(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved.
The Biblical Book of Genesis, chapter one, says the following:
God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
When considering the title of my message today, “Surprisingly Liberal Lessons from the Bible: God is a Tree-Hugger” these verses are crucial ones to examine. They have been been used by conservative Christians and Jews as justification for supporting exploitation of the environment. They rely on several key phrases in the verses. The verses also imply that humans are extremely important to god. We were intended to be the pinnacle of everything she created.
The passage then says humans are to subdue and have dominion over the earth and all creatures who populate it. We are supposed to conquer and then dominate all of nature.
As I said in my message last week on the topic ‘God is Gay’, most conservative Christians and Jews understand the Bible literally. It means what it specifically says, they believe. Their understanding of the Bible is thus not open to nuance, symbolic meaning or new interpretation. Modern science and its discoveries are equally irrelevant to them. Differences in how ancient words are translated, or the context in which they were originally written, are also unimportant. If the Bible says God, as an all powerful theistic being, looks like us, created the universe in six days, and did so six thousand years ago, then that is exactly what happened.
Much like the six Bible verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality have been misinterpreted by Christians and Jews, so too has the passage from Genesis I been misinterpreted. For conservative Christians and Jews, Genesis is literal history. They refuse to see it as allegory – a myth likely intended not to be fact, but to teach principles about how and why the universe and its creatures came into existence. For religious conservatives, the Bible’s creation story teaches that humans are a special and superior creation. They alone have souls and are given the ability to reason. Because of these attributes, humans exist not as one part of nature, but as rulers over nature.
The universe, according to a conservative understanding of Genesis, is anthropocentric. Humans are the literal and symbolic center of the universe. We are the reason why everything else exists. Nature is to serve us.
That understanding of what the Bible says has therefore impacted how humans have historically treated nature. In 1967, Professor Lynn Townsend White wrote a landmark article for the journal Science. In it, he claims that Christians have long interpreted the Bible to say that the earth is a resource for human benefit alone. That view has always been harmful to the environment, he wrote, but it began to cause even greater harm with the Industrial Revolution when the extraction of resources, and pollution of the earth, became exponentially greater.
In White’s view, the problem for the environment is not man-made science and technology, but rather the exploitive attitude people have toward the earth. That attitude comes directly from a conservative misinterpretation of the Bible. We must abandon our contemptuous and superior attitude toward the earth, be believes, and instead adopt what the Bible actually teaches: the earth and its creatures are equal to us, we must live in balance with nature since we are a part of it, and most important, we are not to have dominion over nature, but rather as good stewards of it.
Last Sunday, Jack Brennan said during talkback that he mostly did not care what the Bible says – even as he agreed that it teaches some worthwhile ethics. In many respects, I agree with him. The Bible is just one source to which we can look for spiritual wisdom. But it is not the only source and so it would s not as important as many Americans make it. The Torah, the Koran, the Hindu Upanishads, the wisdom sayings of indigenous peoples, and numerous science books all offer equally valuable insights.
A basic principle of Unitarian Universalism is that we look to many sources for capital ’T’ Truth – or what some call ‘god.’ In that regard, we believe there are many paths to finding Truth or god. Science, spirituality and humanist / Atheist beliefs all offer a path for determining them.
The problem with fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as I see it, is that they claim their particular path is the ONLY path. All others are invalid. Religious conservative have the right to believe this in their homes and places of worship. They do not have the right to impose their beliefs on others through laws, schools and textbooks. Nobody has a monopoly on what might be spiritually true since god, or no god, is a matter of belief and not empirical, evidence based based conclusions. Despite that, religious fundamentalists continue to try and impose their beliefs about scriptures on everyone.
And that is precisely the reason why I ultimately disagree with Jack Brennan. We should care what the Bible says and how it is interpreted – since it unfortunately influences our rights, laws and environment. Even more important, it is essential to counteract conservative misinterpretations with ones that are open minded and, yes, liberal. My message series this month is one way, I hope, to equip us with arrows of truth to counteract the misinterpretations.
In 1999, conservative U.S. Christians published what is called the Cornwall Declaration on the environment. Calvin Beisner, founder of this fundamentalist Christian movement, says pro-environmentalists are part of what he calls “the green dragon.” For many Christians, a dragon is representative of Satan. Environmentalists are the enemy of Christ and all Christians, he said. Environmentalism is a cult that considers nature more important than people. He claims the Bible teaches that humans are “special creatures, in a class of our own, quite separate from, and superior to, trees and animals.” Environmentalists are neo-pagans and pantheists – spiritual groups he says are Satanic. Those who profess a concern for the earth, plants and animals commit the greatest of sins – according to the Biblical author Paul – they worship creation instead of the creator.
