"The Earth is the Lord's"
Perhaps we have not realized the gravity of ecological issues, because we were not attentive to the limits of the natural wealth of the world, a world that has been prodigal in surrendering its treasures to us. Even when we have been conscious of nature’s limits, we may have disregarded them because we believed that the wealth of creation was ours for the taking. After all, does not our biblical tradition assure us that we were commissioned by God to "subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish and the birds and every living thing" (cf., Gen 1:26; 28)? This understanding of our relationship with the rest of the created world was even illustrated formerly in some catechisms, and even in some elementary science books, by means of a pyramid. In this depiction, the vast variety of mineral creation formed the base of the figure; vegetation in its myriad forms was situated just above the mineral world; all of the forms of animate creation were located higher still; and human beings enjoyed the pride of place at the top. This symbolic representation led us to believe that God had created the less complex forms of nature to serve the needs and ends of the more complex forms. This view of the world has made a lasting impression on our scientific imagination and on the theological understanding that both explains and supports it. We learned it so well that we find it difficult to appreciate how inadequate and how biased it is. Such an anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview is certainly not the worldview found in the Bible. There we read that "the earth is the LORD"s (Ps 24:1). Its fundamental value does not lie in its usefulness to us. Rather, it lies in the fact of its having come from the creative hand of God, who acknowledged that all things were good even before humans appeared on the scene (Gen 1:4,10,12,18,21,25). We may have been told "to subdue and have dominion" (Gen 1:26,28), "to serve it (the garden) and to guard it" (Gen 2:15), but we were not directed to be autonomous in our governance of the treasures of creation. Rather, we are meant to be stewards, responsible for creation and accountable to God. In the ancient Near Eastern world, representations of monarchs or of gods were frequently set up to signify the locale where the royal or divine ruler reigned supreme. The image was merely a symbol, and it represented the rule or reign, not the ruler. It functioned much like a national flag does today, representing the extent of the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the ruler, whether human or divine. We are "image of God" (Gen 1:26, 28), which means that we represent God but we are not gods. A close look at the Bible shows that the motive for the first sin was precisely a desire to "be like God," and to do so in a way contrary to the way that God seemed to have wanted (Gen 3:5; cf., Ezek 28:2, 6, 9). This unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of our governance may be at the heart of much of the arrogance we exhibit today in our attitudes toward the rest of creation. We still want to "be like God," boasting unconditional authority and unlimited control over other people and over the rest of nature. Limited governance does not mean that we must put an end to scientific-technological progress. However, it does mean that as we test and probe and experiment with nature, as we alter and redirect and fashion it, as we "subdue" and "have dominion," we must cherish the earth, nurture its fruitfulness, and foster its growth. We must "serve it and guard it." We can, indeed we must, exercise control over the earth, but this must be done in accord with the life processes that are operative within its heart. We human beings have the serious responsibility of acting as faithful stewards, who serve the wishes of the owner as we manage the resources of the owner. It should be clear from this understanding of the creation accounts of the Bible that our religious tradition calls us to ecological responsibility. Dianne Bergant, CSA