We and Our World
October 15th, 2017
I once ran across a little volume in a used book store by Lionel Whitestone, published in London in 1803. It's title ... Indignities To The Earth. The book was mildewed and musty, but the title was certainly prophetic. Now, more than two centuries later, a general alarm has sounded from scientists and government agencies, from the Audubon Society to the families of Love Canal, over the depleting of nature's resources by a seemingly insatiable American society. The outcry still sounds to many like the latest fad in hysterical doomsaying, when most of us have plenty of tap water and generally unlabored breathing. But, this cynicism, we are assured, is only another symptom of the problem.
Perhaps the Church has nothing appropriate to say about such matters. Or, perhaps, because one suspects that Christian theology itself has provided the primary rationale by which the plunder of the earth may be justified in this country, the Church should not only speak first and most clearly on the issue, but more importantly, perhaps, seek to correct our former mistakes.
In modern industrial America we have apparently taken quite literally (and quite narrowly) the Biblical injunction in Genesis to have dominion, and to fill the earth and subdue it. God gave to Adam and his descendants the higher creatures, we declare, the power and right to use the rest of creation to suit themselves. Humanity is supreme in creation; nature exists simply for our use.
The view is familiar in modern philosophy as well. Thomas Hobbes, writing against the Medieval tendency to reverence nature, said, She is no mystery; she works by motion and geometry only ... we can chart those motions. Feel then as if you lived in a world that can be measured, weighed and mastered, and confront it with audacity." Rene Decartes observed that knowledge of the world is useful, not for beauty as the ancients thought, but for power. He told us to become lords and possessors of nature. Sir Francis Bacon summed the notion up, saying: Science is power.
Nature is for the taking, making and breaking; that has been the Christian understanding, and, with the help of our philosophy, science, and technology, it has been the Christian endeavor. Don't these words by Lewis Carroll, when read with this in mind, seem a commentary?
The walrus and the carpenter were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand.
If this were only swept away, they said, it would be grand.
If seven maids with seven mops swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose, the walrus said, that they could get it clear?
I doubt it, said the carpenter, and shed a bitter tear.
Haven't we swept and mopped and cleared the natural
environment until it’s hard to find traces of it in many of our cities, for example? As Ogden Nash lamented:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree;
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.
You may rightly ask, Is this attitude we are describing
really of Christian origin? And I must truthfully answer, Yes, uniquely so. The historian Lynn White writes, Behind the modern pillage of planet earth stands the Hebraic-Christian religion with its too-lofty estimate of the human species, its frank denigration of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and its insistence that humanity has both the right and the duty to rule.
And God blessed Noah and his sons, says Genesis 9, and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall be upon every beast and every bird, upon everything that creeps upon the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hands I deliver them. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I give you everything.
Still, we have to wonder. There are many passages in the Bible that seem to rebuke such a manipulative, arbitrary treatment of nature. Among them is Scripture's way of associating such manipulation, not with the will of God at all, but with sinful disobedience. When people are faithful, nature is fruitful and blessed. But when people sin, nature pays the price. As we read in the Isaiah text for today: The earth mourns and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
Have we in America, to the extent that we contrived the rape of the earth, simply employed a Christian principle that we haven't fully understood? Maybe. It's happened before. When Paul talked about justification by faith, some of his hearers set out to do as they pleased, convinced beyond further thought that now that they had the apostle's blessing, morality didn't matter anymore. Likewise, perhaps, when we took up the concept of our being created in God's image, we set out wrongheadedly to exercise our divinely-endowed superiority in whatever way we pleased, without first making sure we understood what it meant.
For the meaning is clearly that, while human beings are unquestionably unique in creation, we are nevertheless creatures, a part of creation, and so as nature does, so goes humanity. Man is Adam, from adamah, the earth. Human beings are dust: the Bible makes no bones about it. What's more, human beings, unlike the rest of creation, never merely exist, but always exist with - with each him and her self, with others, with nature, with our Creator. Human beings live in relationship, and there experience any brokenness in our region, our society, or our environment in some way as our own brokenness. It follows that any authority we have over our environment must be exercised lovingly, in the spirit of our Creator, since we and nature exist in a mutually sustaining relationship for the good purposes of God.
