Standard theological options stewardship valuing nature

Mindzoom Affirmations Subliminal Software

Powerful Thinking Affirmations

Get Instant Access

This section has the character of a hiatus, because now the shout goes up: 'But what about stewardship.?' In my view, the task of glorifying God given to un/natural humanity cannot be achieved through stewardship: that is, the attempt at the administration by the human of God's realm according to the will of the creator. In putting the matter thus, I am rejecting the two standard ways of construing Christian responsibility in the face of non-human nature. Stewardship I have already mentioned; the other option found wanting is that of valuing nature. Why are these options to be rejected.


There are, of course, a number of non-theological objections to the notion of stewardship.38 These are, I consider, largely persuasive. However, here I wish to attend to the theology which supports the notion ofstewardship. What are the theological commitments which the notion of stewardship requires?39 And what are its weaknesses?

The notion ofthe steward is an attempt to reinterpret the presentation of the role of the human in the first chapter of Genesis: 'Then God said, Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth . . . God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth"' (Gen. 1.26, 28 NRSV). As Douglas John Hall has pointed out, the metaphor of the steward is the attempt to reconstrue this theme of the lordship of the human or the dominion ofthe human. Indeed, the sub-title ofone ofHall's books is: Dominion as Stewardship. The notion of stewardship is then an exercise in contextual theology for an ecological age: humanity is not lord of nature, but steward; humanity does not have rights of dominion but the responsibilities of a steward. As such, stewardship, in my judgment, enjoys a

38. See Clare Palmer, 'Stewardship', in Ian Ball, Margaret Goodall, Clare Palmer and John Reader (eds.), TheEarthBeneath: A Critical Guide to Green Theology (London: SPCK, 1992), pp. 67-86; Kathryn Tanner, 'Creation, Environmental Crisis, and Ecological Justice', in Rebecca S. Chopp and MarkL. Taylor (eds.), Reconstructing Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 99-123; Rasmussen, Earth Community,EarthEthics, pp. 233-6.

39. I thank Dee Carter for conversation that has helped me to clarify my thinking on stewardship.

Christological basis and rationale. For example, the themes of incarnation, sacraments and stewardship are to be found in the stress on the primacy of humanity over nature in the work of Thomas Sieger Derr and the interpretation of dominion as stewardship by Douglas John Hall.

The incarnation of God in Christ and the sacraments are noted by Derr as constitutive of the Christian view of the goodness and reality of nature.40 Yet Derr does not hesitate to hold to the view that God's self-revelation occurs in history; nature shares only derivatively in this revelation. Hence, in theological perspective the drama of human history is primary; the development ofnatural processes has only secondary status. Human beings are thereby placed by God in a special position: in that nature is for humanity, the latter has a special responsibility to care for the former.41 Derr vigorously rejects attempts to downgrade this stress on the responsibility of humanity for the non-human order. True dominion thereby requires the subjugation of nature. What the current ecological crisis teaches is that humanity has failed to exercise dominion fully and responsibly; the ideal must be the 'full human dominion' portrayed, it is claimed, in chapter 1 of Genesis. This view is closer to that of stewardship than the strong sense of dominion (humanity is in relation to nature as God is to the world and thereby imitates God's rule42). The purposes of humanity in relation to nature are in correspondence with God's purposes for nature. Dominion, to stick with Derr's term, is always 'for God'. Derr thereby qualifies his stance regarding the superiority of the human by understanding human agency in terms ofstewardship.

In his book on stewardship, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship, Hall resists the term 'theology ofnature' as a description ofhis work. Instead, he suggests that the view humanity has of itself in relation to nature needs altering. Here, theological reflection on the imagoDei is the principal Christian resource for considering the difference between humanity and nature. Indeed, Hall holds to the view that the biblical ontology presupposed and required by the imagoDei rejects the views that humanity is over against nature or that humanity is subsumed under nature. Instead, biblical ontology suggests that humanity is alongside nature.43 Although Hall

40. Derr,Ecology andHumanNeed, p. 20.

41. Ibid., p. 87. In a reading of Aquinas, van den Brom, 'The Art of a Theo-ecological Interpretation', 299, argues that dominion requires an account of an order of being, hierarchically organised, in which 'the world is made exclusively for the benefit of humanity'. Cf. Rasmussen, Earth Community, EarthEthics, p. 229.

