True North

True North

by Mark Liederbach, Seth Bible

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433678370
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Mark Liederbach is associate professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He holds a PhD from the University of Virginia.

Seth Bible is director of Student Life at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also received his MDiv and PhD.

Read an Excerpt


Finding True North

It is quite interesting and not a little ironic that the new ecotheologies often start not by discussing God, faith, tradition, or the holy, but with references to information provided by biologists, chemists, and ecologists.

I. Introduction: True North

Imagine it is the middle of the night and you are on a boat far out at sea in uncharted waters. You are adrift and uncertain of where to go. Rising winds and strange currents are pushing you aimlessly as you see the flashes of a storm flickering on the horizon.

In the early days of nautical travel, sailors would face such situations without sophisticated radio equipment or GPS tracking systems. Indeed, because they lacked such navigational tools, it was typical for sailors to chart their course by staying within sight of land and using recognizable landmarks. This worked fine, of course, until they forsook the safety of the coastline and pushed beyond the horizon. No longer able to see the familiar landmarks, they needed to find a new point of reference. And thus, they looked to the heavens.

By gazing at the night sky, sailors eventually learned that although most of the stars appeared to move, one remained constant: Polaris, the North Star. Because it appeared fixed in the heavens, it became the sailors' most trusted advisor. With the aid of navigational tools like the sextant and compass, sailors could not only pinpoint their current position; they could also determine the proper course necessary to reach their destination.

Now imagine what would happen to a sailor if he or she either chose to navigate merely by an "inner sense" of feel, by the general consensus of the crew, or by choosing the wrong star as the point of reference. In each case it would be entirely possible for the captain to believe with all certainty that he was charting the right course. But the belief would most likely not match up with reality. Even if the captain were convinced, such a conviction would in no way guarantee reaching the desired destination. Most likely, if he acted on his convictions without first ordering them to True North, even his rightly intended convictions would probably lead to loss or shipwreck.

We believe this is a good metaphor for understanding the current nature of much of the modern debates raging in all areas of ethics. Whether the issues involve the taking of life in war, capital punishment, abortion, or questions of sexuality and marriage, we live in a time and in a culture that questions the validity of any fixed reference point. Because of that, we find ourselves in a context in which it is becoming more and more difficult to arrive at a proper evaluation of our moral position. It is even more difficult to arrive at a consensus on how to chart a course in a direction that truly leads to holistic flourishing. Certainly the field of environmental ethics and creation care is no exception.

The fact that we now live in a world morally adrift is hard to dispute. But this was not always the case. When God created the universe, he did so with great love and precision. He also was careful to provide a foundational locus and direction by which the primary caretakers he put into the created order could properly navigate a moral course that was fully pleasing to himself. Further, this God-given moral course would also ensure the flourishing of the entire created realm. In more contemporary language, we would say that Adam and Eve had a proper conceptual framework by which they correctly perceived, interpreted, and judged their reality. That is, their worldview was calibrated to True North.

In right relationship to God, nonsinful humanity was given the task to navigate a course for themselves and all creation that would rightly honor God and represent his best interests for the entire created realm. Not only were they given instruction; most importantly they also enjoyed the relational context with God by which they could both rightly and properly order, serve, protect, and orient God's world as an act of obedient worship.

Tragically, it was because of human sin and rebellion that the long history of muddled moral thinking and acting followed. Instead of tracking a course to flourishing and joy, the legacy of humanity is one of moral drift and uncertainty. The reason for this is that with sin and rebellion came a fundamental shift in worldview. Our moral compass was no longer calibrated to True North. Inferior ends and ideas replaced those which humans were created to know and follow (Romans 1).

As Al Wolters points out,

A worldview, even when it is half unconscious and unarticulated, functions like a compass or a road map. It orients us in the world at large, gives us a sense of what is up and what is down, what is right and what is wrong in the confusion of events and phenomena that confronts us. Our worldview shapes, to a significant degree, the way we assess the events, issues, and structures of our civilization and our times.

Indeed, one of the basic facts of reality is that as human beings

we cannot do without the kind of orientation and guidance that a worldview gives. We need guidance because we are inescapably creatures with responsibilities who by nature are incapable of holding purely arbitrary opinion or making entirely unprincipled decisions. We need some creed to live by, some map by which to chart our course. The need for a guiding perspective is basic to human life, perhaps more basic than food or sex.

