International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives - Past and Present

edited by R. J. Berry

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

Even with, or perhaps because of all of the triumphs of technology, humanity is in a more perilous predicament than ever before: species extinction, air pollution, and global warming are just a few of the many threats facing us. Given this, many social and religious movements try to counteract our reckless intrusions into nature and to remind us that, in a deeper sense, we must act as protectors, not plunderers of the sacred Earth. This approach is more in tune with traditional religions than is the tendency to consume more and more from nature. Abrahamic scripture may be read both ways – on the one hand, it might be seen to imply that the world was created for our enjoyment. On the other, it requires that we take care of the planet while enjoying the beauty of the trees. In this book, thoughtful scholars reflect on the latter perspective. By stewardship, one means caring “for what we value” [1]. Every essay in this collection connects ecological conduct and consciousness with some aspect of (Abrahamic) religions.

The book begins with a historical view of the changing notion of stewardship within Christianity, transforming dominance over Nature into stewardship of the planet. It recognizes that the distinction between stewardship and despotism has also become “somewhat problematic” [29]. It suggests that the Bible does not recommend domination over nature, but inappropriate interpretations of the Book of Genesis have led to this error. There is a recommendation for a positive theology in which “the earth is not merely a negative illustration of the desirability of heaven!” [55]. The central thesis of the book is that “dominion over nature is incompatible with long-term sustenance” [92].

Indeed, “Stewardship dynamically shapes and reshapes human behavior in the direction of maintaining individual, community and biospheric sustainability…” [158]. We read about how Darwin’s theory of evolution has been beneficial: “… while evolutionary theory poses difficult challenges to theology and ethics, it has also contributed significantly and constructively to increasing our understanding of natural processes, to improving our ethical relationship with other animals, and to clarifying the place of humans within the natural world” [172-173]. In the chapter “Symbols to Live By” we are reminded that “the evolutionary sacramentalist cosmology offers the richest conceptual resources for addressing earth’s distress, if infused with a profound earth asceticism and married to prophetic efforts…“ [183].

Throughout, there is insistence on an “ethical approach to the environment” [204]. We are told that “Christians who claim to know the Bible, but are trained in the rituals of capitalism and private property, misconstrue stewardship as indicating the rights of ownership rather than the responsibilities of shared creaturehood” [218], a comment applicable to the practitioners of other religions as well. The book concludes with discussions on ways to move forward. Here topics like  “From Ecological lament to a Sustainable Oikos” and “Beyond the Theology of Stewardship” are discussed. The book emphasizes at the end that “The economy, technology, and the market are tools – powerful ones, but still only tools – and must not be allowed to be masters. Never has the concept of stewardship been more important…” [317].

A book like this shows how enlightened religious perspectives can inspire one to surmount the problems we are facing.