In honor of Earth Day I have decided to post a summary of Francis Schaeffer’s little book from 1970 Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology. The book is only 93 pages long but is really an excellent summary of how Christians ought to relate to nature. If you have any interest in the topic of ecology, I highly recommend getting your hands on this gem.
The book was written in 1970 and so it feels a little dated. Schaeffer deals quite a bit with the ideas present in the hippie movement of the time, especially in its relation to pantheism. However, while the hippie movement has since lost its prominent place in American culture, many of the ideas of pantheism are still alive and well in the culture, and really make their presence known on Earth Day.
Is Pantheism the Answer?
“Pollution and the Death of Man” is a response of a sort to two articles. The first article, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” by Lynn White laid the blame for the modern ecological crisis on Christianity. White argues that “the Christian notion of a transcendent God, removed from nature and breaking into nature only through revelation, removed spirit from nature and allows, in an ideological sense, for an easy exploitation of nature.” Agreeing with White, Richard Means in “Why Worry About Nature?” makes the case that we as a society should instead turn to pantheism as the moral base for how we treat nature.
Schaeffer addresses both articles, though he focuses on the one by Means. His first criticism of Means’ article is that while he uses the term “moral basis” he really has no moral base. He is only using pantheism in a pragmatic way, as a means of motivating people to action. As a “modern man” Means really has no categories to speak about morality. He recognizes that there is a pragmatic problem and he discerns that the existing moral structure has led to an ecological crisis, but he himself does not really possess a moral base. Schaeffer rightly points at that he is “using science and religion for purely sociological ends” so that all he has left is “sociological manipulation.”
The question of Means’ method aside, one must still ask, does pantheism produce a moral basis with which to solve ecological problems? Schaeffer says “no.” “Pantheism,” says Schaeffer, “eventually gives no meaning to any particulars.” If we are all really one substance and one entity then we have meaning in unity, but we have no meaning in the particulars, in man as man, in tree as tree, or in stone as stone. Schaeffer notes that this is true both in Eastern pantheism and in Western scientism, which is its own kind of pantheism where everything is only energy particles.
This is a philosophical problem and also a practical problem. Schaeffer states that “any ‘results’ one does get from pantheism are obtained only by projecting man’s feelings into nature.” This is simply romanticism. When we project man’s feelings onto a chicken we “evade the reality of the chicken.” Secondly, this is a practical problem because, in pantheism, everything in nature must be “normal” but within nature there is a “benevolent face, but it may also be an enemy.” Schaeffer puts it this way: “If everything is one, and a part of one essence with no basic distinction, how does one explain nature when it is destructive?” Third, Schaeffer observes that pantheism, while aiming perhaps to elevate nature, instead only reduces man. “Far from raising nature to man’s height, pantheism must push both man and nature down into the bog… man becomes no more than the grass.” In fact, in modern day, man is often seen as less than nature, as the enemy. This is the absurdity of those who go to great lengths to save the egg of an eagle on the one hand and promote abortion as population control on the other.
But, Schaeffer argues, not every form of Christianity has an answer for ecology that is any better than the answer given by pantheism. Schaeffer specifically addresses Christianity influenced by platonic dualism of the natural vs the spiritual. This kind of Christianity is only interested in the “higher life” of the spiritual world. The physical world is at best unimportant and at worst a hindrance to following the “higher” spiritual life. Christians of this ilk may see nature as a kind of pointer to God (natural revelation) but they have no interest in nature as itself and thus have no interest in ecology. If the world is simply going to be burned up in the end, what reason do we have to find solutions to ecological problems?
The Christian View
Schaeffer believes the answer is found in Reformation theology. It is worth noting that at this point Schaeffer follows the same script as Mike Wittmer (see Becoming Worldly Saints). Both are fond of referencing Abraham Kuyper and both use the Creation-Fall-Redemption metanarrative to frame their arguments.
Schaffer’s solution to ecological problems is rooted in creation. The created world is not an extension of God’s essence, as in pantheism, but has an existence in itself. The created world has value, then, not only as a pointer to God (which it is) but because God made it. This gives meaning to the particulars, something which pantheism cannot do. God made the tree as a tree and so it has value as a tree and therefore we must value it as a tree.
