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We all hold deep convictions that nurture us and give us direction. These convictions have a history; they are planted in everyday experiences that grow in significance over time and determine our behavior. My conviction about creation has such a history. I want to tell a part of that history briefly for two reasons: one is to provide some context for what I have to say about creation; the other is to invite you, the reader, to consider the history of your own convictions about creation. Each of the three encounters that follow grew in significance over time and eventually forced me to ask a question that I had not asked before: what is the nature of my relationship with creation?
In 1975, my family and I moved to the Netherlands and immersed ourselves in a Dutch world. Cross-cultural experiences awaited us in unexpected places. Our neighborhood grocery store was one such place. It sold two kinds of eggs: one labeled scharrel-eieren; the other, gewoone-eieren. As near as I could tell from my meager Dutch, those labels meant “gathered eggs” and “regular eggs.” Because there was no visible difference between the two, we always bought the regular, cheaper eggs. I was puzzled by the practice until I saw a televised documentary on chickens that catalogued their cruel treatment on large farms. Housed by the tens of thousands in huge barns, the chickens never touched the ground nor saw daylight. They were crowded together and suspended in metal cages, and the natural cycle of night and day was artificially accelerated to enhance egg production. The documentary advocated for the rights of chickens and encouraged people to buy scharrel-eieren, eggs from chickens that were free to roam. I had never even considered whether chickens had rights before this, much less sacrificed anything for them.
In 1986, my family and I attended a seminar to train lay leaders in Native American congregations held at Ghost Ranch in Abiqui, New Mexico. One evening my wife, Judy, and I sat outside our cabin with two Native American women whom we had gotten to know. It was an evening we were not to forget. The conversation ranged widely. One of the women was a granddaughter of Geronimo, and she told us of the terrible, forced marches to Florida and then to Oklahoma.
The conversation turned to the lecture we had heard that day on the biblical understanding of creation, and our two friends began to tell us how they as Native Americans experienced the natural world. They felt that all things were created by the Spirit of God and therefore fundamentally related. They spoke of a binding kinship to the world. Pollution was a personal problem for them–not an environmental one. In the erosion of the soil, they felt an erosion of their being; in the fouling of the waters, they felt a fouling of their bodies. They said that as near as they could tell, white Americans did not feel this. At this point, both women struggled to express themselves. They wanted to be polite but also honest. Finally, with an honesty not diluted by any thoughts of consequence, one said: “It’s hard to put into words, but many Native Americans will tell you this. It’s as if white people have a piece missing.”
And a third encounter: Judy and I had not seen Johan and Marry since our years in the Netherlands, when they had helped us settle into our new and sometimes perplexing culture. Johan had taught physics at the University of Groningen, and I remembered long discussions about biblical and scientific views of creation. With their move to the University of Michigan, I looked forward to more of the same. When they visited us soon after their arrival in the States, we immediately noticed an urgency about them. In recent years, Johan had devoted his energies to ecological issues. He had just written a book on the extinction of species and shared some of his grim findings with us: the earth’s life forms are disappearing at alarming rates, and if people and nations do not act immediately the rate of extinction will increase dramatically. All of life is interconnected; each individual life form is a strand woven into a beautiful tapestry. Now this tapestry of life is being torn apart. Johan explained how extinction directly related to consumption. He proposed that the energy use of the nations be apportioned and restricted to the amount of carbon dioxide the biosphere can absorb in a year. At this point, I expressed my despair over what any one person could do about the problem, because the West is too addicted to consumption and the international organizations are too weak to act. His response is etched in my memory: “We all have to do what we can. What would you have done if you had lived outside of Auschwitz and smelled the burning flesh? Tom, it is Auschwitz for the species of this planet.”
These encounters and others like them sent me back to my Bible and its interpreters. What does the Bible have to say about my relationship to creation? My question was not new, of course–much has been written on it–but it had become urgent. I have pondered a number of biblical passages, some obviously related to the question and much discussed, others not so obviously related and overlooked. Christians generally have offered three answers to the question of our relationship to creation. Some say we are dominators of creation; others say we are stewards of creation; still others say we are companions of creation.
