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Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology, Part 5: How Should We Then Live?

As we have seen, according to Tolkien and Lewis, it is the materialist for whom a tree is never more than a tree. For the Christian, however, the tree is good, purposeful, spiritual, and part of a great plan. Soon after Lynn White, Jr., blamed the Judeo-Christian tradition for our ecological crisis, cultural apologist Francis A. Schaeffer responded by echoing the views of Tolkien and Lewis, arguing in his Pollution and the Death of Man (1970) that modern philosophy and technology was the real culprit behind our current ecological crisis. Schaeffer and his wife, Edith Seville, with Hans Rookmaaker, an art historian who had converted to Christianity during his internment in a German prison camp, founded L’Arbi (“the shelter”), a ministry dedicated to welcoming outsiders, prayer, art, worship, and giving biblical answers to modern problems.

While Schaeffer may have been co-opted by America’s “Evangelical Right,” he was never truly part of it. Indeed, in his The God Who is There (1968), he chided conservatives for being “far too provincial, isolated from general cultural thinking.” At the same time, he rightly complained that modern theology was not merely pantheistic but anthropomorphic, in that it worships human achievement. He argued that modern theology was blindly following cultural trends. To wed God to human culture or accomplishments was indeed what Bacon’s philosophy tried to do. But in his Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer contended that such theologians were merely pragmatic and technological. According to Schaeffer, pragmatism is the death of morality, offering only a completely “egotistic position in regard to nature.” We save nature only because of how it affects us and our children and the generations to come. “Modern man has fallen into a dilemma because he has made things autonomous from God,” wrote Schaefer.

The “Death of Man”

But this is not enough, for it is based on a mechanistic worldview, which is “poor in its sensitivity to nature.” Indeed, in addition to his critique of modern culture and liberal theology, Schaeffer was deeply concerned with the environment. Responding to White and other critics of Christianity, he believed that the “death of man” might be brought about by the very environmental programs claiming to seek our salvation. For Schaeffer, the ecological question could not be separated from larger concerns about humanity’s drive toward self-autonomy. Obviously, believers in the God of the Bible have often failed to live up to their high calling as caretakers of God’s Creation. Schaeffer consistently chided Christians for neglecting the beauty in their surroundings. Thus much criticism of our western culture’s handling of the environment is both valid and necessary. But what we need to understand clearly is that our current ecological crisis is not supported either in the Bible or in the early church. Humanity is called to creatively confront the results of a fallen world, not to abandon himself to those results. For Schaefer, the death of man can not only result from a polluted earth, but also, and much sooner, from the acceptance of a materialistic worldview that does not treasure the life of persons. According to Schaefer, “the man who believes things are there only by chance cannot give things a real intrinsic value.” And “when nature is made autonomous, either by the materialist or by the Christian when he slips over and sits in the wrong place, soon man eats up nature.”For Schaeffer, the ecological question could not be separated from larger concerns about humanity’s drive toward self-autonomy. Click To Tweet

Lewis held this view as well. In his study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1944), for instance, he argued that a purely scientific and mathematical understanding of the universe ended up emptying the universe of its glory. “By reducing Nature to her mathematical elements,” humanity “substituted a mechanical for a genial or animalistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells and tastes.” Methodological naturalism ultimately leads to metaphysical naturalism. When God is factored out of the equation, nearly anything goes.

This “decreated universe,” Schaeffer goes on to argue, becomes “absurd, the wonder is gone from it.” Man sits in his autonomous, decreated world, where there are no universals and no wonder in nature. Arrogantly and egoistically, humanity had reduced nature to a “thing” for man to use or exploit. “Modern man, seeing himself as autonomous, with no personal-infinite God who has spoken, has no adequate universal to supply an adequate second boundary condition; and man, being fallen, is not only finite but sinful. Thus man’s pragmatic choices have no reference point beyond human egotism.” Because he is fallen, man has exercised dominion wrongly. He is a rebel who has set himself at the center of the universe. Because he is fallen, he exploits created things as though they were nothing in themselves, and as though he has an autonomous right to them.

