Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Digging up the theological roots of the environmental crisis

A sermon preached in chapel at Phillips Theological Seminary. This is one I can't let go of. It doesn't feel as well-developed as I'd like for it. Nonetheless, it's done for now. This was a different kind of sermon that I typically preach. I am more of a narrative preacher, rather than a theological expositor. This falls more in the category of theological exposition.

Here's the podcast, where you will hear me stumble over my words a lot. Glad this one is over.

Digging Up the Theological Roots of the Environmental Crisis
Genesis 1:26-31
Phillips Theological Seminary
April 24, 2012

I want to start with some congregational participation. I’d like to see how many of you have ever heard one of the following responses regarding global warming and other environmental issues from a co-worker, family member, friend, etc.:
  1. We need to be concerned about people, not the planet. God will take care of the planet. He created it and sustains it. We don’t need to worry about it.
  2.  People before animals and earth. That’s the way God ordered things.
  3. God gave us the earth for us to use as we see fit. We are to have dominion over it, to rule it. That’s what the Bible says.
Even if we don’t personally hold any of these views, we are affected by them every day of our lives. These views and the theology that’s used to justify them are at the heart of the environmental crisis and our country’s response to it. As shocking as it may seem, intelligent, well-educated people hold to these views. My partner Lisa met someone who is well-educated and holds an upper level administrative position in a university who told her, “We don’t need to worry about things like plastics in landfills, etc. God will eat the garbage!” Where does that theology come from and what are we to do about it? That will be our focus today, because as one who is theologically trained, environmentally aware, and deeply concerned about the issues we are facing regarding the environment, I believe it is of utmost importance that Christians and others be able to address the concerns from a theological perspective. As religious leaders, we need to pay close attention to what the Bible says and doesn’t say to help us respond to those who use it to justify practices and opinions that endanger the future of the earth. If theology is at the heart of the problem, then perhaps theology can help lead us to solutions.
The book of Genesis opens with a declaration of God’s creative work. It states that what existed when God’s creative work began was a formless void, covered in darkness. God swept over the darkness like a wind, and with God’s own words, spoke into existence light, a separation between sky and earth, a separation between water and land, vegetation, stars, sea creatures, animals, and finally humans. At the end of each day, God declares that creation is good, and at the end of the sixth day (the day on which humans were created), God declares that it was very good. Traditional Christian theology holds that this story establishes a hierarchy in creation. The story is a narrative that builds to a climax at the creation of humankind. God says that God’s work on each of the first five days is good, but upon the completion of God’s work with the creation of humans, that it is all very good. I grew up learning that humankind is the pièce de résistance in God’s creative work, a bit ironic, I think, considering how terrified some in my church were that we kids would all become humanists if we paid too much attention in school.

At the point of that climax in this story, God says to humankind, “Have dominion over” the earth. A mere 26 verses into the Bible and already we’re in trouble. It’s that word dominion that has caused us trouble. What does dominion mean? I wish we could find an alternate translation that reveals more a sense of care and less of power. Instead, some have taken it to mean that all of creation was made for the sake of humankind. In the hands of humans for far too long the idea that humans were given dominion over the earth has been used to justify hunting of animals for personal gain, for sport, all with no concern for the hunting’s impact on the species themselves, drilling of oil and extraction of other natural resources for the “good” of humankind, with no concern for the impact of the methods used or the amount of the resource taken from the earth. This view is used to justify the commodification of animals, plants, and other resources of the planet. Coupled with a firm commitment to God’s ordaining of free-market capitalism as the way things are meant to be, animals, plants, habitat, all are considered expendable if growth of human wealth and progress is to be gained. [i]