Any consideration of humankind’s relationship to nature begins with this text: “Then God said: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Many Christians argue that the plain meaning of the text is that humans have a special relationship to God. Unlike anything else in creation, they are made in God’s image and likeness. As image-bearers, they have a divine right to rule, and therefore they exercise dominion over the rest of creation.
Lynn White Jr., in his now famous and much quoted essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” argues that this reading of the creation story has laid the groundwork for the degradation of nature. According to White, the creation story in Genesis established a dualism. On the one hand, there is humankind sharing God’s nature and therefore transcending the material world–despite the tradition that humans are made of clay. On the other hand, there is the material world. While human beings have spiritual significance, the world has no such significance. While human beings have inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, the world has no such rights. Notions such as violation, exploitation, and pollution have meaning in reference to humans, but no meaning in reference to the material world. The world is raw material. It has no boundaries that humans need fear violating. Nothing is lost or diminished by cutting, digging, dredging, or grinding. Nature can be used in whatever way humans desire for their advancement and fulfillment.
White describes the position held by many Christians today. One such Christian is J. Michael Beers, a priest in the diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a member of the Acton Institute advisory board, and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In an article titled “Have Dominion over All These,” he affirms that humans are the focus of God’s attention. God made them in his image, and thus they stand above the created order. God ennobled them by taking on humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
Beers argues that God created humans beings to work and that God gave them creation to work with. In his view, creation is God’s gift to humankind for “domination, development, and stewardship.” Work gives humans dignity and continues the work of God in creation. He writes that humankind “alone in all creation has the potential for renewing resources.” Because work is so important, loss of employment is a tragedy. No argument can be made to preserve nature when human employment is at stake. He writes: “For a single human being to starve or to lack the means of livelihood because of deference shown to any other created being, animal, or plant is a denial of the dignity that humanity alone enjoys.”
Beers uses the word “stewardship” in his article, but it is a harsh kind of stewardship. He does not find any intrinsic value in the creational resources entrusted by God to humankind. They are given to be used. When confronted with the depletion of the rain forests in the Amazon, he sees no problem. Their depletion is merely a part of the natural cycles of creation. He writes, “Nature has, in fact, over millennia depleted these forests to a far greater degree than has the human use and development of these resources; this is the natural order of things.”
Beers’s position is extreme. Other Christians offer a softer version of stewardship. Like Beers, they argue that humans have a special role to play in creation as image bearers of God. They “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). But unlike Beers, these Christians point out that humans have been given dominion by God. They are not autonomous rulers; they are viceroys or stewards and are, as such, accountable to God. In their rule, they are not free to do whatever they want; they must carry out the desires of God.
And what does God desire for creation, according to the Bible? The oft-quoted John 3:16 makes this clear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” God loves not only human beings but the whole world and everything in it. God has given everything its proper place. God cares about even the small, seemingly insignificant creatures:
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.
You have made the moon to mark the
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
Because God cares for the small, seemingly insignificant creatures, God orders all those appointed to rule to do the same. The kings of Israel were to “defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Human beings, the crowns of creation, were to defend the weak and vulnerable in creation. Exercising dominion is a privilege but also a responsibility. God will judge all the appointed rulers by how well they care for the least and weakest in their realm.
Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, has recently articulated this softer version of stewardship. He suggests that humans have “a priestly relationship with the natural order.” To him this means that we as humans have a “capacity to make sense of the environment and to move it into a closer relation with its creator by drawing out of it its capacity to become a sign of love and generosity .” To be such “priests,” however, we have to understand our own limitations and recognize the integrity that creation enjoys before God.
