(Religious Ethics and the Ecology)
The Christian Church is not only lacking in its theology about environmental concerns, but in some ways, it serves a psychological justification for mankind's superiority over nature. Aside from this idea that the earth is somehow inferior to a paradise in the beyond, which we will discuss a little later, the emphasis by theology upon a certain passage in Genesis is where the problem begins.
Then God blessed them and God said, "Be fruitful and multiply fill the earth and SUBDUE it: HAVE DOMINION OVER the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
(King James Version, Genesis 1:28)
This passage has been misused over and over to rationalize and justify mankind's destruction of the environment in the name of human progress. Without any factual justification, this passage implies that all the earth, in fact the entire universe, was created for, and given to, man. In other words, mankind sees itself as the sole purpose of all of God's creation.
Yet, in Chapter Two of Genesis, which is the second creation account, which was actually written earlier than the first; we read:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden TO TEND AND KEEP IT.
(King James Version, Genesis 2:15)
In one account we read "Dominion", while in the other we are instructed to "tend and keep". It really becomes a misread of scripture to read one of these accounts while ignoring the other. And though they might seem contradictory, if we read them paradoxically they really are not - but the two must be considered to arrive at a healthy conclusion.
By nature of being made in the Image and likeness of God (that is, being self-aware, able to express love, and having the ability to self-determine to an extent), we appear to have special qualities that on the surface animals or plants do not possess. Add to those characteristics our intellect and ability to harness nature through a variety of technological wonders; in that sense, one could say that we have been gifted with an upper hand, so to speak.
The real problem with this is the word DOMINION. Dominion in the traditional religious sense implies that we are in control of nature; instead of, a loving part of it. Dominion implies we are the rulers and nature is the servant. Dominion implies that all things created are lesser than we.
But if we read the two Bible passages together, we can see that the idea of "dominion" in the one puts a greater responsibility on humankind. In other words, the two passages taken together tell us: that by the nature of our special gifts we have a greater responsibility in caring and tending to the creation that we are in fact a part of. Self-awareness and intellect make us more capable of finding out the consequences of our actions. We can actually choose whether we want to be a positive or negative force in the natural order around us. This doesn't make us superior to God's other creations; in reality, it makes us more responsible in our treatment of them. Once we profess belief in God as Creator, we are morally obligated to treat as sacred what we claim is God's Creation.
The fact of the matter is, and theologically one could argue, that the so-called lesser creatures are in fact closer to God than humankind. Those creatures fulfill their purpose as God intended them. They contribute and balance nature according to a grand design. And, none of them have developed the power that could destroy every living thing on this planet, as man has done. This begs the question, who is really closer to God? The plants, animals, and non-living things that fulfill their purpose according to the will of the Creator, or, man who has to discover his purpose and then can choose to reject it. We may be smarter than the so-called lesser creatures with our intellect, or so it seems; but in truth, it would appear that the so-called lower creation is closer to the Creative order. They do what God intended them to do.
In reality, if we attempt any literal interpretation of this idea of "dominion" over the earth, the Bible becomes completely false. We may have an edge over some creatures, but we are far from having dominion over them. The truth and reality is we do not have dominion over nature (the earth) at all; but rather, we are completely dependent upon it for our very existence!
There are animals, insects, microbes and even plants, which can and do kill human beings. It would be doubtful if anyone hiking through the woods that encountered a grizzly bear would proclaim that they had dominion over that bear. We have control under certain conditions, such as if we have a gun when we encounter the bear, but for the most part nature has the upper hand. There are all kinds of bacteria and microbes that could eliminate mankind if set out of balance, or, beneficial organism that without them men could not live.
Add to this the fact that we are at the mercy of the elements, dependent upon oxygen, and require fuel that the earth provides: one can quickly see that our survival is completely dependent upon the earth. Yet, the earth has proved its ability to survive without, and in spite of, man. In a very real sense, if we see God as being itself, Her true manifestation is ever present in the earth around us because our being is dependent upon it. No theology that does not emphasize our responsibility toward the environment can be responsible. The most sacred of all our religious relics should be the very creation around us.
