Ecotheology: Beyond Stewardship

Within Christianity, there is no shortage of disagreements. But there’s one thing that nearly every Christian will agree upon: that God created the earth. Whether taken literally or figuratively, all can read Genesis and understand that each plant and animal was created with care by God. He spoke and there was light. There was water. Plants and vegetables sprouted from the earth, growing seeds and fruit. The waters swarmed with living creatures. Birds flew across the sky. Beasts and livestock walked the earth.

“And God saw that it was good.”

He revelled in the beauty of his creation. After every perfect addition to this wondrous new world, he said that it was “good”.

And then, his final creation, made in the image of God himself.

Formed from dust and breathed to life, man and woman were created to “work the ground”. They were given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” He gave them “every plant yielding seed”, “every tree with seed in its fruit” for food. He brought them to the Garden of Eden, housing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” for them to “work it and keep it.”

It was there that they walked in the garden with God, naming each animal, living in harmony with creation and each other “naked and unashamed.” They had every tree to eat from except one. It was literal Paradise.

Throughout history, humanity has taken this divinely ordained dominion and lordship over creation as license to do whatever we want with it. Simple “dominion” was given priority over cultivation and care. The earth was thought of as something to be “subdued” – to abuse and control instead of to help flourish and bring life. But if we look closer at God’s order for Adam and Eve to work and keep the garden, we see a much deeper command than simple ownership. The words “work” and “keep” from Genesis 2:15 are translated from the Hebrew words avad and shamar. Both are used extensively in the Old Testament – avad referring to servanthood and serving and shamar to guarding and protecting, namely in relation to God and Israel.

With this understanding, it’s clear that God put us in the Garden to “serve and protect” it, not merely to work it and keep it. The dominion we were given over creation is similar to the dominion that God has over us, a loving cultivation like a gardener overseeing his garden.

It’s also worth noting that Adam and Eve were created after the rest of creation. In Genesis 2:5 God laments that “there was no man to work the ground.” Instead of this humbling perspective, modern Christianity places man at the very top of creation, the image-bearing pinnacle of God’s work. Those same Christians also speak of “stewardship” to communicate our role in the environment. It’s a fine word and a noble aim, but what is modern western Christianity doing to “serve and protect” creation? Just as Adam and Eve broke God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we have been continually disobeying his order to care for creation. The earth and its resources have become something to control and exploit instead of to serve. Animals are abused instead of cared for and protected. The impact humanity has had on the environment can no longer be ignored. Through fossil fuel emissions, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change, we are causing irreparable harm to the land we were created to serve and protect.

Our current, comfortable way of life cannot be sustained without a theology that recognizes our place in God’s creation. And that place is that of Servant and Protector.

A key facet of Christianity is the anticipation of Jesus’ return and the “new heaven and new earth.” This notion of a “new earth” sits well with those who view “dominion” as free reign to abuse the earth. It can be easy to question why this world matters at all when God is making a new one. But like the parable of the talents, what will Jesus say to us after seeing what we’ve done with what he’s given us?

If we truly love God and care for his creation, he will say the same thing he said to the servants who invested their talents:

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”