I am the son of a biology professor. My dad was an entomologist, and I spent several summers collecting insects with him on behalf of skittish undergrads. They would attack the bushes with nets, and I would try to capture what came walking, crawling or buzzing out. My father's specialty was velvet ants, wingless wasps that we would track around the sand flats outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I am also a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Although my denomination allows for a fairly liberal view on scriptural interpretation, periodically I am asked how I can reconcile a scientific upbringing with a religious point of view.
Because conservative Christian traditions have become some of the louder religious voices in the United States, people assume that all Christians, myself included, must believe that the Earth is about 6000 years old, evolutionary theory is a pile of hooey and the Bible is a reliable science textbook.
I believe none of those things. The universe is billions of years old. Life on Earth has evolved over millions of years through a process of natural selection. The Bible is a wonderful, inspired and important resource for faith, but written by people who knew very little about physics, astronomy, geology or biology. Neither the author of Genesis 1 (the account of a six-day creation) nor the author of Genesis 2-3 (the Garden of Eden story) were writing textbooks. Instead they were divinely inspired to paint pictures and make metaphors about creation. They were not trying to describe the making of the world in the past. They were trying to ascribe meaning to the world in which they lived.
As we approach Earth Day (April 22), the meaning of these ancient texts is still important. I think that what they say about creation can inform those who take the texts literally, those who take the texts metaphorically, and those who think these texts are a waste of time. First, from Genesis 1, is the idea that the creation is fundamentally good. Again and again, the creator looks at what is happening and sees that it is good. That doesn’t mean that only “good” things happen in it. There are predators and there is prey. There are viruses, bacteria and parasites that are part of the natural order. There are natural disasters beyond our control. Yet watch the sunset over Buzzards Bay, the sky changing color minute by minute; the stars and planets becoming visible in the growing darkness; the waves coming in with the satisfying sounds of pebbles slowly grating each other into sand. There is an unmistakable sense of good, not a moral or ethical description, just goodness, right and whole.
The Genesis 1 story ends with the instruction that human beings are given dominion “over every living thing.” The Genesis 2 story broadens that image with the creator putting the first human being in the garden “to till it and keep it.” For people of faith, neither of these images should be seen as God granting ownership of the Earth to humanity. Rather God tasks humanity with being stewards of the Earth. We human beings are here to help the Earth thrive. As one of my seminary professors, Phil Hefner, put it, we are “created co-creators,” meant to preserve and celebrate the inherent goodness of the creation.
Unfortunately, instead of a creative sense of stewardship, we have approached the environment with a destructive sense of entitlement, with the idea that we should get to do whatever is best and convenient for us. We have polluted the earth, seas and skies. We have harvested in unsustainable ways and then wasted much of the food we have grown. We have filled the oceans with plastics, the land with pesticides and the air with excess carbon dioxide. As a result, we have not kept the planet but are changing the planet, entering a new geological age that some are calling the Anthropocene era, where the work of human progress has permanently left a mark on the environment.
This situation demands a call for collective repentance; repentance that is not just about feeling sorry for our actions, but seeking to change our ways as individuals and as a society. We need to pay attention to what we consume and how much we throw away. We need to pay attention to how much water we use and where that water drains. We need to be mindful of ways that we can simplify our lives, doing more with less. And finally, we need to spend more time encountering that inherent goodness, whether at the seashore, a forest walk or a starry night. Take the time to reconnect to the planet, reminding yourself of your small role to keep, honor and preserve this holy place in the universe. Whether as people of faith or simply as citizens of planet, we need to pay attention.
— Rev. Carl Evans is the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Falmouth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.