Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 3 of 3)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

[Back to part 2]

In this vein, we can now move from Christology toward ecclesiology in order to think about the sort of community that inculcates the vision of dominion-as-service. The church, marked by the anointing of the Holy Spirit through its baptism, is the point of continuity between the old creation and the creation of a new heavens and a new earth.[5] The “body of Christ” is the hint of the new in the midst of the old, the kernel of wheat, which having fallen to the ground, may soon sprout with a manifold harvest. As such, the ecclesial community is where the dominion of God breaks in on the corrupted exercise of an idolatrous and demonic dominion. The church’s calling to follow the Lord entails a radical reorientation of the old creation toward the new through repentance and obedience. The community gathered in Jesus Christ interprets the present world in a new light, the light of the coming dominion of God; in that light, the church community discerns the virtues that mark the harmonious life of that dominion and inculcates them in its members in the present. The individual people of the church find their own particular role within the mission of the whole body while that common mission joins disparate lives together by instilling the virtues that are necessary for a common enterprise.

When an ecological understanding of the dominion of God and the life of the church community are brought together, two things happen: First, the anthropologically unrealistic and ecologically destructive erosion of communities under the auspices of market capitalism is arrested and countered. In order to sustain perpetual growth (the ideological bottom line of market capitalism), the units of ownership and identity must be continually broken down to smaller and more homogenous levels. The limit of this trajectory is the society in which common ownership, or sharing, is reduced to a minimum. A few examples: Every American family seems to have its own lawnmower, but how often are all of them in use at once? Cell phones undoubtedly bring a gain in personal convenience, but the phone companies are the greater beneficiaries when a family no longer shares a single phone, but every member carries his or her own (not to mention old multi-family “party-lines”). In the past, music was primarily shared in public performance (whether in an opera hall or in a tavern), but has become increasingly commodified in formats where individuals purchase songs that are subsequently “illegal” to share. In terms of identity, the free market desires that society in which every individual (and persons are emphatically conceptualized as individuals) actively constructs and expresses his or her own identity by means of purchases and fashionably-up-to-date status markers. Identity is less and less expressed in stable social terms (family, religion, heritage) and is increasingly expressed by material possessions and interchangeable voluntary associations. To express identity in terms of ecological relationships would be incomprehensible—despite the undeniable fact that our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems we inhabit (even if only remotely). Still, “I live in a wetland with fox and ducks and reeds,” is not a culturally viable answer to the question “Who are you?”

In contrast, in a robust church community identity is held in common, the gift of Christ’s name and the transformative work of the Spirit. The fellowship of the church is an ideal venue for shared ownership and mutual assistance. Furthermore, in a church community which has not reconciled itself to the cultural influence of capitalism, (as a non-binding voluntary association of individuals looking for some product—“religion”—to consume), a counter-vision of human society and humanity’s place in the planetary ecosystem can take root. A community that expects to see the old creation transformed into the new creation in the dominion of God becomes conscious of the foolishness of a sense of material entitlement, of self-centered human exceptionalism, and of individualist constructions of identity. All we living creatures, after all, come from the same dirt!

Second, as a geographically and temporally extended community with some integrity the church is a venue for the inculcation of virtue. The work of Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated that virtues can only be generated within communities where action, purpose, and identity are mutually intelligible on the basis of shared interpretations of experience.[6] The church is just such a community where virtues may arise and find mutual reinforcement in the shared lives of the members. In terms of ecological ethics, many people have recognized that a virtue-based approach is crucial.[7] Rights and obligations are helpful, but only insofar as they delineate boundaries that should not be crossed; they are legislative rather than formative. Thus, while Nash’s preference for rights language leads him toward helpful suggestions for legal action (a necessary step to be sure), the fundamental problems are more deeply rooted than a re-conception of ecological “rights and responsibilities” can address.[8] The scope of the ecological crisis requires more than rearranging the boundaries and limits, a little tightening of our belts. The frequency with which the word “conversion” appears—even in adamantly secular venues—testifies that a deeper re-orientation is needed. Not only to we need to back off from the line marking just how much degradation our planet can sustain before it collapses, but we need to begin living in such a way that we contribute to the health of the planet as a whole. Limits and boundaries have pragmatic value, but must be seen as secondary to the virtues that sustain a moral orientation and guide thought and action at a deeper level. Ethics is a matter of identity, and only subsequently a matter of actions.[9]

For that reason, the scope of the church’s vision—stretching from the gift of creation to the hope of new heavens and a new earth—is precisely the sort of ecologically-grounded identity which can sustain the human community’s effort to address the ecological crisis it has perpetrated, and inculcate the virtues necessary to address it with some measure of success. The church community is already familiar with the language and practice of conversion; it must now understand in greater detail the ecological dimension of salvation. In the dominion of God, human beings are set free to be creative agents of healing and restoration; they are released from the compulsion to consume the world that sustains our fellow creatures—the very beings we are here to serve.

[5] James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 135-36.

[6] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[7] Nash, Loving Nature, 64-67. See also Steven Bouma-Prediger. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 138-160.

[8] The argument for a rights-based ecological ethic can be found in Nash, 169-70, 173-76.

[9] The lurking question in my mind with regard to a virtue-based ethic is whether the community that coherently sustains virtue in its members can do so without recourse to a system of honor and shame.