Theologians see conservation as directive from God

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2001

Everyone knows the basics: don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery. Now, in this year of rolling blackouts and spiking gasoline prices, some think it may also be a sin to drive an SUV.

Although the nation's leaders haven't asked Americans to conserve energy, some religious scholars say a higher power has. In the Bible and the Quran, theologians see a directive from God to live moderately and protect the earth.

''In Genesis, creation is the emergence of order out of chaos,'' said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a board member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. ''Human beings are not given rapacious free will to do what they want in creation, but to give good stewardship.''

The Quran, 7:31, states: ''Eat and drink but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters.''

''You cannot be excessive in anything in your daily life,'' said Jamal Badawi, a professor of Islam at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

No one sees a specific blueprint for nature-friendly living in these sacred texts, such as giving up a road trip during this holiday week, or turning down the air conditioner. However, theologians believe God meant for people to consider the environmental impact of their conduct, even for issues as seemingly minute as the commute to work.

The Jewish coalition points to Leviticus 19:9: ''When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field.''

Pope John Paul II has said protecting the environment can overcome ''structures of sin'' and promote respect for creation, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Evangelical Environmental Network cites Hosea 4:1-3 as a warning to polluters: ''There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land ... Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away.''

''How we behave toward the environment and creation, is how we take our stand toward God's spirit,'' said Veli Matti Karkkainen, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. ''We either support this life-giving, nurturing presence of God's spirit or we make everything act against it.''

The theological debate over the environment for many years centered on Genesis 1:28: ''Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.'' Some interpreted the word ''subdue'' as justification for development; many now view it as a mandate to protect the earth in God's name.

Robert Royal, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., questions the new analysis, accusing many theologians of ignoring the good that has come from industrialization and technology.

Human action that leads to progress can also be considered part of God's plan, wrote Royal, in his book, ''The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates.''

Others see religious environmentalism as more political than spiritual.

But Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a professor of liturgy and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, argues it would be wrong to dismiss these ideas as ''green, trendy theology.''

''I argue from the Bible, from our sacramental tradition,'' Irwin said.

So, as President Bush and Congress debate energy plans, weighing the costs of drilling with protecting the environment, religious scholars say they may want to consider how they will be judged by God, not just the voters.

''Sin in the Bible is anything that is against God's holy will,'' Karkkainen said. ''And God's holy will is ... to nurture and to enhance life.''


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