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"Climate and Creation: Dominion"



Genesis 1: 1-5, 11-13, & 20-31


In his systematic theological tome Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas wrote the following:


“For God brought things into existence in order to communicate his goodness to creatures and to represent his goodness through them. And since his goodness cannot be adequately represented by any one creature, he produced many diverse creatures...Hence, the goodness of the universe as a whole participates in and represents God’s goodness in a more perfect way than any single creature does.”[1]


I wonder what St. Thomas would say about our modern representation of God’s goodness. What would he think of how we’re treating all creatures great and small? What might he write now in the face of these alarming realities:


-”The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th-century”[2] due in large part to increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions


-The ice sheet in Greenland “lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same period.” The rate of ice mass loss has tripled in Antarctica in the last decade.


-The “global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century,” and the rate in the last 20 years is almost double that of the last century.


-”Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about two billion tons per year.”


That last figure dates from 2004 and is certainly higher now, as is likely for all the figures in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making A Life On A Tough New Planet which was written in 2010. I haven’t finished the book yet, but in just the first chapter McKibben lays out a shockingly bald summary of exactly how things stand (or I should say stood in 2010) for our planet. Making my way through his work I’ve already learned the necessity of taking breaks so as not to get overwhelmed. Because despite fancying myself knowledgeable about our climate crisis - and hear me, it is a crisis - my knowledge would fit in a thimble. On page 5 of his book, perhaps knowing people like me would read it and panic McKibben says this,


“Don’t let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics...These should come as body blows, as mortar barrages, as sickening thuds. The Holocene [our current geological epoch] is staggered, the only world that humans have known is suddenly reeling. I am not describing what will happen if we don’t take action or warning of some future threat. This is the current inventory: more thunder, more lightning, less ice. Name a major feature of the earth’s surface and you’ll find massive change.”[3]


That last sentence alone is enough for us to dedicate the rest of the year to learning about the climate crisis and talking exclusively about being more engaged stewards of God’s creation, but for now, we’re going to start small and spend three weeks exploring the climate and creation.


This morning I want us to consider this question: What does the Eternal think about our representation of God’s goodness? Particularly when it comes to our planet, God’s first creation? In light of the Genesis text Paul read for us, how are we handling our dominion responsibilities? Are we good stewards? Reliable caretakers? Responsible dominion holders?

The familiarity of this morning’s verses makes them soporific - comforting and repetitive enough that they might just put us to sleep. But as we explore our responsibility for creation (the noun), the place to start is with creation (the verb) - God’s miraculous making of the primordial elements of life.


“Genesis 1 is a grand symphony of a text...it is majestic, liturgical, epic prose. It’s a beautiful passage”[4] that speaks to elements of “wonder and wildness” both in the creation itself and in God. But there’s a key element to this story we often miss in verse two. As The Voice Bible translates it, At first the earth lacked shape and was totally empty, and a dark fog draped over the deep while God’s spirit-wind hovered over the surface of the empty waters. Then there was the voice of God.”


Did you catch it? The elusive little detail the ancients left for us?


This, my friends, is the story of “creation out of a world that is wild and waste, formless and void…”[5] In Hebrew that phrase more or less rhymes - tohu va-vohu/ תהו ובהו and its exact meaning is still argued by scholars, but what matters for us this morning is that isn’t a story about “creation-out-of-nothing.”[6]


Neither is this a story of God creating alone, “with absolute control, working unilaterally.”[7] For if it were, those who are created in God’s image could, as commentator Terence E. Fretheim points out, “properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms --power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation.”[8] It becomes the human domain, that over which we’re given dominion, power, control, and the right to do with the Earth what we like with God’s blessing. At least that’s been the totally-supportable-from-the-text approach generations of believers have used as their framework.


But what if we reimagine the God of creation? What if we think of the Eternal “as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship?”[9] That means humanity, which is created in God’s image, should model the same approach to the creation from which we were formed. Said another way, if God is communal and relational in Her creative work, we should use the same approach in our dominion over God’s good Earth.


But that word “dominion” is loaded and should be unpacked. The Hebrew word in verse twenty-eight that our Bibles typically translate as “dominion” is uredu/וּרְד֞וּ from the verb radah/רָדָה, which means to rule/rule over. Some of the associated meanings are: have dominion, reign, dominate, and subdue so it’s easy to see how that word can “imply complete sovereignty, the right...to do with something as you like.” Obviously, that’s problematic in trying to be communal and relational like God, so locating other times this word is used in the Hebrew Bible is necessary.


A great example is Psalm 72 which describes the duties of kings and those things over which he should have dominion. What’s important is the inclusion of verses 12 through 14, “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence, he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”


As commentator David Lose says so well, “seen from this point of view, dominion is about protections and care and when applied to our relationship to the earth invites us to imagine that God [gives] us this creation to tend and protect and calls us to see our interests and future as wrapped up in the survival and flourishing of the earth.”[10]


Tend and protect. Responsibility and obligation. Nowhere in God’s communal sharing of this planet was room supposed to be made for humanity to take more than we put back. Simply because we can bend things to the will God gifted us with doesn’t mean we should and is not a reflection of the spirit with which we were made.


Created from dust and destined to return to dust it is our responsibility and privilege to be the caretakers of this sacred creation God has shared with us and we’ve been asleep. We, good, thoughtful, faithful Christ-followers, haven’t been paying enough attention, and our world, God’s good Earth is in trouble.


Much of the damage cannot be undone and that’s sad and scary. But rather than being overwhelmed by one more thing, let’s focus on this morning’s Good News and challenge. They’re one and the same: To be a person of faith is to care about the planet and to take its current state seriously then do the work to make it better. It really is that simple.


God’s creation needs us, my friends, let’s be good stewards.






[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, Q 47, a 1. [2] All of the information in this list is taken from the article “Climate Change: How Do We Know?” via NASA’s Global Climate Change Signs of the Planet, https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ [3] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making A Life On A Tough New Planet, 2010, pg. 5. [4] Kathryn M. Schifferdeckers, “Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328 [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:4a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=78 [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid. [10] David Lose, “Earth Day and the Bible,” from blog “...in the Meantime,” https://www.davidlose.net/2013/04/earth-day-and-the-bible/

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