Taking the World Seriously

An article from last week's Economist <http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13109915&gt; reminds us that the big environmental debates are NOT going to be between those who care and those who don't care about God's creation.

No, the big arguments will be over things that people with sound minds and sound theology still find room for disagreement on. The Economist article <http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13109915&gt; shows one example: a giant new power transmission line running from the Imperial Valley (where renewable energy sources abound–there is lots of sun, and lots of geothermal energy to be harvested) to San Diego (where lots of energy-needing people live). The approved route twists like a gerrymandered snake through the landscape to avoid protected areas, forests, and Native American lands.

But enviros are fighting enviros over the project. The Economist describes the battle as "tree-huggers versus nerds". Nerds are the pro-technology, pro-business environmentalists (like, they say, Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tree-huggers are the idealists who object that the power line could be used to transmit electricity generated by coal as easily as power from renewable sources.

Which position is more "Christian"? What would Jesus do? There can be a huge gulf between our theological stands and their applicability in particular situations.

[The rest of the article.]
There is worldly complexity that requires worldly knowledge to even be able to comprehend what we don't know. Such knowledge isn't particularly Christian: although we know that our ability to understand the natural world is a gift from God, it is a gift he's given without regard to our response to Jesus. Science, engineering, and policy are common-good pursuits, but just believing rightly and caring about creation are no substitute for expertise.

We need to understand both general revelation and special revelation to work through environmental problems.

Sadly, the difficulty of finding easy solutions to environmental problems is the biggest club that our anti-environmental brothers beat us up with. There are defenders of empire and status quo within the church who use the complexity of environmental problems, and the difficulty of finding solutions that don't threaten power and hierarchy, to say that Christians had best mind their own business. The dangers come in a couple of directions.

1. Complexity can drive us to gnosticism, to escapism, to an other-worldly mindset that says what "really matters" is the spiritual life, the search for eternal security at the expense of earthly faithfulness. We can find ourselves ignoring or twisting science because we just don't trust that there is anything ultimately worth learning about this world, since "it's all going to burn."

2. Complexity can drive us to embrace well-developed secular worldviews, such as Enlightenment rationalism and ideological libertarianism. If "making the market good" is too complicated for us–if the problems of unintended consequences, externalities, and social coordination require difficult, disciplined thought–then the alternative, simply embracing the world-system, looks increasingly attractive. At root it's a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mindset that makes Christian uncritical in their defense of money and power.

3. Complexity can also drive us inwards, so that we become ever more self-directed consumers, managing what we can for our own pleasures, navigating the opportunities presented by the status quo but making choices that are about our own needs and wishes.

You usually hear the defense of power and status quo preceded by phrases like "good intentions are not enough", or "these are matters of prudential judgment". Both those statements are true, but if the conclusions that follow look like either laissez-faire irresponsibility or other-worldly detachment, they aren't being applied correctly. To say that good intentions are not enough is not to say they are unnecessary or irrelevant. Prudence (a virtue often misunderstood) requires choosing efficient and effective means to achieve ends which our theological and moral conversations tell us are good.

Christians need to be a part of the big environmental conversations of our day, and to be bridge builders that connect our (often abstract) sense of right and wrong with the practical needs of the day. That will require Christians not only to take their faith with them into the realms of science, engineering, policy, ecology, agriculture, but also to appreciate that working on real-world problems means learning from experts of all faiths, and no faith, about the real (and really good) world God has made. Many scientists, engineers, and policy experts already have a latent fundamental theological value that we Christian must cultivate: they take the material world seriously.

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