The Bible tells me so

By Diane Bergant, C.S.A.| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Environment Scripture and Theology
  
The Good Book is full of passages to inspire environmental action.

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars." Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata" is more than elegant poetry; it is scientific fact. Humanity does not live outside nature; we are embedded in it. Furthermore nature is embedded in human beings. We are truly children of the universe, made of the same stuff as the mountains and the rain, the sand, and the stars. We are no less governed by the laws of life and growth and death than the birds and the fish and the grass of the field. We come from the earth as from a mother: "And the Lord God formed the man out of the clay of the ground" (Gen. 2:7). We are nourished from this same source of life.

Noah, the first environmentalist
As children of the universe, we have a unique relationship with the rest of the natural world. This is clearly stated in the earliest pages of the Bible: "See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with and came out of the ark" (Gen. 9:9).

In the story of the great flood, Noah and his family represent the entire human race. Not only this particular generation but every succeeding one ("you and your descendants after you") will participate in this pact. Every living thing on earth takes part in this covenant.

When most people hear the word covenant, they probably think of the pact that God made through Moses with the people of Israel in the Book of Exodus. But the story of Noah shows that the covenant God made with all of creation is more basic than any made with a particular ethnic group.

A covenant relationship presumes that its partners will embrace attitudes of mutual cooperation and collaboration rather than unfair competition or arbitrary control, of interdependence rather than restrictive dependence or disinterested independence, of respect and mutuality rather than dominance or submission. We humans are members of a universal community. God, all human beings, and all of creation are partners in this covenant.

Being in covenant with the earth, we are part of nature's mysterious and delicate balance. It takes place around us and within us. We are participants in the workings of nature. We did not weave the web of life; we are a strand in it. We experience awe looking at a star-filled sky: "I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place" (Ps. 8:4). We feel calm walking through the woods: "Let all the trees of the forest rejoice" (Ps. 96:12). We become attached to animals: "Bless the Lord, all creatures" (Ps. 103:2). Is this not because we have a deep and abiding affinity with the rest of creation?

Made in God's image
We read in the creation story that God commissioned the first human couple to "subdue the earth" and "have dominion over everything that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1:28). But what does this really mean? Unfortunately some understand it to give human beings the right to do what they want with the natural world. In fact, this story has often been blamed for the present ecological crisis. A closer study of the biblical story will show that this reading is really a misunderstanding. In fact this passage and many others reveal a profound respect for the natural world.

The creation story says that human beings inhabit this earth along with the fish of the seas and birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth (Gen. 1: 26-28). But only human beings are images of God.

For the ancient Israelites "image of God" meant that the man and woman were a sign of the sovereignty of God. Thus, as images, they represent how God, not humanity, reigns supreme. As images they are meant to carry out God's role on earth. As images they are meant to subdue and have dominion in the way God would, in a way that enhances rather than destroys the earth.

God wills that the world "be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the seas...and the earth" (Gen. 1:22). Our responsibility as God's images and partners in the covenant is to see that this is accomplished. Since the earth itself appears to possess an inner urgency that strains toward this goal, we don't have to induce it. What we must do is safeguard it: "The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (Gen. 2:15). As we today "subdue" and "have dominion," we must cherish the earth, nurture its fruitfulness, and foster its growth

Our Mother Earth's keepers
As images of God, we must walk through the world with understanding and trustworthiness. The earth is now in our keeping. We must take up this responsibility as agents of God. It is an awesome role that we play in the world. The psalms speak of the honor with which God has clothed us: "What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?" (Ps. 8:5).

The earth is a storehouse of mineral and fossil treasure. Having discovered it, we are often captivated by its power and seek to find more and more. As responsible stewards we must limit our searching and testing lest we squander our treasure and lose it forever.

The earth vibrates with the pulsations of life; it works miracles of renewal within the secrets of its body. It feeds us with the outward signs of these miracles. Our insatiable appetites want more and more. As responsible stewards we must be considerate of the strains that maturation must bear and be patient with its timing. As images of God, we merely manage the earth in God's name.

We are only beginning to realize that being the image of God is a distinction that brings serious responsibilities. We are summoned to be signs of the sovereignty of God; we represent how and where God reigns supreme. In humble recognition of this, we must not attempt simply to control the earth but to live in accord with it and to care for it. As we do this, we manifest the tender compassion that our God has toward all creation.