Blog Archives

Acton roundup

Here are all of the posts from my recent trip to the Acton conference:

Creation theology and human flourishing (Acton 5)

As I mentioned in my last post, an emphasis on free market economies as a key to human flourishing raises at least four questions: sin, power, the nature of human flourishing, and the impact of all this on the environment. I’ve already tried to explain some of the questions that I have about the first three, so in this post, I’m going to talk about ecological issues.

In the context of these discussions, questions of ecology actually arise from two directions: (1) How does ecology relate to human flourishing? And (2) how does this emphasis on free market economics relate to concerns about the growing ecological “crisis”? (Most of the Acton material that I saw placed the word “crisis” in scare quotes when talking about ecology, so I thought I’d do that too. They look nice.)  We’ll deal with the first question in this post.

My primary concern with respect to the first question was with the rather pronounced anthropocentrism involved in the emphasis on human flourishing. Most of the lectures assumed that creation exists for the sole purpose of facilitating the well-being of humans, and apparently it has no intrinsic value/purpose of its own. (I did attend one lecture that presented a different approach, but this seemed to be the creation theology lying behind many of the other proposals I heard.) But, such an exclusively anthropocentric understanding of creation’s purpose seems entirely inadequate for a robust theology of creation.

As far as I could tell, the primary concern seemed to be that if we view creation as having an intrinsic value of its own, quite independent of its facility for producing human flourishing, we would no longer be able to see humans as unique within in creation. Instead, we would have to view humans as just another part of creation. And, lurking in the background, was the concern that we would no longer be able to affirm a unique dignity and value for the human person. And, consequently, we would come to place the needs of animals and the rest of creation above the needs of humans. But, none of this seems to follow. It’s quite possible to see creation has having an intrinsic value and purpose of its own (e.g. to manifest God’s glory), while still seeing human person’s having a unique purpose and role within that broader plan (e.g., image-bearers in the creational theater of God’s glory). Indeed, I think recognizing the intrinsic value of creation is fundamental to an adequate ecological ethic, because it is this intrinsic value that provides direction for understanding what human ecological action should look like (i.e. facilitating creation’s purpose of manifesting God’s glory).

This idea that creation has intrinsic value hat should guide our understanding of ecological “stewardship,” came out in one of the lectures that I attended. This speaker contended that we should understand the “dominion mandate” in terms of “productive stewardship.” In other words, God filled creation with tremendous potential, all of which can and should serve to display his glory in and through creation. That is its intrinsic value. And, we have been gifted with the task of creatively cultivating that potential (as Adam and Eve cultivated the Garden) and expanding Eden until we have brought all of creation under our productive stewardship. In many ways, then, ours is a servant stewardship as we seek to unlock creation’s intrinsic potential. And, because of how God designed things, we will serve the purposes of human flourishing at the same time.

Unfortunately, his presentation also came with one notable flaw—the lack of any clear proposal for human action. It’s all well and good to say that we should “unlock creation’s potential,” but what does this mean in practice? For example, consider the process of drilling for oil. In doing so, we are tapping the potential of creation for the production of energy. That can be seen as a prime example of productive stewardship. But, at the same time we might be destroying natural environments, introducing pollutants into the world, and running the risk of significant environmental disaster (in case anyone’s not watching the news). At the very beginning of the process, though, how do you know? Given the finitude and fallenness of human persons, how can we ever actually know if a given action is productive stewardship or destructive evil? When pressed on this very point, the lecturer had no constructive proposals to offer. So, it’s hard not to see this is yet another example of find-sounding rhetoric that is difficult, if not impossible, to turn into practical action.

At the end of the conference, then, I’m confident that any adequate creation theology needs to be able to hold together the intrinsic value and purpose of creation, the need to foster human flourishing, and the ability to turn these principles into proposals for concrete action. It’s this third step that I found somewhat lacking in most of the presentations.