TO TILL AND TO KEEP
Burger boxes, chemical waste, pesticides, auto emissions, styrofoam, plastic forks, and on and on; mountains of garbage, smog and polluted air. When and where will it end? Or will it be our end? Every person who cares for others and for "this fragile earth, our island home" has to be concerned. But the problems can sometimes seem overwhelming and cause people to throw up their hands in frustration or apathy.
Humanity, the creation story of Genesis tells us, was put into the first garden "to till and to keep" (Genesis 2:15). Adam is granted the blessing to till and use the earth in order to live. Human beings must grow food, warm themselves, make clothes and learn how to fabricate life’s necessities, and, beyond that, also to enjoy a number of the pleasures of life. They are to use, but, for their own sakes and for others, not to use up. They are to keep the earth, the air and water, the trees, the fish and other creatures.
Before the industrial revolution and large population growth our ancestors were able to do this keeping, and the earth, air and water could continually renew themselves. But here we now are with our throwaway culture and increasing dependence on fossil fuels. Ten thousand species of plants and animals become extinct each year. That is an estimate. No one knows for sure.
Global warming, due largely to the burning of fossil fuels and smaller forests, creeps up on us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing at a historically unprecedented rate, along with methane, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons. World population grows at the rate of a hundred million people a year. Soil erosion, desertification, over-fishing, air and water pollution, and waste disposal problems are increasing in many parts of the world. Although environmentalists are sometimes accused of using scare tactics, there is a lot about which we have to be concerned.
Yet as a species we humans tend to hide from our most serious challenges. "In the shadow of the hawk," wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, "we feather our nests." Probably our favorite ‘out’ in the face of environmental distress is our hope that science and technology will somehow rescue us. There will be, we want to believe, a chemical or cold fusion or some other new power source that will put everything right – perhaps just in the nick of time.
Tilling and keeping is, of course, also an economic problem. Economic issues are among the reasons why governments have such a difficult time responding comprehensively. Eighty percent of U.S. voters when polled say that environmental standards should be set as high as possible and that improvement should be made "regardless of cost." Yet, because care for the environments seems to conflict with many short-term economic interests, and because special interests are often more directly affected by particular actions than is the general public good, the environment gets more lip service than actual help. It is a matter, we are told, of jobs or the consumer-driven economy or the needs of the military for our security. Or it is all of the above, and, just as often, the special interest is, in fact, you or me. Most politicians tend to be followers rather than leaders on such matters, afraid to incur the anger of voter consumers if they restrict our choices or seem to cause prices to rise by making environmentally friendly decisions. If there are sacrifices that need to made in what we drive or eat or how we build our buildings, someone else will have to go first. In the view of one cynical observer, getting people to be environmentalists is akin to expecting goats to be gardeners.
Some, however, hold out the hope that it could be the ‘market’ itself that will eventually take care of our problems as decent water, land and air come into precious supply. The quality of life will go down and everything may be rationed, but cost, it is argued, will finally make people careful and conserving. We like, too, to think that the problems will at least develop slowly. In one perspective that may be true, but problems also have a way of suddenly manifesting their seriousness. It may be like the smoker who only has a cough and a little shortness of breath. Then one day there is a spot on the lung. "Mommy," the seven year old asks, "can the hole in the ozone layer be fixed?" Mommy doesn’t know, and scientists don’t know either.
But, if scientists, politicians, business or the market cannot save us from ourselves, who or what can? Many had hoped that maybe the "enlightenment" could and that answers lay in education about these matters together with education’s progress.
Education can be helpful, but it is becoming increasingly clear that all the emphasis on individual rights and achievement (particularly when the individual is viewed largely as a consumer) and on enlightenment progress and development seen as unlimited growth is a major part of the problem. We have developed a greater sense of individual and consumer rights than we have of community rights and the common good. It is discouraging to see the generation that once came home from school to lecture their parents on the importance of being friends to the environment now eagerly joining the society that consumes so much fossil fuel and over-packaged consumer products.
What then happens to our keeping along with our tilling? What happens to our stewardship for the whole of creation? What an irony it would be, notes Holmes Rolston III (in his book Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World) if, with all its intelligence and ability to be self-critical the sole moral species acts only in its own self-interest toward all the rest. A human being may be or more value than a whooping crane, but what do we say when there are six billion humans and only one hundred whooping cranes? "Ought not this sole moral species do something less-self interested than count all the products of an evolutionary eco-system as rivets in their spaceship, resources in their larder, laboratory materials, recreation for their ride?"
Many of us want to believe that an ethical sensibility coming from religious faith, together with a profound spiritual reverence for life, will enable us more faithfully "to till and to keep". We should be aware, however, that Christianity (or at least versions thereof) has long been suspect in the eyes of a number of environmentalists. They have criticized attitudes that encourage indifference to environmental concerns. The creation story bids humans to "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 . . . I have given you every plant . . . every tree" (Genesis 1:28-9). Such language could be understood to give humanity the sense that it is the only species with rights on this planet. Rather than a responsibility to keep as well as to till, the words might be used to grant license to do whatever humans want with other life, and with the air, earth and water.
The belief that this world is to come to an end before long can encourage a disposable attitude. "Why not use it all up, since it is all going to pass away in any case?" This negative view of earthly life can be given a further boost by a spirituality that separates the spiritual and material spheres. Since those who are to be saved belong primarily to the spiritual world, so the argument goes, why be much concerned about the material?
No! We respond. Better spiritual and biblical teaching holds that God’s creation is good and that any time of its transformation in a new age is unknown. As creatures of the earth humans are fully part of this world. Their "dominion" is to be understood as one of great responsibility. They are to have stewardship of other living things and of the whole of the oikonomia, the economy and environment of the world.
"The Creation," writes Wendell Berry (in his book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community) "is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primeval creation long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God." While the environment itself is not to be worshipped, it is to be treasured. It is to be treasured as it is being used without using it up, kept even while tilled. What a major conversion of faith and understanding it would be if we could come more and more to do this together! We would care for our forests and streams, oceans and wetlands and plains because we need them. We would live with what is enough and sufficient to sustain ourselves out of immediate self-interest, but we would also have the wisdom to be aware of the beauty and restorative power of nature with its places for recreation and contemplation and for learning from natural history and nature’s balance and sense of proportion. Perhaps then we could then take the still greater step of seeing ecological sustainability as what we are called to do for others – for our children and theirs, those of other nations, the poor and less advantaged who have no other protection from the ravaging of the environment.
Max Oelschlaeger (in his book Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis) describes himself as a convert to the conviction that it is only faith communities – holding to moral and community values that lie outside the dominant economic paradigm – that can provide the will and leadership to help move our society to economic balance and sustainability. They, he maintains, are the grassroots groups who can all become friends of the environment and join with others in forming the larger vision that will enable us to till and yet keep our earth.
Frederick Borsch May 2005
Much of this commentary is excerpted from Outrage and Hope: a Bishop’s Reflections in Times of Change and Challenge (1996) and from The Magic Word: Stirrings and Stories of Faith and Ministry (2001)
COPYRIGHT © 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.