A Catholic perspective on Earth Day, 40 years after
In a reflection on the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Father John Ames traces the spiritual roots of environmentalism back to the Biblical stories of Genesis. He also points out the distinctions of secular and sacred concepts of care for the environment.
By Father John J. Ames
Earth Day is celebrated on April 22. The day was established in 1970 to encourage greater awareness of the need to care for the environment. People should challenge the misuse of the world’s natural resources and promote a just allocation of the goods of this earth.
During the past 40 years there has been significant progress in caring for the environment. People think twice about throwing debris from a car, leaving on nonessential lights and making unnecessary trips that consume fuel. Laws have been enacted to limit the disposal of hazardous materials. Automobiles get better gas mileage. Rivers and streams are protected.
Concern for creation is not new to Christianity. The Book of Genesis recounts that creation is the work of God and thus sacred. After each stage of creation, the author notes how “good” it is. The creation of human beings is described as being “very” good. God entrusts Adam and Eve with authority over all of creation. That brings with it a responsibility of caring for the earth.
Recently, I received an advertisement for a college lecture series. One of the presentations was titled, “Earth, the giver of all that is good.” As Christians, we are reminded that God is the giver of all that is good. The title of the presentation highlights two very different approaches to environmentalism.
Secular environmentalism is rooted in the belief that creation is the result of a random act of chance. God is marginalized or completely absent from the act of creation. The sun, “Mother Earth” and even nature are treated as if they have acquired some (semi)spanine status. Rather than the earth existing to sustain human life, human beings exist to sustain the earth.
Far from being the summit of creation, humanity is portrayed as being the problem with creation. Human qualities are increasingly attributed to animals, while human beings are increasingly vilified.
In the extreme, it is implied that all would be right with the world if human beings were absent from creation. This development should not be surprising. Since human beings acquire dignity only in relation to God, then a loss of a sense of God diminishes the dignity of the human person.
In contrast, sacred environmentalism manifests a concern for creation because creation is the work of God. The Biblical authors portray God creating a perfectly ordered world. As each day unfolds it lays the foundation for the next, so that there is provision for time, space and social interaction.
Adam and Eve are in right relationship with God, each other and creation. Original sin disorders the peaceful and ordered relationships that Adam and Eve enjoyed with God, each other and creation. Creation then becomes the stage upon which the plan of salvation unfolds. Hope that was rooted in the goodness of God as creator becomes the conviction that God is actively restoring the broken relationships.
Creation can never be viewed apart from God. God created the earth to be a home for human beings. We are the reflection of God’s image and likeness and it is within creation that we develop our relationship with Him.
Creation is more than an ecosystem or biosphere that supports life. Creation is the stage upon which the whole drama of salvation history unfolds. Human beings are entrusted with the responsibility of being instruments of God in restoring the harmony that was established by God.
Earth Day can be an opportunity to foster a sacred view of the environment. Earth Day should be an occasion to demonstrate that: creation is good because it is from God; human beings have a privileged place within creation; care for the environment has a spiritual dimension which is traced to Genesis; and our concern for the environmental must always be related to a love of God and neighbor.
Father Ames is deputy secretary for catechetical formation for the Archdiocese.