Two young fish were swimming along when they came across an older fish swimming the other way. “Isn’t the water lovely today?” the older one remarked. The youngsters nodded politely and kept swimming. When the old-timer was out of earshot, one fish turned to the other and whispered, “what’s water?”Some things are so close to us that we can’t see them, so normal that most of the time they are effectively invisible. Often, it is only when the normal goes wrong that it comes suddenly into focus. This was certainly true for me a few years ago when I received some life-threatening health news. Suddenly, the good health that I had taken for granted jumped into focus. By being threatened, what had always been true suddenly became visible to me. I had been swimming in the water of good health without really noticing how much of a blessing it can be.
One of the realities as necessary and ubiquitous to us as water is to fish, yet which is so obvious we rarely consider it, is our relationship of utter dependence upon the proper functioning of the rest of creation. Every breath we take and every mouthful of food and every sip of water relies on a complex web of relations. The fusion of hydrogen atoms in the heart of the sun radiates energy at the right wavelengths and amplitude to reach us in a form that can drive photosynthesis and the water cycle, having first been filtered of dangerous frequencies by stratospheric ozone. This solar energy strikes the surface of the planet and heads back towards space as long-wave radiation; on the way, some of is trapped by asymmetrical trace gases, ensuring that our planet is not a frozen ball, but that most of it contains liquid water – water that is everywhere in motion and necessary for plants to produce the oxygen we breathe and the carbohydrates we eat – water that is prevented from stagnating by the tug of the moon, the spin of the earth and the warmth of the sun, and which can be carried on the winds so that life-giving rain falls even far from the ocean – water that flows and carves rocks, gradually smoothing the pebbles I threw as a child into Ladies Well, and which carries nutrients out into the oceans, where they are needed by the microscopic phytoplankton that not only supply half the world’s atmospheric oxygen but which also form the basis of the marine food chain.
And on it goes. In any direction we look, we quickly discover that we are very much part of this creation, that we are tied in myriad uncountable ways to the planet on which we find ourselves. Our shelter, clothing and everything we use to make life more comfortable and liveable are derived from what we find around and under us. Indeed, all the atoms that we are and use, from our eyes to our iPhones, all are the scattered debris of long dead stars, reformed and refashioned over countless millennia into the complex structures we recognise today. We are, quite literally, star dust.
Perhaps we may sometimes think of ourselves as so clever as to have risen above non-human creation. We think of ourselves as masters, as being in control, as having outgrown our dependence upon the fickleness of nature. Yet even at the peak of our technical knowhow, even at the best of our rocket science, when we put a human being on the surface of another world, we are thrown once more upon our utter dependence upon and participation in the created world. For go and ask any astronaut: they are more aware than most of us just how precious and vital simple things like oxygen, water and somewhere to put our bodily waste truly are.
So when we approach the concept through which most evangelicals focus their understanding of the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation – that is, the concept of stewardship – we must come to it mindful that it is a secondary concept. It only makes sense when placed within a broader framework, a wider vision of humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation that emphasises our membership of a whole community of creation. Our primary relationship to other creatures is as fellow creatures together, recipients of all that we are and need and can be from the hand of a generous Creator. Whatever else we may go on to say about the place of humanity within creation does not override this fundamental interdependence and solidarity we share with our co-creatures. We do not approach the rest of creation as though we exist prior to and outside of or above it. If we read the creation accounts, we see that God proclaimed creation “good” six times even before humanity enters the scene. There is no hint that the rest of creation was made simply for humans to use. Indeed, such a view is idolatrous, as numerous places in scripture make it clear that if creation has a purpose beyond itself, it exists for God rather than for us. Thus, other creatures have their own relationship to God that is prior to and more important than their subsequent relationship to humanity. And we share with them this fundamental origin in God and orientation to God. No account of human stewardship truly makes sense until we grasp this.
Psalm 148 takes this reality and places it in the context of worship. As we listen to the Psalmist’s praise of the Creator, notice how most of the psalm takes the form of invitations to all the other creatures to join in a universal chorus of praise. The picture is of a massive and diverse choir, all singing in harmony: the angels (who after all are creatures too), the sun, moon and stars, the waters, the weather, the trees, the animals and, finally, the humans. This picture is an excellent antidote to two mistaken approaches: the first, adopted by some extreme environmentalists, is to treat nature as itself divine. The scriptures affirm that through the created order we do indeed catch all kinds of glimpses of God, but we’re most in tune with the universe when we join with it in praising our Creator. The second mistake, and one that is far more common in our society and amongst our churches, lies not in overstating the importance of creation, but in understating it, taking it for granted, treating it as though it is mere raw materials to be mastered by our technology and used for our projects without consideration of any broader context. By the way, humans are not the only creatures to use other creatures. In making use of other creatures, we are not exercising our particularly human role but are merely being creaturely. And scripture places clear limits on the ways that human may use other creatures, especially other living beings. We look at creation and see only resources for our economies, failing to see that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. But once we really get the reality that other creatures are our co-worshippers, then we can no longer worship creation nor treat it like dirt.
We shouldn’t even treat dirt like dirt, since from dirt we came and to dirt we will return. The first man ‘Adam was made from the dirt ‘adamah, in Hebrew. ‘Adam from ‘adamah – it’s a Hebrew pun. It works in English too; the word “human” has the same root as the word “humus”, soil, dirt. The human from the humus. It’s the same root as the beautiful word “humility”. Being properly humble, being close to the dirt, not thinking of ourselves as demi-gods or outside of creation, but rather seeing ourselves as dependent upon and bound together with the rest of creation is central to what it means to be properly human.