Some time back, I realized that no matter how much I read and talked, I would never be quite certain whether Ehrlich or Simon is right-whether population is an appalling dilemma or nothing to worry about.
I came to this conclusion when reading a statement form a group of eminent scientists alerting the world to the dire nature of population growth. One Nobel world to the dire nature of population growth. One Nobel prize-winning physicist spoke fiercely on the subject. I asked myself, how does he know? Does his study of subatomic particles give him competence to judge the hundreds of ecological studies that are published every year, the computer analyses of economic growth? Even a scientist who is expert in one of the many fields touching population growth probably only knows firsthand the very narrow area of his expertise- say, soil erosion in a district of Kenya.
When I've probed why such people believe population is a fundamental problem, they usually come back to the same basic belief or world-view that started Malthus in the first place. If one million people have a problem, two million people will have twice as much of the problem, and ten million people may have ten or even a hundred times as much of the problem. That is common sense. By some markers, though—food production and resource scarcity-common sense has been incorrect.
I concluded that philosophical assumptions or "intuitions" have shaped the debate about population at least as much as scientific data have. For this reason, and because decisions about children are so sensitive, it is important for Christian theology to join the fray. Theology does not enable us to settle the argument between Ehrlich and Simon. Nowhere in the Bible does it say how many people can safely live on the earth, or even if a limit exists. But Scripture can help shape the way we think and respond to population. It can give us a world-view that helps us avoid the stubborn extremes of interpretation.
Unfortunately, when you search the library databases for theological reflections on population, you find almost nothing. This is not a subject to which great—or even little—theological minds have given attention. Some theologians have written about ecology but even here, biblical reflection has just begun.
Population begs for biblical reflection. A Christian world-view will give us both precepts to guide the way we think and a mandate that calls us to action. I would suggest several principles:
Family planning belongs to families. Throughout Scripture, from Adam and Eve though Abram and Sarah, from Jesus' birth to his blessing the wedding at Cana, and even in Paul's references to the church as "brothers and sisters," the family is regarded as fundamental. Its actions can be moral or immoral, as Scripture also testifies, and a family cannot exist independent of other authorities, notably the church. Still, the family has authority in its sphere of action. The choosing of children is surely part of this sphere.
Whatever we do regarding population should honor families and their authority. We can begin with basic justice: treating families of poor countries as we would want to be treated ourselves. I have wondered: What would be the reaction of American Christians if, one day, ordinary contraceptives were outlawed? What if the young couple on their honeymoon, the middle-aged couple working through menopause, the thirtysomething couple with three children pondering four, simply could not get diaphragms, pills, vasectomies? We would consider it an offense against our ability to plan family life.
We ought, then, to consider it good for these gifts, which enable us to extend God's blessing of dominion into our own family life, to be available to people around the world. We should unabashedly support family planning when it is done with respect and care for human dignity. Surveys suggest that there are millions of families around the world who lack the access to birth-control methods that they would like.
I have also wondered: How would we like it if each state, county, town of our own nation was given a population target? What if that goal worked its way into neighborhoods and into doctors practices, such that a couple received phone calls asking about their plans for offspring, a woman with two children was invited to meetings that urged her to be sterilized, and a third pregnancy was officially questioned? We would consider that, too, an offense against our ability to plan family life.
We ought to be wary, then, of statistical targets, and any program that begins with the assumption that government knows best.
Human beings have, each one, an irreducible value. We cannot in any way view humanity as a pest species. When I lived in Kenya, which had at that time the highest birth rate in the world, I had a conversation with a university-educated friend of mine about children. My wife and I had just had our first child, and we wanted to know whether breast-feeding in public would offend people.
"No," our friend said. "In fact, it would be good. People would be surprised that you want to be so close to the baby."
"Why would that surprise them?" I asked.
"Well, you know, we tend to think that white people don't like children.
"But why would you think that?"
