Christian cross

Read an article by Professor Horrell in The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

The Bible and the environment

Discussing ways to protect the environment is a pressing scientific and political issue. Its importance is also keenly debated within Christian groups through various interpretations of the Bible and humanity’s responsibility to the earth. 

Professor David Horrell, a Biblical scholar at the University of Exeter, has recently completed a project that looked critically at the kinds of environmental and ecological appeals made to the Bible.

The project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), looked at both the negative and positive appeals to the Bible. This ranged from those that see the Bible as a text that teaches human pre-eminence and imminent destruction for the earth to those that see the Bible as a ‘green’ book that teaches stewardship and care for the Earth.

Many theological responses to the environmental crisis argue that part of the solution towards finding ways for a sustainable future lies with people’s values and attitudes on the level of their ‘worldview’, thereby making it a religious issue. For many centuries, the Bible was taken to support the view that humanity had a unique position and role, to ‘subdue’ nature and use it to serve human ends.

Professor Horrell said, “The Bible is regarded by many as the word of God, which is why it is so influential. Religion not only shapes people’s spiritual beliefs, but their practical, political, and economic behaviour too.”

He added, “The project is also trying to show ways the Bible can help to re-shape the Christian tradition in a way that takes the environmental challenge on board. The biblical text can play a role but only if we are honest and fully aware of how we go about constructing the meaning of the Bible.”

The project presents a new way that the Bible can function within church circles today. The environmental agenda can be supported with constructive interpretation of the Bible.

According to Professor Horrell, in some evangelical circles times of suffering and woe, famines, earthquakes, even global warming are seen as signs of the impending End when the earth will be destroyed. He said, “Some Christians are more concerned with saving souls than the earth, and insist that the End should not be feared or prevented. Environmentalism is sometimes lumped together with ‘new age paganism’ and seen as running counter to this Christian message. Other ‘Green’ evangelicals, by contrast, insist that humans are called to be stewards of creation, not its exploiters, and that God will transform and redeem the earth, not destroy it.”

The research shows that both sides of the debate tend to present their views as what the Bible ‘says’, ignoring the extent to which all such views are interpretations, shaped by the convictions and interests of their proponents. Professor Horrell’s project calls for a more honest approach to acknowledge that these are constructive interpretations. He said, “The challenge to members of all religions, not just Christians, is to show how their scriptures, and traditions can be reinterpreted, reconfigured, to face the challenges of a contemporary crisis.”

Date: 8 December 2009

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