For all our science and understanding of the how things work around us, it is no less a miracle that things happen that way. Too often, human beings tend to think that because they can tell you how something works, it is mundane and without mystery. But when you ask the ultimate philosophical question: "Why is there something where there should be nothing?" - the natural becomes a living miracle we can see.
Moving away from this idea of dominion, we need to look at the hypocrisy of a Christian theology, which teaches that God is the Creator of all things, and remains silent about abuses that not only endangers the welfare of future generations, but might endanger the work of God. We theologically assert that all was created for man, the so-called crowning glory of God's creation, without anything other then the words of men to support such a dogma.
From the natural order we have learned that man has only inhabited this planet but a short geological time compare to the so-called lesser life forms. The argument that these lesser life forms are only relative in relationship to the creation of man is a self-serving and arrogant premise. Dinosaurs, as well as other life forms, walked this earth tens of millions of years before any type human being lived. If we are to believe God is the Creator, then these creatures who survived so long must have had purpose to the Creator Who created them. The existence of stars, planets and galaxies run into the billions of years. On what basis can we argue that all of this exists as some test for men to enter a better world?
The miracle of God which stands in front of our physical observation - the true representation of God incarnate is the creation - the greatest manifestation of God's power in our reality: is too often theologically reduced to some kind of a game board that was created to test man.
If we truly believed that God is responsible for the creation, that makes every aspect of the creation, sacred, by nature of its origin in God. It is true, that parts of this creation serve our needs of survival, which is obviously what God intended. But such thinking does not justify the human waste, pollution, and destruction of the sacred for selfish comforts and needs. There is hypocrisy in the treating our sacred churches and shrines with care and respect, while we pollute the air and water which gives life - while we pave the forest that offer shelter to so many creatures - while we threaten all of creation on the earth with our weapons of mass destruction.
In the book of Genesis we read:
So it was, and God saw all that He had made, and IT WAS VERY GOOD.
If God seen His creation as good, what possible justification could man have in his religious indifference toward the ecological problems we face in the next century? We cherish our tokens of brick and stone, of gold and silver, icons; as sacred - treating them with respect and reverence. Yet, when it comes to the earth, fashioned from God's hand it is abused without much thought. Theologically, couldn't one argue that the greatest temple, the greatest cathedral, the greatest shrine was built by the Creator Herself, which is the earth? What religious icon can even touch the beauty of the night sky. We have these wonderful and inspirational devices to remind us of the Divine, but are often ignoring what the Divine, Himself, puts before us.
Many primitive religions seen this ideal in everything around them - thus, intertwining the sacred with the earth. This concept helped lead to balance and harmony with nature, along with a sense of thankfulness for the bounty nature provides. Those peoples planted and hunted with respect, and in doing so, religion became an intricate part of their daily lives.
But this idea of respect for the creation has
become replaced, in so many Christian circles, with a premise, that sees the
earth as inferior and only a stepping stone to a better world paved with the
This thesis is not an advocacy to return to superstition, or an argument to support certain extreme concepts such as not killing bugs. . Yet, until we see this earth as sacred, of God's hand, we will never be able to execute our responsibility to care for it. As long as we replace the sacred miracle of God with the material devices of men, our faith is a hypocrisy, blinding us to a truth which is before our very eyes. If we can no longer see the majesty of God in what is before us, what is of Her design - our other religious beliefs are a distraction to God's created revelation.
It is the duty of a responsible theology to promote an Image of God in all of the creation, encouraging men to treat with respect and reverence all that is of God's Hand. The gift of the earth, and her resources, was not given to just a few men who were capable of exploiting it. Earth was put here for all God's children and creatures that dwell upon it. For that reason alone, it would seem disrespectful to God, and truly immoral, to ignore the consequence of our life on the planet which is a gift to us all.
Too often, religion emphasizes the Love that God expresses for each individual, losing sight of God's Love for the all. Yet, only in seeing this paradox can we truly respect the individual rights of all human beings, as well as all living things.
If one stops to think about it, the gift of life is a very fragile gift. Life is a gift that is totally dependent upon that which surrounds us in the environmental system, which a life adapts to. In our scientific age, we know for example, that a collision with an asteroid could wipe life off the face of this planet in a matter of hours. The fact is, we have created enough power to obliterate our own world. We see the forces of nature at work in tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tidal waves, drought, and earthquakes - any one of which can cost us our property or even our life.
