Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Apocalypse Never: Can Eco-Theolgy Help?

Written by: on March 1, 2021

In the book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, the author Michael Shellenberger, a self-proclaimed environmental activist, tries to bring a voice of reason to an emotional explosive topic. His desire is to not only protect the environment but obtain what he states as “universal prosperity for all people.” He believes all scientists and activists have the central responsibility to accurately and honestly explain the environmental issues, even if it reduces public urgency.[1]  His challenge is to separate fact from fiction, allowing the reader to decide where they stand. For me, the journey that led me to writing my master thesis on Eco-theology, started when I was young. The writings of Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson became familiar companions during my adolescent years. It was my love for the outdoors and my faith in God that led me to seek to understand how to better steward God’s creation.

In 1966 Lynn White Jr. at the meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science stated, “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood indifference to feeling of natural objects.”[2] Prior to Christianity, many native cultures had superstitions that prohibited the exploitation of nature. The destruction of the belief that individual items in nature having living souls, opened doors for the exploitation of nature. According to White, Christianity is the “most anthropocentric religion” in the world. White believed that the creation story was designed to serve humanity, claiming man was created in the image of God, not just part of nature, leading to an intentional exploitation of our natural resources.[3]  White further believed that until there is a deliberate rejection of the Christian idea that nature’s primary purpose is to serve mankind, there is no possible way to address the environmental issues of the day.[4] Interestingly, White also admits “since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.”[5]

Francis Shaeffer, in his book Pollution and the Death of Man, seems to agree with White’s assessment that Christianity has a world view that allows man to exploit and abuse nature for man’s benefit. Shaeffer sees in the influence of Plato and his philosophy, that the material world is lower and of less value than the spiritual world, and has hindered us from seeing that God made creation correctly. The natural world, according to Shaeffer, has great value because God created it and saw that it was good. Since there will be a total redemption of both humanity and creation when Christ returns, Christians should steward nature as God intended.[6]

Lynn White feels that the answer to the environmental crisis of America is to reject the Christian perspective of nature. In contrast, Shellenberger points out that when looking at the definitions of religion from William James and Paul Tillich, the religion of choice for environmentalists is nature.[7] I am intrigued that this approach rejects the creator yet embraces his creation. “Environmentalism today is the dominate secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in most developed and many developing nations. It provides a new story about our collective and individual purpose.”[8]  Shellenberger points out that environmentalists reject the idea that humanity should have dominion over the earth. “One the other hand, Apocalyptic Environmentalism is a kind of new Judeo-Christian religion, one that has replaced God with nature.”[9] The author believes that Apocalyptic Environmentalism provides the same sense of purpose that Christianity does. Religions have provided people with meaning and purpose and can guide us to ethical behavior. The author refers to Jonathan Haidt’s (a professing atheist) comments on the fact that religious believers in the United States seem to be happier and more generous than secular people. The problem Shellenberger points out is that Apocalyptic Environmentalism is often destructive and is weakened by the extreme actions of its members.

Though Shellenberger is not without his critics, his belief in a well-ordered realistic approach is well appreciated. Answers to the environmental issues and mindsets that affect us on a daily basis will not be simply reached. Are we willing to take the issues we face seriously enough to seek a mutual solution that best resembles a form of stewardship that God may have intended? Are we willing to create a place for all views and concerns to be discussed with the same level of respect and concern? Can a solid eco-theology help us maneuver the many opinions?

[1] Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), xii-xiii.

[2] Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in The Care of Creation: Focusing Concern and Action, ed. R. J Berry, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 38

[3] Lynn White Jr., “Historical,” 37

[4] Lynn White Jr., “Historical,” 40-41

[5] Lynn White Jr., “Historical,” 42

[6] Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992, 12

[7] Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, 261

[8] Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, 263

[9] Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, 263

About the Author

Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, husband, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

14 responses to “Apocalypse Never: Can Eco-Theolgy Help?”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    I observe a pendulum swinging in what you’ve written. On the one hand, creation, according to Christians, is to be consumed by humanity. On the other hand, creation, according to environmentalists, is the divine that humanity is to serve/steward.

