Spiritual-Ecological Lessons From the Jungle: One Missionary’s Thoughts on the Earth

In his accomplished book “Basic Upland Ecology,” author Delbert Rice exposes a truth every Christian needs to know.

“Whenever a baby is born, the parents should plant two more trees to produce oxygen for the baby to breathe. Many times, however, they cut down two trees to make a larger house or a bed for the baby. What is more important: to have a big house or to have oxygen to breathe?”

So wrote missionary Delbert Rice in his remarkable little book Basic Upland Ecology (Quezon City, Philippines, 2007; 166 pp. including glossary and bibliography).

Delbert Rice was a scientist and engineer who, with his family, went to the Philippines as missionaries in 1956. He was a graduate of Western Evangelical Seminary (1955) and later completed a master’s degree in anthropology.

Delbert Rice was involved first in evangelism, church planting and teaching. That led him in time to a ministry of helping protect the mountain forests in Northern Luzon where the Ikalahan peoples live. In 1965, Rice and his family moved to the Caraballo Mountains in northern Luzon. He spent the rest of his life there, except for occasional furloughs in the U.S. He passed away within the last year.

From 1975 on, Rice served the mountain people, helping them develop and protect their natural resources. With time he became recognized throughout the Philippines for his creation care work and teaching.

Basic Upland Ecology (published in English and Ilocano) is one of several books Rice wrote to help teach Christians and others the basic principles of ecology. His books are scientifically based but simply written. Basic Upland Ecology was first published in 1993 but later twice updated and expanded.

The point: This book teaches basic principles of ecology that are true worldwide. In explaining the carbon and oxygen cycles (from which the above quotation comes), Rice points out that the world’s human and other animal life depends on the health of the forests, especially in the Philippines and other areas where rain forests have traditionally predominated—but which now are tragically endangered.

So this very accessible book has high relevance to Christians and other people the world over. I recommend it as required reading for Christians in North America as well as elsewhere.

Tell the Children

Rice summarizes the carbon-oxygen cycle this way:

“Most of the carbon dioxide is produced in the northern industrialized countries, but they do not have enough forests to recycle it. There is only one atmosphere, however, for the entire earth. The tropical rain forests, such as those in the Philippines, share that atmosphere, so carbon dioxide produced in Germany, Canada or anywhere else can be sequestered in the Philippines, thousands of kilometers away. The forests in the Philippines are important to the future of the entire world” (p. 13).

These are the kinds of things we should be teaching the children and adults in our churches, in our Sunday Schools! Because this helps us explain how God’s good creation actually works, and helps us understand what Christian discipleship and stewardship really mean.

Such teachings may remind us of those words of judgment in the Book of Revelation which speak of “destroying those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18).

So I consider this a useful textbook for Christians worldwide.

Delbert Rice had the gift of knowledge and the gift of simplicity. He clearly describes (with verbal and visual illustrations) the “four basic principles that cover most ecological studies”: cycles, succession and balance. As I have written elsewhere, such principles are as much spiritual as physical, since all comes from the hand of God and therefore impinge on Christian discipleship.

Rice hoped his book would “encourage people to cooperate with the environment and allow it to sustain itself. We owe it to our grandchildren and their grandchildren to act now. If not now, when?” (p. viii). He defined ecology (consistent with both Scripture and science) as “One Household.” Ecology “implies that all living and nonliving things on earth are part of a single household and depend on each other.” (Those who know Greek will recognize here the reference to oikos, the Greek New Testament term for “household.”)

Rice adds, “Ecology is based on one very simple but very important idea: The earth with its atmosphere was wisely designed with a multitude of interlocking sustainable systems” (p. 3, emphasis in the original).

Like good ecologists, we should “start with the assumption that everything in the environment has a purpose. If [we] do not know the purpose, it does not mean that the thing has no purpose. It is just a challenge for [us] to find out what that purpose is” (p. 5).

At Asbury Theological Seminary, in the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, Eunjoo Lee recently completed an excellent doctoral dissertation on Delbert Rice and his work in the Philippines. Dr. Lee is a Korean missionary in the Philippines who became fascinated with Rice’s work and had opportunity to interview him on several occasions, and to study his writings, ministry and influence. (The dissertation is available from Asbury Theological Seminary.)

Delbert Rice understood, practiced, taught and incarnated the real meaning of “wholistic mission.” The dissertation is a rich resource, and Rice’s small book, Basic Upland Ecology, is an unassuming but rich and important textbook in redemptive mission for the kingdom of God.

Howard Snyder
Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); now engaged in research and writing in Wilmore, Kentucky. Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Formerly taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Howard Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. He has written on a range of topics including church history, cultural trends, globalization, worldviews, evangelism, and various cultural issues.