Editor’s Note: We at the Reformed Journal are especially gratified by the publication of Debra Rienstra’s book Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth on Feb. 22. This book has sprung from Deb’s work on our blog over the past few years. The following essay is adapted from Chapter 3, “From Consuming to Healing,” and is printed by permission of Fortress Press.
Refugia are places in nature where living things survive a crisis and build the capacity for renewal. After a fire ravages a mountainside, for example, pockets of trees may survive simply because conditions were less windy or hot or dry in that particular spot. Then, burned grasses and dead wood refertilize the soil, preparing it for seed. The surviving trees and shrubs reseed the area. Mychorrhizal networks rebuild. Surviving creatures seek out nesting and den spaces and begin reproducing again. Biologists define refugia as “habitats that components of biodiversity retreat to, persist in and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions.” Thus, renewal begins even from within devastation.
When I first learned about refugia—from four pages buried in the middle of Kathleen Dean Moore’s wonderful book Great Tide Rising—I immediately thought about our current times of crisis convergence. In the midst of climate change, political division, a global pandemic, and corruption and infighting in the Christian church, we long for spaces to shelter and heal, to build capacity for renewal even amid devastation. We need refugia. And then I wondered: isn’t the refugia way a great model for the church? Shouldn’t we be the “church of refugia”? Why do Christians instead often pursue the “church of empire,” imagining that dominance and power will ease our fears and longings? When we consider the stories of scripture, the sweep of history, our own experience, we see how God loves to work through small, humble, hidden places. Refugia, in other words, seem to be God’s preferred strategy. The people of God should be the ones most ardently seeking and creating places of shelter, microcountercultures where we care for each other and build capacities for renewal.
Starting from that initial insight, I have been pondering for several years now, along with some wise and generous conversation partners, what it might mean for Christians to lean into our role as people of refugia. We might imagine many applications of the idea in cultural, ecclesial, and spiritual dimensions, but here I would like to focus on the climate crisis in particular and propose that Christians have been neglecting our refugial role as healers of the earth. We could propose any number of reasons for this neglect, but I would argue that inadequate theology is part of the problem. Specifically, the terms typically used in Christian spaces for our role in relation to the rest of creation—“stewardship” and “creation care”—are inadequate to convey our calling in a time of crisis.
Stewardship and Other Shorthands
During the summer of 2018, I spent a few lovely days of intense discussion with eighteen colleagues from a variety of disciplines, including the sciences. We were trying to work out together why it has been so easy for North American Christians to ignore or even deny the climate crisis. In particular, we interrogated the idea of stewardship. For some, stewardship of the earth has been an enormously helpful theological principle, but mostly the idea hasn’t seemed to “move the needle” and get regular churchgoers much involved in climate action. We wondered: Is stewardship just not the right motivator? What are we missing? We wanted to explore these questions, each of us from the perspective of our various disciplines, and share our conclusions with a wide audience.
As we talked with each other and then wrote our separate chapters for the book, most of us reexamined in one way or another traditional interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis texts inevitably appear in Christian discussions of human relationship with the rest of creation. In recent decades, the typical approach to the two creation accounts is to blend them together and reach the conclusion that the distinctive human vocation is benevolent stewardship. To reach that conclusion, commentators work through several steps. First, they establish that Genesis 1:26–28, the “creation mandate,” declares that humans are made in the image of God and commanded to “rule” and “subdue.” The next step is to point out that this verse has long been leveraged as a justification for humans (well, humans with power and agency) to exploit and ruin the earth, and we must now deplore that previous interpretation and instead declare that “dominion” actually means “creation care.” Then we move on to Genesis 2, pointing out that creation care/stewardship is supported by the second creation account, especially verse 15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The Hebrew words abad and shamar are actually best translated as “serve and protect.” So there we have it: We balance “rule” with “serve and protect,” and we arrive not at domination but at the noble project of stewardship. We are called to care for God’s creation. We are called to be, in Steve Bouma-Prediger’s lovely phrase, “earthkeepers.”