42. Tanner, 'Creation, Environmental Crisis, and Ecological Justice', pp. 104-6.

concentrates on the idea of imago Dei, the root of his position is Chris-tological. The movement of God towards the world, together with the 'worldliness' of the Hebrew scriptures and the love ethic, are the principal, if ambiguous, clues to the Christian affirmation of the world. In the final chapter, Hall connects the tradition of theologia crucis with the theme of stewardship in order to stress the sacrificial - in the sense of self-sacrificing - aspect of human responsibility towards nature.

In a later book, The Steward: A Biblical Symbol ComeofAge, the Christologi-cal and ecclesial basis of stewardship is clearer still. Consider this programmatic statement by Hall:

The Steward is a particularly apt metaphor for humanity because it encapsulates the two sides of human relatedness, the relation to God on the one hand and to non-human creatures on the other. The human being is, as God's steward, accountable to God and responsible for its fellow creatures.44

Notice how the claim to relatedness slides easily into an affirmation of responsibility; the claim about human situatedness slips into a moral claim. Hall thereby often refers to the physical interrelatedness of the world, but without development.45 It is true that Hall seeks to identify humanity with nature in terms of a dialectic of difference and participation: we are creaturely but not reducible to non-human nature. Yet large consequences are drawn from this view: 'We can represent them [other creatures] because we participate in the same creatureliness as they.'46 The resonances of incarnational language are unmistakable. However, no account is offered of how we participate in nature. For example, do 'we' all participate in nature in the same way.? Does not this language of'participation' thereby both level and simplify? And why should nature not present itself before God? May God not have purposes for non-human nature directly which do not require mediation by human beings? How are we helped in then thinking through the relations between humanity and non-human nature if such reconciling mediation is worked through by humanity? If I am right about nature being in-between human projects, the language of mediation denies this intimacy. It suggests two abstractions - humanity and nature - one of which is mediated by the other.

Why, we may ask, should such language of participation and representation be privileged? Because, I consider, Hall is working with a Christological basis within the dynamic of reconciliation. '[T]he symbol

44. Hall, TheSteward,p. 20. 45. See ibid., p. 131. 46. Ibid., p. 212.

of the steward is at bottom a symbol of representation... the steward is a vicar, deputy, Stellvertreter.'47 Resonances with key concepts in the articulation of the logic of atonement are evident here. Such representation turns upon the substitutionary, participatory and representative understanding of Christ's death: in that death God is reconciling all things to God (2 Cor. 5.18).

Stewardship remains a popular option in the ecotheology literature. We can now discern part of the reason for that popularity: stewardship operates as an atonement metaphor, albeit an atonement metaphor on vacation.48 One of the central difficulties in theological interpretation of the atonement is to avoid subjectivist and exemplarist tendencies. That is, to focus overmuch on the response of believers following the example of Christ downplays, as Donald MacKinnon has pointed out, the identification of God in Christ and the depth of moral evil.49 But is that not exactly what stewardship proposes.?

Stewardship, it seems to me, displays the weaknesses ofsubjectivistand exemplarist models of atonement. First, it fails to notice how the construal of stewardship in voluntaristic ways is eminently suitable for our present culture of bureaucratic managerialism. Second, it does not attend to the sheer wickedness evident in our relations with non-human nature: how access to natural goods is entwined with access to social goods (access to medical care and a safe environment are good examples of this). Nor, third, does it attend to the ways that nature itselfmay be a source ofevil.