But then, drawing from Romans 8, Schaeffer calls for a “substantial healing” of Creation. As Christ’s death redeems humanity (including their bodies) from the consequences of the Fall, so his death will redeem all Creation. But as Paul makes clear, we should be looking now, on the basis of the work of Christ, for substantial healing in every area affected by the fall. According to Schaefer “real spirituality lies in the existential, moment-by-moment looking to the work of Christ—seeking and asking God in faith for substantial reality in our relationship with him at the present moment.” In other words, this is the work we do by faith. It is not a perfect healing on this side of heaven, but nevertheless, it is real and evident. “God’s calling to the Christian now, and to the Christian community, in the area of nature…is that we should exhibit a substantial healing here and now, between man and nature and nature and itself, as far as Christians can bring it to pass.”As Christ’s death redeems humanity (including their bodies) from the consequences of the Fall, so his death will redeem all Creation. Click To Tweet

At this point in his argument, Schaeffer uses the same analogy of nature as “female” as did Bacon, Sprat, and others, but in a radically different and contrasting way. Man’s dominion over nature is like his dominion over woman, wrote Schaeffer. Before the Fall, man was given dominion over the woman. But fallen man takes this and turns it into “tyranny and makes his wife a slave.” But the Christian is called upon to exercise dominion without being destructive. Christians, of all people, should not be destroyers. What we, the Christian community, have to do is to refuse men the right to ravish the land, just as we refuse them the right to ravish women. Most of the leading figures of the scientific revolution refused women any part to play other than as objects for dissection or mute, sexually available models. Schaeffer emphatically rejects this position.

Although Schaeffer misunderstands some elements in this history, he is largely correct in his view that the “cultural mandate” in Scripture proclaims that nature “belongs to God, and we are to exercise our dominion over these things not as though entitled to exploit them, but as things borrowed or held in trust.” According to Schaefer, only biblical Christianity has a real answer to the ecological crisis. A science-engaged theology, quite popular today among some Christian organizations, is the wrong approach, for it continues to hold humanity’s achievements over biblical revelation. But science today treats humanity as less than human, and nature as less than nature. While some have spoken loudly against materialistic science, we have done little to show that in practice we ourselves as Christians are not dominated by a technological or pragmatic orientation in regard either to humanity or nature. When “we treat nature as having no intrinsic value, our own value is diminished,” argued Schaeffer. Thus the Bible should be sufficient. And indeed, as we have seen, both the Bible and the early church provide the foundational principles for Christian stewardship of nature. Christianity instills a “limiting principle” on what humanity can do, which is the complete opposite of what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophers advocated.


In his Death in the City (1969), which were a series of lectures delivered at Wheaton College in 1968, Schaeffer followed the prophetic voices of Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Romans in proclaiming that the “church in our generation needs reformation, revival and constructive revolution,” which means restoration of pure doctrine, as well as restoration of the Christian life. In facing our current ecological crisis, we need more than technological improvements. As James Gus Speth, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, recognized:

I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Similarly, Schaefer, Tolkien, and Lewis all advocated a “spiritual transformation,” a return to an ancient sacramental ecology, as the only way forward. The accusation that Christian theology has led to our current ecological crisis is based on selective readings. For the Christian, there is an obligation to care for nature. Indeed, environmental stewardship is not crisis management but a way of life. God’s call to serve and keep the garden is our calling whether it is our vegetable garden or the whole of creation. We need not have all the data, but we must be dedicated to imitating God’s love for the world in our lives and landscapes.God’s call to serve and keep the garden is our calling whether it is our vegetable garden or the whole of creation. Click To Tweet

Scripture is unequivocal. God has a job for his followers: to care for this world as his agents (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 115:16). Christians, therefore, have a profound obligation to give perspective to the call to redeem life on earth. We should be at the forefront of providing a sacramental ecology for the future, which is needed now more than ever. To ignore this cultural mandate is to leave the responsibility into the hands of non-religious and humanitarian organizations caring for ecology in a non-Biblical way. In this case, environmental concerns are almost always utilitarian or pragmatic, driven negatively by danger rather than positively by respect or mandate. This is a mistake.

The human calling to have “dominion over the earth” is that of a royal priest, not a sovereign despot. God did not place everything under humanity’s feet to be trampled on. Rather, the purpose is to further God’s glory by intelligent, respectful, obedient governance that reflects God’s own love and care for the earth. God created the world, holds everything together, and reconciles all things through Christ. Since the days of the early church, followers of Jesus have known this remarkable teaching. Since “the earth is the Lord’s,” humanity’s responsibility to “serve and keep” Creation has been part of the belief and practices of God’s people for millennia. As Christians, we must recognize that our environmental problems are more spiritual than technological. People everywhere are looking for the way, the truth, and the life. The time is ripe for retrieving the ancient sacramental ecology of the early church.

James C. Ungureanu

James C. Ungureanu (Ph.D., University of Queensland) is an intellectual historian and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He is the author of Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (UPP, 2019). His writing has appeared in such journals as Fides et HistoriaChurch History, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Science & Christian Belief, and Zygon, among others. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two children.

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