“Dominion or Stewardship”

On Sunday, July 28, I shared some reflections with the congregation about my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, including a visit to Northern California. My close friend and clergy colleague, Rev. Clay Andrew, is currently on a Renewal Leave funded by a grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation, and he invited me to be one of several guest preachers who have been helping lead worship in his congregation this summer.

Because I had the chance to travel on someone else’s dime, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit a place I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember—the Redwood Forests of Northern California. It was a truly awe-inspiring experience, one which is difficult to adequately describe. As often happens with a visit to such places, I was able to experience the presence of God in the majesty of Creation.

My experience of God’s presence, however, came in a way that was slightly different from what I might have expected. Following my sermon on Sunday, one of our church members approached me to share that he “felt like this”—holding up two fingers barely apart to indicate how tiny he seemed standing among the giant trees, some of which are taller than a 30-story building!

I certainly had those feelings as I walked among the giants, and I eventually gave up taking photographs of them since there was almost literally no way to capture one in its entirety and even less likely that I would be able to capture its essence. It was another epiphany, though, that most profoundly affected me.

I had done quite a bit of research in preparation for my visit to the Redwood National and State Parks, but mostly in regards to what trails I wanted to take through the forests with the little time I had available. What I did not realize was just how extensively the Redwoods had been devastated by logging from the 1850s through the 1960s. During that time, about 95% of the 2 million acres of Redwood Forest had been clear cut along the California and Oregon Coastlines. In roughly 100 years, mankind had reduced to almost nothing what God had taken thousands—probably even millions—of years to create.

This is a common trait of humanity—the will to exercise dominion over nature. For those of us who count ourselves children of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, the word “dominion” holds particular meaning and is tied directly to a specific interpretation of the Biblical story of Creation. In that story, found in the first chapter of Genesis, the Creator is quoted as saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Dominion, in this case, is often understood to mean that we may do with creation whatever it is we want: In essence, that creation is subject to human will. But there is another, equally valid interpretation of the Hebrew word that is most often translated as “dominion.” In the other interpretation, God gives humanity “stewardship” over creation, rather than dominion.

In this alternate understanding, having stewardship of Creation, rather than dominion over creation, recognizes two important aspects of Christian faith:

  • First, that all Creation—including humanity—is subject to the will of God; and
  • Second, that we have the responsibility to care for Creation so that it continues to thrive in the ways God intended and intends in the work of creating.

As I walked among the Redwoods that day, seeing the light filtering through their leaves and limbs high above me, I realized that in some ways, God’s creation in that space might have been better served if we had never arrived. That was an extraordinarily sad thought to me and I began to be extremely grateful for those whose work preserved the last remaining Old Growth groves—the ones whose names adorned them.

My faith and understanding of the Scriptures lead me to believe we are partners with God in the work of caring for all things. The Redwoods have taught me a new lesson and I commit myself even more fervently to the work of stewardship, for all things have been created by God and are precious in God’s sight.

Grace and peace, Pastor John