and in interdisciplinary courses on ethics and on appropriate technology and the environment, which are taught with faculty from other departments;
  4. to mesh environmental themes into introductory geology classes as devotionals and for the discussion of relevant current events, such as earthquakes, oil spills and the greenhouse effect;
  5. to build conceptual bridges between critical needs and disciplinary areas of expertise, whether students aspire to futures in science or not. This last objective has given much impetus to the development of new interdisciplinary majors in Environmental Science and Natural Resources. The flexible linkage here is between natural and social sciences, but extends Ė in the true liberal arts context Ė even to the humanities. Environmental problems are too complex to be left entirely within the realm of science and technology.

This approach has helped lead to renewed success of Geology at Wheaton College.

There is also a relationship between environmental issues and the issue of the sanctity of human life. A proper environmental rationale for pro-life advocacy does follow from the biblical place of humanity in creation. Ours is a unique status, certainly below God (slightly lower than elohim-angels, Psalm 8:5) but over all the created order, even as judges of angels (Genesis 2:19,20; I Corinthians 6:3). Nature may be our responsibility to care for, but it is also made for our needs. Certainly the taking of human life, albeit unborn or otherwise inconvenient, is not justified by a desire to incur less environmental degradation. Regardless of the current pandemonium of arguments in support of permissive abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, much of the initial (late 1960ís, early 1970ís) supportive rhetoric came from those championing population control for both pantheistic and pragmatic reasons (see for example Scoby (ed.), 1971, Environmental Ethics; Studies of Manís Self Destruction, Burgess Press). Forced population control and abortion advocacy continues to be a major part of the lobbying agenda for respected environmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club. Pro-abortion rhetoric is unfortunately incorporated in G.T. Millerís Living in the Environment (fifth ed., Wadsworth Publishers) and other popular texts. It is again important that Christians separate unbiblical positions from those that are scriptural in critical issues. We should be sanctified environmentalists with the right motivations leading us to the right actions.

As a final note, there are hopeful signs of change in the relationship of evangelicals and environmentalism. Only recently have missions organizations (World Vision, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Youth with a Mission, included) seen a major need for earth science-environmental know-how. It is especially true of their community development, public health, agriculture, and construction projects. The new door of opportunity for the Gospel through the breached Iron Curtain has revealed vast areas of sad, degraded landscape. The holistic needs of eastern Europeans include compassionate help in undoing decades of abusing nature (see National Geographic Magazine, June 1991). Communist utilitarian ethics must be corrected not by pantheism or capitalistic utilitarianism, but by the way of Christ outlined above.


1. Department of Geology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill. 60187

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