On stewardship, particularly the environmental kind

I was privileged to attend Acton University 2010 in Grand Rapids, MI, last month, thanks to the kindness and generosity of the good folk at The Acton Institute. It was a 4-day intellectual feast, the likes of which I had not participated in, in a very long time. While there, I took a series of 3 lectures on environmental issues. I chose those lectures for a few reasons: one, because I am interested in the subject; two, the more I read Orthodox statements on environmental issues the less my heart is at peace about them; and three, I am invited to participate in a conference this coming September in Montana, sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which will present free market ideas on environmentalism to religious leaders. I felt it would be good preparation for the FREE conference to attend the environmental lectures at Acton. My time was very well spent.

There are many particulars from my time at Acton University on which I could comment, but in this post I want to think out loud about one recurring impression I got from the lectures, from one of the after-dinner speakers, and from a variety of casual conversations. I was struck, repeatedly, by how often it was said that God owns the world.

Now, I don’t dispute that God owns the world. Ben Phillips, whose lectures on “Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics” and “Evangelicals and the Green Movement” I attended, laid out very clearly the Biblical basis for God’s ownership of all of creation, and I believe both Dr Phillips and the Scriptures.

At the same time, I kept remembering a distinction which I recollect from SS Diadochus of Photike and Basil the Great (it’s probably a patristic commonplace drawn on a verse of Scripture, but I can’t remember other references off the top of my head). The distinction is this:

There are 3 relationships we can have with God:

  • that of slaves, in which we are motivated by fear of punishment/hell;
  • that of servants, in which we are motivated by desire of reward/heaven; and
  • that of sons, in which we are motivated solely by love of the Father.

It is this distinction in relationships that gives me pause about the idea of stewardship, for stewardship is a function of a master-servant relationship. Therefore, it seems to fall short of the more perfect relationship, that of sons.

(Perhaps stewardship is precisely “economic” in both senses of economics and oikonomia and it can’t be expected to function in a Father-son relationship.)

I am less at ease when I think of environmental stewardship, for the presumption of the stewardship model is that the earth, and everything in it (and everybody in it?), belong to God as a possession or a property. On the other hand, I can’t help remembering that the end of the Apocalypse is not a Master calling in His chattel (slaves) or his property (servant/stewards), but rather it is the marriage feast of the Lamb.

And here I don’t know where to go. My sense is that the emphasis on God’s ownership of creation shows a lack of imagination, a failure to take into account other metaphors that describe the relationship between God and his creation.

Perhaps it is a simplification that, to my mind, isn’t adequate precisely because it over-simplifies what is, in fact, a complex reality.

Perhaps stewardship is the governing idea and Scripture has been made to serve that idea via a sort of “proof-texting.”

Again, I don’t know where to go. I hope my dis-ease makes sense. I invite your comments.



Posted on July 9, 2010, in Environmentalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. One scriptural idea that comes to mind in this regard is “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills”, which gets mentioned from time to time in “stewardship” sermons, and even made it’s way into a children’s Sunday School song. (I’ll sing it for you some time…)

    The unspoken (sometimes spoken!) follow-up to quoting that verse is “He can therefore afford to give me a few of them.”

    I’m not sure that speaks any to what you are uncomfortable about in “stewardship” language. It seems to me that metaphor is different in kind, not just in language, to that of Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son.

  2. Fr. David Hudson

    Well, what strikes me is that if God owns the earth, then His children also own it. I guess I tend to think about our stewardship of the earth in terms of the Cultural Mandate (is that a Protestant concept?): mankind was placed on the earth to “rule” it and everything in it. To me, that is where our responsibility for stewardship comes from.

  3. Interesting intuition. One that I share.

    Willis Jenkins (@ Yale currently) has an interesting book (Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology) tackling the various grammars of environmental ethics within Christian theology (social justice-RC, stewardship- Prot, Contemplation/Transfiguration- Orthodox). He uses Aquinas, Barth, Bulgakov, and St Maximus the Confessor. I haven’t finished the entire book but it is an interesting read!

