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Saving the environment via the Bible

Forums probe faith, science

POSTED: April 23, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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Do we have a moral obligation to protect the Earth?

A growing number of religious leaders think so, and they’re incorporating that idea into their faith.

On Sunday and Monday, Elachee Nature Science Center is sponsoring "Stewardship and Sustainability: A Challenge for Faith and Science."

The free event begins with an interfaith service at 7 p.m. Sunday at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. At 7 p.m. Monday, there will be a public forum at First Presbyterian Church featuring a panel of environmental ethicists and theologians.

The panel includes Holmes Rolston III, a Colorado State University professor who is often referred to as the "father" of environmental ethics. A Presbyterian minister before he entered academia, Rolston has written several of the key texts in his field and co-founded the journal Environmental Ethics. He won the Templeton Prize in Science and Religion in 2003.

Rolston will also be the featured speaker at Sunday’s interfaith service.

Other panelists at Monday’s forum include Bryan Norton, a philosophy professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in environmental policy; and the Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville.

Coates said he’s excited to be serving on a panel with people whose work has been so influential.

"It is a real honor to have a Templeton Prize winner come to this event," he said. "That’s like the Nobel Prize in this field."

Andrea Timpone, executive director of Elachee, said the event was the brainchild of Frank Armstrong, a longtime Elachee supporter.

"Then we brought in the churches," she said.

Five local churches are acting as co-sponsors, along with Brenau University, Center Point and Gainesville State College.

Timpone said she noticed during her trip out West last year that churches in that region seemed quite comfortable with melding environmentalism and religion. But the South has been slower to embrace the idea.

"I have heard of ministers in Georgia who preach that you can’t be both a Christian and an environmentalist," Timpone said.

Coates said many Southern churches are conservative or fundamentalist, and their members are taught not to worry about problems here on Earth because true believers will go to heaven.

"‘The whole world is going to end anyway, so it doesn’t really matter,’" said Coates, summing up that view. "That kind of absolves us of responsibility."

Coates said he feels such an attitude is "anthropocentric" (human-based) and "selfish."

"I would say we need to look at it from a theocentric (God-based) perspective," he said. "This is God’s world, and let’s take good care of it because it doesn’t really belong to us."

Coates said it’s time to re-evaluate a passage in the Book of Genesis which says that man shall have dominion over the Earth.

In the past, that biblical verse was sometimes used to justify destructive environmental practices. But Coates said "dominion" means more than conquering and subduing.

"It requires also responsibility and respect," he said.

Rolston said the Bible doesn’t explicitly say that humans should preserve the environment, but that’s only because it wasn’t an issue back when the Scripture was written.

"The Bible does have quite a number of passages that address our responsibility to the environment," he said. "Noah’s story (in which he saves a breeding pair of every species) shows God’s interest in preserving nature."

Rolston said if there had been widespread environmental problems several thousand years ago, the Bible might have spelled out our responsibility in the Ten Commandments.

"Maybe we need an 11th commandment, such as ‘thou shalt recycle’ or ‘thou shalt not pollute,’" he said.

However, Rolston believes that one of the existing commandments could be applied to today’s frenzied consumerism.

"‘Thou shalt not covet’ does sort of address wanting more than you need," he said.

And the commandment against killing humans could come into play, Rolston said, if we pollute the planet so badly that it becomes uninhabitable.

"We need air. We need soil. We need water. It’s all part of our life support system," he said.

And yet there are other reasons to take care of the Earth, beyond what’s needed to sustain human life.

Rolston said the things in nature that benefit humans are known as "instrumental" values. But we shouldn’t forget the intrinsic values of plants and animals, "independent of their usefulness to humans," he said.

Rolston said he’s happy to see that environmental awareness has become much more mainstream over the past couple of years.

"I think environmental ethics is front and center in our culture now," he said. "You can see that we have put the landscape, and thus human welfare, in jeopardy. It’s kind of a wake-up call."

But among some churches, there is still a distrust of science that can pose a barrier to education. Just as religion and science have sometimes clashed over evolution, the same debate is occurring over global warming.

Coates said having a strong faith in God doesn’t mean you have to reject science.

"Let’s take faith and reason and put them together, and we come out with a much more balanced view," he said. "We can’t be sure that (global warming) is not caused by humans. The best thing is to act responsibly, regardless."



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