In 2004, the most influential of conservative Christian denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention, resolved at is annual conference to oppose pro-environment solutions which it claims are not Biblical, are based on false science, and prevent the free access to natural resources that exist for human benefit.
As an interesting observation, the current EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, is a committed Southern Baptist, a deacon in his Oklahoma Southern Baptist church and member of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Trustees. He has said he believes God would never allow climate change to happen, and it is therefore not real.
Professor White’s claim that religious interpretations of the Bible have harmed the environment seems to still be happening even as I speak.
So, how has the Bible been misinterpreted? In the Genesis verses I read earlier, humans are to have dominion over plants and animals. They are to subdue the earth. The Hebrew word for dominion – as used in original manuscripts of Genesis – is “radah”. It means to rule or control. In other Bible verses, “radah” has an antagonistic meaning – to defeat and strike down an enemy. The word ‘subdue’, which also appears in the verses, is translated from the Hebrew word “radash,” which means to subjugate. These translations are why conservative Christians and Jews have historically interpreted Genesis to mean humans are commanded by god to control, subjugate and exploit nature as they wish.
But as I said last week, religiously conservative interpreters and preachers are disingenuous when they claim the Bible teaches nature is ours to dominate. Genesis, chapter 2 is believed by most commentators to provide a detailed explanation of Genesis chapter 1 and the notorious verses I read earlier. For example, Chapter 2 elaborates on chapters one’s statement that god created male and female. Chapter 2 gives the details on HOW she created humans – by gathering up dust to form Adam and by taking a rib from him to form Eve.
Other details in chapter 2 offer context for the chapter 1 words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’. In Genesis, chapter 2, the Bible says this: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and tend it.” It does not say humans were created to dominate and subdue Eden or nature. In Hebrew, the word for tend is “shamar” – which means to guard, watch over and protect. The Hebrew word for cultivate is “abad” which means to serve. Translated according to these meanings, Genesis, chapter 2, provides this contextual detail to the verses I read at the outset: “God took humans and put them in nature to abad and shamar it – to serve it, to protect it, and to watch over it.”
In other words, the Bible itself tells people how to interpret it. Humans are NOT to dominate and subjugate nature. We are NOT to be conquerers and rulers of it. We are to be guardians and good stewards of it. And stewardship is a key idea here. It contrasts sharply with the idea of dominion. Our Board stewards this congregation, its finances, resources and staff. It does not subdue you – and if it tried, I imagine we’d all revolt. Parents carefully and lovingly steward their children to adulthood. Since my mom cannot make decisions for herself, I steward her money so she will be provided for. Stewardship implies a deep and watching love for another – one that involves tenderness, care and guidance. That is how the Bible teaches how we should treat the environment.
Many other verses in both the Old and New Testaments agree with that tree-hugger and surprisingly liberal lesson. Psalm 24, attributed to King David – the most revered of Jewish leaders – says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” Psalm 95 states that the sea and the land are God’s since he made them. The New Testament book of Colossians, chapter 1, says the same. All of nature, its resources and its plants and animals – including humans – belong only to God and she loves them all. Nature does NOT belong to humans. The book of Job, chapter 12, says that nature instead reveals god to us. Attributes such as goodness, beauty, living in balance and, yes, peace – are all evident in nature. As Unitarians, we believe the same. The earth and all that live upon it ARE god.
The Biblical book of Revelation, the last in the Bible and one that describes the end-times, says in chapter 11 that on the final judgement day, god will rage against – and punish destroyers of the earth. In Revelation, chapter 22, it says that after punishing earth’s destroyers, god will restore the earth to how she created it. In that restored earth, in a new garden of Eden, a bright and clear river will flow. Countless trees, loaded with abundant fruit, will grow too. Lions will lie down next to lambs. Peace and harmony will predominate. In other words, god’s intention is that the earth be an Eden like perfection – clean, unpolluted, and widely populated with plants and animals all living in balance.
Just as I concluded my message last week, I believe the Bible has been wrongly translated and misinterpreted by religious conservatives. It’s been hijacked by them. As religious progressives, our task is to rescue it for the sake of our nation’s laws and policies.
As stewards of the earth, it does not belong to humans. It is god’s – it is hers – meaning that it belongs to eternity, to all creatures, and to the idea of capital ’T’ Truth. How we individually steward nature says much about who we are and the legacy we leave to our children, grandchildren and generations beyond. If god is the power of love and we are to be god-like powers of love too, then we must act with love toward our future progeny by leaving them a thriving and healthy planet. The Bible tells us we are to serve, protect and love the earth, and all that dwell upon it.
I wish you all peace and joy.