The Earth Is the Lord’s

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.
Laudato si’ (LS) no. 66

Chapter Two of Laudato si’ takes up the harmony between God, humans, and all creation. That is, it addresses what faith teaches us about these relationships. After summarizing Chapter Two, I will discuss two ways of viewing humanity’s dominion over the earth. First, some people believe dominion gives humans the right to dominate nature purely for our own benefit. On the other hand, harmony between humans and the world occurs where dominion is seen as tilling and keeping the earth.

Summary of Chapter 2: The gospel of creation

Science and religion each have something fruitful to say to the other. LS no. 62. Therefore, to care for the earth, we need all branches of science and every form of wisdom. This includes religion. LS no. 63. Faith motivates believers to care for nature and the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.” LS no. 64.

The Bible describes our relationship with creation

life is grounded in harmony between God, humans and Creation

To begin with, “every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness.” LS no. 65. Moreover, “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships ….” These are our relationships “with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” LS no. 66. The harmony between these relations has been broken by humans “presuming to take the place of God ….” Thus we distort our charge to have dominion over the earth, to till it and keep it. LS no. 67. I will focus on this topic below. We must respect the laws of nature and the delicate balance between all creatures. LS no. 68. Creation does not exist merely to satisfy human desires.  LS no. 69.

Other origin stories shed light on the effects of ruptures in our relationships

Cain murdered his brother Abel, doing violence not only to Abel but also to God, the earth, and indeed to himself. Likewise, the story of the Flood teaches that everything is interconnected. “[G]enuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” LS no. 70. After the Flood, “God decided to open a path of salvation. In this way he gave humanity the chance of a new beginning. … The biblical tradition clearly shows that this renewal entails recovering and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator.” LS no. 71.

Other scriptural sources show us the power of God

The psalms “exhort us to praise God the Creator” and “invite other creatures to join us in this praise ….” LS no. 72. “[T]he prophets invite us to find renewed strength in times of trouble by contemplating the all-powerful God who created the universe.” LS no. 73. Similarly, the Babylonian captivity teaches that “[t]he God who created the universe out of nothing can also intervene in this world and overcome every form of evil.” LS no. 74. When we forget that God is all-powerful and Creator “we end up worshipping earthy powers ….” Or we “usurp[ ] the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.” LS no. 75.

Creation is God’s gift

“Creation” means more than “nature.” In addition “it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.” Creation is God’s gift. LS no. 76. Indeed, “the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more.” LS no. 77. But nature is not divine. It is valuable, yet fragile. Therefore, God entrusts to humans the challenge “to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.” LS no. 78.

In this world, “[w]e are free to apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively, or towards adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks.” LS no. 79. Even when we choose the latter, God “can … bring good out the evil we have done.” LS no. 80. Humans are unique. Each human is “a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.” LS no. 81.

All creatures move with us toward God

That does not allow us to look at other creatures as mere objects for us to dominate. When we do this, “resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful ….” LS no. 82. “[A]ll creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.” LS no. 83.

Nature not only manifests God, but “is also a locus of his presence.” LS no. 88. In fact, “[t]he entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.” LS no. 84. In each thing we can discover God’s teaching. LS no. 85. And in the harmony between all things – that is, in the universe as a whole – we understand God’s goodness. LS no. 86. When we see this, we “praise the Lord for all his creatures and … worship him in union with them.” LS no. 87.

All the universe is “called into being by one Father ….” Together we “form a kind of universal family ….” LS no. 89. This does not put all creatures on the same level. Much less does it “imply a divinization of the earth ….” That “would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility.” LS no. 90.

Our care for Creation is interconnected with harmony between humans

“Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings ….” This requires “an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” LS no. 91. “We have only one heart ….” “[T]he same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.” LS no. 92.

All people share God’s gift of creation. This principle, known as the universal destination of goods, is fundamental in Catholic social teaching. Private property is subordinate to this principle. “Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective ….” This perspective emphasizes “the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.” LS no. 93. The Lord made both the rich and the poor, and they have equal dignity. LS no. 94. Therefore “[t]he natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity ….” LS no. 95.

Jesus casts his gaze on all the earth

Jesus frequently incorporated nature into the metaphors and parables through which he taught. LS nos. 96-97. He was not an ascetic. He did not set himself apart from the world. LS no. 98. All creation exists through the Son of God, and he chose to become part of creation. LS no. 99. For that reason, the risen Christ holds all creatures to himself, “directing them towards fullness as their end.” LS no. 100.

Focus on humans’ dominion over the earth

Pope Francis uses the biblical stories of our origins as the backdrop for a theology of care for the world. Ironically, for many people, much of the blame for our ecological problems is placed on these stories.

Dominion as domination

In 1967, historian Lynn White, Jr. gave voice to this perspective. He said that the Genesis narratives reflect a view that nature was merely an object to be exploited.

Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image.

Lynn White, Jr., The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, Science 155: 1203-07 (Mar. 10, 1967). White argued that our environmental problems would only worsen as long as this attitude persists. But he also saw in religion the remedy. In particular, he looked to Saint Francis of Assisi.

The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.

Dominion as tilling and keeping

Now, half a century later, we have a pope who took the name Francis and who penned an encyclical on caring for God’s creatures. Pope Francis responds to the charge that the Bible “encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature ….” He acknowledges “that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures ….” Nevertheless, “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” LS no. 67.

The pope reminds us that the biblical texts must be read in their context. “[T]hey tell us to ’till and keep’ the garden of the world …. ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” The earth belongs to God, not humans. LS no. 67.

Thus, there is a harmony between our use of nature for our own good and our care for nature for its own sake. We may use the world to sustain our lives with dignity and joyfulness. But more is required than sustaining ourselves. We must sustain the world. We must protect living and non-living things. God rejoices in them as well.

Next week: Seeing the big picture

Today, we view the world through the lens of technology, a paradigm based on the fragmentation of knowledge. But the paradigm is not adequate for complex problems, such as environmental degradation and poverty. Next week I will discuss the need to view the ecological crisis holistically.