Thursday, May 22, 2014

Springwatch, Chris Packham and Christianity

Something caught my eye, whilst quickly flicking through the Radio Times (24-30 May 2014). Chris Packham is quoted blaming Christianity for the decline of species:

"Christianity doesn't help: we're made in God's image so everything is there to be exploited by us. It doesn't help people's attitudes" (page 26)

It's unlikely that Chris will ever read this blog post, but I thought it needed a reply. Chris appears to regard Christian belief/theology as instrumental in generating attitudes which disregard the environmental consequences of our actions.

My first reaction is that Christians are being credited with an awful lot of influence. We're in the midst of a debate about whether Britain is a Christian country, and whether churches/faith communities should have schools, chaplains in hospitals etc. Many would question whether many people really do hold any Christian belief in a way that influences decisions, such as Chris Packham would suggest.

However, in cases where belief influences people, it is true that it can work both ways. One body of thought has held that humans were give dominion over creation, and that meant they could essentially do what they liked. My own hunch is that is largely a retrospective justification from the industrial age.

There is, however, a much more scary way of thinking that carries a "Christian" badge. Christians (often fundamentalists) who hold a so-called "end-time" theology regard this material world as a temporary provision before it all comes to an end and the "saved" (i.e. those who believe the same as they do) can live in heaven. That means that it doesn't really matter how much oil we burn, as it will all be over soon. Environmentalism is, therefore, a complete waste of time and effort. It's a theology very agreeable to oil companies and climate-change deniers.

My problem with Chris Packham's comment is that it completely disregarded the role many Christians play in preserving the environment in the UK and overseas. Many Christians understand the 'dominion' they are given in terms of stewardship, not ownership. If you have any notion of a divine origin for the world, then humanity is accountable for how its resources are stewarded and used. As Psalm 24:1 puts it "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it". A thankful response for the privilege of sharing the wonders of this world should surely be to look after it, and to ensure others can enjoy it too.

Furthermore, it's clear that environmental damage in one part of the world can have ramifications in distant locations. Being considerate of the neighbour you live next door to is no longer a sufficient understanding of what a neighbour is. It's not enough simply to care for the person on your street; our decisions need to take into account our global neighbours. Our connectedness increases the size of our neighbourhood, and the resources we consume are too often exploited on the doorsteps of people much more vulnerable than we are. By challenging that, we express our care for our fellow human beings.

So, how does that work out in action that achieves anything? Here in the UK, there is Christian Ecology Link, we have a Church of England initiative called "Shrinking the footprint", and ancient churchyards are being turned into mini nature reserves. Meanwhile, many Christian relief and development agencies are working hard on environmental issues, ranging from climate change to water supplies, biodiversity projects, soil erosion, and many more.

So, Chris, I am sorry for the Christians who think that being given responsibility for the earth means they can do what they like. I'm not convinced that's what's driving most environmental destruction that concerns you. I think we all know that's got more to do with money. But I hope you can see from theology and from practical action around the world that we're not all like that, and we never have been.


ruth valerio said...

Hi Mike, someone pointed me towards this post you've done because I've done a more public response to Chris Packham and thought you might be interested to see it. Have a look at this article, and follow the link that's in it. All the best, Ruth

Mike Peatman said...

Thank you