This may seem strange. Is not stewardship derived somehow from the Genesis narratives? That is, should not stewardship be considered from the perspective of the doctrine of creation.?50 Indeed, the eco-theological literature pushes this line. However, in my view, stewardship remains

48. In a double sense: it turns up where you do not expect it; and itdoesnotdo much work! Additionally, I note that stewardship is not an atonement model but 'only' a metaphor. It is largely exemplarist in tendency and, as John McIntyre points out, The Shape ofSoteriology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992), 49, exemplarist models of atonement rely on other models: for the promotion of Christ as an example requires an account of the nature of the death that 'ends' the exemplary performance. But which model is operative - McIntyre lists 12 others: ransom; redemption; salvation; sacrifice; propitiation; expiation; atonement; reconciliation; victory; punishment/penalty; satisfaction; liberation - remains unclear.

49. Donald MacKinnon, 'Objective and Subjective Conceptions of Atonement', in F. G. Healey (ed.), ProspectforTheology (Welwyn: James Nisbet, 1966), pp. 167-82.

50. In Creation andReality pp. 70-3, Welker does hold to the doctrine of creation in proposing that caretaking and dominion be linked in tension in an account of the primacy of the human in the created order. What this position does not explain is how a hierarchy of power - as he concedes that the mandate of dominion must be interpreted - can preserve 'complex structures of interdependence'. How does the simplifying power of hierarchy relate to diversity?

deeply entrenched in the ecclesial imaginary of Christians because it functions as an atonement metaphor; it draws its life as a concept from a partial reading of a Christological dynamic of reconciliation.

A second difficulty now emerges: atonement theory operates with cul-tic metaphors.51 But how does such discourse connect to worldly vocation.? Hall is convinced that there is a connection. But the connection is asserted rather than explicated. Thus Hall can claim that stewardship has 'apologetic potential for communicating the essential meaning of Christian (and human) representation'.52 In so doing, he is clearly alert to the problem: if stewardship is to serve apologetic purposes, there must be a relationship between Christian and human representation. But what is that relationship between ecclesial and general representation. How does the concept ofstewardship, founded in the dynamic ofreconciliation and funded by cultic metaphors, engage the public realm? Hall's position suggests that the human representation of nature to God is intelligible in a post-Christian society. Is that so?

Furthermore, an important weakness of the concept of stewardship is that the content of human-nature relations is left unattended. I acknowledge that Hall proposes that humanity is with nature, not over or in nature. Such a perspective is to be welcomed and is a useful start, but smacks too much of what Arne Naess calls 'the man-in-environment image'.53 This criticism is reinforced by the fact that Hall appeals to the language of 'vision' in defence ofstewardship:

When we speak about stewardship as the key to the relation between humanity and nature, we are speaking about a vision. Under the conditions of history, this vision is never fully realised. It is an eschatological vision, the vision of a state of final reconciliation, in which the enmity between creature and creator, creature and creature, and creature and creation will have given way to true mutuality and unconditional love: 'being-with'.54

However, we must ask, is not one ofthe rules for thinking eschatologically that there is some connection between the vision and this world? It seems to me that we are left with the impression that stewardship proposes a concept of nature unintegrated with the practice and experience of present,

51. See Mclntyre, The Shape ofSoteriology, pp. i03ff. The primary source of cultic metaphors is the identification of God in Jesus Christ which supports such notions as Jesus as priest, sacrifice, victim.

53. Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary', p. 151.

late capitalist, human society. Or, should we rather say that stewardship is very well integrated into the ideology of present society: the eclipse in human practice of the 'in-between' of nature.

In stewardship, we may conclude, the operative metaphysical schema remains traditionally Christian: God and humanity 'provide the basic framework within which the Christian drama is worked out'.55 Such a view of human responsibility for nature stresses the 'administrative' role ofhuman beings for the care ofnature, a task which is, in turn, bestowed by God: 'As the primary administrators of God's will, human beings are charged with special responsibilities by God, delegated crucial functions in the fulfilment of God's plans, deputized as God's agents.'56 Thus God's presence to nature is mediated by humanity. 'Human beings', Hall writes, 'are different in certain respects from other creatures because they are, so to speak, "assigned" a particular role in relation to others in the scheme of things'.57

