In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis invites Christians to turn to the Book of Genesis to understand how they’re related to the earth. Let’s do that.
Genesis makes clear in its first chapter 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. God creates all things and calls them good, and every created thing enjoys a distinct relationship to God.
The dominion we have from God is a gift and is not absolute. We’re to help, respect, understand, tend, care for creation: creation isn’t ours to do what we want with it.
The 2nd chapter of Genesis describes 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, the story says. 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, gaining a wisdom of our own. The danger is to see the experience and human wisdom we gain as absolute. 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 also leads 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.
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 humanity the promise of continuing life, but once banished from the garden human beings now face death.
When Christ came in the fullness of time, he brought life to the world. In his death on the cross, death itself was replaced by life. His cross is a tree of life.
The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”
Pope Francis, Laudato SI 66