Briefly Noted: On David Cooper, Roger Scruton, and Green Philosophy

For those of our readers not yet acquainted with Roger Scruton, allow me to serve advance notice: Dr. Scruton is not a pony-tailed tree-hugger seeking to lead the world into an embrace of yoga mats and tofu wraps. He is politically conservative writer and philosopher whose work is unfailingly stimulating, and whose recent book, Green Philosophy calls for a conservative environmentalism. Scruton’s book is reviewed by David E. Cooper in a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement (March 2, 2012).[1] Cooper interacts with Scruton’s proposal, which puts political realism, reason, and care for one’s home at the center of its environmental care paradigm.

Al Gore once called for “rescue of the environment [to be] the organizing principle of civilization.” Cooper states, “Scruton’s response to this call is that the real ‘natural bedfellow’ of environmentalism is conservativism, for ‘conservativism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy.’” (10) By chronicling the failures of non-government organization, the EU, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scruton argues these organizations display a “total lack of realism” on what works in caring for the environment. Scruton wants a more rational, realistic approach to the environment than those associated with traditional environmental (i.e., liberal) policies.

Hence, Scruton’s thesis is that “environmental protection comes from the Oikophilia of people.” “Oikophilia is Scruton’s coined term for “a family of motives at whose centre is love of one’s home.” Environmentalism often fails in its futile call for one to love everyone and every place, even the whole planet. Scruton’s “oikophilia, however, is a sympathy and concern for those who handed down to us the home we love and those to whom, in turn, we shall hand it down.” Basically, the more one cares for his/her home and passes that care and concern on to others, the better the community will care for the environment. This proposal, Scruton believes, is more realistic than traditional (liberal) environmentalism. The question Cooper asks, however, is can this realism called “oikophilia” actually be a realistic answer for caring for the environment? (see p. 11)

Scruton’s proposal is more compelling and reasonable than its liberal competitors, and yet it falls short precisely because it does not take its starting point, trajectory, and parameters from God’s revelation in Christian Scripture. In order to build a robust framework for environmental/ecological ethics, one must take into account at least four Christian doctrines. These four doctrines are in fact the four plot movements of the biblical narrative—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These doctrines are central to the Christian faith and indeed can be seen as the four major plot movements in the Christian narrative.[2]

The first movement is Creation, in which we find a created world shaped and formed by the uncreated Triune God; further, it is a good world that God has filled with his image bearers, who are to be stewards of it. If God’s world is good, we ought not to trash it. If God created the world so that we could flourish with it in mutual interdependence, then we should not consciously do anything to harm that. The second movement is the Fall, in which God’s image bearers rebelled against him, alienating themselves from him, each other, and the entire created order. As a result, God’s good and beautiful creation was marred by the ugliness of sin, sin which has deeper and more pervasive consequences than we might typically imagine. Our relationship to the cosmos is no longer one of perfect mutual interdependence. The third movement is Redemption, in which God speaks of One through whom he will redeem his image-bearers and indeed the whole creation. The entirety of the biblical drama points to this One, the Messiah, and the salvation that he will accomplish. We are told that he will redeem not only his image bearers but also the entire cosmos. This brings us to the fourth and final movement, Restoration, in which God restores his good creation. He establishes a new heavens and earth, inhabited by his image-bearers redeemed from among every tribe, language, and nation, who will dwell eternally with him. At this time, we will again flourish and live in perfect harmony on a renewed cosmos, in the glory of God himself.

This narrative provides the framework for a Christian theology of ecological stewardship. Without this framework, humans tend to either enthrone or denigrate the cosmos. In the United States, many political liberals tend to enthrone the cosmos, even creating an alternative soteriology and eschatology with Mother Earth at the center. On the other hand, many political conservatives tend to denigrate the cosmos, mocking any ecological or environmental initiatives. But both of these tendencies are wrong. We are not to worship the cosmos, on the one hand, or trash it, on the other. The cosmos is not ultimate, but neither is it to be denigrated. It is not God, but it is God’s good creation. For this reason, we are to be loving stewards of God’s good creation, looking backwards to God’s creational design and forward to the restored cosmos on which we will dwell eternally and in which we will experience eternal shalom.

