My Lunch with David Suzuki

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NOVEMBER 29, 2015: Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki speaks to supporters on the eve of the Paris climate summit.

David Suzuki, Canada’s leading figure on matters of science and environmental responsibility, is in the news again because the University of Alberta, in the midst of a regional and national controversy over oil pipelines, chose to award him an honorary degree.

Coincidentally, it was in that same province that I had my own confrontation with Dr. Suzuki a few years ago.

I was booked to address the large annual teachers conference in Calgary in the TELUS Convention Centre and, as I looked over the program in advance of the meeting, found that David Suzuki was also scheduled to speak. I saw from his bio that he and I shared in common both the University of Chicago (we received our doctorates there) and, after a few minutes on the Internet, discovered that we also shared an agent, Christine Beaumaster of Keynote Speakers.

So I contacted Christine, who contacted Dr. Suzuki’s assistant, who contacted him, and a lunch date was set for the downtown hotel in which we both were to be accommodated.

We happened to arrive at the restaurant at the same time that day and duly followed the hostess to our table. Every single party we passed looked up, did a double take, and then started buzzing. There are few more recognizable people in Canada than David Suzuki, of course, the longtime host of CBC’s science program, “The Nature of Things.”

Once we were seated, however, everyone around us treated us with Canadian politeness and we began to talk without interruption. And we talked for 90 minutes.

The first half-hour was spent getting acquainted. I found David (as he asked me to call him) reserved, even wary—which made perfect sense, since I was clearly one of those keen Christian types that was on the wrong side of the environmentalism debate. For, as the second half-hour made clear, David had bought entirely into the famous thesis of Lynn White, Jr. (published in an article back in 1967) that Christianity was largely responsible for western civilization’s devastating attitude toward the natural world.

As David made clear to me, he believed that it was Christianity’s “dominion ethic,” the teaching in Genesis 1 and 2 that human beings were created as the “apex species” to “rule the world,” that furnished the divine authorization for human rapacity. Clearly, in David’s mind, “dominion” meant “domination,” and domination meant exploitation.

When I replied that some of us Christians preferred the term “stewardship” to “domination,” he pooh-poohed it right away. He’d already come across that locution and, to him, it was a mere euphemism for the same ugly thing. Human beings were in charge and could do what they liked to other species.

As we began our third half-hour, then, I suggested that Christians properly understand “dominion” not as domination but as deriving from the idea of “lordship” (= dominus) that, in the Bible, comes primarily from the Lord God himself. We are to be lords toward the rest of the world the way the Lord is lord toward us: not selfish and oppressive, but concerned, generous, and even self-sacrificial.

I went on to assert a point that a number of Christian ethicists had put about, including me in my book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. In that book, I borrowed lines from Andy Crouch:

“In the whole known universe we are the only species that takes responsibility for the others; the only species that demonstrates the slightest interest in naming, tending, and conserving the others; [the only species] that indeed is accountable for the stewardship of the others; and the only species that feels guilt (however fitfully and hypocritically) when its stewardship fails.”

To David himself over lunch, I put it more succinctly still: We humans are the only species that cares for everything else because we are the only species that, at our best, cares about everything else. Put negatively, I said as mildly as I could, if human beings really are to treat other species on the same level, as David advocated, then we would be free to treat every other species the way every other species treats every other species. And that truly would entail utterly ruthlessness, regarding every other creature only as a threat, a tool, or a food source.

David stared back at me, quiet for the first time in the conversation. I decided it was a good moment to concentrate on my dessert as he thought. And then, over the next twenty minutes, we began a conversation about his organization possibly connecting with Christian environmental organizations such as A Rocha…and we parted with mutual promises to follow up.

I did follow up with A Rocha, but I don’t know what came of my little initiative. I have not heard from David again, nor have I tried to re-establish contact with him, busy as he is. I was glad to have had the opportunity, however, to offer him an alternative idea to the one that had so alienated him from Christianity and Christians, an idea that likewise alienates many of our Canadian neighbours from the gospel and the church.

There really is no Christian ground, in fact, for anything other than a deep and abiding concern for our fellow creatures. And we all must do our part to get that Word out.

Yes, our neighbours might still choose to reject the gospel, but they shouldn’t do so because they think the gospel isn’t green. It is: from the very first page of the Bible.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).