How Should the Faithful Respond to God’s Creation and to Ecological Crises? Does God Really Love Stink Bugs?
Blog post by Patricia T Bradt, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental Science Emerita, Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA
What is a Christian’s Responsibility to the Natural World (Mother Nature)? Are we stewards of or cooperators with Creation? How can people of Faith protect our precious environment, which provides all life with the essentials for living on earth?
What does the Bible (RSV) say? God said… “Fill the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1: 31).
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it” (Genesis 2: 15-17) or “cultivate and care for it” (Jewish Bible: Genesis 2: 7-9). God said to Noah “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea: into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9: 2). “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants…, and with every living creature, …the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, …the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations; I set my bow in the cloud, and shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9: 12-13).
How much are our worldviews (how you perceive the world) influenced by our interpretation of the Bible? Is the Bible giving us mixed messages? Has it been correctly translated and interpreted? Is dominion really more of an edict to “till and keep” the garden? “Tilling is service to God’s earth, a profound responsibility and a direct and critical part of our connection with and worship of God” (National Religious Partnership for the Environment, NRPE, 1996).
How do world views differ? First there is the anthropocentric view, centered on humans, e.g. have dominion over every living thing upon the earth. For example: Pope John Paul II (1995) said “Everything in creation is ordered to man and everything is made subject to him.”
Second, there is the biocentric view, centered on all life. For example, St Francis preached the brother/sisterhood of all creatures. “(St.) Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. …. The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, St. Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it: he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed” (White 1966).
The great humanitarian and missionary, Albert Schweitzer (Joy 1951) also espoused the biocentric worldview and proposed the term “reference for life”. “The ethic of reverence for life recognizes no relative ethic. It considers good only the maintenance and furtherance of life. It brands as evil all that destroys and hurts life, no matter what the circumstances may be. …Whenever I injure any kind of life I must be quite certain that it is necessary. I must never go beyond the unavoidable, not even in apparently insignificant things” (Joy 1951). Schweitzer continues that even if a farmer mows down thousands of wildflowers while mowing hay to feed his cows, that same farmer cannot just randomly hack off the head of a wildflower because he “infringes the law of life without being under the pressure of necessity” (Joy 1951).
The third world view, ecocentric (centered on ecosystems – living and non-living) is proposed by James Lovelock (originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, earth is a living super organism). He proposes that humans should practice a certain, restricted form of stewardship “What do we know of the Earth? I have made a strong statement rejecting the idea of planetary management, or stewardship, in so far as it implies taking charge of the Earth. I propose instead that that we learn to live with the Earth as a part of it, by managing our selves, and by humbly taking and giving the gifts that sustain all of us who live on this planet….I would suggest that our real role as stewards of the Earth is more like that of that proud trades union functionary, the shop steward. We are not managers or masters of the Earth, we are just shop stewards, workers chosen, because of our intelligence, as representatives for the others” (e.g. bacteria, fungi, slime molds, fish, birds, animals, trees, smaller plants, rest of life earth). “Indeed all living things are members of our union and they are angry at the diabolical liberties taken with their planet and their lives by people” (Lovelock 1991).
Theologian Sallie McFague (2008) also supports the ecocentric view that includes all life in addition to essential ecological processes (recycling of nutrients, cleansing of air, water, etc.). “We are not our own; we belong to the earth…..God’s household is the whole planet: it is composed of all other life-forms and earth processes.” McFague (1997) proposes that “inclusive love must be extended to nature and not stop at our own species.” Naturalist Robert Pyle claims that one of the major causes of the ecological crisis is ‘the extinction of experience” (McFague 1997). Today’s children and adults lack close encounters with earth and its creatures and processes, they know less about these “earth others” and subsequently care less for their wellbeing. Distance breeds lack of knowledge, humans do not care about what they don’t know or understand.
Conservationist author, Aldo Leopold (1949) also supports the ecocentric view, proposing a “land ethic”: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. …All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants and animals, or collectively, the land.” We should revere the land and all its life giving processes.