A growing number of Christians believe that the images of both dominator and steward are inadequate. For the dominators, humans have supreme worth, and creation provides the raw material for human self-fulfillment. For the stewards, humans have delegated authority and care for creation because their Lord cares for it. Neither of these images allows creation any intrinsic worth, a spiritual significance of its own, a power given to it by God that influences human beings. In other words, neither of these images sees the relationship between humans and creation as mutual. However, the Bible speaks of such mutuality, of humans influencing creation, but also of creation influencing humans. The Bible depicts creation with the power to nurture both the body and the soul.
Power to nurture the body. A theme often overlooked in the creation story is the power that God delegates to the earth and the waters. In Genesis 1:11, God addresses the earth and gives this command: “Let the earth put forth vegetation; plant yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on the earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” In Genesis 1:12, the narrator records the fulfillment of this command: “The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” God delegates creative power to the earth, and it brings forth vegetation. It is this vegetation that God gives to animals, birds, and humans for food on the sixth day. In Genesis 1:24, God addresses the earth again: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” A second time God delegates creative power to the earth, this time the power to bring forth animals. God also delegates creative power to the waters: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” If we read the creation story carefully, we see immediately that the earth and water are not inert objects. They have within them the power to produce life, and humans are dependent on the gifts of the earth and water.
Power to nurture the soul: goodness. The creation story repeats this phrase again and again: “And God saw that it [what he had created] was good.” When we pause to consider the meaning of this creational refrain, it changes our picture of the creating God. The days of creation are not just filled with God working. In the midst of creating, God stops to take in what he has just made: the light, the gathered waters, the seedbearing plants, and the fruit-bearing trees. Their magnificence moves God to pronounce each in their turn “good,” culminating with an emphatic “very good.” God works, but God also rests. These moments of rest are anticipations of the Sabbath rest. The creational refrain “and God saw that it was good” shows that creation has value in itself because of its goodness. The goodness of creation gives God pause, enjoyment, and delight.
My house once had a carefully designed garden: azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, a dogwood tree, and shrubs, all in appropriate places. When Judy and I bought the house twentyfive years ago, however, the garden was overgrown and had lost its original power to delight. One day in early spring, as I was cutting the grass on the north side of the house, I noticed a violet rhododendron in full bloom hidden behind the overgrown shrubbery. Intrigued by its beauty, I switched off the lawn mower and moved in to view it more closely. The gentle violet color seemed to envelop the branches like a mist. Each flower was a cluster; each individual flower, horn-shaped with a unique pointilliar design in its throat; each design as compelling as any abstract painting hanging in any gallery.
I was stunned by the beauty before me, overwhelmed by the extravagance of it, the waste. One week of the year in a hidden corner of my garden, this plant flowers whether any one appreciates it or not. In creating and planting the earth, God was surely prodigal, reckless, and extravagant. God filled it with beauty beyond my capacity to appreciate or even describe. I stood there quietly for a long time. Beauty brings calm to anxious hearts and to an anxious world. I couldn’t bring myself to yank the cord and restart the noisy lawn mower.
Power to nurture the soul: calm. The Bible says “the glory of God fills the earth” so often that the affirmation is virtually an Israelite creedal statement. Glory is a hard word for modern people to understand. It refers to God’s abundant, limitless, life-giving power that cannot be contained but radiates from God and fills the earth. The earth is therefore abundant. Created as God intended it, it knows no scarcity, no hunger, no thirst, no want. There is enough for all, for the birds, for the fish, for the animals, and for the humans. Created as God intended it, the earth provides a home for creatures who know no fear, no anxiety. Jesus plays upon this understanding of creation when he says in the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus depicts here a breach between the natural world and a human world confused about the source of its life and therefore deeply worried. Worry cuts people off from creation and from God. Jesus wants to heal the breach; he wants to bring the two worlds back together. With these words, Jesus invites all of his disciples to rejoin creation and to learn from the way that it calmly lives in the abundance of God. This calm is a balm for our anxious souls.