The nature of creation also matters. Schaeffer makes two distinctions, between the infinite and the finite and between the impersonal and personal. On the one hand we have a distinction between the infinite and the finite. (I prefer the terminology created vs uncreated.) God alone is infinite. He alone is independent. Everything in creation is finite and dependent. On the other hand we have a distinction between the personal and impersonal. Because humans alone are made in God’s image we possess a “personality” not otherwise known in the created order. Humans, then, have a unique place in creation. On the one hand we can say, “Am I only the hydrogen atom, the energy particle extended? No, I am made in the image of God.” And yet we can also say, “I, too, am created, just as the animal and the plant and the atoms are created.” The result is that we are both separated and united with all of creation. We are united in the sense that we are all part of the created order. But we are separated in the fact that we are uniquely created in the image of God.
The result of this worldview is that we learn to treat God’s creation with integrity. We treat a tree as a tree, a fish as a fish, a man as a man, etc. We love each according to its own order because we love the Creator. Schaeffer puts it well when he says: “Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing he has made.”
Schaeffer next offers hope for what he calls “substantial healing.” This substantial healing is rooted in his view of both the Fall and Redemption. The Fall led to division throughout the created order. There was, first and foremost the division between God and man, but there was also a division between man and self, between man and man, and between man and nature. We can only heal this division through reconciliation and the only possible Reconciler between God and the created order is the God-man Jesus Christ. Through faith in Christ as our Savior we are reconciled to God. In our spiritual lives we also look forward to the Day of Redemption and the complete healing of our relationship with God. In the meantime we must day-to-day seek God and fellowship with him.
The same principle applies to our other relationships (to self, man, and nature). It is the same gospel and the same Reconciler in all cases. In each case while we wait for complete redemption we continue to seek substantial healing. The gospel offers us internal peace, reconciliation with our brothers, and it provides hope for substantial healing in nature. Just like the consummation does not invalidate our search for daily healing with God it does not invalidate our search for healing with nature.
But what about our dominion over nature? Since this was one of the issues which White and Means saw as one of the causes of our ecological problem (they saw it as arrogance) Schaeffer addresses this issue next. He suggests that perhaps dominion is misunderstood. We do not exercise dominion in an autonomous way but as stewards. Schaeffer does not use the term “stewardship” but he draws the parallel to the parable of the talents. We exercise dominion, but in a way that acknowledges the fact that only God is sovereign and that it all belongs to Him. We have dominion over the fish and so we treat the fish as a fish. We can use it for food, but we don’t treat it as though it is a “nothing” or with contempt. Schaeffer states, “On the one hand it is wrong to treat the fish as though it were a human baby; on the other hand, neither is it merely a chip of wood.”
The “Pilot Plan”
Schaeffer concludes his book by calling the Church to be a “pilot plant” or a community of individuals who model what proper ecological stewardship looks like with the worldview of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. To this degree Schaeffer believes the church has failed.
Scienctism fails, but Christianity has not provided the ecological solution we have. “Science today treats man as less than man, and nature as less than nature. And the reason for this is that modern science has the wrong sense of origin, and having the wrong sense of origin it has no category sufficient to treat nature as nature any more than it has to treat man as man.” But Christians have not done much better, even though we have the philosophical and moral tools to properly care for God’s creation.
We succeed to the extent we exercise dominion over nature with self-constraint. It is this self-restraint that separates us as unique members of God’s creation. It sets us apart as human. A cow simply eats the grass, it can do no less. But as humans we have a self-limiting principle. Specifically Schaeffer calls us to practice self-restraint in the areas of greed and haste, which he sees as the primary causes of our ecological problems. If we, as Christian individuals, business people, consumers, etc. would give up on greed and would demonstrate patience, we really could seek substantial healing in God’s creation.
Ultimately, I think Schaeffer succeeds in presenting a robust biblical view of ecology. He roots his theology in the created order and, ultimately, in love for God. One of the best quotes of the book is this:
“If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Christians feel an unreality in their Christian lives. If I don’t love what the Lover has made – in the area of man, in the area of nature – and really love it because He made it, do I really love the Lover at all?”
Like many Christians, ecology isn’t something I consider terribly often so this book was a convicting read. Perhaps we all need to be challenged in this area. On the off chance you’re reading this and ecology matters to you a lot I propose to you that it’s only in the worldview of Christianity (and ultimately the person of Christ) that our created world will finally find substantial healing – and in a way that does not lower man to mere grass.