He thought a while. "Maybe because you people brought birth control, and since you don't want to have children, you probably don't like them."
In a certain way, Kenyans are correct. We do not like children to inconvenience us. We do not like them to disrupt our careers or our marriages or our financial plans. We do not like them, then, in the way most Kenyans do. For Kenyans, as far as I can understand it, babies are just good. They are, at a fundamental, unexplainable, nonfunctional level, filled with blessing.
That Kenyan attitude is not far from Scripture's. Certainly God loves us not because we are convenient or useful to him, but because we are.
Since humans are created in the image of God, and since God sent his only Son to save them, we know that humans arc to be loved. That puts some population positions out of bounds. We cannot, like the Chinese government, abuse and harass individuals because their personal hopes for family conflict with the bureaucracy's plans. Each baby should be welcomed into the world, even if he is poor—especially if he is poor. We must resist the kind of mentality that treats people as units or numbers or "problems." Family planning should be an exercise in love, not fear.
A filled earth is God's intended blessing. God's first words to humanity were, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the ,sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen. 1:28).
The first of these overlapping callings, "Be fruitful and multiply," is sometimes seen as a straightforward endorsement of a growing population. But it is not, really, quite that; it has to be understand in its context, following after an identical blessing to the sea creatures and the birds (Gen. 1:22). They, too, are to be fruitful and multiply. "Increasingly we people are occupying the land to the exclusion and extinction of the other creatures," Calvin DeWitt writes in his foreword to Susan Power Bratton's "Six Billion and More". "This leads us to ask, Does our God-given blessing of stewardship of creation grant us license to deny creatures God's blessing of fruitfulness and fulfillment?'"
Clearly, no. Filling the earth, subduing it, and ruling over its creatures can be and should be in harmony with other creatures. That is how God intended it, for one blessing will not cancel out another. The story of Noah further shows God's concern for the animals' existence, and humanity's agency in preserving them. All creatures are meant to be blessed—to be fruitful and multiply—together.
Is there, then, a limit to our "fruitfulness"? At the CHRISTIANITY TODAY conference on population, Calvin DeWitt held out an empty glass and had a participant pour it full of water. "Keep pouring," he ,said while the glass overflowed onto the carpet. "Keep pouring." He was making the point that "filling" implies a limit, and that "overfilling" is something else again.
Some have said, tongue in cheek, that the command to fill the earth is the only one that humanity ever fully obeyed.
That implies, however, a one-time, completed obedience. "Filling the earth" is, in fact, an ongoing process. History shows that humanity has filled the earth many times—at many different levels of population. In fact, all known history shows humanity filling the earth, while our population grows larger and larger. That is because humanity, unlike all other creatures, transforms the earth so it supports more of our numbers and evidences more of our creativity. An analogy perhaps closer to the truth—and more astonishing—would be a thimble, which, when filled, becomes a cup, which becomes a tumbler, which becomes a pitcher brimming full.
At one time in prehistory, anthropologists say, humans had spread to virtually every part of the globe—something no other species can do—and the earth could barely support their hunting and gathering.
Then came a greater role for agriculture—a development driven, some believe, by the population pressure of a full earth. "None of the major human cultural and intellectual achievements," Clive Ponting comments in his Green History of the World, "would have been possible without the development of agriculture, and a food surplus capable of supporting artists, builders, architects, priests, philosophers and scientists." Humans learned how to subdue the natural processes of plants and animals, to bring their rhythms into harmony with ours. A thousand subsequent inventions—driven, some say, by population pressures- made agriculture more productive.
The Industrial Revolution represented another huge, multifaceted leap in the power of humanity to fill the earth. Malthus, who predicted misery because human numbers would always increase faster than food production, had the great misfortune to prophesy just as this great transformation began. Food-and every other human product—greatly outstripped population, even as population grew far faster than ever before.
