“The stewardship model tells us that God is ‘out there’; it is theistic. God is an absentee landlord, and we are here to do God’s dirty work and steward the earth. Therefore, we have a duty-oriented morality—but you cannot arouse people by duty.” (Matthew Fox in Wrestling with the Prophets: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life)
We are facing a grave crisis with global warming and climate change. Regardless of what you may call it, this crisis is present and threatening. Ninety-eight percent of scientists tell us it is real and we have only a couple of decades to make a radical difference before the earth suffers one catastrophe after another. One sign of hope is the rise of environmental groups in churches, communities, colleges, and neighborhoods. Increasingly more and more people are concerned enough to do something that can make a difference in saving our planet. We should celebrate this awakening.
Even in my seminary days (during the Pleistocene Era), there was talk about the fate of the earth and the necessity for humankind to be good stewards of creation. Although I applauded this concern, I was not enamored with the terms “steward” and “stewardship.” It took a couple of decades for me to understand my discomfort with these words. Everything became clear when I realized that the word “steward” comes from the same root as the word “sty”—as in a pigsty. Funk and Wagnalls New College Standard Dictionary gives this definition of sty: 1. A pen for swine; 2. Any filthy habitation or place of bestiality or debauchery. I then understood my hesitancy to refer to our role as caretakers of creation as that of stewardship. I’ve been around pigsties, and the smell alone is revolting. I think we are handicapped in our calling to care for the earth if we see ourselves as stewards.
Now, I am aware that when most people use the words “steward” and “stewardship,” they don’t mean the earth is like a pigsty. By stewardship they mean a committed care of the earth. However, along with Matthew Fox, I would like to suggest these are not the best words to embrace as we consider our roles as protectors and preservers of the natural environment.
The duty of the steward is to take care of the owner’s possessions. In Jesus’ parables, the stewards are “hands on” while the master is far away. He is an absentee landlord. But how helpful is it to see God as far away and absent from creation? I would suggest that this theistic perspective has resulted in a very shallow and debilitating view of God. A religion with a distant God removes God from creation and from our lives. Is not the mystical understanding and experience of God more helpful?
The medieval Mechtild of Magdeburg said, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew that I saw—all things in God.” Mechtild, like other Rhineland mystics, had a religion of panentheism. Panentheism asserts that God is in everything and everything is in God. (If you have a problem with this perspective, I’ll remind you that Paul in Acts17:28 quotes the Greek poet Epimenides when he tells the Athenians, “For in him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your poets have said.’ Also, you may want to read the first chapters of John, Colossians, and Ephesians to discover the Cosmic Christ.) Panentheism is not pantheism, which says everything is God and God is everything. The transcendence of God is still present in panentheism, but the immanence of God is emphasized and celebrated. God is not an absentee landlord. God is present and works from the inside out in every part of creation. Such an approach to the faith signifies a holiness—a sacred nature to creation. Everything that exists is possible only because of the creative purpose and presence of God. As Richard Rohr and many others have said, creation as it reveals God is our first Bible. Panentheism encourages us to see creation as a temple—a dynamic sanctuary where God can be found and experienced.
We are not stewards of a cosmic pigsty. We are lovers of God and of the beauty of God’s creation. Because we are enchanted by this wondrous and splendid cosmos, we care for it out of a profound reverence and a deep desire to bless the world just as God blessed it in the first chapter of Genesis and called it “very good.” Of course, God’s blessing of creation did not end with the beginning of the universe. That divine blessing continues, but we are invited by God to join Her in loving this creation in concrete and adoring ways. We work to save creation not out of a sense of duty which comes with being stewards. We labor to care for and keep this earth because we are in love with it. As Shug says to Celie in The Color Purple, “God’s just wanting to share a good thing.” God invites us to celebrate the goodness and beauty of creation. Such love, joy, and gratitude must ultimately guide our attempts to save this planet. Duty alone will lead to drudgery and resentment. But being in love and acting out of love can never result in any sense of mandated duty. Love can only lead to and result in beauty at the deepest levels.
(You may have noticed that I referred to God as “Her” in this article. I am aware that God is neither male nor female. But for thousands of years God has been referred to as male because of the devastating effects of patriarchy. I’ve decided to refer to God as female most of the time. This won’t make up for the thousands of years when God has been called and understood as male. But it’s a beginning. At the very least, it makes me, and perhaps others, think.)