Ecotheology and the Burning of the Earth with Steven Bouma-Prediger

It is surprising to look inside the cover of the first edition of For the Beauty of the Earth, and see a publication date of 2001.* The book, written by Steven Bouma-Prediger, is almost twenty years old, yet it reads like a fresh and relevant treatment of the subject. It’s particularly well-pitched to engage those interested in what the Bible has to say about environmental ethics. The writing here is clear and direct, intended to persuade and teach.

One of the strengths of Bouma-Prediger’s treatment of scripture is the way he expands the conversation beyond the opening chapters of Genesis, which discussions of environmental ethics in Christian circles often fail to do. His treatment of II Peter 3:10, for instance, is particularly helpful. In the New International Version (NIV) the last clause of that verse reads this way: “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” Other translations, such as the King James Version (KJV) use the phrase “burned up” in place of the NIV’s “laid bare.” While this relatively obscure verse may seem to have little connection to the hard realities of the current environmental situation, passages like this have led many Christians to dismiss environmental concerns entirely. “Why worry about the earth,” they ask, “it’s all going to be burned up?” II Peter 3:10 is not the only passage that can be read this way, but it is probably the most obvious. Bouma-Prediger is wise to deal specifically with this passage, as it presents the most difficulty for his larger argument.

In his analysis of II Peter 3:10, Bouma-Prediger show that the biblical writer was drawing on the metaphor of a refining fire that would have been used to reveal a metal’s true quality (pp. 76-77). The hermeneutical shift this background knowledge prompts might seem subtle, but the difference it makes with respect to eschatology is dramatic. In his reading, and I think he is correct, what Christians should expect is not the burning up of the earth but the eventual presence of God so deep and so immediate that the truth of all things is revealed. The NIV’s translation is substantially better than the older KJV.

The other biblical passages Bouma-Prediger treats in For the Beauty of the Earth may not imply quite the same hermeneutical about-face, but they are still helpful. His reading of Job is one example. In that biblical book Bouma-Prediger finds that God’s speech to Job makes it clear that “humans are not the center of things.” Bouma-Prediger explains further: “The divine speeches in particular evoke a specific vision of the good. This vision is of a world in which all creatures have a place—even the wild and chaotic, the dangerous and the scary. . . In short, the moral order envisioned by this text is an ethic of ecological hospitality and responsibility” (pp. 103-5). Such ecological readings of the book of Job, as well as key passages in Colossians and Revelation, has been expanded more recently by Jonathan Wilson in his book God’s Good Earth. Even so, Bouma-Prediger’s work on the subject remains valuable.

A second strength of Bouma-Prediger’s book is his ability to situate the Christian conversation around earth care within the discourse of moral philosophy.  He has an enviable ability to sum up complex theory is a short phrase. For instance, in citing the shortcomings of a biocentric environmental ethic, he writes, “biocentrism is . . . life centered, but it is not yet ecosystem-aware.” Toward the same end he makes incisive use of other authors, for example, quoting David Orr, who says, “The crises of sustainability, the fit between humanity and its habitat, is manifest in varying ways and degrees everywhere on earth. It is not only a permanent feature of the public agenda; for all practical purposes it is the agenda” (p. 22).

Bouma-Prediger identifies his own approach to environmental ethics as a revision of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. It was Leopold who famously said that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Bouma-Prediger, then, says that the most “adequate ethic” must pay attention to “rules and consequences,” but it will give “pride of place to certain virtues.” Without saying it explicitly, Bouma-Prediger is suggesting that neither deontological nor utilitarian ethics are sufficient from an environmental perspective. Both of these approaches must be supplemented by careful attention to the virtues necessary for the cultivation of a flourishing life (aretaicism). Not all writers on these topics recognize the formal matters at stake in the way Bouma-Prediger does.

This attention to virtue is what I find the most promising contribution of For the Beauty of the Earth. It seems that Bouma-Prediger saw things similarly. In 2019 he published a follow-up book titled Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic. Virtue is important in environmental ethics, from a Christian perspective or otherwise, because we may well make little environmental headway without becoming the kind of people that can except limitations on our consumption or recognize the integrity of other creaturely lives. Without attending to virtue we will lurch from one frightening environmental situation to the next, always looking for technical fixes, never addressing the root problem of how we use our vast human power.

Virtues are important in that their cultivation allows an individual to respond to a host of different situations in a praiseworthy way. The weakness of a virtue ethic is that it can be individualistic. An ethic that attends only to personal virtue can allow systemic problems to fade beyond the horizon of moral attention. Bouma-Prediger avoids this by paying attention to collective impact, which no serious discussion of environmental problems could really avoid.

Each of the ecological virtues that Bouma-Prediger explores is grounded in a theological motif and a corresponding moral maxim. For instance, the opening set of virtues, respect and receptivity, stem from a theological motif of creational integrity and the maxim: “Act so as to preserve diverse kinds of life.” This nesting of virtues within theological motifs and moral maxims gives the description of ecological virtues a welcome teachable quality. One can readily trace the list of virtues to their biblical roots and write the maxim on a sticky note.

In addition to respect and receptivity, Bouma-Prediger commends the following: self-restraint and frugality, humility and honesty, wisdom and hope, patience and serenity, benevolence and love, and finally, justice and courage. A list of ecological virtues such as this is especially significant to faith communities. On their own, faith communities do not have the ability to make much of a dent in global environmental problems, though there certainly are ways they can have a local impact. However, one of the key functions of a community of faith is the cultivation of virtue. Part of the reason for the existence of churches is to form persons in positive ways. This means that when Bouma-Prediger outlines his list of ecological virtues he is rightly orienting faith communities toward the environmental challenges assailing the entire globe. This is a valuable contribution.

*This post is the second in a series based on reading I’m doing this winter in ecotheology.


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