This fact is what makes living in a fallen world so perilous. Each of us individually, and all of humanity corporately, attempt to navigate through life with a broken compass. Indeed, in this postmodern era, the normative idea is that we cannot know whether there even is a True North. Therefore, as we pilot our ships, the best we can do is choose a course with conviction and learn to get along with the other passengers. Yet ultimately we are told we can have no certainty of where we are headed.

We hope the danger of this postmodern thinking is self-evident. A compass should be calibrated not by the searcher's preferences but by a certain and fixed reference point external to the self. That is, one must find True North first, calibrate the compass to that point, and then chart a course toward life and flourishing. To attempt to orient one's life or the culture's moral path by simply choosing a direction that seems reasonable and then calling a robust pursuit of that end a viable option to True North is fundamentally silly.

James Davidson Hunter's argument in his To Change the World makes a similar point. He argues that while humans use power to shape the world in which they live, they do so while they are "instinctually challenged" (i.e., morally decrepit). This is not to say that humans use their power without direction. To the contrary, because Wolters is correct in asserting that everyone has a worldview whether they know it or not; people always function from some frame of reference. The problem that then emerges is that humans wield world-shaping power without a clear and coherent worldview, point of reference, or properly determined end goal. Yet because worldviews always head in some direction, human use of power (either individually or collectively) will shape the world in whatever direction their moral compass is pointing.

What is power then? Power is not a substance or a property but a facility that is exercised in relation to others as well as, of course, to the natural world. This facility manifests itself through individuals, through social groups of every size, shape and kind, through social structures ... and through our own subjectivity. It is within every institution, and not just the institutions of government or market. It is through power that worlds are created — the larger cultures of which we are a part and our own personal worlds shared with those closest to us.

Clearly, then, the foundational ideas one holds at the conviction level — explicitly or implicitly — are vitally important.

For the Christian,

what this means is that faithful Christian witness is fated to exist in the tension between the historical and the transcendent; between the social realities that press on human existence and the spiritual and ethical requirements of the gospel; between the morality of the society in which Christian believers live and the will of God. These oppositions are a fact of existence for the church and each Christian believer and they pull in conflicting directions — one toward the necessities of survival and the other toward the perfect will of God. There is no place of equilibrium between these oppositions and no satisfying resolutions. In this world, the church can never be in repose.

For these reasons it is utterly important that each of us (and all of us corporately) pay careful attention to how we are calibrating our compasses. Scripture is clear. All things have been created by God, through God, and for God, and they are created for his glory (Rom 11:36). Therefore, although it be tempting to calibrate the compass toward such noble ends as "saving the planet" or "living a good life," ultimately the pursuit of anything other than Christ is foolish both temporally and eternally. Biblically and theologically speaking, these (and/or any other goals) are in essence idolatrous. They set an inferior end in the place of the ultimate end for which God created the world. It is imperative, then, that we calibrate our compasses to Jesus Christ and set our course toward a pursuit of the One who is the True North of the created order, the redeemed creation, and the future fully established eschatological kingdom.

II. Environmental Ethics and Creation Care

This, of course, brings us directly to the reason why our discussion of environmental ethics and the Christian's concern for creation care is so important. The fundamental ideas that form the foundations of the movement ultimately form a vision of the world and its purpose and that will, in turn, drive the moral conclusions and calls for action in a particular direction and toward some type of end. For this reason a brief history and description of key perspectives in the contemporary environmental movement can help our readers evaluate the underlying ideas at play in the larger cultural discussion as well as see the value of this overall project.

Three Predominant Perspectives Shaping the Secular Landscape

In the most general sense, environmental ethics has evolved from a counterculture movement to a major social issue in a relatively short period of time. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III aptly describe this shift in the following manner:

While one can trace roots in the field back much further, explicitly and implicitly in the work of philosophers and non-philosophers alike, the first articles in philosophy journals specifically on environmental topics, the first books, the first conferences and the first classes in colleges and universities all began in the early 1970s. This was no coincidence. The environmental movement was then transforming from its earlier phase consisting mainly in practical resource conservation initiatives, such as the creation of the national park system, to a much more active political and social force in its own right.

This progression from minor conservation movement to major social issue has catapulted environmental ethics from the "applied ethics" category of philosophy to the level of interdisciplinary field of study. A prime example of its growing popularity not only in the field of philosophy but also in mainstream culture is the immense success of two recent films, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Wall-E (2008). These films focus on core components of what has now become the bedrock of environmental ethics — the need to do something about "the problem" of the environment and the intrinsic value of nature, respectively.

