Pastor, what about Creation Care?
I do a lot of reading. As if the pastorate itself doesn’t require enough, I read for class and for health and living and for pleasure, too. It may sound odd to you—or it may not—but if I were to count my friends, I’d include among the number some of my books. Books full of large ideas and beautiful sentences. I’d count also some magazines that I read. The National Geographic, The American Conservative, The National Review, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker all make my list. So, too, does my go-to newspaper: The Washington Post. In addition to these, I find myself turning aside often to read the likes of Christianity Today, The Lexington Herald-Leader, NPR, The Review and Expositor, and various blogs from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton seminaries. I do a lot of reading. I believe it’s a job requirement for someone who does a lot of teaching, preaching, and leading.
As the fall temperatures continue to hover around 90-degrees in Middlesboro, I’ve noticed that my own body seems to be talking and fretting about climate change. As of late, I’ve noticed in my reading that it seems that virtually everyone is talking about climate change. As a part of their 2019 annual meeting, the American Psychiatric Association has included a half-dozen sessions related to the mental health issues associated with climate change (which include anxiety and depression about the phenomenon). Of course, not everyone I read seems to be bothered by the near-uninhabitable temperatures that swept the Indian subcontinent this summer or the record-breaking heat from San Francisco to Charlotte, but for the most part, there is a great deal of concern.
Some may ask, “Why write about this, preacher? This doesn’t concern theology, does it?” Well, it depends. Remember the first creation story in Genesis? Remember that line that reads in the old King James Version, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth?” Well, never mind that we have tended historically to skip right over the first part that talks of “replenishing” and gone straight to “subdue” and “have dominion.” The old King James Version with which most of us are most familiar does a disservice to those later two Hebrew words. They are simply too strong. They elevate we fragile and frail human beings too far. “Subdue” and “have dominion” smack of Adam and Eve reaching for the fruit in order to transcend their God-gifted created place in the world. They sound a little bit like the words of people building towers called Babel up to the sky that they might walk right up to heavens. Frankly, walking right up into the heavens is kind of what King James I and the Brits thought were up to in 1611 (original), and 1629 and 1638 (revisions), when the King James Version was commissioned by the monarchy.
The Common English Bible, which we use at First Baptist Church, does a better job theologically with these two Hebrew words: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of…” As a master carpenter knows how to respect the grain of the wood as she uses a saw and a master butcher doesn’t just hack away at a piece of meat with no respect for its texture, humankind are to master the earth. There is a connotation of respect. Similarly, “take charge of” has the connotation of a master saying to an apprentice, “Take charge of this, as handle it as I would.” The apprentice in this case has just been created in the image and likeness of God.
So, what’s a Christian response to all this news of climate change? Well, that’s a long and often contentious conversation. But as I chew on the news of melting glaciers and record heat waves and the decline of bees and birds, I keep coming back to the beginning. Perhaps step one is to remember what Adam and Eve forgot—that we are not God. We are begotten of God, bearing God’s image and likeness. And “subdue” and “have dominion” are the words of English empire, not of God’s beloved creatures given stewardship—not ownership—of God’s creation. If there’s something to the idea of creation care in the Bible (and I believe there is), perhaps it begins there, with a little human humility.