In his book Collapse Jared Diamond explores the
response of various societies to environmental crises.
Some were able to avert disaster and others were not.
One key factor in success or failure was the ability to
adapt cultural values to the new context, keeping that
which remained useful, but discarding that which exacerbated
environmental problems. As the predominant religion in
the most resource intensive society on earth, Christianity's
understanding of people's relationship to nature is critical
to meeting the environmental crises facing the world.
Christianity has at times contributed to the degradation
of the environment. Some Christians, emphasizing the dominion
over birds and animals given humankind in Genesis (1:26),
have treated the world as merely a stock of resources
and a waste dump, to be used as people see fit. This interpretation
of Genesis is rejected by most theologians today, but
as Larry Rasmussen observes:
The theology of dominion remains the reigning
one where it counts most, in practice. Social
arrangements, especially, and the busy structures
of economic life, in particular, still assume
the tenets of mastery and live by them: earth
exists for us; reality is a collection of
objects we give shape and purpose as we form
a world of our own making; and earth is stage,
resources, waste container, and information
for doing so.
This understanding of our relationship to the natural
world contributes significantly to a way of life in the
United States that is out of harmony with nature.
On the other hand, many strains within Judaism and Christianity
support the care of creation. One day while hiking behind
The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN, we came
upon a large grotto housing a statue of St. Francis of
Assisi. Many hours of hard work obviously went into the
construction of this holy place in the woods. The grotto
is a striking example of the close connection between
our spiritual experience and the world of nature. At the
founding of St. Scholastica, the convent and school stood
on the edge of town backing a forest that stretched to
the Iron Range and contained only loggers and some hardscrabble
farms. One can imagine finding that wilderness frightening.
But at least some of the sisters found it inspiring instead.
One source for environmental concern within Christianity
is an appreciation for nature as spiritual inspiration
Creation care can also be inspired by the incarnation.
Many Christians understand God's incarnation in Jesus
as the sign of the broader reality of God's continuing
presence in the world. Panentheism (the technical term
for this theology) holds that God is everywhere present
around, among and within all creatures, plants, and even
the land and waters.
The Episcopal Church, in which I serve, is particularly
incarnational and emphasizes Eucharist as an outward and
visible sign of Gods presence in the world. We believe
God is manifest in this world, where we can experience
Holy Presence, and where we have the opportunity to honor
God by caring for the least of God's creatures. Episcopal
theology is not found in confessions or official documents
so much as in our prayer book. The Book of Common Prayer
1979 edition includes a Eucharistic prayer "C"
that gives far more emphasis to the goodness of God in
creation than previous versions. This prayer has become
a great favorite of the people. It says in part, "At
your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of
interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their
courses, and this fragile earth, our island home."Some
of the alternative Eucharistic prayers authorized in Enriching
our Worship also contain extensive reference to God's
gifts in creation. This liturgical emphasis on the gift
of creation potentially predisposes Episcopalians to care
for the environment.
In scripture, the most direct statement on the responsibility
of human beings for the rest of creation is found in Genesis
2:15 "The LORD God took the man and put him in the
Garden of Eden to till it and keep it."(NRSV) The
other direct instruction regarding treatment of creatures
is in the Sabbath law. The sabbatical year and Sabbath
instructions specifically include the land, the vineyards,
and the animals. All shall be given a chance to rest.
(Exodus 23:10-12) Because human impact on the environment
was not recognized in biblical times, we dont find
much other discussion of creation care. What we do find
are many positive portrayals of the natural world as a
sign of the glory and power of God (Psalms 8 and 19 for
example). And Paul includes the whole creation in the
salvation accomplished by the death and resurrection of
Jesus (Romans 8:19-23).
Some people understand the apocalyptic writings, with
their emphasis on a transformed life in a "New Jerusalem"under
gods reign, to justify unconcern about this world.
But Barbara Rossing in The Rapture Exposed: The Message
of Hope in the Book of Revelation argues the opposite.
|"Early Christian ethics taught that the urgency
of Jesus'return means caring for the world as good
stewards until He comes again. It's surprising to
people, but I find the Book of Revelation one of
the most down to earth books of Scripture. If anything,
it's about 'rapture in reverse,'because God and
the Lamb come down from heaven to earth in the final
vision, to which the whole book leads."
For Rossing, even the Book of Revelation supports the
idea that Christians are called to live in harmony with
the natural world.
What does it mean to live in harmony with Gods
creation? The list of specific steps to be taken and ways
of doing things to be adopted is as long as the list of
human endeavors. No matter what we do, from farming to
mining, from transporting goods and selves to sheltering
them, from art to zoology, we can do it more or less in
harmony with nature. Christians are called to do it as
much in harmony with nature as humanly possible. In general
we are called in every setting to take actions intended
to protect, nurture, or use sustainably the complex ecological
systems of the natural world, and protect or nurture other
In response to God's love, and out of our own love for
children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn, we
need to move from an attitude of domination and exploitation
to a faithful life of harmonious mutually beneficial interrelationship.