Stewardship of Creation

The Genesis theme of men and women created in the divine image expresses not only humanity's inherent dignity but also the mission that issues from it. Gregory of Nyssa appreciated how humanity's unique relationship with God goes beyond the merely static beauty of a divine portrait: there are also the virtues that reveal in us God's sovereignty, the attributes that show how we human images imitate the divine prototype. Human images of God manifest the divine rule on earth and have the unique mission of being God's stewards there, continuing and completing God's creative work by presiding in the divine name over the rest of creation. A psalm celebrates the wonderful share in his own dignity that God has granted human beings by giving them authority over the rest of creation: You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea' (Ps. 8: 6—8). The Yahwist tradition of creation pictures God expressing this human dominion by bringing to the first man all the 'animals of the field' and 'birds of the air' so that he might give them their names (Gen. 2: 19—20).

In his commentary on Genesis, Claus Westermann shows how the Priestly tradition reinterprets the dominion God gives human beings over the animal world (Gen. 1: 28). At the beginning, God places human beings under a strictly vegetarian regime: seed-yielding plants and the fruit of trees (Gen. 1: 29). When the Yahwist account of the flood story ends, the Priestly tradition take up the story and tells of the covenant that God establishes with humanity (and with all creation) through the persons of Noah and his descendants. Here the Bible introduces for the first time a divine permission to eat animal flesh (Gen. 9: 2—3). According to Westermann, this concession from God takes into account the tension stemming from the flood: 'animals are delivered into the hands of humans'.104 At the same time, the Priestly tradition prohibits eating flesh with blood (Gen. 9: 4), as Leviticus 17: 10-11 will do.

Thus, from the outset, the Bible introduces norms meant to regulate the way human beings preside over the rest of creation. God, the common source of all beings, is the origin of humanity's dominion over the rest of his creatures. All come from God, even if only human beings can hear and respond to God: it is only through Adam, Eve, Noah, and others in the Genesis story that the created universe can hear its creator and find words and actions with which to respond. Only human beings enjoy self-consciousness, and it is only through human beings that the created world is aware of the divine self-communication and can respond appropriately. To borrow Francis of Assisi's language, humanity is to raise its voice and enter into communion with God, on behalf of 'brother sun' and 'sister moon'.

In this history of creation, God remains the one and only Lord, because nothing exists unless God constantly keeps it in existence and does not let it slip back into nothingness. That includes human stewardship as well. As Thomas Aquinas points out, we human stewards of God can never create energy or anything else out of nothing; we can only transform or convert what we have been given.105 We can only be God's co-workers and collaborators; at best, our dignity lies in the fact that God calls us to be his 'co-creators'.106

104 C. Westermann, Genesis 1—11. A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 462-3.

105 Aquinas states that when we make something, change occurs only in terms of 'motion according to quantity, quality, and place' (ST I q. 45 a. 2 AD 2); there is a fundamental difference between God's creative activity and the 'making' activity of creatures.

106 Philip Hefner identifies the human person as a 'created co-creator': The Human Factor. Evolution, Culture and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 35-6.

The fundamental interconnectedness of all creation means that it has only one history., which finds in God its source and goal. While the human contribution brings about the birth of culture, it gives rise to two conflicting forces which, in the flood story of Genesis, come to a head: the one that seeks God and the other that constructs a world which allows no place for the creator. We shall see how human sin turns work into toil, and life into a burdensome struggle that battles against thorns and thistles and ekes out an existence from the soil (Gen. 3: 17—19). The flood account strikingly portrays the close link between human sin on the one hand, and creation and culture on the other (Gen. 6: 5—8: 22). Described earlier as 'good' (Gen. 1: 31), the very earth has become 'corrupt' through human violence and aberration (Gen. 6: 11-12).

A new age opens after the flood; through the covenant with Noah, God's blessing reaches out to all creatures, both human and non-human (Gen. 9: 1-17). In Noah and his entourage, creation rediscovers its life-giving relation with its maker and readdresses itself to him. The rainbow in the sky is to be, in perpetuity, the symbol of a cosmic covenant with God (Gen. 9: 12-17). While creation and human culture are purified through the flood (in which Christians will see baptism prefigured) and reorient themselves to their creator, God restores the communion he intended from the beginning, and renews his original mission to humanity: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth' (Gen. 9: 1; see 1: 28).

A striking recognition of God as the creator and sustainer of everything is expressed in St Paul's hope for fulfilment. He puts human beings and nature together in a common history, characterized by the interplay of two diverse forces: one is 'bondage to decay', and the other is 'eager longing' for the glorious transformation to come (Rom. 8: 18-25). Human existence is a lifelong pilgrimage towards God, the fullness of being and ifinalgoal of all creation. When the 'new heaven' and the 'new earth' come to pass (Rev. 21: 1), the whole of creation will be freed from imperfection and made new by the glory of God.

But describing human stewardship and the interconnectedness of all creation, in its origin, history, and goal, is one thing. Assessing humanity's intervention in God's creation throughout the centuries is a different matter. What has Christian and, in particular, Catholic handling of God's creation looked like over the last two thousand years?107

107 See D. Christiansen and W. Grayer (eds.), 'And God Saw That It Was Good': Catholic Theology and the Environment (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1996).

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