As good students of the Bible, you already see the problems with an interpretation of dominion that justifies exploitation of creation. Many have called for a tempering of this interpretation and claimed God’s intent was not for us to rule the earth, but to be good stewards of the earth. It keeps a hierarchy in place, but puts God at the top of the hierarchy and moves humankind to a position of being God’s managers, ones who use the resources wisely. This view was explicitly stated in a comment from Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum who said the following about the Endangered Species Act, “It’s a radical ideology that says we are here to serve the Earth instead of man having dominion over the Earth to serve him and to be a good steward of that Earth.” In light of a more exploitative approach to our relationship with the earth, the shift to understanding ourselves as stewards seems helpful, on the surface, because it at least recognizes that there is not an endless supply of resources, that not all of humankind’s uses of those resources are good, and that we have responsibility for determining the right use of them. There are problems with this view, though. In the hierarchy of God first, humans second, and everything else existing to serve humankind, there is a devaluing of the earth. Such devaluation leaves the earth vulnerable to human exploitation. Viewing the earth as a resource to be used for our own benefit is not sustainable. To end the current environmental crisis and to ensure the future good of the environment, a different kind of relationship with the earth is needed.
So, can the creation stories from Genesis be understood in a way that points to a different kind of relationship with the earth? For starters, it helps to read the creation narratives together to enable us to see to more dimension to the relationship we are to have with creation. The second creation narrative in Genesis 2 helps temper any tendency to understand dominion as a justification for exploitation. Hebrew Bible scholar Richard Lowery points to the second creation narrative which tells us that the earth was a formless void until humans were put on it to “serve” it. Repeatedly, this story tells us that God put humans on the earth to till it and to keep it. So, Rick Santorum had it completely backwards in his critique of environmentalists. Earth does not exist to serve humans. Humans exist to serve the earth. If humankind is to serve the earth, dominion then, can be understood more clearly to be a relationship of care, of bringing some discipline perhaps to what might otherwise be utter chaos. It is the work of humankind on the earth that helps creation to flourish. Neither exists without the other.
This turn in interpretation can lead us to see the earth as a subject with whom we are in relationship, not a resource which can be used, whether wisely or not. It privileges interconnectedness, rather than power. But we are far from living this in reality. We live in a world where science often serves corporate wealth and greed, rather than the earth and its inhabitants. We inhabit a place where those who would spend their lives working to provide us with food become indebted to corporations bent on engineering food, sometimes even in the name of ruling or subduing the earth. We are witnesses to environmental disasters that destroy habitat for all living things, humans included, all in order to feed the insatiable hunger for petroleum which fuels the nation’s economy.
If we are to have hope for the future of the earth, as faith-full people, we need to work to help shift the cultural understanding from a view that gives humans superiority and unlimited power to one that privileges interconnectedness with all of creation, that no longer views the earth and all of creation as resources to be used, but as subjects with whom we are in a mutually supportive relationship. It requires us to temper our consumerism, to ask ourselves how our relationship to things impacts on our relationship to the earth. It requires us to consider outcome for all of creation against outcome only for humankind. Though it is important to continue pressing on specific issues related to the environment, no real change will come until we make a cultural shift away from a hierarchical view to one of interconnectedness. I think we have to start with ourselves, by asking where do our own self-interests leave the environment vulnerable to exploitation. My partner Lisa and I work hard to use sustainable practices in our farming and in our lives. We have not arrived at a place of complete sustainability. We ask ourselves constantly what we can do differently to be more sustainable. We seek to hold in reverence the interconnectedness of our lives with the earth. It’s evidenced in the way we structure our farm. Each creature has a purpose. Chickens provide food, but they also help clean up parasites on the pasture after the goats and sheep have fed there. The goats and sheep supply fertilizer which helps restore nutrients to the earth after what we plant absorbs them. When we’ve harvested all we can from the garden, the goats and sheep go in and feast on what’s left. We plant cover crops and leave plots unused for periods of time to allow the land to rest and restore. We use natural approaches to pest and weed control. We compost our waste from food preparation to return nutrients to the earth. Still, the relationship we share with our environment calls us increasingly to ask how do we better serve the earth.
Not all of us can farm. That’s not really even the point, but whether we farm or garden or not, whether we even enjoy the outdoors and appreciate nature for its beauty, we are dependent on the health of the environment. We are all in relationship with the earth. It’s up to us, though, to decide what the nature of that relationship will be. Today, I ask you, how would you characterize your relationship with the earth? For starters, when was the last time you paid attention to who you share your space with. I don’t mean just the inhabitants of your home or workplace. I mean all of creation that exists in your space. Do you hear the birds singing in the morning? Do you see the scores of bugs that crawl through your yard? Do you know what the plants are that grow in your yard, in spite of your best efforts to have only the most beautiful grass? Pay attention to these things. Cherish them. Ask them that what you can learn from them. Then ask yourself what you must do to honor your interconnectedness with all of creation.

[i] Ariel Edwards-Levy, “Rick Santorum Worries Endangered Species Act Values ‘Critters Above People,’” Huffington Post, March 12, 2012.