Then, for no obvious reason, population growth slowed or stopped wherever the Industrial Revolution had progressed—first in Europe, then in America. People could have continued to increase-they had food. No government forced, or even encouraged, people to stop having children. No modern birth-control methods were available when lower birth rates first began. Once again, in Western societies, at least, the earth was filled.
A filled earth is not an unambiguous blessing. It has brought with it many careless and callous deeds as human power and presence has increased. Nevertheless, Genesis makes clear that, from the beginning, human presence and dominion were meant to be part of God's blessings for his creation. God's intent is that the earth become a garden. We tend to conceive of human endeavors as inevitably in conflict with the rest of creation, particularly with those elements that arc wild. This habit of thought is particularly characteristic of Americans, who live with such ugly urban sprawl and glorious wilderness. Surely, we think, God's world should be more like Yellowstone than Los Angeles.
There are other vistas to be scan, however. On my way to and from India, I traveled across Holland by train—crisscrossing the country, thinking and talking about population. Holland is one of the most densely populated nations on earth-more densely populated than India, than China, even than Japan. It is also beautiful. The train shoots by green velvet fields, neat woods, canals, farms, towns, and small cities. I saw lovely orderliness, the signs of care, everywhere in the land.
Nowhere in this full country does it seem crowded. Holland remains a farming nation, and almost everywhere you go you are near the fields. The Netherlands is the world's third-largest exporter of agricultural product, I was told.
"God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland," an old quip has it. Holland is the premium example of nature transformed, the way in which humans change their environment as surely as birds build nests. Half of Holland is on land once under water.
Yet the Dutch still place a premium on untrampled space. '"We know that wilderness is relative," Henk Jochemsen, a Christian ethicist, told me, "but we know we need a certain wildness without making an absolute of a specific situation." Possessing such a tiny, full land, the Dutch are aware that wilderness is something they must plan. They do, taking scrupulous care of their woods and wetlands.
"There are … wild woods and mountains, marshes and heaths, even in England," Aldous Huxley wrote. "But they are there only on sufferance, because we have chosen, out of our good pleasure, to leave them their freedom." Today that is true everywhere in the world, not merely in Holland. Humans have dominion.
We have not done our best by this transformation. Still, the transformation of the earth remains a blessing in God's intention. Wilderness, in the old, wild form, was not friendly to humankind. The word wilderness occurs scores of times in the Bible, and most of the meanings are derogatory. Sometimes, oddly, the Old Testament judgment of a land sounds like a conservationist's dream, Calvin Beisner points out, such as Isaiah 34:11-15: "The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there," it begins, describing the utter lack of human inhabitants. To Isaiah, it was a curse, not a blessing.
But the word garden is always positive in Scripture: it reflects the caring attention of humans. Holland is like a garden, suggesting the possibility of true harmony between humans and the rest of creation. Of course, there are many kinds of garden: Wyoming can be one, and Holland another. Gardens can include territory and creatures that are quite wild. It is for us, the gardeners, to ensure the most harmonious way for God's creation to flourish.
Still, humans have shown, repeatedly, their potential for savagery. On this beautiful planet, "filling" may sometimes seem unblessed, but we must find the way to make the blessing show. The way is not through less dominion, but through more loving dominion.
In tending and caring for our disordered garden, we must see that its beauty and usefulness are preserved and increased. We must ensure that its creatures, both plant and animal, have space and conditions to flourish. And we must make sure that the human creature, in his creative rule, also has space and conditions to flourish.
Christians foresee a future that transcends the polarities of the Simon-Ehrlich bet. The "population bomb" plays to a dark mood, as does the ecological crisis. Ever since the Vietnam war, American expectations have tended to be bleak. In reaction, some neoconservatives have propounded an optimistic world-view in which a free market binds the world together as one family and makes it possible to solve any problem.
