600 word version (or read the longer version here)
Christians, Jews and Muslims share two common stories about the creation of the world and the relationship between God, humans and “the environment.” Is the repetition of these stories in 21st century Australia good news for other forms of life in this part of the world?
At a shallow level, possibly. At a deeper level, no.
At the shallow level, followers of these faiths are increasingly emphasising the second creation story, which calls humans to serve and protect the Earth (often translated in the narrow sense of till and keep, revealing our agricultural bias). The first creation story, with its emphasis on man (yes, man) treading down and having dominion over life on earth has a little less currency. At the very least environmentalists and socialist/capitalists have a creation story each.
But at the deeper level, these stories have little to offer in the way of good news for life, or even specifically for humans.
Most people of these faiths accepted long ago that these stories contain theology (ideas about God and humans) rather than science. Anybody who is nervous about abandoning a literal understanding of Genesis need only read the stories of Noah and the flood. If events really happened as described, then God is directly responsible for the largest scale environmental catastrophe, genocide and mass abortion in human history! The God of the literal Genesis accounts is nothing but bad news for the environment and humans.
Of course, theological claims and science cannot be untangled all that easily. Science cannot prove a theological idea, but it can certainly disprove it! Thank God, studying our environment through sciences like geology, evolution and ecology has liberated us from some of the theological errors in the creation stories of the worlds three major faiths.
For example, the story of Adam and Eve and their disobedience is backwards. They supposedly spoil God’s perfect world of harmony and bring pain, sickness and death into the world. God made a lovely perfect, environment, and we ruined it. Everything bad in the world is human’s fault! We are 100% bad news, for us and the Earth.
But this is backwards! Humans didn’t create pain and death. Pain and death lead to humans. Pain and death are not evil. Pain, for the most part, keeps us safe. Death, as part of natural selection, makes room for new forms of life and new babies.
The sciences also liberate us from the misconception that humans are in control of the planet. It is the microbes, and then the plants, which drive the cycles of life on Earth. We are a very recent arrival, and we will be gone soon, most likely. While we are here we should try to enjoy life, and live it, rather than control it.
Further, by showing the intimate genetic and ecological links between all Life they show us that if there is any such thing as an image of God on earth, it is Life, not just humans. Life in all its evolutionary past and ecological present. Reflecting on the sciences reminds theologians that every aspect of life on Earth contributes to God’s richness of experience, and therefore has value. Life, as the image of God, contributes to our richness of experience of God. Without reverence for Life, there is no reverence for God.
Rev. Dr Jason John