Erazim Kohak in his landmark book The Embers and the Stars points out that the natural world is “calm and unjarring, living its own familiar life, so unlike the threatening, unpredictable environment of our manufactured worlds.” God has created the natural world in part, he says, to absorb our pain. “When humans no longer think themselves alone, masters of all they survey, when they discern the humility of their place in the vastness of God’s creation, then that creation and its God can share the pain. For the Christians, the Cross symbolized that reality; confronted with it, the human is not freed of grief, but he is no longer alone to bear it. It is taken up, shared.”
Kohak calls this the age-old wisdom of the book of Job. When God finally comes to Job asking questions, all of them point to the vastness of the creation. God is not badgering Job but trying to overcome the isolation suffering brings and trying to reconnect him to the natural world. “God is not avoiding the issue. He is teaching Job the wisdom of bearing the pain that can neither be avoided nor abolished but can be shared when there is a whole living creation to absorb it.”
A few years ago I was visiting a friend who was dying of cancer. As I left her hospital room, I was surprised by a pony in the hallway. So unexpected was the juxtaposition of pony and hospital that I could not recognize what I was seeing. As someone led the pony from room to room, the patients became more animated. They raised their heads; they smiled; they reached out to touch it; they talked to it in soft tones as if to a child. The pony was just being a pony, and yet his presence changed the world around him. He was more than a pony. People in the health-care industry have discovered that clinical environments are detrimental to healing, while the natural world has a healing power. So gardens and dogs and a pony bring healing and dramatically lower the cost of care.
Power to nurture the soul: revelation. In 1960, Wallace Stegner wrote to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission to argue that wilderness preservation was more than a matter of recreation, that wilderness was a spiritual resource. He called the wilderness a “geography of hope,” needed to be sane and whole. He described the deserts he knew as “harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge . . . and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs.” A desert experience strips away our conventional way of viewing things, our clustered worries, and raises in us an awareness of something larger than ourselves. We see the world more clearly, and we walk away more vital and more hopeful.
Wilderness plays an important role in the Christian story. The children of Israel went into the wilderness, Hagar went into the wilderness, Moses went into the wilderness, and Jesus went into the wilderness, to name the most wellknown stories. In all these cases, the wilderness was a place of revelation, of seeing God. In Exodus 3, we learn that Moses is keeping the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, and he leads them through the wilderness to the mountain of God. The account says nothing about how long Moses was in the wilderness or how it affected him, but after time there, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in the midst of a bush. The wilderness experience is a prelude to revelation, and the landscape of the wilderness is the means of the revelation. It was a bush, an ordinary bush, an ordinary bush burning but not consumed. An ordinary, wilderness bush out of which God spoke.
How are we to understand such an encounter with God in the wilderness bush? As we noted above, the people of Israel confessed that the world was full of God’s glory, that the lifegiving power of God blazes in all things, even when we normally cannot see it. In the Reformed tradition, Calvin picked up on this idea and called the world the theater of God’s glory. The world then is not raw material, a place for recreation, but a place of revelation. I often think of Mildred, the granddaughter of Geronimo, and our conversation that evening at Ghost Ranch when she said shyly but bluntly to Judy and me, “White people have a piece missing.” And I think of Johan, who said with such anguish, “Tom, it is Auschwitz for the species of this planet.” Why do so few of us in the Reformed tradition respond to the degradation of the environment that we see all around us? We were once known throughout the broader church for the richness of our ref lections on the Creator and creation. We once said things like “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” (Belgic Confession, article 2). Well, with the extinction of the species, pages are being ripped out of that book. Our children and our grandchildren will not know God as fully as they could have because of the loss of pages from that beautiful book. And we say little or nothing about it.
Do we not feel the loss? Do we have a piece missing? I honestly do not know what to make of all this. The reasons for our failure to act are complicated. I suggest that part of the reason for our indifference is a misreading of what the Bible teaches us about our role in God’s creation. We are not dominators or stewards of creation; we are companions. We do not manage inert raw material. We receive in thanksgiving the gifts of creation: its food, its beauty, its calm, its revelation, and we act in such a way to enhance its life-giving power.