Along the way, several different metaethical approaches have developed that are characteristic of both mainstream and Christian environmental ethics. For the purposes of this book, we will briefly focus in this section on the three most popular secular approaches: biocentrism, anthropocentrism, and ecocentrism.

Biocentrism is predicated on the notion that all living organisms (human and nonhuman) have an inherent, noninstrumental value. More specifically, DesJardins defines biocentricism as "any theory that views all life as possessing intrinsic value." An early version of the biocentric approach to environmental ethics can be found in the work of Albert Schweitzer. However, Schweitzer's theory was not considered by most to be scholarly enough and was consequently never popularized. Some 40 years later, Paul Taylor took Schweitzer's work and constructed a full theory of biocentrism which is based on the following four premises:

(a) The belief that humans are members of the Earth's Community of Life in the same sense and on the same terms in which other living things are members of that Community.

(b) The belief that the human species, along with all other species, are integral elements in a system of interdependence such that the survival of each living thing, as well as its chances of faring well or poorly, is determined not only by the physical conditions of its environment but also by its relations to other living things.

(c) The belief that all organisms are teleological centers of life in the sense that each is a unique individual pursuing its own good in its own way.

(d) The belief that humans are not inherently superior to other living things.

From a biocentric perspective, then, humans are unique among created beings but are not inherently of any more value. In short, there is nothing unique about human beings being unique. Ironically, though, there is a tendency among biocentrists to elevate noneudaimonistic flourishing (flourishing of nonhumans) above eudaimonistic flourishing (flourishing of humans).

Ecocentrism is similar to biocentric ethics in the sense that it focuses on the interconnectedness of nature and is nonanthropocentric. However, it is ultimately much more inclusive than biocentrism. This essentially means that ecocentric environmental ethics takes into consideration not only life (biocentrism) but also that which is considered lifeless, such as ecosystems or the biosphere as a whole. This position is most often identified with the land ethic espoused by Aldo Leopold and is sometimes referred to as ethical holism. DesJardins's work is helpful in understanding this position, especially as it is distinct from the biocentric position. DesJardins argues that there are three different types of ecocentrism (ecocentric holism). First, there is a metaphysical holism, which claims that wholes are real, perhaps more real than their constituent parts. This is generally the position of Leopold, Callicott, and Rolston. Second, there is a methodological or epistemological holism, which focuses on how best to understand various phenomena concerning the ecosystem. The third category is labeled ethical holism and suggests that moral considerability should be extended to wholes.

The final position differs significantly from the first two positions and is labeled anthropocentrism. The focus of anthropocentric environmental ethics is on human beings and their value over and above the value of all other nature whether living or not. From the anthropocentric viewpoint, nature has merely instrumental value and exists to serve the greater good and purposes of human beings. DesJardins defines this position as one in which humans "may be said to have responsibilities regarding the natural world" but do not have "direct responsibilities to the natural world." This particular position is most often defended in light of responsibilities to future generations.

This position has been the most unpopular position among secular environmentalists who believe that the current plight of the biosphere is a result of anthropocentric thinking. However, this does not mean that there have not been attempts to defend this position so as to offer it as a legitimate alternative to the dominant biocentric and ecocentric worldviews. Eugene Hargrove, for instance, is sympathetic to the noninstrumental nonanthropocentric position but argues that not all anthropocentric theories have to be instrumental in nature. He writes,

There are, first of all, innumberable instrumental relationships in natural systems that are completely independent of any possible instrumental value to human beings, and these (or similar) nonanthropocentric instrumental values would exist whether humans had ever evolved and will continue to exist even after humans become extinct, so long as life itself persists.

It is Hargrove's contention that an anthropocentric intrinsic value argument is possible and can be supported by looking to the history of ideas that formulated environmental ethics.


Excerpted from "True North"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Mark Liederbach and Seth Bible.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Copyright Page,
Chapter 1: Finding True North,
Chapter 2: Christ the Creator of All Things,
Chapter 3: Christ the Creator and Humanity's Unique Role in Creation,
Chapter 4: Christ the Incarnate and Resurrected Redeemer,
Chapter 5: Eschatology — Christ the Coming King,
Chapter 6: True North Pursued,
Name Index,
Subject Index,
Scripture Index,

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