It was one of those idyllic summer afternoons when, in spite of it being a Sunday and the pressure of needing to prepare for the evening service, the lure of fresh air was too great. My wife and I decided to explore Blockhouse Bay, an inlet on Auckland’s Manukau Harbour. It’s a pretty place, especially at high tide. The walkway petered out on a small promontory exposed to the brisk southerly that was whipping up the normally placid waters of the Harbour. Half a dozen fishermen had found a perch on the remains of a wooden jetty. As a piscatorial nut I found the scene irresistible and stole a moment to enjoy myself - just watching. A rod tip nodded briskly, indicating interest from a passing fish. The fisherman struck and triumphantly wound in a roll-mop sized kahawai. It ended up in his bag and, with a hunter’s gleam in his eye, he feverishly rebaited his hook. Moments later his friend’s rod indicated more interest and, yes, he landed a fish too - a 10cm long snapper. Into the bag it went.
My wife’s restraining hand on my arm proved useless. I strode to the fisherman, opened his bag, scooped out the hapless little fish and put it back where it belonged - in the briny. I congratulated myself on my self-control for not filling the man’s ear with what it deserved. He too remained silent knowing that he had committed an offence in not throwing his ‘trophy fish’ back. Another stroller, who saw what had happened, came up and muttered, ‘Good on ye mate! Should‘ve done it meself’
There are strict laws about taking and killing undersized fish and, especially in the Auckland area, about taking undersized or too many sea-shells and crustaceans as well. Many of our public beaches and popular coastal fishing spots are festooned with pictorial signs with explanations in various languages, outlining the limits, sizes, etc. of what may or may not be harvested there. However, offenders take little notice and a marine desert is being created. Huge ecological consequences are beginning to stare us in the face. In many respects my contribution to the environment was insignificant. One tiny fish in the huge ocean. But it raises a question that is anything but a tiddler. What of our response to environmental and ecological issues as Christians and from a distinctly Christian (and Reformed!) perspective? Do we care? Do you? Must you?
Most New Zealanders tend to believe that God’s Own is still relatively pollution free and not especially threatened with ecological disaster. Clear blue skies, clean green scenery, sparkling water and an abundance of health and vitality characterises what we believe about ourselves. We just love and even believe the Toyota ads and the Air New Zealand one where Kiri te Kanawa sings our nation’s favourite Maori ballad. Everything sparkles. But look at and reflect on our environment a little more closely and you will soon feel distinctly uneasy. An afternoon walk in Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges reveals the near oppressive silence of the bush. Where are the birds? Even the cicadas seem fewer in number. Compare what you experience now with descriptions of the first settlers who ‘complained’ about the endless raucous cacophony of countless birds that filled our forests.
I recently saw a documentary on the Nelson Lakes National Park. Possums, stoats and especially wasps - all foreign invaders - dominate the environment and are changing it beyond recognition. It already is an ecological disaster. The documentary’s commentator lamented that the only wings now heard in the beech forests is that of a million wasps. They not only consume the honey-dew (and thus starve to death the native bird species) but even attack and consume the few remaining native insects such as wetas. Their impact is the equivalent of a ‘scorched earth’ campaign. It’s not just the forests. Coastal waters which teemed with aquatic life a mere generation ago are now virtually lifeless - ask any fisherman. If this is what’s happening here - imagine what the state of affairs is in the northern hemisphere! It is no longer a crisis in the making. The hour has struck in many areas. Check out the potential for all-out war in North Atlantic fishing waters where over-fishing has not only enormous ecological but also financial implications.
The end of the age?
Does God care? Do we? Does it really matter? Aren’t we fast approaching the end of the age - that Day which will come like a thief, when ‘the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.’ ? (II Pet 3.10) The ecological crisis seems to spark little real interest from the vast majority of Christians. Very obviously, the impact of Greek dualism which exalted the soul (non-material) and despised the body (the physical) still lingers in much of Christian thinking. Spiritual concerns and challenges invariably get priority in our circles.
Adding environmental and ecological issues to our agendas spreads resources even more thinly. It is easier to buy into the prevailing ‘Christian’ attitude which sees the impending ecological and environmental disaster as another sign of the soon-to-come Day of the Lord. This in its turn justifies the idea that the rescue of souls is the greater priority. When all is said and done, the earth and everything in it is destined for burning. Our resources as a Christian community are already stretched beyond what is reasonable.
Even if we as Christians haven’t openly said these things, our silence and attitude have certainly demonstrated it. How? Christians, especially evangelicals, have left environmental and ecological concerns to organisations like Greenpeace and to the greenies. Members of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Birds and clones have become the environment’s watchmen and women on the towers and walls. Christians aren’t heard - or made to feel welcome. Some of us have even taken the time to have a look at these movements and felt deeply offended by the anti-Christian, pan(en)theistic views which drive and motivate them. Joining their ranks is therefore not an option. It would be an impossible yoking. (II Cor 6.14-18) No place there and so we leave them well alone. ‘Not my scene.’ We soothe our consciences by reminding ourselves that a body can only do so much. There are other (spiritual!) priorities. We already have more than enough on our plates.