What is correct in the emphasis on stewardship is the reference to Christ. In Christian tradition, the human creature is also imago Christi. However, by the time some attempt is made to expand the concept of stewardship to indicate that the stewards are also imago mundi, a prior exemplarist narrowing is usually determining. Thus Hall seeks to connect dominion as stewardship to the Dominus. However, the proposals that emerge are disconnected from any consideration ofhow it is that the human creature is itself creaturely and is situated in its own ecological relations. In fact, a conventional theological picture emerges: Christ, Church, World, in which stewardship operates as the core concept for articulating Christian responsibility in and towards the world. How the Church is located in a specific society which employs nature in particular kinds of ways emerges only at the end of the inquiry, as theology moves into theological ethics. In an ideological moment of unknowing, the Christian churches offer a moral strategy almost entirely isolated from the concerns that animated the beginnings of the inquiry. In a delicious irony, the final theological terminus may be a treatment of the sacraments. Yet such a treatment presupposes the distribution of grace by a universal church -and such universality is precisely not available in this strange postChristian world in which we live. Thus the churches contribute to the moralising of Christianity. We can be sure that if such moralising gains ground then the functionalising of Christianity is not far behind.

56. Tanner, 'Creation, Environmental Crisis, and Ecological Justice', p. 110.

Valuing nature

A different way of construing the fellowship of humanity and non-human nature is to place all consideration within the sphere of environmental ethics. The crucial matter now becomes not dynamic relations and shifting boundaries but rather the determination and assignment ofthe value of nature. In Christian theology, such a view - which can be articulated in more than one way - tends to be associated with the attempt to downplay the significance of the relation between the incarnation of God and the particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Two examples of this approach I have already mentioned: the work of Max Oelschlaeger and Sallie McFague. Although rather different, the tendency of their views is to converge on a single affirmation: an increase in the value ofnature leads to a greater likelihood ofits care. I shall concentrate here on the theological commitments operative in support ofsuch a claim.

In a summary of the programme of his book, Oelschlaeger writes, '[the] new metaphor - caring for creation - can engender a psychologically satisfying (emotionally evocative, powerful), religiously distinctive, and scientifically plausible ethic for our time'.58 Shortly, I shall set out how the metaphor emerges. However, we should first note the aim of the metaphor: to develop an ecologically sensitive ethic. Thus the programme of this civil theology is dedicated to, and oriented towards, the development of an environmental ethics. The way in which Oelschlaeger makes his case is clever: he argues that America (his argument is restricted, he makes clear, to the USA) needs to overcome its narrative of utilitarian individualism in favour of its biblical and republican traditions. In that he argues for a cultural-linguistic construal of Christianity, Oelschlaeger is less concerned about the variety and truth claims of religious traditions. In other words, by appeal to George Lindbeck, in the process giving a strongly pragmatist reading of The Nature of Doctrine, the matter of the truth claims ofvarious types ofChristianity, and the accounts ofappearance and reality required, are all placed to one side in Oelschlaeger's argument. For Christian religion, in all its forms, provides a legitimating narrative within which American society operates.

The basic premise, then, seems to be: 'the modern world devalues nature'.59 To this commitment is opposed the 'Great Code' of the biblical traditions. It is not quite clear to what these biblical traditions refer:

58. Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation, pp. 37-8 (italics removed from original).

sometimes it seems that what is central is the 'transcendent, creator God-as-person',60 especially in relation to the critique of idolatry; on other occasions, the 'fundamental inspiration' of Christianity seems to be 'exemplary texts', particularly the creation narratives.61 The second wins out over the first, I consider. That is, in order 'to expand a cultural conversation about ecology beyond the language of utilitarian individualism', appeal is made to the metaphor of caring for creation which 'might serve to unite all traditions of faith in setting an environmental agenda'. After all, Oelschlaeger informs us, 'A creation story is primordial, carrying both obligations with it and injunctions for human behavior toward all aspects of the world.'62 Thus we get another glimpse of the ethical nature of the argument being made here: 'environmental questions are not primarily economic questions: they are first ethical and then political'.63 Of course, this is not all of the argument. Nevertheless, perhaps this bald summary may suffice to disclose the ecumenical method operative here.