Christians have a different vision of the future, however, one dominated not by natural limits nor by human creativity but by theological truths. The impact of this vision can be summed up in three old-fashioned theological words:
Both the buoyant optimism of the cornucopians and the rigorous calls to action of the Malthusians will bump up repeatedly against human imperfection. Our creativity and efforts to rule wisely take us only so far. Julian Simon may observe human ingenuity accomplishing great things. But history brims with examples of inventiveness harnessed for perverse ends. Rosy scenarios based on our "potential" fail to take into account the stubborn perverseness of human will. Overweening pride and self-confidence form part of the folly to which human nature is prone because of the fall.
And the Malthusians, in their urge to act, must not forget that population problems require more than improved techniques or technology. Something more fundamental is needed to truly change behaviors or order the world. This points to the second theological word.
Providence derives its name from the verb provide. Primarily, it looks backward, to the ways in which God has provided. It is also an expectation-that God's kind character, which characteristically provides rain on the fields of both the just and the unjust, will continue to order the world so as to provide for the needs of his creation. This grace undergirds everyday life.
Common grace is not automatic or mechanical, however, and if we think so, we presume on God. Nowhere does God guarantee that he will divert disaster no matter how we behave. Just the reverse: human ingenuity, planning, and creativity are part of God's providence. They are a way in which he characteristically provides tier our needs. We are meant to be part of God's providence.
Human creativity thrives on problems. It is the normal way for God to provide for us—to use creative people to solve the dilemmas of life, to find cures for terrible plagues, to grow better crops to meet famine. contraception can be understood as part of this pattern—a provision of God, through human means, to choose well how many children to bring into the world. Contraception enables us to plan a family life, so that to the best of our abilities we avoid privation and seek the best conditions for thriving.
Will life get steadily better and better? Nothing in the doctrine of Providence says so. Are we doomed by the inevitable conflict between human aspirations and a limited planet? Providence suggests otherwise: our lives are in God's hands. Providence does not predict the future. It does not tell us which problems are most significant, or how to overcome them. It does provide a sense of hopeful confidence, reminding us that God's world is not capricious or malignant, reminding us also that we are not gods who depend only on ourselves. Providence states that God will provide what we need until God himself brings this era to a close.
Providence, therefore, dilutes the extreme moods of both optimists and pessimists. It enables us to live on a more secure foundation—where we rely on God, rather than on our human capabilities and our changeable predictions of the future.
If providence is the biblical understanding of the short term, eschatology is the biblical view of how things will end up. Biblical Christians differ in their reading of the details, but all recognize the same fundamental truths. The future will bring an intensification of evil: trials and temptations, wars and rumors of war, false messiahs, political turmoil, fear, famine, disaster. Yet these will not be the end. They will merely preface God's triumph over evil, his judging of the world, his renewal of creation, and his eternal companionship with humanity. The same Jesus we know through the Scriptures, who fills us with his Spirit, will come again. War, hunger, and death will end. The conflict between species will be eliminated so that the lion can lie down with the lamb.
This kingdom will come when God wants it to, not before. It depends largely on him, not us, a fact that has sometimes led Christians to complacency, a kind of spectator mentality. That is a perverted understanding. Normally and naturally, the coming kingdom motivates Christians to action. We care and hope and act because we are convinced that God will triumph, even while creation groans as in the pains of childbirth. It is not that through our actions we will transform the world into God's kingdom. Nor could our failings keep the kingdom at bay. But believing that God's world is coming to completion, we joyfully anticipate it. The Spirit God pours into us an anticipation, "eternal life that is already a historic reality," as Paul Jewett wrote. We actively wait for a loving, outreaching God we want to be ready to greet him. And we should not despair if even the worst doomsday scenario comes true; it is not the end.
We should not exult if economic trends leap upward, either. Prosperity is not the end: it is a false hope that can lead us away from God's calling.
Our calling is to love God and our neighbor. Nearly everything else we do will be judged and found meaningless, if not downright destructive. The God who comes to judge the world will not ask us to justify which side of the population argument we took. He will call us to justify every poor person, every prisoner, every child whom we abused or neglected.