The fact of the matter is, it is truly a miracle when one considers the complexities of the universe that it continues in such an orderly manner. From the dying stars which created the atoms that make up life - to the sun that burns for eons which sustains that life; from the virtual seemingly continuous orbits of the planets - to the mixture of atmospheric gases that makes life possible; we witness an endless living miracle that few people even recognize. Any moral code that refuses to take this into consideration; any ethics that do not address these realities; any religion neglecting this most profound truth; is, failing God as well as the people it serves.
Our religious concepts about heaven, paradise in the beyond, or the new earth - all can be counterproductive in the view of the world we live. Again, to many, the earth in its entire splendor is not really the best that God has given. While on one hand the idea of paradise offers consolation and can provide meaning for death; it is often doing so by devaluing our state of being in reality. In other words, men often proclaim that God has better to give!
The first argument against such thinking is an obvious one. If we mistreat what God has already created, why would She possibly send us on to something better? One might be able to keep an ideal of heaven for comfort, but the earth needs to be seen as part of that experience of heaven. In such a way the earth, too, becomes sacred and important in the eyes of the religious.
God's participation in Creation is demonstrated in Paul Tillich's "Systematic Theology":
God is not a separated self-sufficient entity who, driven by a whim, creates what He wants and saves whom He wants. Rather, the ETERNAL ACT OF CREATION IS DRIVEN BY A LOVE which finds fulfillment only through the other one who has the freedom to reject and to accept love. God, so to speak, drives toward the actualization and essentialization of everything that has being, FOR THE ETERNAL DIMENSION OF WHAT HAPPENS IN THE UNIVERSE IS THE DIVINE LIFE ITSELF. It is the content of the Divine blessedness.
(p422, Part Five)
What a profound thought, to see the content of the universe as the "Divine Blessedness". In such vision the message of Christmas (Glory to God in the highest) is shouted out at every moment, in every action, and in every being. A bit of God becomes incarnate in every aspect of every life. Life viewed in this way is no longer about time verses eternity; but rather, eternity as we are experiencing it in the reality of now.
The Divine Essence of things is expressed nicely in Psalm 104:
Bless the Lord, my soul; 0 Lord my God, Thou art great indeed,
clothed in majesty and splendor, and wrapped in a robe of light.
Thou has spread out the heavens like a tent and on their waters
laid the beams of thy pavilion;
who takes the clouds for thy chariot,
riding the wings of the wind;
who makes the winds Thy messengers and of fire Thy servants.
Thou did fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken;
the deep overspread it like a cloak, and waters lay above the mountains.
At Thy rebuke they ran, at the sound of Thy thunder they rushed
away, flowing over the bills, pouring down into the valleys to
the place appointed for them.
Thou did fix a boundary, which they might not pass; they shall not
return to cover the earth.
Thou does make springs break out of gullies, so that their water
runs between the hills.
The Wild beasts all drink from them, and wild asses quench their
thirst; the birds of the air nest on their banks and sing among
From Thy high pavilion, Thou does water the hills, the earth is
enriched by Thy provision.
Thou who makes the grass grow for the cattle and green things for
those who toil for man, bringing bread out of the earth and
wine to gladden men's hearts, oil to make their faces shine
and bread to sustain their strength.
The trees of the Lord are green and leafy, the cedars of Lebanon
which he planted; the birds build their nests in them,
and the stork makes her home in the tops.
High hills are the haunt of the mountain goat, and boulders a
refuge for the rock badger.
Thou has made the moon to measure the year and taught the sun
where to set.
When Thou makest darkness and it is night, all the beast of the
forest come forth; the young lions roar for prey, seeking their
food from God.
When Thou makest the sun rise, they slink away and go to rest in
but man comes out to his work and to his labor until evening.
Countless are the things Thou has made, 0 Lord.
Thou has made all by Thy wisdom; and the earth is full of Thy
creatures, beast great and small.
Here is the great immeasurable sea, in which move creatures beyond
Here ships sail to and fro, here is Leviathan who Thou has made
All of them look expectantly to Thee to give them their food at
the proper time;
what Thou gives them they gather up,
when Thou opens Thy hand, they eat their fill.
