An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life

By Kevin J. O'Brien | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Sacramental Value of the Variety of Life

In a frequently told and possibly apocryphal story, a member of the Christian clergy anxious to engage in dialogue asked the early-twen- tieth-century biologist John Haldane what his studies of the natural world had taught him about its creator. Haldane replied that God seems to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referencing the hundreds of thousands of distinct species of the insect already cataloged and the uncountable others that human beings have never seen. A noted athe- ist, Haldane was likely annoyed by the question and hoping his answer would shock the clergyman away from a follow-up. From my perspec- tive as a Christian ecological ethicist, however, I am delighted by the exchange and seek in this book to imitate the questioner by expanding my theology in dialogue with scientists.

In this chapter I ask a very similar question: What can we learn about God by studying God's creation? I hope to receive a more thoughtful answer than Haldane's, but his offers a powerful starting point: What does it tell us about God's world that more than 350,000 species of beetle have evolved and now exist, and how should a fact like this change the ways we live, relate to one another, and think about God? In other words, what does it mean for Christians to understand biodiversity as part of God's creation, and what difference does the va- riety of life make to Christian morality? This chapter offers answers by developing a sacramental Christian ethics, an argument that we have a responsibility to the variety of life in God's world in part because we come to know God better through it. Biodiversity, I argue, is sacramental because it is a sign of and connection to the mysteries and workings of God. This calls Christians to take seriously the variety and wonder of life as well as the reality of predation and death inherent in God's world.

The argument develops straightforwardly: if we can understand God by understanding God's creation, then we should strive to under- stand the variety of life within that creation. If we are to understand our role in this world, then we must understand our fundamental re- latedness to that variety, including our relationship to the marvels of

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