In chapter 1 Genesis makes clear that the earth, “our common home,” is God’s work. God works for 5 days to create the world; only on the 6th day does God create man, whom he gives dominion over creation– but not absolute dominion. All creation comes from God, who names all things and pronounces them good. Every created thing enjoys a distinct relationship to God.
Human dominion, a gift of God, is not absolute. We’re to help, to respect, to understand, to tend, to care for creation: creation isn’t ours to do what we want with it.
The 2nd chapter of Genesis has a wonderful description of the creation of man. The earth is dry dust, but water wells up making a soft wet clay from the dust. God, like a potter, fashions man from the clay, breathing the breath of life into him and making him a living being.
We’re creatures of the earth. As we’re reminded on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
After creating man, God places him in a garden filled with all kinds of plants and trees. Two trees are singled out, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man is forbidden to eat from that tree.
What’s the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why is it forbidden to eat from it? There are different interpretations. Some interpret eating from the tree as a decision of moral autonomy. I claim a knowledge of good and evil; I say what’s right or wrong.
It’s not unusual to hear claims like that today. Some believe they have absolute choice over their lives. They choose what’s right or wrong, good and evil, rejecting the limits of the human condition and the finite freedom God gives human beings.
Another interpretation sees eating from the tree as a decision to trust only in human experience and human knowledge gained as we grow and progress individually and as a people. Like children distancing themselves from their parents, we’re called to be self sufficient, needing no guidance from anyone. In this case, human experience and human wisdom become our sole teacher; we don’t need God.
Can we see both these approaches bringing harm to our environment? The first expresses itself in a possessiveness towards created things; they belong to us alone and we can do anything we want with them.
The second way can also lead to endangering our environment. Pope Francis speaks of the danger of “anthropocentrism,” putting human beings at the center of everything, a trend he traces back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. Trusting human knowledge and human creativity some are convinced that science and technology alone hold the promise of a perfect world.
But technology isn’t enough to meet our present environmental crisis, the pope says, we need to change humanity. We need to humbly accept our place in creation, as God meant it to be.
What about the tree of life in the Genesis narrative? It seems plain enough. In the garden the tree gave man the promise of continuing life, but once banished from the garden he now faces death.