Then Thou bides Thy face, and they are restless and troubled; when
Thou takes away their breath,
they fail (and they return to the dust from which they came);
but, when Thou breathes life into them, they recover;
Thou gives new life to the earth.
May the glory of the Lord stand forever,
and may He rejoice in His works.
(Psalm 104: 1-31)
Jesus too gives us hints at God's participation in creation:
Are not sparrows two a penny? Yet without your Father's leave not one of them can fall to the ground.
Theology has built complicated dogmas on some statements of Jesus that are far more ambiguous than this. Simple logic demands, if God can notice the fall. of a single sparrow, what of the rest of his creation?
People may be able to rationalize and justify our abuses of each other and the planet, but we can never know just how much of our exploitation is offensive to God. At the very least, this is a desecration of the Sacred manifestation of God.
The protection of the environment is every bit as much of a religious issue as any ethical concern. For religion to shun this responsibility is to remove itself from the very creation of God. Any discussion of ethics or morals that excludes ecology is seriously lacking.
Western Christian Theology could learn much by looking to Eastern religions, Native American cultures and belief, and even some of the primitive peoples of yesterday and today. What should be so plain to logical religious minds has taken a back seat, because our Western theology has tended to remove the Creator from Creation, placing Him in some distant heavenly realm.
But the revelations to these other aforementioned cultures, and their keen vision, has made them aware that God is manifested in being itself; therefore, anything which exists owes its being to the glorious Source of Being - and that makes it a part of God! The Sacred!
Our common sense tells us that God expects us to utilize the gifts She has put here to use. After all, we depend upon plants and animals for our very food supply. We have the capacity to utilize many other aspects of nature to improve our quality of life. But none of that gives us license to exploit, waste or abuse the resources which are not only given to us, but bestowed upon future generations. None of us have a right to a greed, which insults the generosity of the Creator. To do so is to desecrate the sacred and a blasphemy of the most direct kind.
Jesus gives another ethic, which can be applied here, as well as other places:
Where a man has been given much, much will be expected of him; and the more a man has had entrusted to him, the more he will be required to repay.
Modern society has certainly been blessed with much. And one of the chief blessings is its knowledge and understanding of how things work, and the effects our interactions have upon them. These blessings should cause us to think, not only about our treatment of the sacred, but of our legacy to those who come after us.
Our religious beliefs are sometimes clouding our vision. For example, on Thanksgiving we give thanks by stuffing ourselves to the point of gluttony; where is the logic in that? How does that thank God for the wonders She bestows upon us? This suggests that a few words of prayer on this special day of the year make up for our waste and greed during the rest of the year.
It is not through prayer that we express our thanks to God, but in our recognition and action toward what is of God. Ethics begin with treating all things as sacred, striving never to offend the source of existence. This goes from our ancestors, to our parents, on to others who make life easier for us - and ultimately to the very creation which sustains us.
Many of the Native American traditions not only gave thanks to the Great Spirit for their life's provisions, they thanked the beasts and plants that sacrificed their lives to provide life to the tribe. One needs to see that a God who takes note of a sparrow's fall might also feel the sacrifice other living things make to contribute to our well being. We sing the praises of Jesus and his sacrifice, with its implied promise of eternal reward, but we are silent in our praise for all of God's creatures that perform the ultimate sacrifice so that we might live today.
Instead of preoccupying religious thought with all the supernatural wonders that may await us, responsible theology needs to focus on the miracle of the reality around us. George Washington Carver said, "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we only tune in.'' What a profound theological thought!
It is the role of responsible theology and responsible religion is to help us to tune into that broadcast. We will never find the essence of God in our hearts when we are looking for Him in the heavens. How can we ever hope to expect more, when we so take for granted what is given?
The given is the sacred, but we must open our eyes to see it. At the root, God's truth is visible even to the most simple mind. But too often our discourse of complicated arguments blind us to the fact that God is not "other", She is the all! The sacred is not the transcendent, it is not our shrines, it is not our words, nor our icons. The sacred is of God and nothing can be more sacred than the creation which proceeds from Him. Until our theologies incorporate this concept, they are lacking in their ability to lead people to God.
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