Lesson 3: Creator of Heaven and Earth

God, the CreatorThe second observation we should make is that the creed speaks of the creation of heaven and earth. These few words make some significant points.

First, God creates place. Perhaps the central point of Francis’ encyclical is that the earth is our common home. The pope emphasizes this reality is more important than any idea. Our common relationship with the earth in which we live overcomes all differences in doctrine.

Second, creating place involves bringing order to chaos. In the thought of Genesis 1, heaven is where God lives after creation and earth is where humans reside. Things are put into order. We are familiar with thinking that love puts us into a proper relationship with God and other people. The encyclical acknowledges this should include our relationship with the environment. #66. “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.”

The third point is the importance of the body. When we talk about place, we include our bodies. Martin Luther emphasized this aspect when he wrote in his explanation of the First Article, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life…”

Francis reminds us Jesus acknowledged the importance of our bodies. #98. His appearance was not that of an ascetic set apart from the world, nor of an enemy to the pleasant things of life…He was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter, and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.”

One of the controversial ecological questions about our relationship to the earth focuses on how to understand God giving humans dominion over the earth in Genesis 1. One side believes it means we can use the earth any way we want. The classic statement was made by Ann Coulter when she shouted, “God gave you the earth. Use it. Rape it. It’s yours.”

Francis’ encyclical takes the opposite position. #67 “…The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23).

In the context of the Old and New Testament, “dominion” has to be read as managing the world for God according to his will. To operate as God’s images, we live as stewards caring for the earth.

To say this is to bring up sin that modern society ignores. Ecology is a problem, because things are not what they should be. God’s order has been knocked out of whack. #67 continues, “According to the Bible, these three vital relationships (between God, people, and the environment) have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).”

One of the examples “Laudato Si” cites is #82. “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26).”

Of course, not everyone agrees with the pope that economic value is not the only way we should look at the earth. The CEO of Nestle recently claimed that humans do not have a right to water. It, like all the earth, should be regarded as a commodity that can be bought and sold. It seems to me that this is about as far from Christian faith as we can get.

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