The result? The environmental lobby hears little from a Christian perspective and continues to promote the idea that Christianity is at best indifferent and more usually hostile to these issues. The assumption is that Christianity is responsible for the present ecological and environmental crisis and has no answers. Little wonder that it is especially in these quarters that Christianity is generally despised, regarded and counter-productive and no longer relevant for this day and age.
And yet Christians sing:
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world;
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas -
His hand the wonders wrought.
Scripture teaches us that this is our Father’s world and handiwork. (Gen 1.1ff., Psalm 24:1,2) The heavens and the earth declare his glory (Psalm 19). Ours is a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, to rule over every living creature. (Gen 1.26,28) God’s Word plainly reveals the entire creation groans as in the pains of childbirth longing to be set free from its subjection to frustration. (Rom 8:20-23) We are responsible for this world and called to care for and look after it in God’s name as God’s vice-regents. Therefore, to pollute, exploit, mindlessly trample and destroy this world violates God’s mandate to us. To ignore the physical by exalting only the spiritual is to despise God’s handiwork. The destruction of the environment affronts and grieves God as much as any other sin. But there is much more at stake. When the good ship, M.V. Doulos recently visited Auckland, I succumbed to the pressure and paid a visit. The bookshop contained a ‘special’ (Yes, I am Dutch!) by Richard A Young entitled Healing the Earth. A Theocentric Perspective on Environmental Problems and Their Solutions. Excellent reading.
Young makes a number of points that should really set the cat amongst complacent pigeons. Let me bring a few to your attention.
1. Richard Young points out that the ranks of environmentalism have been thoroughly infiltrated and are currently being driven by pantheistic beliefs. Environmentalism and pantheism are welded together inextricably whereas Christian environmentalism seems to be a contradiction of terms. He adds, ‘It is without question that the ecological crisis has given impetus to the rise and expansion of pantheistic thought in the West.’ New Age globalism has become popular and powerful in the West precisely because it is interested in and concerned to address and solve environmental issues. At the same time, the silence of the Christian community has been interpreted as proof that it has nothing to say.
If we Christians want to address contemporary society, we must meet and address them where their interest and focus lies. Ecological and environmental issues are a huge concern in contemporary society. New Age spirituality acknowledges and exploits this to the max. It has captured the popular imagination by promoting the idea that today’s crisis is due to Christianity and that the solution lies in pantheism. The silence of Christians is seen as capitulation to the charges. It is often said that the sects are no more than the unpaid bills of the Church. When the Church fails to address an issue, sects will! New Age globalism has found a ready audience in the Western world because the Church was not addressing these concerns. See the challenge?
2. Back in 1966 Lynn White Jr., delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science an address entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." White maintained that ‘Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt’ for the degradation of the environment because of the attitude toward nature it has spawned throughout Western society. ‘What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny - that is, by religion.’ White’s arguments are summarised by Young as follows: (1) Christianity’s victory over pagan animism desacrelized nature and thereby removed the restrains that prevented people from mistreating nature. (2) God’s only purpose for nature, according to Genesis, was to serve human needs. (3) Human transcendence over nature gives human beings the right to manipulate and exploit it to suit their own interests. To be sure, these arguments have been rebutted by Christians - but for all that, continue to pass as normal fare whenever environmentalists air their views and concerns. Rarely do Christians respond - or know how to.
3. Young points out that when there has been a Christian response, it is often rather piecemeal. I would add that this is also true within our own Reformed circles. Whilst the evangelical/reformed tradition has been concerned to teach and articulate basic truths such as justification by faith alone, the doctrines of grace, etc., a clear statement of what we believe concerning our relation to the world of nature and our responsibility to and over it is often overlooked or made peripheral. If we are going to address the contemporary, post-modern and post-Christian Western world in a real and relevant way, environmental issues need to become a priority. The challenge is too big to be missed or ignored.
Now for a challenge. Richard Young’s book inspired me to begin to look more closely at the issue. Whatever else, it is time we started to think about and begin to draw attention to these matters. How? I thought by means of this article to stimulate interest amongst our churches. However, more than that, I would be very interested to know if there are any others in our churches who are interested in and have perhaps already done some work in this area. Is there a possibility of creating a special-interest group within our churches which could stimulate interest, research, publish issues and findings and thus begin to act in a watchdog capacity on behalf of our churches and beyond? Anyone interested? I’d love to hear from you!
Dirk J van Garderen e-mail: email@example.com (Mr van Garderen is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Avondale).
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised July
2000 / Copyright 2000