On Wednesday I attended a meeting of the Texas Railroad Commission where property owners and a waste disposal company debated the location of a large disposal site on the border of Karnes and Atascosa County. Such sites exist in other sectors of the Eagle Ford Shale play. Oil and gas extraction now dominates the economies of the counties over the Eagle Ford. Single wells can now penetrate thousands of feet below the earth’s surface and through horizontal fracturing release enormous quantities of gas and oil. Property owners, with mineral rights, often ranchers and farmers, enjoy unprecedented amounts of unexpected wealth. Still, the rapid expansion of the industry raises questions about the impact of the fracturing process and its accompanying by-products on air and water quality, both essential to human well being. Accordingly, there is a concern among many as to the measures that citizens and governments should take to minimize those dangers to the environment and human health. We might well take a few minutes this morning to reflect on what the Scriptures might offer as guidelines for addressing environmental issues.
When reading the creation story we realize that this is a story written from the point of view of farmers or horticulturalists in the ancient Near East. We know from the human record that the first humans were hunters and gatherers and only became agriculturalists some 10,000 years ago. We also know from the Cain and Abraham stories that many ancient humans were not farmers, but migratory pastoralists who moved with their flocks. The point is that we do not look to the creation story in Genesis as an historical account of human origins. It is a creation narrative from a farmer’s perspective. Still, the point of the story is true for all humans. God is the Creator of the earth and humans are stewards of the earth, placed on it to manage it.
The creation story raises two questions. First, what is the earth that we are to manage, and second, how are we to manage it. First, what is the earth? Science tells us that the earth is a complex system of interdependent and interrelated parts, which itself sets in a larger system called the universe. Earth draws its energy from the sun and converts it into elements such as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, which are the building blocks of all life. The system works to sustain life when all the parts are in balance.
For example, carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere in a combination called “carbon dioxide” is important as a regulator of the earth’s temperature. Too little and plant life dies; too much and the earth’s atmosphere warms and plant life dies. God’s earth is a symphony of interrelated parts held in balance by their own give and take. Mankind’s role, as steward or manager, is to insure that the balance is maintained, and certainly not to upset the harmony in such a way as to endanger life in all its diversity.
If the earth is a system, how well has mankind, as steward, managed the earth? For the past three centuries mankind has been of the opinion that the Genesis story gave us license to exploit the earth’s resources in a way that the farmers in the creation story of Genesis could not have imagined. The Industrial Revolution and our increasing demand for fossil fuels have led us to neglect the balance that God created in the earth-system. Sustained use of coal and oil to produce energy over 130 years has led to a dangerous warming of the atmosphere, that is too much CO2. The good news is that the use of natural gas will lessen our dependence of coal for electricity and help restore some balance while we develop renewable, non-carbon sources of energy.
Still, our efforts to secure and use natural gas may pose other risks to the environment. Fracturing now allows chemicals long buried in previous geological ages to rise to the surface and pollute air and water. Proper disposal of such waste is our biblical responsibility as managers and stewards of God’s creation. That is one conclusion that the Genesis story of stewardship offers us today.
There is a further biblical lesson that we can take from Paul’s vision of a New Creation in Jesus Christ. As is clear from the readings this morning, Paul envisioned the Risen Christ as the first fruits of the New Creation that God is bringing about. Christ has restored the imbalance in the God’s creation caused by human greed and sin. Paul tells the Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (5:17). Yet Paul realized that this New Creation is a work in progress. He tells the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23). In other words, God’s creative activity is not ended, but continues. That makes mankind not only stewards of what is, but “co-creators” with Christ of the creation that is unfolding.
To grasp the dynamic nature of a still evolving creation, we have to understand where we have come from in our understanding of the world. In the medieval world view before the dawn of science the earth was understood in a static fashion, called “the great chain of being.” Plants and animals were at the bottom of the pyramid, next came man, and above all was God. Christian hope looked not to the future of this world, but to the next where the faithful would enjoy God forever. From this pre-scientific perspective this world was a stepping-stone into the next, not valued in itself, but as a means to an end.
By contrast Native Americans had a better sense of the value of the earth. The Iroquois of New York had what they called “The Great Law,” which asked people to consider whether the decisions they make today would benefit their children seven generations into the future.
Paul’s understanding of a dynamic, still unfolding creation is much closer to the Native American view than to that of pre-scientific medieval times. Paul did not have the benefit of a modern scientific perspective on the earth as a system, but his faith perspective of a dynamic, new earth in the making is quite compatible with what we know now about the history of the earth and the universe.
As I watched The Cosmos series on TV, narrated by astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I could not but marvel at the complexity and yet beauty of God’s creation whether within a carbon cell or within a galaxy. The energy released in the Big Bang is still expanding the boundaries of the universe. Yet, in the midst of the billions of galaxies floats earth on which, as far as we know, exist the only beings that are conscious of the universe and its Creator. Some fewer still recognize that the heavens and earth are being brought together into one community of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Our task as disciples of Him who is Lord of heaven and earth is to care for the garden in which the Creator has placed us, caring for it, and one another. When he returns, he will restore forever the balance within this system, called earth, and heal it and us from our sinful dysfunctions.
In the meantime we discuss and debate the best way to manage the resources God has given us be it on the streets and farm roads of Karnes County or before the Texas Railroad Commission on the 12th floor of the Travis Building in Austin.