The environmentalist mentality today is very often positioned against the flourishing of human life, as though humans are a threat (e.g., population growth) to the environment, which is treated as bearing great value independent of humanity. The recent film Noah takes up this point of view; the antagonist is the one who quotes Scripture and asserts that man has dominion over the earth and the animals upon it. But there need not be a dilemma between choosing the flourishing of man or respect for the natural world. The earth is God’s creation, the place where the narrative of salvation plays out. It nourishes human life and is not something to be wasted.
The Church recognizes that there are problems in the relationship between man and the environment. She readily admits that:
“The underlying cause of these problems can be seen in man’s pretension of exercising unconditional dominion over things, heedless of any moral considerations which, on the contrary, must distinguish all human activity” (Compendium of Social Teachings, 461).
Sometimes man can and does exercise his dominion unjustly. That we are given dominion does not mean that all actions are therefore acceptable. Dominion is about right stewardship and moral utilization, not about pure domination. Abuse of the environment or the animals within it is an affront to the great gift God gave us in His creation.
Yet we must always remain aware that creation is not God, nor divine in itself:
“A correct understanding of the environment prevents the utilitarian reduction of nature to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited. At the same time, it must not absolutize nature and place it above the dignity of the human person himself. In this latter case, one can go so far as to divinize nature or the earth, as can readily be seen in certain ecological movements.” (Ibid, 463)
While creation is a gift, there is a point at which ecological movements go off the rails. This is when they attempt to place man in opposition to the value of the natural world. While some of this is a reaction against man’s true trespasses, it is the action of God and man that instills the natural world with its worth. To put it crassly, leaves and fish do not care whether they exist or not. Rather, the health of the environment is a proper goal of human behavior precisely because it is the environment which supports human life. That is the role it was meant to play in creation.
Again, man’s use of the environment is no excuse to abuse it. We are meant to be grateful for the earth’s resources and their life-giving role and to protect the earth so as to ensure it is able to shelter humanity for as long as God should like.
The resources God gives us are precious indeed. As our family was outside in our yard last weekend, I filled a pot from the spigot to water the vegetables we had planted. Watching the clear water flow freely and fill the pail, I was struck by how wonderfully easy it is for us to access clean, potable water in abundance. We are truly lucky and blessed. Not everyone in the world has such a basic necessity as clean water; it is not something to be wasted. We should steward the earth’s resources well simply out of gratitude for what they do for us and how dear they are.
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The hallmark of the Christian life, as Paul tells us in Colossians, is thanksgiving: being grateful for the things that we have since everything is a gift from God, our creator, sustainer and redeemer.
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col. 2:6)
Those rooted in Faith abound in thanksgiving. This sense of gratitude should characterize our relationships with God, each other and the natural world as well.
The Social Teaching of the Church says this explicitly:
“The attitude that must characterize the way man acts in relation to creation is essentially one of gratitude and appreciation; the world, in fact, reveals the mystery of God who created and sustains it….This realm opens the path of man to God, Creator of heaven and earth. The world presents itself before man’s eyes as evidence of God, the place where his creative, providential and redemptive power unfolds” (487).
There is thus no contradiction between exalting man and honoring the earth. The environment is evidence of God, the display of His creation and its wonder. It is a gift to humanity for the sake of our flourishing. Accordingly, there is no reason to fear human life and growth in population for this is the original purpose of the environment. Further, for the purpose of human growth, it should be carefully, sustainably be tapped. Balance is written into the gift of dominion.