Francis Schaeffer’s Iconoclastic Environmentalism

Regarding the question of environmentalism, Francis Schaeffer was deeply concerned about a latent pantheism creeping in to provide an answer. Pantheism is distinct from panentheism. 

Pantheism refers to the idea that the universe and God are one and the same thing. However, panentheism refers to the idea that, although God is bigger than the universe, nevertheless the universe is a part of God. 

There are only three logical possibilities in an approach to the environment question. We either begin with God, the universe, or man as the omega point; theism, pantheism, or atheism, respectively. Pantheism and atheism are alike in that both agree that there is no God beyond this universe, above and set apart. However, Pantheism holds that all that is, is one.

On the environment question, only theism provides a proper balance. Atheism places man as God, and thus sees man as supreme, Pantheism places the environment as supreme, ultimate. Thus, we have three types of environmentalism; ecocentric, anthropocentric, and theocentric.

The pantheist — the ecocentric — answer to ecology is manifested today by the pseudo-science of the Gaia hypothesis. 

The Gaia hypothesis posits that living organisms interact with the purportedly non-living surroundings to form a “synergistic and self-regulating,” eco-system that is mutually beneficial to both the planet and the living creatures. This is the system that Paul Kingsnorth promotes in his Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. It is the pantheistic view that “we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us.” Opposed to the ‘over-civilized,’ the pagan environmentalism of men like Kingsnorth are inclined to the idea that “rocks have souls.” Thus, the whole of existence is vibrating with life. Kingsnorth would tell us the solution to the environement is Gaiaphilia, that is, Earth-love.

The Gaia hypothesis is borderline heretical, in that the theory exists on the cusp of the idea that everything which exists has a soul — called panpsychism by theologians. On the pantheistic view (and it’s cousins, panpsychism and panentheism), the environment is sacred because the environment is God (or at least, God-like). 

By contrast, the theistic view sees the environment as sacred because the environment is the platform whereby God reveals Himself. Mt. Sinai is set apart, made special because God revealed Himself to Moses. Mt. Sinai is not special, simply because it is Mt. Sinai. 

As Francis Schaeffer explains:

The Westminster Confession of Faith–that marvellous statement of Christian doctrine–says that God has revealed His attributes and these are true not only to us but to Him. So we have a true but not exhaustive knowledge, since God has spoken about Himself and about the cosmos and about history. This is the kind of Christianity that has an answer, including an answer about nature and man’s relationship to it.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains the confession more clearly. Since God has made Himself known by creation, creation is therefore sacred and connected to the third commandment. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

What is required in the third commandment? A. The third commandment requireth the holy and reverend use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works. (WSC 54) 

God’s works include the act of creation. Consider the following question: 

What is forbidden in the third commandment? A. The third commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of any thing whereby God maketh himself known. (WSC 55) 

While the Reformed Conservative can explain how, and in what way, nature can be reverenced, the Reformed Conservative can also explain it’s limit. In contrast, because the pantheist idolizes creation, the pantheist stands on the other divide. It would seem consistent, then, that the Christian cannot join with the pantheist in the quest of environmental stewardship. Francis Schaeffer helps to explain why, “Any ‘results’ one does get from pantheism are obtained only by projecting man’s feelings into nature.

Schaeffer continues, explaining that the pantheist:

has no categories whereby he could cut down a sacred grove when it is an idol and yet not be against trees as trees. As far as he is concerned, these categories do not exist. For him the fact that a Chrstian would cut down a sacred grove when it has become an idol proves that Christians are against trees.

Schaeffer references the bronze serpent as an example. God is not against art, nor was Israel against art, nor was Moses against art. It will not do to claim that the iconoclastic event was an expression of anti-art sentiments. Just as when art, something good in itself, becomes an idol art then becomes fit for destruction, so too, the environment. Schaeffer makes this precise parallel in his book on environmentalism:

“They were against the brazen serpent, which God had originally commanded to be made, only when it became an idol. God commanded this work of art to be made, but when it became an idol it was to be destroyed.”

When man exchanges the truth for a lie and begins to worship creation, the iconoclastic response is the first response to any Biblical stewardship. This is because, since man is fundamentally homo religiosus, man cannot but act as he believes. That is, the most important key to a rightly ordered environment is a rightly ordered heart, guided by a rightly ordered mind in the minds of men. 

Daniel Mason

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Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

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