This is an excerpt from Lionel's latest book, Is God Green?.
In 1967, Lynn White wrote a famous article called ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’.1 In his article, Lynn White blamed Western Christianity for most of the environmental degradation that has happened in the history of the world. His accusation was this: The Bible—and Genesis 1 especially—had been used to justify wholesale exploitation of the environment. Lynn White claimed the Bible taught that:
God planned all of this [creation] explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.2
Is Lynn White right? To our modern ears, the Bible verses I’ve quoted above can sound quite harsh, using words like ‘dominion’. This can sound as if God has given us the world to dominate, to bash into shape, for our own purposes.
However, like anything in the Bible, we need to read these verses in their context. In Genesis 1, God saw that the world was good before he made human beings. The world has positive value in God’s eyes, simply because it was created by him. So as humans rule, we have to remember that we are ruling something God has made and that God believes is good. It’s not just good for us and to serve our purposes; it’s good for God, and was good even before we came along (if you want to know more, have a look at Psalm 104).
In the next chapter of Genesis, humanity’s task is described this way:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Gen 2:15)
Our ‘dominion’, in other words, is not selfish rule. It’s not about being a despot or a tyrant or a dictator. Ruling the world is all about serving: serving God (who made the good world), and serving the world itself by ‘keeping’ it, or taking care of it.
This actually makes sense of what we see humans doing all the time. There’s an organization called ‘Save the Whales’—they even have a song.3 But you won’t find an organization of whales called “Save the Humans”. Whales don’t sing songs about saving humans. That’s because humans are there to look after the whales, not vice-versa. Our special role in the world is to be the servant-rulers of the world. God does not want us to exploit the world purely for our own greedy gain. But at the same time, God doesn’t want us to leave the world alone. We’re not just to be the park rangers of the world, making sure nothing happens to it. God wants us to be active, to creatively turn chaos into order like he did at the beginning. He wants us to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). This may well include saving whales, and many other things besides.
Here, at the beginning of the story of the world, we see that human beings are good for the world. As we rule, we also enjoy the benefits of being God’s rulers. Genesis 1 says:
And God said [to the human beings], “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food”. And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen 1:29-31)
We can enjoy the world as we subdue it, and this is very good, according to God. When you eat food, that is very good, because that is what the food is for. Here’s a description of ecological harmony from the book of Proverbs:
Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit. (Prov 27:18a)
So how does this all work out? How do you and I actually go about ruling? How do we know what to do?
There is a repeated phrase “according to its kind” in Genesis 1 (see vv. 11, 12, 21, 24, 25). God has made vegetation according to their various kinds, fish according to their kinds, and birds, livestock and wild animals, according to their kinds. There’s variety in creation. This variety helps us understand that we do different things with different parts of creation.
Here is another verse from Proverbs, which is an example of how this works:
Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel. (Prov 12:10)
So, one of the things about being righteous is that you have regard for the life of your beast. That is, you know the value of an animal’s life—not just for your own selfish purposes, but in terms of what God has made. The righteous person understands that the animal has been made a certain way ‘according to its kind’. And he respects that creation. An animal is different to a human, of course. Respecting a chicken is different to respecting your mother. But a righteous person will still respect the life of the chicken, as a chicken. It’s not just an egg-producing machine. Do you buy free-range eggs? Why? Why not? Do you regard the life of the chicken? Not just the taste or the eggs, but the life. Because God thinks the chicken is good. The good ruler of the world is the one who discerns what this value is. While we eat the eggs and the chicken kebabs, we also take care of the chicken while it’s alive according to what God has made it, not just what we can get out of it. This is part of what ruling and subduing and having ‘dominion’ is all about.
1. Lynn White, Jnr, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’, Science, vol. 155, no. 3767, 1967, pp. 1203-7.↩
2. White, ‘Historical Roots’, p. 1204.↩