The ELCA (1993) states that a steward is one who manages (not dominates) another’s property. “We teach stewardship grounded in the Bible…. We are stewards of all that we have, and all that we have comes from God.… God blesses the world and sees it as ‘good’, even before humankind comes on the scene. All creation, not just humankind, is viewed as ‘very good’ in God’s eyes” (Genesis1:31). “We see the despoiling of the environment as nothing less than the degradation of God’s gracious gift of creation.” The command to have dominion and subdue is not license to dominate and exploit – dominion should reflect God’s way of ruling as a shepherd king, taking the form of a servant. Humans have a sacred obligation to care for our earth.
“Love and gratitude for God’s creation lie deep within religious life. From mountaintops to forests, green pastures to still waters, stars in the sky and lilies of the field, we experience the grace of our Creator and the gift of our presence here. With Earth in grave environmental peril, many religious Americans are seeking to respond through our faith. ….As they have re-read the Bible in the light of the environmental crisis, the faithful have been reminded that the world can only be understood and valued rightly by seeing it in relation to its Creator, and that God supports and sustains the whole community of life with loving care. They have recollected how the diversity, beauty, and integrity of the natural world manifest the divine wisdom and glory. Through scripture they have heard anew the call to be keepers of the earth” (NRPE 1996).
Therefore, should we love stink bugs, mosquitoes, ticks, rats, dandelions and other “pests”? Are they not also God’s creations? Usually animals and/or plants become “pests” because we humans have disturbed their ecosystem or introduced non-native species to a region where there were no natural predators. (Stink bugs were in balance with ecosystems of the Far East where they lived before they were inadvertently introduced into the Lehigh Valley.) Some organisms, especially insects, have the inherent ability to produce multitudes of young, making them forever potential pests.
So we should respect these critters, but persuade them to live elsewhere, or to become food for their predators such as birds or preying mantises. My message to our children was: do not kill anything until you know its ecological niche (e.g. where it lives, what and when it eats, when and where it reproduces). We do not know all these details about most critters so respect them and find an environmentally benign methods of either convincing them to go elsewhere (repellants) or discover unique ways to reduce their reproduction (e. g. insect growth regulators). Each plant and animal has an essential role in its ecosystem. Removing one critter (or plant) may disrupt or permanently damage the entire ecosystem. We cannot do just one thing, all nature is interconnected. As poet Francis Thompson (The Mistress of Vision) stated:
“All things by immortal power, Near or far, Hiddenly,
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower, Without troubling of a star.”
Founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir reiterates this interconnectedness, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.”
Love for all the earth encourages us to think ecocentrically and minimize human impact on the natural world. All creation, not just humankind, is viewed as ‘very good’ in God’s eyes. Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly within it and sustain our earth so our activities today do not compromise the needs of future generations. Humanity, made in image of God, is called to care for the earth as God cares for the earth (NRPE 1996). “Can we be super, natural Christians, who…..respect and reverence all things in their differences and distinctions?” (McFague 1997).
This includes respecting and cherishing our earth and all its life and processes, even stink bugs, skunks, slugs, mosquitoes, etc. and their roles in the ecosystem.
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all” (Monk 1887).
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) 1993. Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice. Social Statement.
Joy, Charles, Translator, Editor. 1951. The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer. The Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
Lovelock, James. 1991. Gaia. The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Gaia Books Limited, London, UK.
McFague, S. 1997. Super, Natural Christians. How we should love nature. Fortress Press, Minnepolis, MN.
McFague, S. 2008. A New Climate for Theology. God, the World, and Global Warming. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.
Monk, W. H. 1887. All things bright and beautiful. In: Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church 1917. Board of Publication, Philadelphia, PA.
National Religious Partnership for the Environment* (NRPE) (1996). Keeping the Earth. Religious and scientific perspectives on the environment. Video and Discussion Guide.
White, Lynn 1966. Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis, Science 10 (155):1203-1207.
*The National Religious Partnership for the Environment is an association of independent faith groups across a broad spectrum: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops along with its affiliated program arm the Catholic Climate Covenant, the National Council of Churches USA and its affiliate Creation Justice Ministries, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and its affiliate the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network (firstname.lastname@example.org), 110 Maryland Avenue, NE, Suite 203, Washington, DC 20002. “Together, but drawing upon distinctive faith traditions, we offer resources of religious life and moral vision to the effort to protect God’s Earth, humankind’s common home.”