Whose Earth Are We Ruining?
“Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who formest light and createst darkness, who makest peace and createst all things; Who in mercy givest light to the earth and to them that dwell thereon, and in thy goodness renewest the creation every day continually.…” (Hertz Prayer Book)
If you’re over the age of thirty-five, you can remember a time when no one talked about ecology. But it is not a new word and it’s not a new concern.
The word ecology was first recorded in English usage in 1873. Its dictionary definition is simple: “the study of the relationship between living organisms and their environment.” It is an interdisciplinary study which includes biology, sociology and psychology. And if you believe that the world was created, ecology also becomes a branch of theology.
Ecology, in light of a God-created universe, is seen as part of God’s purpose and plan. It’s unlikely that the Creator intended for us to consume and waste this world unless or until humanity no longer needed a planetary habitat.
The Bible teaches that human beings are made of the substance of the earth and that even the human body is to be recycled: “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). That is not to say that people are only the materials of which they are constructed. God breathed some of what he is into that clay and that clay became a living being.
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed (Genesis 2:8).
Spiritually, people are more than the soil of which they are constructed, because people are souls. God put the man and the woman in Eden to tend the garden, to guard it; to be the first Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, they did not follow the simple rules set up by the Creator. When they disobeyed God and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they destroyed the ecological balance of their own souls. Adam and Eve, by that act, said that they knew more about how to tend the garden than the One who created them knew. We call that event “the Fall.” It had a debilitating effect on our physical environment as well as on our own souls.
We tread on dangerous ground when we place human power or our desire to control at the center of the universe. When we fool ourselves into thinking we are the masters over the destiny of the creation, the environment, which is not ours to do with as we like, deteriorates.
The early sages interpreted our role as that of guardians entrusted to care for the planet. In Ecclesiastes Rabbah, chapter 7, section 13, the writer tells a story:
When God created the first man, he led him round all the trees in the Garden of Eden. God said to him, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right for you.”
The corruption started deep within our souls and has worked its way outward so that today we can see its ruinous results in industrial disasters like the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India or the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Environmental deterioration has been going on since that first bite of the forbidden fruit.
Some of the frightening statistics clearly demonstrate that deterioration:
- Scientists are estimating that by the year 2000, as many as one million species of plants and animal life will become extinct, due to human destruction of forests and ecosystems.
- Thus far, this century has witnessed the elimination of approximately half of all the forests in developing countries.
- According to the United Nations Environmental Program, twenty thousand cancer deaths in the U.S. each year may be resulting from radioactive radon that is accidentally trapped in well-insulated homes.
- The increased burning of fossil fuels, the loss of forests and other factors are warming our planet so that by the middle of the next century the atmosphere could be six degrees Fahrenheit warmer, with potentially drastic effects on sea level, agriculture and human health.
- Due to the many uses of fluorocarbons (in aerosol cans, etc.) our atmosphere’s ozone layer is being seriously depleted, threatening our health and retarding crop productivity because the increased ultraviolet rays are reaching the earth.
- Seventy million Americans are drinking water containing levels of lead higher than that recommended by environmental health scientists.
- There are 14,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste that must be absolutely contained for 10,000 years so as not to damage the environment.1
Vernon Grounds, a social action theologian, poses the question, “How can we stop the pollution of our planet, the deadly defilement of our global home, by the short-sighted, self-destructive activities now being carried on by many members of the human crew on spaceship earth?”
If the early sages were correct, we should just despair because “…there will be no one to set it right after you.” While there are no quick solutions or simple answers to the ecological mess we find ourselves in, there is reason to hope.
But realistic hope comes with a right world view. That means looking at our present crisis through the lens of culture, and culture began with creation.
God didn’t begin creation with a finished temple or cathedral where we might meet him. He created a growing thing, a garden where there would be seeds, shoots, roots, stems, flowers and seeds to start the process all over again.
Adam was the first husband over the garden. He trained the plants, put them in certain orders, and enhanced their growth. In return, they gave him their beauty as well as being the food for his sustenance. He named the animals and enjoyed them and they provided a certain degree of company. Yet Adam needed the understanding that could only come from another person and so God provided a mate for Adam in Eve, and together they tended the garden.
God arranged an ordered culture. He made grass to grow up and rain to come down. He made lovable animals like kooala bears and apparently unpleasant creatures such as fleas. He made man and woman and he put them in a place where they could cultivate their environment and be part of the beauty of that garden by making a contribution to it.
God was a husband to mankind and he gave us the right to husband, cultivate and “enculturate” our own circle or sphere, which radiates from our families outward.
However, after the Fall our role of husbanding the environment has not been without its abuses. We have taken what God arranged and put it in disarray. In wanting to improve our situation, we have made chaos out of what once was order.
It is human to want change—for the better. But there will never be movement in the right direction until there is right motivation. All of our human instincts call out for self-fulfillment, self-protection and self-interest, and yet it is obvious to all that the necessities of reversing today’s ecological crisis demand self-discipline, self-denial and the determination to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Yes, we are our brother’s keeper and God has made us keeper of this garden which we call the planet earth.
Some musingly wonder if God is the “founder” of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club or any of the pro-Green movements. And, inasmuch as these groups are interested in maintaining the environment in its natural order, with its natural beauty, one can’t imagine the Creator disapproving.