For a more extensive essay on a Christian view of the environment, see “Creation Care Founded on the Biblical Narrative (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration).”


[1] David E. Cooper, “With Nature,” in Times Literary Supplement (March 2, 2012): 10–11; Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (Atlantic Books, 2011).

[2] More than a few recent theological proposals have argued that Scripture contains one basic and overarching narrative within which Christian doctrine finds its home. These proposals are written by a diverse array of scholars, including theologians N. T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Michael Goheen, philosophers Albert Wolters and Craig Bartholomew, and biblical scholar Christopher Wright. However, this essay differs from those theologians in two respects. First, whereas Wolters tells the story in terms of three acts, Wright in terms of five acts, and Goheen/Bartholomew in terms of six, this essay sees four acts: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 139-43; Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004); Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Second, of the authors above, only Christopher Wright makes extended application to ecological matters.

 

Theology & Culture (3): A Theology of Culture (Creation & Fall)

Over the course of my time in the “ministry” (18 years now), I have heard folks use the word culture in many different ways. Often evangelicals refer to “the culture” as a synonym for “the spirit of the age” or anything that is opposed to gospel and church. However, I do not equate culture with “the spirit of the age” because although the spirit of the age is something that influences a culture to a greater or lesser extent, it is not the only influence on a culture, and therefores it is not to be equated with the notion of culture. Indeed, even God’s Word and his church are a part of culture, and they are not to be equated with the spirit of the age. So culture by no means is a comprehensively bad thing. Other times, English speakers may refer to “culture” in such a way as to mean “high culture” such as Rembrandt’s paintings and Beethoven’s music, or “wealthy culture” such as Gucci or Louis Vuitton. However, I am not referring exclusively to high culture or wealthy culture, but also to whatever sectors of culture are excluded by such terms.

Oddly enough, I’ve even heard some talk about how unhelpful it is for certain Christians, theologians, and seminaries to spend so much time talking about culture because it is not even a biblical word. However, my response to that is that the word “culture” is an English word that is used to cover a variety of things that are woven deeply into the fabric of the biblical teaching.

So what am I talking about when I use the word culture? I have in mind something similar to what Niebuhr was talking about (a definition which I provided in the previous installment) but I’d like to provide a more streamlined and well-ordered definition provided by Paul Hiebert. For him, culture is “the more or less integrated systems of beliefs, feelings and values, and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.”* Indeed, Christians and theologians have more than a little to say about beliefs, feelings, values, symbols, patterns of behavior, and products.

But where does a person begin when setting forth to articulate a theology of culture? I’d like to articulate a basic theology of culture along the lines of the biblical narrative, organizing my thoughts under the rubric “Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.” The present installment will treat Creation and the Fall, leaving Redemption and New Creation for the next installment. [Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]

Creation

The Bible’s opening narrative tells us about God’s creation, including God’s design for human culture. In the very first chapters, we are told that God created the heavens and the earth. He created out of nothing, he shaped what he created, and he called the work of his hands “good.” At each step along the way, the narrative affirms the goodness of God’s handiwork. Moreover, when God completes his creation by making humanity in his image and likeness, the narrative affirms that God’s creation was “very good” (Gen 1:31).

Humans are the culmination of God’s good creation. They are different from God’s other handiwork. Indeed, the first statement about humans is that God made them in the image and likeness of God, male and female alike. They are like God in many ways, including but not limited to their capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Man’s likeness to God, Calvin argues, “extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures.”** Because of these capacities, God could place the man and woman in the garden to have dominion over God’s good creation (Gen 1:26-27) and to work it and keep it (Gen 2:15).

