God has entrusted his world to human care

Father John A. Kiley

The first chapter of Genesis clearly states that God has given mankind “dominion” (Gen.1:28) over all the earth. In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis acknowledges that this supremacy of humanity over nature could justify “unbridled exploitation” of the world’s resources. Dominion could become destruction. But then the Pope happily bids the faithful to read the second chapter of Genesis in which the earth is entrusted to mankind to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Humanity’s more tender charge is to “till and keep the garden of the world.” “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This later charge in Genesis implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. Mankind is merely holding the earth in trust from God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” the psalmist recalls; to God belongs “the earth with all that is within it,” Moses warns. God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners” (Lev 25:23).

Biblical tradition clearly shows that tilling and keeping entails recognizing and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator. Pope Francis writes that the cycle of nature can be seen in the law of the Sabbath. On the seventh day God rested from all his work. He commanded Israel to set aside each seventh day as a day of rest, a Sabbath. Similarly, every seven years, a sabbatical year was set aside for Israel demanding a complete rest for the land when sowing was forbidden and one reaped only what was necessary to feed one’s household. Finally, after seven weeks of years the Jubilee Year was celebrated as a year of reconciliation and renewal. These cycles of seven came about to ensure a balance in man’s relationships with others and with the land on which he lived and worked. The weekly and yearly cycles also were an acknowledgment that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (Lev 19:9-10).

The modern mind tends to look at the world inhabited by mankind simply as nature, as an evolving process that began perhaps in chaos billions of years ago and has inexplicably developed into a sometimes glorious, sometimes threatening system which can be studied, understood, controlled and sometimes even exploited. The Biblical mind on the other hand thinks of the world as creation, as a gift from the outstretched hand of God, the Father of all. The natural world might have come about from chaos or chance; the created world came about as the result of a decision, a loving decision on the part of God to draw both humanity and the environment into a universal communion. The world should be viewed not only as the product of evolution but rather as the object of the Father’s tenderness giving each creature a place in the world. “Even the fleeting life of the least being is the object of the Father’s love,” Pope Francis insists. In the few seconds of each tiny creature’s existence, God enfolds it with his love and affection. God has entrusted this beloved world to human care, challenging mankind to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and, yes, limiting humanity’s use of the universe.

The Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” America’s Thanksgiving Day recalls that the entire material universe speaks of God’s love, especially his boundless affection for humanity. Soil, water, forests, plants, animals, festive holiday dinners; everything is a caress from God. The universe as a whole, in all its multiple relationships, illustrates the inexhaustible riches of God’s love.