A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion: Reflections on Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Lectionary Reflections
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
June 15, 2014

Here is a Sunday with all manner of ways to celebrate. It is Trinity Sunday, which I assume suggests that we all ought to raise a glass for the Trinity and its confusing and exhilarating "three in one and one in three" language, not to be confused with the three Musketeers battle cry, "all for one and one for all." Then we could focus on peace with justice, hoping that this was not the only day of the liturgical year when we decided to do that. I propose to do that in what follows. And last, but I hope not least, it is Father's Day in the U.S., that day that tries and fails to match Mother's Day with its merchandizing bonanza of flowers and brunch. Well, I am a father twice over, so I have a right to say that peace with justice is definitely something we fathers should be concerned about not just today but every day. Ready?

First things first. The environmental crisis that we all face is very real, despite the boneheads at Fox News, the flat-earthers that still roam the halls of the national Congress and more than a few state houses, and various Neanderthal bloggers who simply will not allow the consensus of over 97 percent of reputable scientists to get in the way of their certainty that it is all a liberal plot, cooked up by the Obama crowd to take away their guns. I can hardly believe that I had to write that sentence in 2014, since it sounds like some riff from 1714 or even 1314. With the certain proof that an enormous ice shelf is poised to break off in the Arctic and raise the sea level appreciably, risking all low-lying populations from Bangladesh to Boca Raton, it is far past time to stop this ridiculous debate. Climate change is all too horribly true.

I am not a scientist, and hence I can only read what scientists are saying. What they are saying is very scary indeed. I am nearly sixty-eight years old, so I will not see much of what they are warning come to pass. However, I have two adult children nearing forty, and one sweet grandchild seventeen months old. My children will experience a changing world, and my grandchild will live in a changed world. So, what are we preacher types to do, since we cannot change the climate; we cannot issue scientific warnings, spiced with terrifying data and computer models? But what we can do—and this is important—is we can help our congregations hear what the traditions on which their faith is based actually say about these issues. Does God care that we are altering the planet that we believe, and say each Sunday, that God created and loves and sent the divine son to make whole once again? That is the more basic meaning of the Greek word we usually translate "save." It turns out that our biblical tradition indeed does have powerful resources to face the climate crisis head on, and to convert us to lovers of the earth rather than merely exploiters of it.

And we begin with the first creation story of Genesis. The reflection and writing on this text are staggering in volume and complexity. However, for my purposes today, I will focus on perhaps the most quoted of the lines from this famous text, Genesis 1:26-28. Here God makes the human being "in God's image; in the image of God God created it; male and female God created them" (Gen. 1:27). (There is no sexual differentiation in Genesis until a woman is first mentioned in this account and then created in the second account of Gen. 2.) This God is the God who is in the process here of making a world balanced, ordered, structured, and designed; it is that God whom you and I mirror. Hence, when the text goes on to say that we humans are to "rule/dominate" all the creatures of land, water, and air (Gen. 1:26) and to "subdue" the land made by God (Gen. 1:28), those powerful images must always be employed in the bright light of the reality that we act as mirrors of God, not as free agents of our own human desires.

For far too often and for far too long we human beings have played with the world we have been given as if it could always sustain whatever we decided to do. We are now learning that such activity is no longer sustainable. This is the upshot of the crisis we now face. Our belief that human beings are the center of creation, that all activities and behaviors occur because of our human needs and our human comforts, that the land and soil and water and air are ours to use in any ways we desire, have been based on a jaundiced and finally appalling reading of Genesis 1:26-28. We have in fact "dominated" the non-human creation; we have in fact "subdued" the land and all its gifts. And the result has been disaster: over-fished seas, threatened bees and birds, withering drought, fouled air.

It is time for us, past time, to end this foolish and incorrect notion that it is our world. It is, and always has been, God's world. How dare we claim to be made in the image of this God and act as if God had and has nothing to do with it? How dare we pray to this God for help while we continue to act in God's world as if we were more devils than God-like creatures? I think it is time for us to discard this image of dominators and subduers, bequeathed to us by a misreading of Genesis 1. Even those who would say we are God's "stewards," given the task of caring for earth, has failed. We need a new image, and I think it may be found in Genesis not far from this influential text.

6/5/2014 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.