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The Spiritual Stakes of Endangered Species

April 1, 2022

The following is a guest contribution by Christian environmental writer, Betsy Painter.

Betsy Painter is a creative writer and conservation biologist who is passionate about environmental care and its human dimensions. She has studied Religion and Ecology in graduate school with a focus on the beautification of nature in the redemptive Biblical narrative and its implications for environmental hope and messaging today. A Christian’s Guide to Planet Earth is on-sale now. Learn more at betsypainter.com/a-christians-guide-to-planet-earth/

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In 3rd grade, I stood in front of my class with a tropical forest scene taped to the wall behind me. To my left, a paper tree towered over me—vines tumbling off the branches above my head. A leopard stood—mid-stalk—to my right. Framed in foliage and surrounded by hand-crafted creatures, I declared (with gusto), “Save the rainforest!” 

My passion was palpable. I was demonstrating, as millions of young people do, the innate desire to bring endangered species back from the brink of extinction. The leading cause of endangerment is habitat loss, including deforestation. Take, for example, our intelligent and comical kindred creatures, the orangutans. These round-faced, red-furred great apes swing, eat, and raise families in the tropical trees of Borneo and Sumatra. But the size of their populations has plummeted as southeastern rainforests are slashed down and burned up for the profits of palm oil plantations. 

Do you have a gut reaction to the disappearance of an entire kind of animal or plant from the fabric of creation? In the connected web of biological life, extinct species create gaping holes with a gravity strong enough to pull our spirits down towards grief. Grief is an appropriate response to facing the absence of a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable presence. The loss runs deeper than the habitat level. Ultimately, it is a form of godly grief—one that can lead to changed actions. 

Plant With Purpose believes that “protecting the environment is a spiritual issue.” And this spiritual issue is intertwined with the state of ecological systems—like forests—and their species. So, what is spiritually at stake with endangered species? This is one of the questions I wanted to answer in my book A Christian’s Guide to Planet Earth.

One answer is found in Colossians 1:16, which declares that every living thing was made through and for Jesus. Every type of plant and animal has a godly charm, an essence that points back to Christ.

There’s a word for this that is tossed around at seminaries and divinity schools, haecceity, or the traits that make up a unique being—the particularity of a created living thing.  For example, every species—box turtle, spotted salamander, red fox, desert marigold, redwood tree—has a divinely “drawn” originality.

When we think of God as the Artist of creation, then all species are a part of the active painting or living sculpture of Planet Earth. Each creature is a particular witness to God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). When a species is vulnerable to extinction, we risk losing a vital representation of the creativity and glory of God. 

Consider snow leopards, with their crystal cerulean or grey-green eyes. Their full, white fur, spotted with dark rosettes, functions as camouflage, helping them hide within the Himalayan mountains. They’re characteristically demure. They teach us about an allusive, alluring beauty that’s worth seeking quietly and patiently, waiting for an encounter. This can remind us of the hidden beauty of God which we long to gaze upon and may call us to seek God patiently in quietude. If we lose the snow leopards (there are only around 4,000-6,500 left), we lose this physical manifestation of God’s divine nature in the wilderness. 

But the stakes are at a grander scale when we consider the ecological importance of individual endangered species. Every time we lose a species, biodiversity declines, which means that there are fewer species to fill places in food webs and perform other crucial roles. These pockets of missing parts destabilize entire ecosystems—like a wobbly Jenga tower with too few wooden blocks left to keep the balance.

For example, Hawaiian tree snails, with their conical shells striped in bold colors, perform crucial roles as decomposers of detritus. Many are fungi farmers and may help trees resist disease. Their work is especially important as a new fungal pathogen, known as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, is killing hundreds of thousands of native trees. The entire genus of Hawaiian tree snails is imperiled, with species already succumbing to extinction. When the snails diminish, so do the integral roles they play in safeguarding healthy soil and disease-free trees. 

Did you know a species as humble as humus, a slimy snail, could have such a giant impact? Endangered creatures range from charismatic species like pandas, elephants, and tigers to those as ordinary as a mollusk in a local waterway or monarch butterflies in our backyards. In my new book A Christian’s Guide to Planet Earth, I give practical tips for getting involved in endangered species projects, forest restoration, ocean conservation, and more. Any time we uphold an area of the biosphere, we are safeguarding the endangered species that count on them.

We lose species to extinction every day.  I find encouragement in verses like Colossians 1:20, which declares Christ will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” and Romans 8:21 which says, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Scripture sets forth our future hope of a Savior actively restoring all of creation.

For now, when species go extinct on our watch, it detracts from the beauty and artistic glory displayed by these habitats, damages ecosystem services like clean air, water, and climate regulation, and robs future generations from experiencing the witness of a flourishing creation.

My “save the rainforest” presentation would have had less of an effect if my background was plain white brick. Protecting endangered species is pivotal to upholding the health of habitats and informs the way we worship God. Working to restore and maintain the beauty of biological diversity allows us to proclaim to those around us that every expression of our Maker’s brilliant creativity on Earth is worth saving. 

Betsy Painter is a creative writer and conservation biologist who is passionate about environmental care and its human dimensions. She has studied Religion and Ecology in graduate school with a focus on the beautification of nature in the redemptive Biblical narrative and its implications for environmental hope and messaging today. A Christian’s Guide to Planet Earth is on-sale now. Learn more at betsypainter.com/a-christians-guide-to-planet-earth/

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