Today the unsustainable behavior of one species now impacts the entire planet Earth, from mountain glaciers to the depths of the oceans. We humans don’t really consider ourselves to be one species among many; rather, we consider ourselves as nations, races, ethnic groups, even economic functionaries. The Book of Genesis frames our power over other species when it states, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, sacredness is “the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies.” The Oxford American dictionary defines sacred as “connected to God (or the Gods) and dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.” Is the Earth a sacred place, and if so, are we treating it like one?
Thomas Berry, in his essay “Earth as Sacred Community,” examines the Biblical context of the sacred and the divine, and finds that, “Within the Biblical context, the continuity of the divine presence with the natural world was altered by establishing the divine as a transcendent personality creating a world entirely distinct from itself… Only the human really belonged to the sacred community of the redeemed.” That distinction is important, because in the Biblical framework, the primary human concern is to find Eternal Salvation in a Heavenly Kingdom. The earth, then, is merely a way station on our journey to Salvation, not necessarily a place to live in a divine presence.
Within the Biblical context, we may have exercised our “dominion” a bit too far. Wendell Berry, in his essay “A Native Hill,” writes that “We have lived by the assumption that what is good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior towards the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and everything living in it.”
However, can we find in our religious traditions a sacred connection to the world around us? Certainly, we can find it in various Native American and Asian religious traditions. Today, many Christians are reconsidering their view of the sacred, from the growing Interfaith Power and Light movement, to the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative. The Southern Baptist declaration reads that, “There is undeniable evidence that the earth—wildlife, water, land and air—can be damaged by human activity, and that people suffer as a result. When this happens, it is especially egregious because creation serves as revelation of God’s presence, majesty and provision. Though not every person will physically hear God’s revelation found in Scripture, all people have access to God’s cosmic revelation: the heavens, the waters, natural order, the beauty of nature (Psalm 19; Romans 1).” As we reconsider our giant footprint on the Earth, that notion of sacredness is an important part of our efforts to live sustainably.