Friday, June 10, 2011

Stewardship of Creation and “Natural Law”

Humanly speaking, 2011 has revealed a more violent and destructive side of the ‘natural world.’ In the aftermath of the late December earthquake and tsunami in Japan, snowstorms in January and February paralyzed the Eastern U.S. In the Spring, while tornadoes ravaged the southeastern U.S. and Joplin, Missouri, drought and wildfires consumed parts of western U.S., and the lower Mississippi Valley was inundated with flood waters.

God has called you and I to exercise stewardship over an often violent and unpredictable world. Yet in the face of a violent world, what does it mean to exercise stewardship or “creation care?” According to Matthew 7:24, the wise builder is one who builds on a firm foundation; yet even the firmest foundation is no match for a powerful earthquake. The land steward plants trees to stabilize steep slopes and to provide habitat and food for wildlife. Though it takes years to develop, the forest can be destroyed within minutes by a tornado.

What then is the point of caring for creation–caring for a world that seems to be more chaos than cosmos (order, arrangement)? According to Romans 8: 16-25, “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God...” but we, along with “the whole creation, groan and suffer...waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”

Is it still possible for fallen humans to exercise God-honoring stewardship of a creation “subjected to futility?” The answer is “yes.” According to Colossians 1:13, He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son...the Creator (v. 16), Sustainer (v. 17), and the One Who [came] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

As members of the body of Christ, our conduct toward our temporary home, the Earth, is part of our calling to bring glory to this One Who died to redeem us and the whole cosmos (Col. 1:20). Although we and all of creation experience unpredictable violent events such as storms and earthquakes, our call to stewardship extends out of God’s original command to Adam. Adam was invited by God to study the created order, and to learn his place and purpose in that order (Gen. 2: 19-20). His study of the creation taught him that humankind was distinctly different from any other kind of creature and that there was as yet no suitable mate for him. Hence, Adam’s ensuing joy at the creation of Eve from his own flesh (Genesis 2: 21-25). Likewise, Adam and his descendants were expected to till and keep (serve and preserve; Gen. 2:15) the land– to study the soil, the water, the seeds and plants, and to understand the seasons for planting and harvesting.

Natural law ethics is consistent with what we learn in Genesis when it claims that there is order and purpose in the natural world, and that mankind is both capable and responsible for discerning this order and purpose. Thus, while we observe the eagle flying gracefully from her nest high in a conifer tree, we are supposed to learn from an early age that we are not made to jump out of trees. Likewise, we learn from our early years to establish a daily cycle of activity and rest. And, the farmer plants in the proper season and prepares to harvest in another season.

Application of natural law ethics can transform our stewardship through transformation of our character. The steward who views creation as having order and purpose will strive to learn more about his or her surroundings and how his or her actions will influence that order. The intent of the science of ecology should be to provide a theory of understanding of the natural order. Aldo Leopold combined aspects of natural law ethics and ecological holism to develop his “land ethic.” Thus, according to Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Even though communities will continue to face devastating storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis, the extent of the effects of calamities can be minimized by wise decision making. For example, according to the Associated Press, the village of Aneyoshi in Japan escaped the damage from the March tsunami because it respected the ancient stone markers representing the elevation below which building construction was known to be hazardous.

"Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school," said Yuto Kimura, 12.” Here, we have living proof of the true purpose of education, not only in science where we should learn about the natural order, but in ethics and in Scripture where we should learn what is “good” and “right,” and what we “ought to do.”

Case in point: The lower Mississippi River flooding in recent weeks. Not to point an uncaring and judgmental finger at the communities now suffering along the Mississippi, but rather to ask “what can we learn from flooding incidents along many of our rivers and tributaries?” Should we place markers along the flood plains of major rivers to restrict building in hazardous elevations? What are the boundaries of rivers? Certainly not the river banks which themselves have moved back and forth by processes of erosional cutting and sediment deposition. Can a river water or coastal tides be contained by dikes? We should know the answers from experience. Rather, we must focus on the cause of the flood waters.

Although we can have little influence on the volume of precipitation falling from the sky, our stewardship of the land does influence the fate of the rain and snow in a given land area, or watershed. Rivers overflow their banks when rainfall is unable to infiltrate into the soil and instead flows quickly into drainage ditches, creeks, and rivers. When we ignore “ancient boundaries” of rivers and proceed to drain wetlands and deforest or plow steep hillsides, we hurry the water into runoff that leads to flooding.

