by George Clifford
Reflecting on forty years of preaching, I realized that the content of my sermons has changed in several ways. One of the most important changes is that I talk less about experiencing the divine presence in and through nature and more about human responsibility for the natural world. Four theses influenced my homiletical shift.
First, God created the world and thought it good. This thesis is basic Christian theology. Yet, too often Christians (like me) have only paid it lip service. Scripture, tradition, and reason agree that any creation of a good God would possess an inherent goodness and value. Consequently, all nature—whether alive or not—is both good and valuable.
This thesis complements my prior homiletic emphasis on natural revelation. Emphasizing natural revelation does not preclude highlighting nature’s goodness and value, but my earlier thinking, preaching, and teaching seldom explicitly addressed those ideas. Instead, I tended to speak of the earth and cosmos as a means of revelation (that is, an instrumental good) ignoring that they also possessed an inherent goodness in their own right.
Second and a corollary of my first thesis, when God delegated dominion over nature to humans, God appointed humans as God’s stewards. God thereby entrusted us to act on God’s behalf in caring for and preserving nature. I consciously reject the notion that this delegation of authority justifies the unlimited exploitation, perhaps even destruction, of nature. Polluting rivers so badly that they burn (an obviously unnatural condition that happened with the Cuyahoga River more than a dozen times since 1868), air to become so foul that it causes severe respiratory problems for creatures (including humans) whose very life depends upon breathing, and extirpating species at an unprecedented rate is both sinful and indisputably bad stewardship. Even as a youth, while cherishing Maine’s scenic beauty that surrounded my home I keenly felt the irony of living less than half a mile from one of the nation’s ten most polluted rivers.
The prevalent first century Palestinian concept of stewardship, the concept of stewardship that Jesus presumably had in mind when he talked about stewards and stewardship, presumed that a steward had a right to draw a living from the assets that the owner had entrusted to the steward’s care. In other words, good stewardship is prima facie compatible with the general principle of using nature to sustain and to enrich human life. However, this prerogative does not mean that humans have an unfettered, unlimited, unilateral claim to the earth and all that dwell thereon. A good steward cares for and preserves the assets the owner has entrusted to the steward.
The greater the analytical granularity, the less certain are our moral judgments about what good stewardship requires, permits, and prohibits. For example, Christians divide over whether good stewardship of God’s valued creation enjoins, allows, or bans humans from eating animal flesh. Instead of wasting time and energy attempting to transform religious resources into pseudo-scientific sources, or to seek uniformity in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, Christian communities can more profitably anticipate, encourage, and benefit from discussions of diverse opinions about the specifics of stewardship.
Third, the biblical concept of stewardship presumes a covenantal relationship between God and humans. In that covenant, God both delegates responsibility for stewardship of the earth to humans and commits to joining with humans in caring for and preserving nature. I am hopefully optimistic about the earth’s future primarily because of God’s involvement and secondarily because I think that humans will eventually fulfill their stewardship responsibilities with the requisite wisdom, commitment, and perseverance. Incidentally, covenant engagement with God as earth’s stewards constitutes an initial step toward reclaiming an essential ethical principle that the Church too often has marginalized by equating stewardship with giving God gifts of treasure (and sometimes time and talent) in the annual pledge campaign.
Richard Niebuhr’s succinct summary of the purpose of the Church and its ministry (to promote the love of God and neighbor) has shaped my ministry. Connecting the purpose of the Church and its ministry to the principle of stewardship begins to identify loving God and neighbor with practical steps. Good stewards of the resources entrusted to their care (time, talent, treasure, and the earth itself) seek to promote the love of God and neighbor in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Efficient denotes using the fewest resources to achieve a specific goal; effective denotes achieving the goals likely to produce the greatest gains. The criteria of efficiency and effectiveness are one of way using human reason, in light of scripture and tradition, to discern God’s calling. These criteria advantageously offer more practical, and potentially more reliable, heuristics for discerning God’s will than do alternatives such as taking the first opportunity that presents itself, doing what feels right or appears appealing, etc. Efforts count, but so do results.
Finally, I consciously situate this stewardship ethic within the context of ecological science, because science is the only reliable lens for understanding earth’s condition and the dynamics that affect it. Unlike religion, science proceeds by articulating a theory, testing the theory’s reliability and validity, and then revising the theory as appropriate. For example, science alone provides the best prognostication about the amount of water that humans can annually draw from an aquifer without depleting it. Astrology, crystal balls, and prayer are no help in answering such questions. The Bible, ethics, and theology are completely silent on these topics. Instead, religious and spiritual resources, unlike science, point to the mysterious author of existence (the Creator God), offer value judgments (nature is good), and call/motivate people to be good stewards of this earth, “our fragile island home.”
Indeed, ecology’s capacity to illuminate potentially efficient and effective ways in which human stewards can best fulfill their covenantal responsibility to care for and preserve the earth is a vital dialectical intersection between science and religion. More broadly, the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence about the earth’s deteriorating condition and diminishing capacity to support life underscores the urgency of this dialogue. Additionally, Christian scientists and activists concerned about earth’s well-being have repeatedly told me that our political leaders not only welcome, but particularly listen, when people of faith speak out about ways in which we can better care for and preserve the earth.
Thus, I now intentionally and consistently strive to weave these four themes into my ministry:
(1) God created and values all nature;
(2) God appointed us stewards of the earth and all that dwell thereon;
(3) God assists us in fulfilling that stewardship;
(4) Ecological science identifies ways in which we can be good stewards by most efficiently and effectively caring for and preserving the earth.
These themes have opened the windows of familiar scripture texts in fresh ways, allowing God’s light to shine with unexpected intensity and clarity.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.