It’s all sound interpretative work. “Stewardship” and “creation care” are pleasant-sounding terms and, as shorthand terms go, not inaccurate. The idea that humans are stewards of creation has helped moderate some Christians’ tendencies to participate eagerly or simply unknowingly in an unsustainable extraction economy. “Creation care,” meanwhile, seems to offer a gentle, ongoing directive. I recognize that the smart, determined people at The Evangelical Environmental Network have standardized their communications on the term “creation care” for good rhetorical reasons—they’ve done enough research to know that this is the term their audience of conservative evangelicals is willing to hear.
Unfortunately, however, stewardship and creation care can easily become toothless concepts, masking our indifference to the more-than-human creation. At base, the stewardship metaphor itself is problematic. An owner (God) only needs a steward (us) if the owner plans not to be present or engaged. When we subtly assume God is not everywhere present, we are more likely to see what we can get away with. Overcome with our cultural idolization of growth and luxury, it’s easy for affluent Christians, along with everyone else, to turn “being good stewards” into “using resources efficiently for maximum profit (for some).” We can mouth the words and go right on doing whatever we please. A developer in Michigan has been fighting for years to dig up the Kalamazoo River channel in order to build luxury homes and a marina—over the protests of the community, Potawatomi groups, environmental groups, people concerned about preserving a nearby historical site, and the laws about altering waterways and designated critical dune areas. I’m sure this person imagines that he merely wants to be a good steward of that wedge of land he owns, positioned between a state park and a nature preserve. He’s “stewarding” it to make a profit. Even former EPA chief and climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt managed to use the word with a straight face when he announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement: “We owe no apologies to other nations for our environmental stewardship,” he said.
Our group of scholars was well aware of how “stewardship” can become a self-deluding piety. Each of our essays wrestled with the problem, and we even titled our book Beyond Stewardship. Since that summer I have continued to wonder whether repeatedly trotting out verses from Genesis 1 and 2 is even all that helpful. After all, in the eighteenth century, these same texts were commonly used to justify human domination. As we all know, deriving ethical guidance from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is always a hazardous business. These are ancient near Eastern creation texts, not legal codes or ethical guidebooks. We wish we could torque these texts with hermeneutical pliers and get them to pop out the answers we want on any number of questions, but that’s not how stories operate. If we come at them demanding answers, they have a tendency to turn into mirrors, reflecting back what we want them to say rather than revealing a challenging word for our moment. As a Reformed Christian, I do hold “a high view of Scripture”: I do believe these are stories we are meant to cherish, to sit with, to listen to. They always speak anew—if we can listen well and with the guidance of the Spirit. So perched as we are, atop centuries of often contradictory interpretation and commentary, we have to ask once again: What do we need to hear from these stories in this place and time? What do they say to us now?
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Genesis, insists that the creation accounts are meant neither as history (accounts of what happened) nor as myth (stories to represent what is always true) but as proclamation. The Genesis 1 creation account dates from the time of Israel’s exile under the Babylonian empire; this account was meant to serve as an antidote to despair. An elegant liturgical poem attributed to the priestly strand in the Torah, Genesis 1 is a counterstory over against the Babylonian creation myths. It declares that the God of the Hebrews is the God of all creation, and this God has established a relationship of joy and delight with all creatures. It is a counterstory, too, over against the fear of abandonment the exiled Israelites must have felt. Genesis 1:26–28, in that context, reads as an affirmation. You who feel abandoned: You have dignity and vocation. You are my image in the world, says God, not as opposed to the other creatures of the earth so much but as opposed to the idols of your conquerors. It’s sobering to consider that this passage, containing those strong Hebrew words for “rule” and “subdue,” arises from a time when the storytellers were not ruling anything, not the birds or beasts or their own land or even themselves. Speaking into fear and anxiety, this creation account is a proclamation of God’s passionate relationship with creation. To be my image, says God, be like me: God does not dominate with violence but makes space for other creatures, blesses them with the freedom to flourish, delights in them, rests in that delight, and remains in relationship with this creation.
