Eden to Gethsemane: The Christian environmental journey

‘If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us!”This warning was given by Pope Francis during a talk he gave in May, in which he reminded his listeners that “creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”  

A reflection on the papacy of Pope Francis, and of his immediate predecessors, would not be complete without some reflection on creation. The church’s emphasis on creation, and the care of it, is an integral part of Catholic social teaching. One of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching highlights creation as God’s gift to us and thus worthy of protecting and administering wisely (U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults).

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God is the creator and God continues to sustain creation. On the Vigil of Easter, we hear the beautiful creation story from the Book of Genesis. With regard to each created reality, “God saw that it was good.” At the summit of his creation, which “was very good,” God placed the man, whom God made in his own image and likeness. And he uniquely entrusted him with “dominion” over all that he had created. St. John Paul II writes: “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (“On Human Work,” No. 4). In this sense, the man, who represents humanity, is a co-creator with God.

Garden of Eden

As communicated in story form in Genesis, God placed limits on the use of creation to our first parents, Adam and Eve. I would suggest that this restriction not to eat from “the tree of knowledge of good and bad” was the first environmental restriction given by God to us. God continues to create, sustain and put limits on the use of his creation.

We know how the story of the garden of Eden unfolds. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gn 3:6). They disobeyed God, preferred themselves to him and committed the sin we have come to call “original” sin, which has had consequences for each of us ever since. As the catechismteaches: “Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called ‘original sin’” (No. 417). And this took place all because they violated a restriction placed on them by God in the garden of Eden not to eat of the fruit of a tree.

Referring to this Scripture passage, St. John Paul II writes: “But [man’s] freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil,’ for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law” (“The Splendor of Truth,” No. 35).

Garden of Gethsemane

But the story does not end there. There was another garden: the garden of Gethsemane. This story is about Jesus, and how in accepting the will of his father that his cup should not pass him by, he becomes the new Adam. He undoes the sin of Adam by his death and resurrection, and “makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam” (Catechism, No. 411). The paschal mystery leads to life eternal. Yes, Jesus is the new Adam. And the new Adam—in his risen state outside the tomb—is taken for the gardener by Mary of Magdala (Jn 20:15). At first, the new Adam is mistaken for the old Adam, who in the Genesis story was a gardener. But the garden of Gethsemane trumps the garden of Eden. He is risen.

The effects of the Resurrection affect all of humanity and nature as well. “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). “Nature, which was created in Word is, by the same Word made flesh, reconciled to God and given new peace” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 454). “The whole of creation participates in the renewal flowing from the Lord’s paschal mystery, although it still awaits full liberation from corruption, ‘groaning in travail’ in expectation of giving birth to ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ that are the gift of the end of time, the fulfillment of salvation” (No. 455).

What effect does the Resurrection have on creation? My former theology teacher, Gerald O’Collins, S.J., offered this response in a personal letter to me:

In the risen Jesus, part of the created, material world has already reached its final destiny. Everything in our universe is interconnected (as science, e.g. Einstein, recognized). The glorification of matter that has already taken place in the risen Jesus must affect everything else. How concretely that takes place is very mysterious. We see, in faith, how the risen Christ is powerfully present in the sacraments (which are unthinkable without his powerful presence. Before the resurrection there could not be sacraments.) In the sacraments we have a tiny, but incredibly significant, hint of the risen Christ affecting the material world.

Pope Francis also helps us understand this great mystery of the resurrection and its transformative effect. He writes in “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 276):

Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelize are instruments of that power.

Two gardens! But the literary garden of Eden is trumped by the historical garden of Gethsemane. Yet the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve—in effect, the refusal to yield to the limit placed on them with respect to God’s creation—perdure. We call these the consequences of original sin. And they are played out in the challenges that affect us and the gift of God’s creation, the environment, and in some places can indeed be deemed a crisis. “The underlying cause...can be seen in man’s pretension of exercising unconditional dominion over things, heedless of any moral considerations which, on the contrary, must distinguish all human activity” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 461). Such vision leads to a completely independent existence between man and creation, thus rupturing the relationship of God and man intended from all eternity by God. “This is why Christian culture has always recognized the creatures that surround man as also gifts of God to be nurtured and safeguarded with a sense of gratitude to the Creator” (Compendium, No. 464).

In the broader context, each of us, in our day, has an obligation to care for and protect the environment, this precious gift of God, bequeathed to each and every one of us and those who live after us. It is a common responsibility and challenge. With an increasingly interdependent world, the concern for the environment takes on global dimensions and has worldwide consequences.

The Creator’s Gifts

As we have seen, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church sets forth certain principles and areas for environmental concern. At its basis, nature is seen as “a gift offered by the Creator to the human community, entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women” (No. 473) and to be used and administered wisely. For example, reference is made for the need to protect the heritage of forests and to promote, where necessary, adequate programs of reforestation (No. 466). The complex issue of energy resources is also highlighted, as are the rights of indigenous peoples.

More and more, there is concern about access to and the safety of clean water. The document asserts that environmental concern should not be for current challenges alone but for the future of the environment and its protection. Although the Vatican document stresses the need for international juridical expression, it states that “juridical measures by themselves are not sufficient. They must be accompanied by a growing sense of responsibility as well as an effective change of mentality and lifestyle” (No. 468).

Citing St. John Paul II in “Centesimus Annus,” the Compendium underscores that “an economy respectful of the environment will not have the maximization of profits as its only objective, because environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” (No. 470).

As is underscored daily in this pontificate of Pope Francis, the Vatican document emphasizes that the present environmental crisis affects in a particular way those who are the poorest in society. “Countless numbers of these poor people live in polluted suburbs of large cities, in make-shift residences or in huge complexes of crumbling and unsafe houses” (No. 482).

New Lifestyles

There is a call in the Compendium for an effective change of mentality that could and should lead to the adoption of new lifestyles. “There is a need to break with the logic of mere consumption and promote forms of agricultural and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the basic human needs of all” (No. 486). Or in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in “Charity in Truth” (No. 51, citing “Centesimus Annus”):

The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality… “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”

Nature is not our enemy; nor is the environment hostile territory. It was created by God for us as gift and called by God a “good.” It is our home. Our attitude must always be one of gratitude for the gift of creation and for its wise usage. We are also called to care for our surroundings. The created world, after all, reveals the mystery of God, leads us to him who created the world and continues to sustain it at every second of the day. Yes, “the world presents itself before man’s eyes as evidence of God, the place where his creative, providential and redemptive power unfolds” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 487).

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should always gratefully remember that the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ yes to the Father that led to his death and glorious resurrection, which affects all of creation, trumped the garden of Eden, the home of original sin, that refusal of our first parents to follow God’s directive to “limit” the use of creation.

The Easter mystery is Christ’s definitive victory over sin and death and it ushers in “a new heaven and a new earth.” Christ is the new Adam and we are heirs to a new earth. He has risen as he promised—alleluia!

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