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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.