However, when that concern leads the environmentalist or the naturalist to venerate the creation more than or instead of the Creator, then that person’s world view is distorted. Environmental concerns over the creation which are not based upon a commitment to the Creator might be as damaging to the soul as cracking open nuts, discarding the nut meats and attempting to eat the shells would be to the body. If one didn’t die from perforated intestines, he or she would surely die of malnutrition.
On the other hand, worshiping the Creator and seeing God high and lifted up and directing all of our devotion to him gives us the gentle spirit of a Francis of Assisi to love all the creatures and creation.
It’s amazing to see that those who truly love God don’t need to be told to stop polluting his creation. By nature they have manageable ambition and by nature they desire to do the right thing. The rules of environment, like the laws of God, are written on their hearts. The new person—redeemed, refined, re-designed, reconnected to the Creator—is not a damager of God’s works, but one who by his very nature will avoid wasting the earth.
Truly we no longer have a Garden of Eden to cultivate, but we do have a home planet which must be preserved by our own self-control.
The greatest threat to the environment is not overpopulation, but a population that is anthropocentric, that is, man-centered. Ours is a self-centered world which follows the philosophy that human beings are the most significant entity in the universe. And if we believe that, then we look for more for ourselves; more of the material baubles of our age: from cellular phones to laptop computers to prestigious cars, street addresses, clothing labels and so on to give us gratification. More is better. More is beautiful. More is contrary to the Creator’s design. The environment is endangered by our “more” mentality. There is enough of everything to go around for those who see themselves as guardians entrusted with preserving what God has made.
There is not enough of everything, however, for those motivated by greed. Greed can start out in the most subtle of ways. The individual says, “I’m not going around dumping hazardous waste in rivers. I don’t keep unnecessary lights on. I carpool when I can, etc. I keep most of the Ten Commandments, certainly with more regularity than some other people I know.”
Ethical relativism can be found in modern Jewish teaching as well as throughout all society. The Jewish relativist sees the high ethical and moral standards of Judaism and measures himself or herself against others and, oftentimes, fares quite well.
However, we must answer to an even higher authority—the Messiah calls on us to be theocentric, God centered! Human beings are not the center of the universe. Our relativistic value system is flawed. This world wasn’t created as our personal playground, even if we think we are “playing fair.”
A theocentric soul can utter with the same conviction as King David, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.…”
A theocentrist can see that it is God’s earth that we are depleting. It is God’s earth whose resources are being consumed at a frightening rate. We were given the role of “husband” and cultivator and have behaved instead as ravagers, consuming more of everything than is necessary or good for us.
This is contrary to the biblical standard set for those who trust in God as the provider of all good things. The biblical model is one of self-denial. When we deny ourselves, we don’t need to defend ourselves and mine uranium to make bombs. The nuclear deterrent is almost powerless in light of the reality of the divine deterrent.
The Spirit-controlled person eats less food, uses fewer goods, needs less space, spends less money, creates less wealth; therefore theocentric living is diametrically opposed to consumerism.
How do we become that person who is self-sacrificing instead of selfish? Jewish lore speaks of a time in the future when a Messiah will come and restore all things.
The coming of the Messiah is not fiction, but his example to us was one of selflessness and servanthood. Jesus, who walked the earth almost 2,000 years ago, said that he who manages to get along with the least on this earth will have the most in the kingdom of God. He was talking about the ecology of the soul.
Spiritual ecology is about preserving those qualities of humanity which are noble and God-honoring. Our Jewish prophets echoed those sentiments again and again, when they refused to bow down to idols and dishonor the One who created them. Spiritual ecology is concerned with avoiding the waste of people; the misuse of humanity. As much damage as we do to the structure, fabric and substance of the planet, we are doing even more damage to the body of humanity. That damage comes about through the toxic waste of sin. It is a spiritual smog which creates a haze that clouds the vision. When we can’t see clearly, we become unbalanced. We don’t notice danger signs down the road and so we proceed without taking the proper precautions. Those precautions involve a recognition of who we are, who God is and what is expected of us.
When it comes to the physical state of our world, unless we find a way of harvesting food on Mars for our world population and using fossil fuels from Venus, we are treating our planet in a way that says, “When things run out, like clean air and food, then that’s it.”
That is not what God intended for us to do in tending his garden. We must find strength for self-denial and the strength to care for others.
When we look at the spiritual state of our souls, we must come to grips with the reality of our defilement, that we have been polluted with the toxic waste called sin, and say along with King David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
David uttered that cry after he had sinned. That Hebrew word for create is “bara” and it is used exclusively for the activity of God. God could create a new heart in David. He can perform that spiritual operation on any of us.
God can create a clean heart in us so we can substitute self-interest for godly concern for all his creation! God can create a clean heart in each of us that we can learn to do with less, to sacrifice, to deny ourselves, to share more, to provide for others, to truly be a husband, a cultivator and nourisher in the garden. The Yotzer Prayer for the Sabbath concludes with a messianic petition:
He is the Lord of wonders, who in His goodness reneweth the creation every day continually; as it is said, (O give thanks) to Him that maketh great lights, for His lovingkindness endureth for ever. O cause a new light to shine upon Zion and may we all be worthy soon to enjoy its brightness. Blessed art thou, O Lord, Creator of the luminaries.
That new light has shone upon Zion in the person of Yeshua (Jesus). The New Testament portion of the Bible offers the promise of new beginnings for those who trust in him.
Therefore, if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Footnote 1 See Ecology and Life—Accepting our Environmental Responsibility, by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson; pages 21-23.
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Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.