    What is the in-between that you would suggest? Can you offer your synopsis of eco-theology that describes a way forward?

    • Greg Reich says:

      An eco-theology is not an easy thing to unfold. There are multiple opinions and lens to consider. The lens I looked through when writing my thesis was that of eschatology. If a person doesn’t see God restoring all things back to him why should one care how the creation is treated? I think the place to start is by asking the question, How did the evangelical concept of salvation shrink to be exclusive to humanity at the expense of the rest of creation? I think the New Testament is pretty clear that Christ dies for all creation not just humanity. (Heb, 2:9, Col. 1:20, Rom. 8:18-25) There is much debate about the meaning behind humanity being the image of God. Humanity is not transcendent. We need to keep in mind we are part of the created order not above the created order. Part of the image of God that most theologians agree on is that we are called to be viceroys or God’s representative on earth. Is the image of God an expression of the nature of humanity or the more about their activity and function in God’s created order? Is it both? How has sin tainted the image of God and effected how we function as God’s stewards?

      Part of this image is stewards of creation. The concept of rule and reign needs to fit into what it means to be a steward of creation, not the owners of creation. I think we also need to realize that God did not abandon his creation so the concept of stewardship and dominion can not neglect that God is still involved in his creation. It also can not be seen as total power. The stewardship concept is more a protection of creation not the exploitation of creation. Our neglecting to understand mankind as a created being and that we are interdependent on the rest of creation often leads to a mini god mindset and the exploitation of the very thing we are called to protect.

  2. Chris Pollock says:

    So appreciate your views, because they create awareness and enhance the conversation.

    This is honouring to the Creator, to be mindful of His creation. Despite missing the mark as caretakers, not giving-up, still giving our best to the care of all things.

    It’s all objectified, all commodified. It all has dollar value. We are lost in this attitude and, for those who are sensitive to impact on nature, broken.

    How can a good conversation come between the logger and the tree-hugger?

    Between a Christian environmentalist and a Christian Nationalist?

    There’s a dollar-value to the tree. It’s lucrative to be on the one side. So, how do we not become dismissive and resentful in the conversation? It is even possible?

    There was a time that I loved God so deeply, but I didn’t care as much.

    • Greg Reich says:

      Chris I will refer you to my response to Jer’s questions. In response to your question I think it is possible to bring loggers and tree huggers to a place of mutual respect. There are many level headed conservationists and scientists out there that understand the idea of a renewable resource. I also believe there are timber companies that see the benefit of old growth timber. As long as an attitude of extremism drives both sides and there is no desire for balance there will always be problems. A part of the problem that comes with finding a balance on environmental issues is the extreme consumerism of our culture on both sides of the argument. We all want low prices and the materialism to gratify our wants and needs without looking at the costs associated with out choices.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    Greg, I appreciate your dialogue and background throughout your post this week. As you were reading through the book, what did you find were the biggest tension points in relation to your masters thesis and Shellenberger’s work?

    One thing that I’ve found interesting is that is the idea of environmentalists worshipping nature. I think there’s also a bit of Buddhist/Hindu influence that goes into it. I have several friends who have spent time in Bali and became involved in the Hindu/mystic/shamanistic culture that emanates from there. Before going, I would say they were deeply “in tune” with nature and that bridged the way into them exploring these other religions, but it also went the other way to where they gained a greater appreciation for nature following their experiences there. I wonder if a better understanding of eco-theology could have a similar effect or at least course correct some of blending of God and nature.

    • Greg Reich says:

      The greatest tension for me in Shellenberger’s book is his belief that the way out is to go deeper in. He is a big proponent of bringing all countries to a level of industrialism. I understand that this can in some ways reduce environmental concerns it can also create a huge area for abuse. Many of the third world countries that need to be industrialized in order to stabilize their environmental issues are not only corrupt but ill equipped to handle this responsibly.

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    Greg, so far, you are the only one to tackle eco-theology directly. The rest of us looked at an undergirding aspect of Shellenberger’s approach or philosophy. I’m wondering if there are any connections to your work on the theology of vocation since the first human vocation was tending the earth. The same Greek-inspired sacred-secular divide that impacts work often impacts one’s view toward the physicality of the world.