Nor is there any doubting the persuasiveness of this argument. Oelschlaeger succeeds in presenting, with some force, the outline of a publicly responsible, ecologically aware and environmentally supportive theology. Indeed, he manages to show - conclusively, in my view - the strength and relevance ofmainstream Christian commitments to ecological concerns. Yet, if we ask what theological decisions are operative in the argument, we must note a restriction: the important matter, we may discern, is public, ethical action in protection of the environment. Theology is thus drawn into the conversation by way of providing ethical norms taken from the consideration of the Great Code of the Jewish-Christian creation narratives. Even if Oelschlaeger is right to stress the commonality between various interpretations of the creation narratives (Oelschlaeger operates with a fourfold typology: conservative, moderate, liberal, and radical interpretation of the Genesis narratives), the primary 'result' of these narratives is to stress the origin of the world in God and the problems of trying to map the world into distinct spheres. The concretion ofChrist, the actions ofGod and the ends ofcreation are subsumed under general ethical principles. However, what if the primary matter is not environmental ethics but concrete interpretation of the actuality of human-nature relations in their dependence on God.?

In The Body of God, Sallie McFague proposes what at first sight seems to be a different approach: she seeks rather to persuade us of the humanising

60. Ibid., p. 89. 61. Ibid., p. 93. 62. Ibid., p. 120. 63. Ibid., p. 114.

potential to be derived from her construal of the metaphor of the world as the body of God. Rather than present in summary form the argument, let us attend in some detail to her Christology. Here McFague is a modern: we are told that the scandal of particularity is indeed scandalous. However, as the central message of Christianity is not to do with the individual figure, Jesus Christ, but rather that God became flesh in human form, the high claims of the incarnation of God are here transferred from Jesus to the immanent presence of God in the world, which is then interpreted -for Christianity - by reference (but not sole reference) to Jesus Christ and his disciples.64 Or, as McFague puts it, what is required is the making of two moves: 'the first is to relativize the incarnation in relation to Jesus of Nazareth and the second is to maximize it in relation to the cosmos'.65

Noting that the clue given to us from the incarnation regarding embodiment is that 'the shape of God's body includes all, especially the needy and the outcast', McFague makes a direct connection with the notion of value. For if God's body includes all, and all is related to, and loved by, God, then the intrinsic, as opposed to the instrumental, value of nature is secured. From a 'cosmological and theocentric perspective', we have the overturning in hierarchies ofvalue: such a perspective is the criticism of the traditional hierarchical valuation in which instrumental (that is, anthro-pocentric) ascriptions of value take precedence over the intrinsic value of creaturely life.

From the perspective of the commitments presented here, such a view fails to specify with sufficient clarity the detail of the interactions between humanity and nature. (I have elsewhere criticised what I regard as the inadequate Christology operative here.66) The problem is not, itseems to me, immediately the matter of value but rather how we are to think of the relation of humanity and nature in ways which are both theological and political. At issue here, then, is the matter of how to bring in under theological theory the deeply problematic matters of theorising the theme of abundance in relation to scarcity, the technological mediation of nature, the development of ways of negotiating alternative uses of non-human nature. At the back of this is the problem of construing the otherness of nature, and the character of the demand which this otherness places on us.

With this emphasis on value, comes a tendency towards deism. Perhaps this is not surprising: a cosmos or world conceived abstractly in terms of

64. McFague, The Body of God, pp. 159-60. 65. Ibid., p. 162.

66. Peter Scott, 'Nature in a "World come of Age"', NewBlackfriars 78:919 (1997), 356-68.

value invokes an abstract, yet still personal, God. As I have been suggesting, the way proposed through this political theology of nature is somewhat different: in the actions of the triune God, the concretion of the world is given; the theological task is then to explicate the dynamics of this concretion.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Ace Your Life With Affirmation

Ace Your Life With Affirmation

Learning About Ace Your Life With Affirmation Can Have Amazing Benefits For Your Life And Success. A Step By Step Guide On How To Be Effective In Using Affirmations.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment