December 2019 Feature Article
Notwithstanding the constant drumbeat of climate change “doubters” in the U.S. government today, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change and the effects of global warming are not only real, but will pose an existential threat to human society if left unattenuated. Simply put, nature is unravelling under the weight of man’s action, and this is taking place at an alarming rate.
For an island-state like Singapore, the urgency of this matter should be obvious. Indeed, as evident from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent National Day Rally speech (2019), it has hastened the government to articulate climate change as a policy priority.
I would argue that as Christians, we too, need to be concerned about global warming. Beyond the scientific research and debate, we need to understand and express this concern in the context of the relationship between man and nature under God’s providence.
The Creation Mandate
In Christian thinking, there is the concept of human lordship over the earth. As God is the omnipotent Lord and Creator and owner of the universe, man created in His image becomes the mighty lord and owner of the earth: “Subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing.” (Gen 1:28).
But there is also a strong biblical tradition regarding the earth that suggests a more complex and interdependent relationship between man and the earth, both of which remain the subject of the creator’s pleasure. We are told, for instance, that the earth “brings forth living creatures” (Gen 1:24). So, while we do not subscribe to the notion of a “mother earth” the way some naturalists do, Scripture does testify to the goodness of God as evidence in the life that is woven into creation. We also know through Scripture that God has made a direct covenant with the earth:
“This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Gen 9:12-16).
Additionally, we know that the Spirit pours into the earth and makes it a fruitful field (Isa 32:15), and that through Christ all things are reconciled, whether in earth or in heaven (Col 1:20). It is right to appreciate the good things that come to us from the world God created (and has enabled man to cultivate) with thanksgiving. “Every creature of God is good,” Paul tells Timothy, “and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Again, in 1 Timothy 6:17 Paul speaks of God giving us “richly all things to enjoy.” God is not meagre and miserly; his creation at the outset teemed with life and goodness, and God fully meant us to enjoy the good gifts that He lavished on His world.
By this token, how we approach the blessings God has given us in nature – natural resources, for instance – should be governed by the way we are to approach all possessions bestowed upon us. This approach must be rooted in our call to be good stewards of our possessions – the good gifts of God. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 point in the direction of our plenty being given to us in the providence of God to share with those who have less. In 2 Corinthians 8:13, as Paul urges the comparatively wealthy Corinthians to generous giving to the needy saints in Jerusalem, he writes, “I mean not that other men be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance may also be a supply for your want: that there may be equality …” While communism as a social system, and the exact, equal sharing of goods, is not taught in the Bible, the principle of giving and receiving, and sharing with one another is.
Nature, the Curse, and God’s Glory
At the same time, we need to also tread carefully in how we conceptualize nature and the earth in Christian theology, so as not to slip into pantheism. While there is certainly a place for elements of “ecological theology,” a school of thought that has emerged to draw a growing following in liberal Christian circles, we should be mindful that as beautiful as the world is to our eyes – and indeed creation speaks of God’s glory, it is still a fallen world, as made abundantly clear in Genesis 3 whereby all creation comes under God’s curse as a consequence of man’s original sin. Indeed, we must recognize that ours is a fallen world. Sin entered into the world through Adam, and because of his federal headship, we have inherited his sinful nature. This includes all creation, which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rm 8:22).
Yet despite the curse and the fallen state of the world, it continues to attest to God’s glory. As the Psalmist sings: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof. Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice” (Ps 96:11-12).
So, even as we are called to subdue the cursed earth, we must try to still seek out its beauty. And we do so being good stewards of and demonstrating frugality towards what the Lord has bestowed upon us. In other words, it is about not being addicted to and desiring excessive enjoyment of worldly possessions. Our duty is not to throw caution to the wind and plunder the earth, but to care for and nurture it as it is still God’s creation, even in its fallen state. As the opening stanza of that beautiful hymn reminds us:
“This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.”
Dr Joseph Liow is Dean of College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and concurrently, Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he is also Professor of Comparative and International Politics. He held the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, where he was also a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program.