The Genesis 2 account, Brueggemann says, is older, perhaps from the Solomonic period, and thus it can be imagined as a check on monarchal arrogance. This account, attributed to the Yahwist strand, focuses on humans as soil-creatures, with adam made from the adamah (“soil”). God places the soil-creature, adam, in a garden where the human can learn to serve and protect the humus, in partnership with the animals and a cohuman. This fellow doesn’t even have a proper name, despite what our modern translations imply. He’s just a generic adam. As I read this text now, I realize that the garden was, in a way, the world’s first refugium. In fact, let’s coin a term and call it a “prelapsarian refugial substructure.” The Eden refugium is not necessitated by a crisis but designed as an initiating microculture, a place to create capacities at a manageable scale. Notably, those capacities depend on both human continuity with and distinctiveness from the rest of creation. Humans are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation, but are also given distinctive moral responsibility. Brueggemann breaks down this moral responsibility into vocation, permission, and prohibition. The cohumans have great freedom to flourish, but also limits. The thriving of the little refugium depends on the humans respecting those limits. Thus for Brueggemann, the two creation accounts proclaim together, in dialectic. You who are in despair, remember you have dignity. You who seem to rule, remember you are dust. We need both these proclamations, today and always.
Brueggemann ignores in his commentary the little story in 2:19–20 of adam naming the animals, but to me this is the oddest and therefore the most interesting story element. Why include this curious detail? If we imagine, as Reformation scholars did, that the first human in the Genesis story had a prelapsarian superpower—deep, innate knowledge of every creature—then the naming of the creatures is less about power and more about initiating a loving relationship. Thus, the first human use of language would echo God’s use of language in the first creation account: God speaks a world into being, entering into a relationship of delight with that creation. Similarly, adam’s relationship with the creatures, enhanced through naming them, is also characterized by attention and delight. In the Bible’s story of the world’s first refugium, then, humans and creatures together are blessed by a loving Creator to flourish together. Humans in particular are given vocation, permission, and limits. They are instructed to cooperate with the creatures in the thriving of the garden, serving it, protecting it. This work—and it was work—depends on deep and loving knowledge. Here’s another reason, then, that the term stewardship is inadequate: stewardship implies duty, and duty is never as effective a motivation as love.
Brueggemann and other scholars suggest that the two creation accounts fit into the broader story arc of Genesis 1–11, which includes the fall as well as the flood story and its aftermath. These texts were pieced together in a pattern of creation, uncreation, re-creation. The fall narrative in Genesis 3, an account of human resistance to limits, sets the world on a course of progressive uncreation. Even in the midst of uncreation, though, God is working toward re-creation. Notably, after the humans are “caught” in their violation of limits and told that they will now experience difficult labors both agricultural and reproductive, God also hints at the importance of their descendants in verse 15, a verse Christians have interpreted as the first promise of a Redeemer. Adam seems to pick up on this hint, because he immediately gives the woman another name: Eve, “living” or “one who gives life.” Despite this promising moment, the pattern of uncreation accelerates in the next chapters, culminating in the flood story. Here, too, we see God working creation out of uncreation. The ark, too, is a refugium. In the postdiluvian covenant with Noah, God insists on remaining in passionate relationship with the whole creation. Human wickedness is not cured, not by any means. Even so, God renews the covenant relationship, renewing vocation, permission, and prohibitions for humans, though with some differences. God therefore persistently invites humans to participate in the ongoing process of re-creation. This re-creation, Christians believe, is deepened and fulfilled in the life of Christ.
