This coming Sunday is Earth Day, the 43rd annual reminder of our responsibility to care for our planet and its complex components.
Not exactly a day in the Christian calendar, like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saints Day, but, like other more “secular” days, such as Mother’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, it is an occasion to think about an important area of life from a faith perspective.
Unfortunately, Earth Day has been a point of contention in some circles, due to the polarized way our attention to environmental concerns has evolved in recent years.
Dismissingit as an expression of “radical environmentalism” – a secular, humanistic, even anti-religious effort to encourage a worship of nature – is an effective distraction for many from the basic question of how best to care for the natural world and its resources.
While there is no need to make Earth Day a religious holiday whose meaning is essentially theological, there is a close correlation of its emphases and what has traditionally been described as a Christian doctrine of creation.
It is also unfortunate that “creation” questions are so often sidetracked by debates on the how and when of origins (evolution) and miss attending to a more theological concern for what it means to be creatures of a creator living in a creation.
Earth Day could be an opportunity to help people think about our place in the interdependent web of life and our faithfulness to the partnership of “tending the garden.”
While the biblical testimony does not directly address what we consider today to be our crucial environmental issues, it does offer in its creation accounts a perspective on the relation of creator (God), creature (humankind), and creation (the natural world). A visual way of describing this relationship might be:
The covenant includes not only a relationship between God and the human creature, but also among the human creatures and between them and the rest of the world.
Sin is any breach in that relationship – any place where the connection and the delicate relationship is broken: idolatry in the relation to creator, injustice in the relation to fellow humans, and poor stewardship of the responsibility to care for the natural world.
With the affirmation of this interdependent balance in the web of creation, we are encouraged by the creation accounts to see what is being said in particular about the natural world. One thing we notice is that the created order is declared to be very good, explicitly in Genesis 1 and implicitly in Genesis 2.
It is clearly affirmed that this arrangement of interdependence is exactly what God intended.
Second, because the creation is the creative work of none other than the Holy One, we are encouraged to see the sacred in the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary things. Nothing is outside the realm of God’s creative work.
Third, the responsibility is assigned to humankind to “have dominion” over the creation (Genesis 1) and to “till and keep the garden” (Genesis 2).
The human creature is not merely to be a consumer of the resources of the natural world, but also to be a conserver and sustainer of those resources, preserving the interdependent balance of the world’s design.
The objections that I have seen and heard to the observation of Earth Day as a reminder of our ecological responsibility seem to focus on a perceived diminishing of human status in the created order.
The “dominion” we are given seems to be interpreted as the power to control and use – to bring into subjugation – rather than as the stewardship of preserving the balance and sustaining the longer-term quality of the resources at our disposal.
While some may caution that Earth Day is an invitation to worship the creation rather than the Creator, it would seem that a biblical doctrine of creation would welcome its celebration and an embrace of its responsibility as an appropriate expression of commitment to the covenant faith.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).