Certainly, creation often reveals a violent and destructive side. However, our lack of understanding of the natural order, or disregard for “boundaries”, and our resultant poor stewardship of the land multiplies the extent of destruction that can result.

Thanks for reading. Let me invite you to share other examples in which ignorance and/or disregard for the natural order cause multiplication of a calamity. Maybe you can also add a positive solution that has resulted from the lesson(s) learned. Meanwhile, may we heed the words of Scripture, Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set (Proverbs 22:28), as it applies to every area of our lives– reverence and love for God, love for our neighbor, honoring parents, assisting the poor, and other fundamental moral responsibilities.


Jeff Gates said...

Not being a biologist, I can only write in general terms. However, John, your words brought to mind an analogy between stewardship of the earth and stewardship of our bodies (although our bodies are also God's creation). It might be more accurate to say that care for the body is an example that can be applied to our treatment of the rest of God's creation.

Here is my analogy. Ill-health or disabilities of our bodies may result from genetics and/or self-abuse, but we are still responsible to take our bodies as we find them and improve their health. Knowing that our bodies will eventually die does not prevent us from taking care of them. We know that we cannot stop death, but we may be able to slow it's effects. And there is also the issue of keeping our bodies healthy until they die. Taking care of our bodies shows our appreciation to God for giving them to us. It also enables us to serve others more effectively instead of being a burden to others.

Likewise, the cause of the devastation of the earth should not affect our stewardship of the earth. We know that the earth will one day be destroyed, but this should not prevent us from caring for it. Until the earth is destroyed and remade, we can serve God and others by helping overcome some of the effects of the curse placed upon it. Caring for the earth demonstrates our appreciation to God for giving it to us. Doing this can also be a way of enabling us to help others.

John said...

Jeff, I think you have a good analogy. My colleague and friend, Dr. Calvin DeWitt, has often said to those who fail to see the common responsibility toward maintaining our physical health and the health of the planet: Just because we know our bodies are finite and we will have new bodies in heaven doesn't mean that we should stop brushing or teeth. Thanks for making this important and biblical connection.

Tammy Deemer said...

I truly believe that "the application of natural law ethics can transform our stewardship through the transformation of our character." This post makes me want to shout hallelujah!

I have an example of how ignorance and/or disregard for the natural order has lead to a multiplication of calamity. Our old house is built in a valley right on a flood plain. I can guess that people perhaps used the stream at one time to power a mill. Strip mining took place in the hills above the house. This led not only to a badly acidified stream, but also left very unstable soil for forest regrowth--landslides are common back there. The upper reaches of our little watershed are surmounted by a neatly-cropped golf course that, instead of allowing rain to infiltrate easily, sends many acres of runoff speeding into our stream. The golf course was put in before the days of storm water retention ponds. That is why whenever we get a quick inch of rain we watch our stream anxiously with rakes and shovels at the ready. If fallen logs break free of their upstream dams they are likely to lodge under our bridge or before our culvert. At that point the streambed begins to fill quickly with sediment and the whole level can top the wall we had installed to protect the house from flooding. The worst event we had deposited a foot of creek rocks-large and small-all across our yard.

In spite of our precautions, I am well aware that we are by no means safe. I remember standing outside during the aforementioned flood (4.7"/hour) and the song "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" came to mind. I marveled at God's awesomeness while at the same time having no illusions that a lot of what I was experiencing was caused by many people whose collective actions set up a scenario that forces us as homeowers to add to the cumulative problem by channeling our stream--something I know ultimately just kicks our problem down stream. I have half-jokingly said that the best answer for our house is to just wreck it and turn the whole area into the wetland it ought to be, but that is unrealistic for us.

Part of our solution is to hold onto our "possessions" lightly, knowing that we are just borrowing them. How can anyone really "own" land anyway? Thanks for keeping Aldo Leopold out there for us. I never copied so many quotes as when I read A Sand County Almanac. We need to learn those lessons, and soon!

John Silvius said...

From my friend and colleague, LaGard:
Enjoyed the blog. The tie between all things in the cosmos--natural and spiritual--is a tribute to the wholeness and unity of God, the Creator of our universe, the Giver of the laws which regulate both the natural world and the spiritual realm. Whatever the realm, we defy his laws to our peril. Violating his laws deprives us of the good those laws were intended to provide and wreaks havoc in untold ways.