Becoming Partners in Earth Healing
Uncreation in dialectic with re-creation—that dynamic has only intensified throughout history. Human disregard for our limits has grown now to grotesque proportions as we clear-cut forests, strip mine vast territories, dump tons of plastic waste, drive other creatures to extinction, and even alter the planet’s climate. For this reason, while the Genesis creation accounts remain authoritative and instructive, we need to move beyond what they suggest as our human vocation. We no longer inhabit a prelapsarian garden. We live instead in a damaged, uncreated world. Even Steve Bouma-Prediger’s lovely term earth-keepers may not be enough. Though the Hebrew for “keep” has implications of guarding and watching over, in English “keeping” implies maintaining things in a current state. Today, we must do better than that. To understand ourselves as people of refugia, we must receive our vocation as one of repair, re-creation, healing. We need to be “earth-healers.”
Better yet, we must become “partners in earth-healing.” After all, the earth already contains healing power and wisdom. Plants and creatures and fungi do not wait around for commands from us before they begin refugial restoration—they know what to do, given the chance. In fact, we are only beginning to understand how ecosystems go about this healing work. To build this knowledge, the professional field of restoration ecology draws on new scientific research as well as Indigenous wisdom (or Traditional Ecological Knowledge) to help us humans become better healing partners. It’s not always simple or obvious how to live well alongside the other members of our earthly household, even in a limited sector of a single ecosystem. How can we possibly steward the whole earth? We do not have complete knowledge, and it would be arrogant to assume that we do. Theologian Richard Bauckham notes that “the image of stewardship is still too freighted with the baggage of the modern project of technological domination of nature. Can we entirely free [the term stewardship] of the implication that nature is always better off when managed by us, that nature needs our benevolent intrusions, that it is our job to turn the whole world into a well-tended garden inhabited by well-cared-for pets?” Thus, to find both the urgency and the limits of our healing role, we must continue, in humility, to build knowledge as a redemptive process, and the more the better, not only for professional researchers and managers, but also for ordinary people.
Our refugial task then: we must do what we can to help healing processes along, through severely reducing our destructive ways and actively creating space for repair through ecosystem restoration. This healing work requires deep humility, an admission that the creation is more than some bundle of resources for us to “steward” but, rather, an in-Spirited reality, beloved by God and upheld at every moment by the Spirit’s power. Fortunately, in our healing work, we are partners with the Spirit, too.
If we are partners in earth-healing, we need to ask different questions about any place that we own or live on or love. For millennia, humans have mostly asked, “What do we want and need from ‘nature’?” In this age, we need to ask instead, “What healing does this place need, and how can I help?”
The scale of our earth-healing task today is overwhelming. A refugia faith allows us to begin with the small, the nearby, the humble, and to join our efforts with other humans from all nations, tribes, languages—and faiths—and indeed with the whole community of creation.
 Gunnar Keppel et al., “Refugia: Identifying and Understanding Safe Havens for Biodiversity under Climate Change,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 21, no. 4 (2012): 394.
 Kathleen Dean Moore, Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2017), 139-42.
 Steve Bouma-Prediger, “From Stewardship to Earthkeeping: Why We Should Move Beyond Stewardship,” in Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, ed. David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Press, 2019), 81–91. See also Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).
 Tarvarious Haywood, “Battle over Saugatuck Dunes Development Still Heated after a Two-Year Fight,” News Channel 3, August 8, 2019, https://wwmt.com/news/local/battle-over-saugatuck-dunes-development-still-heated-after-a-two-year-fight. The group striving to protect the area is the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, https://saugatuckdunescoastalalliance.com/northshore-development/.
 Brendan O’Connor, “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Denial the Word of God,” Splinter, August 8, 2017, https://splinternews.com/how-fossil-fuel-money-made-climate-denial-the-word-of-g-1797466298.
 David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun, eds., Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Press, 2019).
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 16. The following paragraphs draw from pages 1–54.
 Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 62. Bauckham offers a helpful history of how both dominion and stewardship have been understood in the West.