Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

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