    I have been wondering/reading about a “theology” of work. I have not seen much written in this direction (besides a random Thomist and Moltmann). I am beginning Staniloae and am hopeful he may provide some interesting insights. In the vein of a “theology” of work I have been reading in distributism. I have looked over the Acton Institute’s blog and various resources but have not settled down with being comfortable with a group that in some ways reminds me of NeoCons and/or a particular narrative of capitalism that I find usually irksome/problematic (perhaps it is the NeoMarxist stuff I have read!!). I would like to hear more about your thoughts on the Acton Institute. It seems issues of economics is not readily discussed in Orthodox circles..

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on St Maximus, my heavenly patron.

    • Thank you for your comments & your interest, & especially the reference to Jenkins’ book, which I haven’t gotten to yet. I launched my blog at a bit of an inauspicious time–I left for 3 weeks’ vacation after this post–, but I hope to find time to respond more fully to your comments and to others’.

      Your question about a “theology of work” interests me. As my economics are weak, I can’t comment on distributism off the top of my head, but I recollect it was a subject at the recent Acton University. Perhaps the audio recordings from that and other of the lectures may be of useful (I didn’t get to any of the presentations that interest you, so I can’t comment on their content, though I know de Souza, and he’s good): http://sites.fastspring.com/acton/product/actonuniversitylectures.

      And your last comment, that “economics is not readily discussed in Orthodox circles,” is all too true. I think it’s an unfortunate blind spot for us, one that gets us into trouble.

      I’ll try to write more about my time at Acton.

      Again, thanks for your comments. I look forward to the conversation.


  4. Father, forgive. I’m curious how you understand the Psalm used for the great welcoming of Pascha at the doors of the Church, where we ask “Who is the King of glory?” This great Psalm opens with “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” Moreover, Vespers begins with the Psalms that recount God’s creation of the world, and our creed declares that we worship the God who made the heavens and the earth.

    Perhaps it is simplistic to ask if there are other ways for Christians to exist in this world that acts to safeguard what God has entrusted to us. Perhaps it is easy to yield to the person yielding the largest megaphone, independent of whether that person makes sense. Perhaps we have a considerable work to do in thinking about how we exist in this world. Perhaps we have a considerable work of repentance where our words operate far outside of our hands and our hearts.

    • Forgive me in return, but I have nothing more than a simple reading of the Psalm you reference. I’m not sure what you’re looking for in asking.

      I suppose there are as many ways for Christians to exist in the world as there are Christians. How closely each of us is able to conform ourselves to the calling God has laid upon us is always grist for reflection, and more often than not, grist for repentance and confession.

      • You seem to be suggesting that acting in a way that safeguards creation is only an impoverished way of acting because it deprives us of our status as sons and does not have a place in an Orthodox understanding of the world. While I can appreciate the created distinctiveness of humans as “very good,” it strikes me as wholly odd to say that we need not consider how to redeem creation deemed as “good” in the Genesis account.

        I readily offer that I have not read the whole depth and breadth of Orthodox statements on the environment; I have done my best to read some of what is out there to be read. With Patriarch Bartholomew being espoused as “the Green Patriarch,” I would not be surprised to find statements that border on hyperbole. Yet I find myself in a general agreement with the thought that how we treat the Earth communicates how we treat other human beings. I do not think it appropriate to have an order of creation that has three categories: “Creation,” “Humans,” and “Creator” as we remove ourselves from understanding ourselves as creatures. Additionally, I still find much of what I have read coming from the Orthodox Church differs from what I have read coming from the Anglican Church (which seems to be a general primer in so-called “green” consumerism).

      • Forgive me if I’ve not expressed myself well.

        I don’t mean to suggest that safeguarding creation is an impoverished way of acting, that it deprives us of our status as sons, or that it has no place in an Orthodox understanding of the world. Rather, I was suggesting simply that the language of “stewardship” may not be the best that Orthodoxy has to offer in support of these values. Is there a difference between the way of son treats his father’s property and the way a steward treats his employer’s property? Does the language of transfiguration and divinization offer any insight into environmental issues? Some of the Fathers speak of the cosmic dimension of Christ’s redemptive work; where can that language be appropriated? The world is iconic; how does it point to its Prototype? It is these Orthodox notions, which bespeak a different understanding of the relationship between God and His creation than I find in Catholic or Protestant sources, that I want to explore.

        I hope that helps.

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