    • Greg Reich says:

      They are definitely connected. As I wrote my thesis on eco-theology I realized how interconnected these two theologies are.It was this exploration of eco-theology that spawned my passion for a theology of vocation If you boil the theology of vacation down to its rawest form it is really a theology of living. Eco-theology, how we steward the earth is part of living a life that glorifies God. I plan to revisit my thesis after I graduate and rewrite it in a broader context.

  5. Darcy Hansen says:

    Thanks for adding your eco-theological insight into this issue. You noted, “Christians should steward nature as God intended.” I wonder what does that mean? God didn’t give humans a guide book for how to care for nature, per se. And in our age of pluralism, how do we, even as Christians, agree on how to steward nature as God intended, for as you noted, the perspectives are diverse and the solutions complex? In your research, did you discover common ground in which all parties can stand and agree?

    • Greg Reich says:

      Darcy, I wish I had an easy answer. My thesis was filtered through eschatology and ended with discussing the concept of stewardship. I didn’t focus on the solutions but on the foundations of a good eco-theology. Sadly there are many aspects of pluralism that hinder people ability to find common ground. I think the key needs to reside in finding a definition of stewardship we can all agree on not on individual religious beliefs. I don’t have to agree with the beliefs of my non-christian friends to stand along side them to help others in need. Some how we need to find a balance. Like so many other issues part of the problem lies in big money businesses and politics. Trump catering to large oil companies opened up oil drilling and pipelines creating jobs without concern for the environmental impact. Biden comes in catering to environmentalists and shuts everything down without concerns to the economic ramifications to thousands of people in the US and Canada who were relying on those jobs. I think there is a viable middle ground that can deal with environmental concerns and provide the jobs for those who need them. I get concerned when environmentalists close their eyes to some issues in order to fight big battles against large businesses. Wind generators and power lines kill millions of birds every year but when was the last time this was on the news. It appears that as long as it is clean energy its ok for birds to die. Though there are several online studies posted about this problem I sure don’t see activist trying to shut down the power grid any time soon. I have often wondered why it is rare to see a large church go green. I don’t believe I have ever seen a church that is solar powered or has piezo electrical floors. They will pay huge salaries to mega church pastors but wont invest in stewarding the environment. I rarely see a church with a recycle program gathering paper waste or a smart building to reduce electricity consumption. Like in other areas the church should be leading the charge by example but sadly we are not.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Thanks for taking time to unpack that more for me. We still have so much work to do to course correct our inherited theological perspectives. My interest in death began through the lens of eco-theology. It is still foundational. As we are mindful of stewarding creation in our burial, it makes us mindful of stewarding creation in our daily lives. The two issues are inseparable. And like you said, I believe the church should be leading in this area.

  6. John McLarty says:

    What are your thoughts about nuclear energy and free-market capitalism as the solutions to the environmental issues the book lays out?

    • Greg Reich says:

      I have concerns about nuclear energy, The 1986 Chernobyl incident keeps coming to mind. Which by the way was not in a free-market capitalistic government. If you look at all forms of energy even clean energy has its down side to the environment. There needs to be a way to measure risks versus gains and a way to minimize the risks associated with the gain.
      If the government could keep its fingers out of the pie and restrict large lobbyist from swaying things I think some good innovative solutions can happen in a free market setting.
      Botton line I think a true test of any theology especially eco-theology is that it needs to survive and thrive within any political or market setting.

      • John McLarty says:

        Energy production and consumption has certainly been a hot topic of conversation in my part of the world lately. It’s funny how little people really know about how power of all kinds is generated and distributed. It’s an afterthought until it doesn’t work, then politicians’ knees jerk with reactionary legislation that doesn’t actually solve the problem. It’s also frustrating how people will prevent the productive conversations from happening by their oversimplified “explanations” and short-sighted or narrow-minded solutions. I always wanted to believe that there were smarter, more disciplined people operating behind the scenes to make sure the world worked, even when politicians were making a public mess of things. (Sort of like a child’s image of adults having it all together, then becoming an adult only to face the terrible reality that the ones supposed to have it all figured out really don’t!)

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