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Column: It’s time to flip the script on faith’s role in caring for the Earth – The Columbus Dispatch

In 1967, a historian named Lynn White wrote an article for Science magazine in which he charged that the roots of the ecological crisis are essentially religious. 

He said that the problems derive from Christian tradition in particular, which teaches people to view themselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for the slightest whim.”  Christian ethicist James Gustafson backed up White and described this as “despotism” – the view taken by people of faith that interpret their divine right to dominion over the Earth.   

In this view, you don’t need to ask the trees for the right to plow them down when we bulldoze an area for development. You just knock them down, pile them up and set them on fire. 

The same can apply to the earth below the trees filled with tiny wildflowers, defenseless toads, topsoil developed over thousands of years and on and on. Gone in the name of asphalt, concrete and all our seemingly significant stuff. 

We supposedly can do all this because God told us we had “dominion” in Genesis 1:26-31. But I do not believe this is what God intended.  

A much better understanding of the word for “dominion” is given in “The Message” by Eugene Peterson. God gives us “responsibility” for the Earth. We are to be stewards and caretakers of the fish in the sea and the birds in the air. More and more people of faith have claimed responsibility, stewardship and care for the earth since White nailed us in 1967.    

Turning the corner to a true relationship with creation can be guided by the 1923 vision lived out in the “Mass Over the World” celebrated by Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin. Father de Chardin went to the middle of a desert in China and offered the whole cosmos back to God. He did so with the deep conviction that human beings exist neither to rule the world nor to use it up, but to bless its elements the same way we bless bread and wine – offering the fruits of God’s body back to God with humble thanks for all our lives.   

Another way to look at this is through the eyes of Carl Sagan. In his book, “The Dragons of Eden,” he squeezes the creation of the cosmos into a single year. Using his model, the Big Bang happens on Jan. 1. The sun and the planets come into existence on Sept. 10.  Human beings arrive on this planet at 10 minutes before midnight on Dec. 31. 

We are the latecomers. We need to be humble and appreciative for our place in the scheme of things.   

Let’s bring this cosmic focus down to earth – to central Ohio in June 2022. There is a way we can all lift and pull together to be responsible stewards in our care for the part of the Earth upon which God has placed us. We can do it right here and now. We can do it by joining the efforts of the RAPID 5 project.   

The RAPID 5 project, which stands for Rivers and Parks + Imagination + Design, has been years in the making. It aims to connect the green space, waterways, bike and walking paths, and parks of central Ohio. The goal is to improve links between the Big Darby Creek, Alum Creek, Big Walnut Creek and Scioto and Olentangy river corridors.

It connects all of us in a new and wholistic way. Check it out at www.rapid5.org.  

Dr. Amy Acton, president and CEO of RAPID 5, put it this way when she spoke with me: “It is really about being more alive and vital. We connect to one another in common places, on common ground for the common good. We are going to grow – but are we going to grow well? We will be connected to nature and one another like never before.”   

There are more than 200 miles of trails in Franklin County and 146 miles of rivers, creeks and tributaries. As a physician, Dr. Acton sees the healing power of nature and brain — of body and soul in relation to the earth. What if we see the connections too?  What if we discover each other in new ways through our connectedness to earth, sky, water, nature?   

Let’s be honest. Let’s flip the script. Let us own this truth – it is nature that takes care of us. Nature heals us. Nature is responsible for our health and well-being – not the other way around. 

Nature is a steward of humanity. I see it when children are free to move in the woods and play in streams and waterways. I see it when a young couple walks hand in hand through hills and valleys. I see it when a farmer and city boy hold dirt in their hands and celebrate a common love of God’s connection to this good Earth.  

As Dr. Acton concludes, “This is about weaving our community back together.”  

Years ago, pastor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor called this “The Dominion of Love.” She was right.  We have a chance to take our little corner of this planet and the heart of our community and bring it all together in God’s dominion of love. Then we can paraphrase God in Genesis 1 and say together, “This is good.”  

The Rev. Tim Ahrens is senior minister at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Downtown Columbus.

Keeping the Faith is a column featuring the perspectives of a variety of faith leaders from the Columbus area.

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