My journey as a Christian and conservationist has honestly been just that – a journey. My first conservation job saw me heading out into the tropical waters of the Maldives to lead a marine conservation programme for a year. Here I faced one of the most rewarding, beautiful years of my life – and also one of the toughest.
Being embedded within a community as a marine biologist, you are faced with a reality so multidimensional that textbook knowledge really only takes you part of the way. The work is constant, conditions are challenging, and the community can feel quite hard to reach. Safe to say, engaging with humanity knocked me for six. The human dimension is arguably the most important aspect of conservation work, and I was unprepared for the types of questions and considerations this work would raise.
For example, there are questions of motivation: Is this work worthwhile? Are the blood, sweat and tears working towards something meaningful? There are also questions of guidance: How do you approach, respect and educate a culture so different to your own? Do you have a right to do so? How do you help people care enough to turn knowledge into the sort of sacrificial change required to care for other species and future generations? Finally, there are questions of hope and endurance: How to keep going when the problem seems too large, when setbacks are frequent and promising signs are rare?
For me, the main motivating ideas centre around the core beliefs that:
- God values creation, imparting an intrinsic value on all he has made;
- creation praises God, and we are thus degrading this praise by breaking down these systems;
- the Bible commands stewardship right from the beginning;
- and that we should feel compelled to ease the suffering of our neighbours worldwide who are negatively affected by environmental exploitation.
In this post I will address the questions concerning guidance, exploring whether Christian discipleship actually informs how we do conservation and how we respond to the issues it raises.
New Testament scholar Douglas Moo says that ‘The solution to the ecological crisis we face is a transformation in human values’. I now know how true that is, but also how intimidating a challenge that is for a scientist hoping that effort and education will be enough of a toolbox to inspire change in local communities. But as Christians we are not strangers to working with the complexities and resistances of the heart.
Bob Sluka was the first Christian conservationist who introduced me to the synergy between conservation and Christian evangelism. Addressing secular conservation scientists in the David Attenborough building in Cambridge, he said, “In a way, you are evangelists too. You have a message you believe is important, knowledge you believe should change how people live, and you face obstacles as you try and help the people you are approaching.”
Looking at the challenges I faced in community-based conservation, I think Bob is right that there seem to be strong ties between the practical requirements of Christian living and Christian conservation and stewardship. This comparison means that we have a rich bank of Biblical guidance on which to draw, but more importantly, we have the perfect example to follow as we embark on the challenge of influencing peoples’ values.
Jesus was the ultimate changer of hearts. He came to a resistant world with a message of truth which compelled a change in peoples’ values, and I think we can learn a lot about how to reach out to communities by how Jesus approached us.
For example, conservation involves more than education initiatives and approaching local communities with the ‘right solutions’, it requires integration and learning as you build an understanding of what it is like to live in their setting, in their shoes. You can’t hope to suggest any type of long-term solution if you don’t understand their pressures and priorities. This requires non-judgemental observation and experience living in their context.
Jesus showed the ultimate and unbelievable integration into our setting by humbling himself to take on frail human likeness. As Christians, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus chose to live amongst us, linking his own understanding of people to empathy for their situation. I feel that this challenges our inclination to judge from a distance and encourages us to connect with people so that we can empathise. This process will help conservationists work on realistic courses of action which care for the community as well as their environment.
I know that we will fall short of Jesus’ perfect standards, but I think it is a helpful parallel to highlight. If we appreciate that the heart and character Jesus modelled equip us for all Christian callings, this leads to a rich source of guidance for Christian conservationists wondering how to do the work set before us.
I have found it incredibly fruitful to explore the struggles of conservation work in light of guidance from Jesus’ teaching and actions and I hope these links can be helpful beyond conservation as we face challenges and human interaction across the sciences.
This post was taken from the 2019 Oliver Barclay lecture, given by Cara Parrett at the Christians in Science Southern Conference (edited by Ruth Bancewicz with permission of the speaker). The full recording be posted on the Christians in Science website.