On dominion question, a Lutheran and the pope take differing roads to similar destination

The Rev. Leah Schade’s book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015) is simply a remarkable document. Blurbed by climate author and activist Bill McKibben, it is full of new ideas about the environmental movement and constitutes a review of the literature that simply boggles my mind. 

Like many of you, I have been immersed devotionally and intellectually in Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” I am thirsty for new ideas about the environment, about ways to enter the Genesis 1-2 controversy and more. You know the one: tend and befriend or fight and flight; dominion or caring stewardship, as well as about who I am in relationships to stars, animals and natures.

I am also a woman and a feminist. I love Pope Francis (and have a book coming out in the fall called Love Letters to Pope Francis from an Unlikely Source), but often have trouble with how he thinks about women.

The two works, Schade’s book and Francis’ encyclical, offer me two different approaches, either road of which I am full ready to take. I tend and befriend ideas as opposed to opposing them.

The pope’s narrative scaffolding in the encyclical is the theological construct of praise. He stands in awe of the cosmos. He believes the cosmos is here for us to enjoy and to praise.

“Rather than a prob­lem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise,” Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, Paragraph 12.

Just a graph earlier, he complimented his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, for helping us to recognize an integral ecology calls a response to the world around us with “so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus,” but through a genuine bond of affection.

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our at­titude will be that of masters, consumers, ruth­less exploiters, unable to set limits on their im­mediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously,” Francis wrote.

Schade, a Lutheran pastor, uses grace as her construct: She believes we have an unmerited gift in creation and that we have sinned against it -- actually raped it, over and over, in the same way that men rape women.

Schade is not lacking in boldness or application of this metaphor. She has a brilliant re-interpretation of the grace/works dilemma that puts the false use of power at the root of our violence against nature and against women. We think we are deserving when we are not. We think we deserve creation, which we do not. And, agreeing with Francis, she thinks we have grown too big for our britches when it comes to the grace and gift of creation.

But Schade and the pope agree on much more than not. Just because their starting points diverge in the old ways -- the sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic church and the grace of the rebelling Lutherans -- doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the dominion/stewardship question. They both get the difference between dominion and tending.

Their different starting points are as old as the Reformation, as clear as the parting of the ways nearly 500 years ago between the two sects of Christianity. And it all seems so silly now. Both cite and understand the early theological and biblical bases of the environmental movement. Both are avidly against dominion theology and for stewardship theology. The great parallel roads of praise and grace are converging so richly now that we might just be over the Reformation altogether. 

Desperation makes strange bedfellows.

In his 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Lynn White sought to find the underlying presuppositions that have led to our ecological crisis. He held that dominion was the biblical basis for “man’s” relationship to nature and that it was the source of our destruction of the environment.

Many feminist theologians have accused White of not reading the Bible well. Sally McFague famously argued that White does not distinguish between the Priestly and Yahwist accounts in Genesis, which need to be examined and contrasted. Dominion may be in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 2:15 we read, “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”

As Carol Newsom, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament at Emory University, also points out, this is God creating a relationship between earth and earthling -- not of human over earth, but human within and beside earth. The Garden of Eden is imagined as what we would call a permaculture, where human attention is part of the ecosystem in a nature where we “lightly prune and rake.”

The even more striking agreement between these two religious minds comes around animals. Schade’s book about preaching advises some very winsome and imaginative ideas about preaching the Gospel from the point of view of the animals or the rocks or rolling streams, instead of from the point of view of the human. The sample sermons in the book are delightful, startling and full of anger resolved to praise.

Indeed, Francis of Assisi frequently talked to the animals. In Laudato Si’, the pope noted the saint would often “burst into song” when gazing at the sun, the moon and the smallest of animals. Thomas Celano, author in 1229 of the earliest biography of the Franciscan order founder, described the interactions this way:  

"When he found abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, Francis called all creatures brother …”

The main theological roads of praise and grace are replacing both dominion and stewardship as the ways to understand the environment. We can tend and befriend them both. One or the other need not win.

And if you have read the encyclical and liked it, you must read Leah Schade’s book, too. 

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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