Readings: Genesis 1; Psalm 36
From childhood, I have known about God’s creation being good; I was taught to enjoy it; I wanted to study and teach others this same appreciation. So I went to university and got a degree in biology and natural science.
Since then along the way, I received two responses from two groups, but it was the same question: “How can you?”
One = how can you be a Christian & study science? It will destroy your faith.
Other = how can you be a scientist and a Christian? They are incompatible. So many of my scientist friends heard from Xians that they were wrong.
How people read the Bible determines how they will respond to the questions of faith & science. Also effects how we answer the question of the relation of the human part of creation with rest of created world. That is today’s topic. As a congregation, we are studying Bible and Ecology, by Richard Bauckham.
As I understand it, the purpose of science is to describe what is seen, to describe how things work, such as discovering the hidden enzymes which are catalysts for some function of the brain, for example. It is objective. Some understand the Bible as also doing this and it does bring a person to one understanding of the Bible.
For me, the purpose of the Bible is to describe the purpose and the work of God, and our relationship with God. It calls for a faith perspective. I know this is too simplistic, but it is a beginning scheme to help us sort it out.
There seems to be a duality to the way we often see this issue, as if it must be one or the other. It cannot be both, we think. This poem (at end of script) by the British poet, Felix Dennis, describes a duality which is not meant to be in the Biblical accounts.
Key texts for today are Gen 1: 26-28. They describe the role of mankind in the relationships of creation. In the text there are 3 entities to be taken seriously: God, humankind, and the rest of creation. The most controversial term here describing our role is “dominion”.
In my experience I have seen three expressions of this relationship:
-James Watt, Sec of Interior under Reagan, and a professing Christian: human domination is for our benefit; therefore use it or lose it. Christ will soon return, & then opportunity gone. In this expression humankind is dominant over the created world. It is an over-under relationship.
-other activists reverse this order. They see Christians as being part of the problem. Christians like Watt exploit the created world’s resources and spoil it, using faith as an excuse. Many of these “green” folks therefore put animals first; we are to serve their needs. This is also an over-under relationship, with animals put on top.
-Kenton Brubaker, my professor at Eastern Mennonite University. His position was that we were one with creation, serving God as a whole. This is also the point of Bauckham. Humans are part of the community of creation, and to stress dominion diminishes this community.
To get to this point, we need to define the key terms:
-“fill the earth”: This is the same command as is given to animals. The land is assigned to both humans and animals, and humans are not to fill it in such a way that it is at the expense of the other animals. It is to be shared.
-“subdue”: When this word is used with the object “earth”, it has to do with occupy, or use. The land is not an enemy to be forcibly subjugated. Genesis 2 adds to this concept with the words “till and keep”, which seem to limit our use. A preserving element is included in our management of the earth’s resources.
-“dominion”: This is Mr. Watt’s text. The word has to do with rule, and, in this way, it is different than the role given to animals. In fact, this dominion is closely linked with our being made in the image of God. We bear the divine image, and in this way we use this role in a way which reflects God’s own rule over God‘s creation. That is an awesome responsibility, it seems to me. We are to manage on God’s behalf. “It is a delegated participation in God’s caring rule over His creatures”, says Bauckham.
Because we are so prone to forget God’s intention, especially when we become full of ourselves & think we have figured things out, there are limits to our rule. To quote Bauckham again, “Our rule is restricted (it is only over other living creatures), it is exercised within rather than over creation, it may not aspire to divine omnipotence, and, perhaps above all, it is exercised in relation to fellow-creatures.” We are limited in what we are asked to do.
There are other Biblical considerations to help us sort these things out, especially since we wish to take the Biblical account of creation seriously.
1.) As humans, we are part of the flow of creation, part of the order of creation. In that sense we are one with it. Not in the new-age sense of everything being a god, but in the sense of seeing creation as God’s good gift to us and to each other. We are linked to all of it in the best sense of the modern understanding of ecology; each part is related to the other and has a unique niche to fill. If we mess with one part, we influence the rest of creation in ways which can never be exactly measured or perhaps even known. We are part of a whole which we must take seriously. If we do not, we do so at our own peril.
2.) Did you notice the word “good”? After each segment of the creation drama, there are the words, “And God saw that it was good”. I think God had fun, and I believe that God continues to enjoy his created world. I also believe this phrase reflects the heart of God, & which we, as mirroring the image of God, need to imitate. It is indeed good, and we are good, at the very core of our being.
3.) As we humans are given the role of managing on behalf of God, it becomes very clear that God is the owner, & retains that role as owner. That has not been given over to us. Humans, on the other hand, remain simply tenants. Psalm 24, summarizes this clearly when it says “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. Humans are not demigods (small gods). We are simply tenants.
This theological concept of ownership is a thread which runs throughout the Bible, and undergirds our concern for the environment. This also is designed to lie beneath the concept of Land in Israel, as well as our offerings to God (first fruits). But so easily we forget.
This is rather heavy stuff. How then shall we begin to live within these all-encompassing life relationships? Without presuming to be complete, I offer a few suggestions. You can surely add to the list:
1.) Because we exercise dominion on behalf of God, not instead of God, we must know our own dependence on God. Only as we stay in rel with God & know our own dependence on God, each other, and the rest of creation can we rule effectively. In this way we participate in God’s created order & community.
2.) Appreciate the goodness of creation. We are part of that. Let’s rejoice and praise God as the rest of creation does. So let’s learn about it & enjoy creation with creativity. In that spirit I offer to lend my knowledge to lead a fieldtrip to see & enjoy some birds in the area. We will arrange the details & let you know.
3.) Be respectful of the created order. St Francis of Assisi called the flowers, birds, & animals his brothers & sisters. Francis tells them – including worms, fishes, wolves, lambs, & bees – that by their very existence they give glory to God. This deep respect and sense of community will lead to the next step:
4.) Let us do our part to keep & preserve this creation. This congregation takes this role more seriously than any other congregation I have participated in. Let’s keep it up. Perhaps we could even include teaching in that role, and inviting others to join us.
5.) Live humbly. What we know is very limited, yet what we do know can bring much joy. When Job was acting arrogantly, GOD asked Job whether he knew the foundations of the Earth and other secrets of creation. Let’s accept our finite knowledge and allow God to be the God of creation.
6.) Let nature be a mirror for us of the wholeness of creation & of God’s glory in it. Richard Rohr says there is a healing in our connection with everything that brings us to wholeness, if we allow it. He says that nature can bring that wholeness to us. And help us see God’s glory. He says it’s like the Celtic "knot" (*) which was found on crosses, gravestones, in manuscripts, and on jewelry. It was apparently their artistic way of saying that all is connected, everything belongs, and all is one in God.
That is how I wish to live. I invite you to join me in it. Amen.
Place a Mirror by a Tree
By Felix Dennis
Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now, what do you see?
Which of you will feed the earth?
Which of you contains more worth?
Which of you with sheltering arm
Keeps a thousands things from harm?
Which of you is nature’s bane?
Which is Abel? Which is Cain?
Which of you is God’s delight?
Which of you a parasite?
Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now — what do you see?