After having created man, God commands him to “work” the garden, and in so doing to participate with God in his ongoing work of creation and providence. Man is to work the garden, change it, and even enhance it. His work in the garden manifests itself not only in agriculture, but in all types of culture. He may “work the garden” not only by cultivating plant life (agri-culture), but also by cultivating the arts, the sciences, or the public square (culture in general). When man obeys this command to responsibly cultivate the earth, he is pleasing God.

What, then, does the creation narrative contribute to a discussion of culture? First, human culture is part of the physical and material world, which is part of God’s creation before the fall and therefore is not inherently bad. We must not allow ourselves to fall into a form of neo-Gnosticism, treating “spiritual” things as good and “material” things as bad. We may not take a metaphysically dualist view of the creation, with its attendant impulse toward comprehensive cultural separation and withdrawal; to do so is to adopt a hollow and deceptive philosophy, to denigrate God’s good creation, and implicitly to undermine the Incarnation. Second, God gave humans the capacity to create culture and then commanded them to use those capacities. God created humans in his image and likeness, thereby giving them capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Then he commanded them to use those capacities (e.g. Gen 2:15; Ex 31:1-11).

Fall

God’s creation of the world is the opening scene of the Scriptures and constitutes the first major plot movement of the overarching biblical narrative. Immediately after this opening scene, however, Adam and Eve rebelled against God, seeking to set themselves up as autonomous. The effect of this sin for them, and for all of humanity, was disastrous (Rom 1:18-32). Humanity no longer lives in paradise, but instead lives in a world pervaded with sin and its effects. Man’s relationship with God was broken, as well as man’s relationship with himself, with others, and with the rest of the created order.

In Romans 1, Paul describes the result of humanity’s broken relationship with God, pointing out that humans now worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). The image of God in man is now distorted and defaced. However, not only is man alienated from God, he is alienated from others (Rom 1:28-31). Rather than loving his neighbors as himself, he lies, murders, rapes, and otherwise demeans his fellow image-bearers (e.g. Gen 9:6). Further, he is alienated from the created order, as his attempts to “work the garden” are full of frustration and pain (Gen 3:17-18). Finally, he is alienated even from himself, as life becomes meaningless because of his separation from God (Ecc 1:1-11).

The implications of the Fall for a discussion of human culture are massive. Sin defiles everything. Spiritually, humans are idolaters, worshiping God’s gifts instead of worshiping God himself (Col 3:5). Rationally, they have difficulty discerning the truth and they use their capacities to construct vain philosophies (Rom 1:18-21). Creatively, they use their imagination to create and worship idols rather than to worship the living God (Is 40:18-20). Relationally, they use their power to exploit others and serve themselves (Gen 5:8). As a result, any and all human culture is distorted and defaced by sin. No dimension of culture is left unscathed by sin’s pervasive reach.

The Fall and its consequences do not, however, make God’s creation (or, by implication human culture) inherently bad. Even though the world is corrupted by sin, it is still materially good. Recognizing this frees us from false asceticisms and Gnosticisms that view the use and enjoyment of God’s creation as wrong. As Al Wolters puts it, God’s creation remains structurally good, although since the Fall it is directionally corrupt.*** Structure refers to the order of creation, while direction refers to the order of sin and redemption. The directional results of the fall, for human culture, are revealed in such things as poor reasoning in the realm of science, kitsch in the realm of art, and human hatred in the realm of relationships.

Anything in creation can be directed toward God or away from him. It is this direction that distinguishes between the good and the bad, between worship and idolatry, rather than some distinction between spiritual and material. We should note, however, that in spite of the Fall, things are not as bad as they could be. Without common grace and the Spirit’s restraining work, this world would be an utter horror, and because of God’s grace through his Spirit after the Fall, we may continue to produce culture, thereby utilizing our uniquely human capacities.

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*Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 30.

**John Calvin, The Institutes, I.15.3

***Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 87-114.