This certainty, of God's triumph and of his judgment, must control how we concern ourselves with population. Paul Ehrlich foresees disaster. Julian Simon foresees prosperity. A lot of people in the middle foresee an unending series of government programs, providing some amelioration to a somewhat significant problem. Without discounting the importance of such visions, we foresee a future that transcends them all. That vision shapes our world-view. It makes us struggle for justice. It motivates us to care and to hope. It moves us to action. It gives us joy even in darkness. It makes us messengers of glad news, bringing word of God's salvation, not our own.
Perhaps our greatest danger in population concerns is withdrawal from the Christian mission. The risk is on both sides of the bet. Some Malthusians propose cutting off loving care to poor people. Things are so bad, they say, that we must concentrate our care on better prospects. We should stop reviving poor children from dehydration, because they can only survive to a life of misery. (This was seriously purpose and debated in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet.)
On the other side of the bet is a withdrawal based on individualism. It is one thing to critique government programs and to appreciate the "hidden hand" at work in the free market. It is quite another to assume that everything will work out if we simply leave the market to do its work. The cornucopian argument can be used as an excuse for not engaging with the real and tragic problems of the world—for not behaving as neighbors to a world God loves.
Christians are born activists. However, we must be active in a distinctively Christian way, which will surely bring us into conflict with those whose idea of doing good includes coercion, abortion, and the diminishing of families. We are for family planning, but only when the planning belongs to families and does not undermine the sanctity of life.
That does not undermine our effectiveness. A remarkably fine truth emerging from three decades of research into population control is that programs focusing only on population control are ineffective. It does not work to fly over a village and drop condoms with a parachute. Technology is never the key. And though coercion gets results, in the long run it is counterproductive. Populations stabilize when individual families decide that they want fewer children.
Research has pinpointed several important factors in this transformation. Probably the most significant is the education of females. When girls go to school, they wait longer for marriage, they have wider career alternatives, they take better care of the children they have. The dignity that education confers on women helps transform the family.
Second is economic development. For poor people, having more children often makes economic sense. Children provide much-needed labor, especially in labor-intensive agriculture. Children also support their parents when they grow old. With economic development, however, these equations change. Old people have other resources to fall back on. They tend to educate their children, which costs money rather than gaining it from their labor. So economic development usually leads to smaller families.
Third is better health care, particularly for mothers and children. When babies die, parents want a larger number of children to insure that at least one will survive. When parents have confidence that their children will live to adulthood, however, they can be content with a smaller family.
Fourth is the availability of contraception, in a sympathetic framework where various methods are available along with information and counseling for those who need it. Of course, "counseling" may become badgering, and a "choice of methods" may be code phrasing for the promotion of abortion. Ideas alien to Christian love can and do intrude into contraception. Still, the ideal of personalized, informative care for the needs of families is something Christians will have no difficulty supporting.
In short, the best population programs do the work among the poor that we would want to do. Christians have for centuries had a significant role in most of these areas. A good proportion of schools and hospitals around the world trace their origins to Christian missions. Christians can and should be equally involved in innovative family-planning and economic-development programs. Indeed, at least in India, Christians are.
That, however, is not enough. We can be glad for family planning, but we want families to plan for more significance than a certain number of children. We are glad for the filling of the earth, but we want to fill it with more than mere numbers. "They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). That is our ultimate vision of the future: that God's justice, glory, and love be honored everywhere; and that the human presence be party to God's transformation of the earth.
We must insist on population programs in which Christians can be fully Christian.
It is not that we will lovingly and truthfully contribute to the cause of family planning. Quite the reverse: Family planning must contribute to the cause of love and truth. When it does, it matters very little whether we believe with Ehrlich that overpopulation is a pending disaster, or with Simon that it is an imaginary fear. If our actions serve love and truth, we ought to do them no matter who predicts what end of the world is about to come. We will care about the need we see around us, and we will work to make the world what God intends.
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