The starting point for any authentic discussion of environmental stewardship must begin with the witness of the Book of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And 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. 1:27–28).
In our times, however, this biblical vision of the relationship between God, man, and nature has been confused by the introduction of two virulent strains of materialism. The first strain proposes that the natural world is the source of all value, that man is an intruder to the ecosystem, and that God, if he exists at all, is so immanent in the natural order that he ceases to be distinguishable from it. Such a view might be described as neo-pantheism. The second strain proposes that man is the source of all values, that the natural order is merely instrumental to his aims, and that God, if he exists at all, is irrelevant. Such a view bespeaks a latent deism.
Genesis presents a radically different picture of how the world is put together. In this account, God is the source of all values—in truth, he is the source of everything, calling the world into being out of nothing by his efficacious word. Man is part of this order essentially and, what is more, by the virtue of his created nature, he is placed at the head of creation as its steward. Yet this stewardship can never be arbitrary or anthropocentric, for the biblical cosmology implies that man rules creation in God’s stead and must do so according to his divine will. Sound stewardship of God’s creation is founded upon an important recognition: There exists a hierarchy of being necessitating that man approach the things of this earth in a manner according to their true value. This value is determined by the degree to which each created thing participates in the perfection of God. Thus, the more that a creature can participate in the life of God, the greater its ontological value. This is why God places man, who is a rational being capable of freedom and love, as the pinnacle of his created order: Man images God’s perfection in a more excellent way than other creatures. One might say that all the beings of God’s creation find their perfection in the constitution of human nature.
Man’s stewardship does not establish a license for him to destroy creation. Certainly, nature has objective value distinct from its relation to man. Nature therefore deserves our respect but not our worship, and nature must finally be seen in relation to the moral value of the human person who has the responsibility of stewardship.
Our view of stewardship must be rooted in the authority of divine revelation and informed by intelligent reflection on creation, reflection that has been passed down to us by tradition. Such a view marvels at how creation has been elevated to a higher perfection by the creative hand of human intelligence. It is a view that sees, in the incarnation of Christ, God’s radical affirmation of all that is truly human because man images his Creator. The gift of stewardship, though not always ordered to the greatest good in practice, yet displays the human being’s central role in the drama of creation.
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