Growing up in the Bible belt and attending a church since infancy, I was acutely aware of the sacredness of my whole being: body, spirit and mind. I believed that I was a creature of God and that human life was important and providentially blessed.
But I didn’t give much thought to the sacredness of the earth and in fact, I thought that anyone obsessed with something even as innocuous as recycling clearly had her priorities in the wrong place.
A few years after I graduated from college, I moved to Scotland and began to study theology. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that the place I lived began to affect me as much as the things I was learning.
My first year at school, I lived in a flat on the North Sea. I walked the path beside it every day and would stroll home in the darkness. Some days the tide was up to the bank and wet-suited surfers would brave the wind and fury of the sea. Other days, the water seemed to have forgotten the shore and it lagged serenely beyond the beach and its forgetfulness made us remember what sand felt like between naked toes. Some quiet nights the full moon stretched out across the horizon of the sea and touched the water and the whole earth seemed to listen and watch more closely. I couldn’t move away from my lonely bench or the beauty.
I began to think and wonder like a growing child. Where was all this beauty before I came here? How can I be sacred when this moon is not?
I moved into the village and began to take long walks along a creek and past ancient trees with gnarls and knots and bark that seemed etched with holiness. The creek turned at the base of a hill with Pictish graves at its summit.
I’d never really watched the seasons before but every morning I would see something new on that walk. Over the course of four years, I saw the earth expand and overwhelm the path with green and the bright colors of spring and summer. The har, a heavy mist from the sea, would roll in and settle onto the village and the creek and the trees and I would walk in the midst of it and almost glimpse Middle Earth. Every winter, life would retract into the colors of dormancy.
I was retracting with those colors and I began to question all that I believed.
Would the God that made my body sacred not want me to care about his other creatures? Was all this beauty really made for human consumption?
Oddly enough, it was the very source of my questions that brought me new answers. I studied and reread the Bible to find out if I could really believe in a God who dismissed his creation so readily.
What I found was this. We have been told that Genesis 1:28 means we are to fill the earth and subdue it, in effect, a mandate to pillage and destroy and consume every natural resource. That is what we have been told. But what I believe is that if our Western religion is implicated, it is not Christianity itself but the misinterpretation of Scriptures by Christians over the years that has lead to this mistaken view of dominion.
Many outside influences have had an effect on the interpretation of Scripture including Greek philosophy, which claimed that matter was a constraint to be thrown off in favor of a closer relationship with the divine. Francis Bacon also emerged as a figure who added much to the shape of the modern view of dominion and through science he saw nature as an instrument for human use.*
But God first pronounced his creation “good” and admired his handiwork even before he created man. His approval of the material world refutes Greek philosophy’s claim that all matter is evil.
God’s creation is also different than man’s creation. As evidenced by the Hebrew verb ‘bara’ which is used solely to speak of God, only He can make something out of nothing. Man doesn’t have this capability. The earth then, in Scriptural terms, is theocentric rather than anthropocentric;** a detail that has great implications for the way humans should treat the responsibility of creation. When God is the focus, humans better care for the things he’s given them.
With the use of the Hebrew words for “till,” and “protect,” a helpful metaphor is to see the exercising of dominion as similar to that of a caretaker. Adam was essentially the custodian of “God’s garden.”**In the Bible, humans certainly held a special place in creation but their unique position required humility, gentleness and ultimately, as the New Testament commanded, love.
This is what I learned from my study and more profoundly, from my sensual experience with nature. I returned from Scotland with a deep knowledge of my moral obligation to care for the earth.
My husband and I have since moved to a Mennonite farming community in rural Illinois. Here, amongst other Christians, we are learning how to live with less. We are striving to practice our theology through gardening and minister to others through the growing of sustainable food. We care for each other and our good earth because we believe that God cared for it first.
*Bauckham, Richard God and the Crisis of Freedom. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002
Christiana is the manager of this collaborative blog. She has postgrad degrees in theology and creative writing from St Andrews University in Scotland. She lives with her family in intentional Christian community in rural Illinois. While her husband farm manages, she writes, sings, dabbles in gardening, cares for their two kiddos, cooks, preserves food and attempts to homemake. She also blogs at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com.