This having been said, then opens us to another, perhaps more essentially Christian way of thinking of nature and ourselves: not as humanity above nature, but as humanity with nature; not human beings as masters of nature, but human beings as stewards, or caretakers, of nature.
The word with is all over the place in Scripture. Adam is said to be with Eve, and vice versa. Jesus was with his disciples; Paul was with Silas, and was unhappy because he was not with Timothy. Even God is described that way, as Emmanuel, God with us. This is because with best describes the Bible's concept of sameness and difference, of being together and yet being apart, which is central to the view of relationship we spoke of earlier. Peter is like John, but not a carbon copy. Eve is like Adam, but does not belong to Adam - even if she is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Creation is different from the Creator, not merely an extension of God, yet God is one with it nevertheless.
To further clarify, if I may ... with is the proposition and the preposition of love. Love means a relationship of differences in unity. I am me and you are you and if we fall in love we don't melt into each other, but we become with each other in a special sense. What disappears when we love isn't our individuality - that is indeed enhanced - but our strangeness, our hostility, our unwillingness to share who we are that kept us from loving and being in relationship ... that's what disappears. The opposite of this is sin, our alienation from someone or something we were made to be with. Sin is being-alone, being-against, being-apart.
What is true in our relation to one another and to God is also true of our relationship with nature, with the created world. We are different from other creatures, certainly, even, if we will take care with the word, superior - more complex, more versatile, more vulnerable. But, this is not to lord it over creation, but to exercise a unique responsibility for it, a unique answerability for it. We do have dominion, but not in the sense of trampling and dominating ... for who is our model of dominion, after all: Caesar? Pharaoh? Even the divinely approved Cyrus of Persia? No, it is the one we call Lord - Dominus: Jesus the Christ! And him crucified! As his dominion was far from a trampling over everyone and everything, so must ours be as well.
We are servants, keepers, priests in relation to the world. We are stewards of the earth for God. We are here to represent God to the rest of creation, and rest of creation to God - in the way we care for creation. We are the point at which the creation becomes reflective about itself. The point at which it speaks. So we cannot speak only for ourselves. We speak for all of it.
And when we do speak for it we will say, (and some day perhaps we will say without reservation or qualification) simply Thank You. For gratitude is the only frame that makes human dominion authentic. Until we learn gratitude in our care of the earth, unambiguously, through and through, all of creation will groan.
And, if we are different from the rest of creation, we are also the same as it is. We share its mortality, its limits of power, its finitude. We share its creatureliness. We are not just grass, but we are grass all the same, and the grass withers, the flower fades. We represent all creation not only because we are different, but because we are the same.
So, we sum up by using the symbol we've hardly mentioned in this whole discussion of the relationship between us and nature, and yet around which the whole discussion has been woven - stewardship. The steward symbol captures better than any other in the Bible, I believe, the two dimensions of being-with - differentness and sameness - that we've been speaking of.
On the one hand, the steward is different, and is singled out for special responsibility. Unlike the other servants, the steward is truly answerable for what happens in the household. All the same, however, the steward is one of the other servants as well, having no absolute rights over them, liable to judgment in his treatment of them. The steward is different, but the steward is also the same. Like the rest, the steward receives what can never be his.
No wonder than an increasing number of ecologists and others, many of whom have nothing to do personally with Christianity, find this Judeo-Christian symbol to be one of the most profound metaphors for describing what has gone wrong with our treatment of nature, and what must be done to make it right.
Could it ever happen? Whether or not it does may depend on how we Christians interpret this wonderful message the Bible gives us. The steward symbol has been badly neglected in the past. It's time to hold it up to the light. Maybe, just maybe, our prime responsibility may be to become better stewards of the symbol of stewardship itself ... before it is too late and we will have nothing to be stewards of.
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