The last few days have been very hazy outside and I am told that is because of the wildfires burning in the West, and I have no reason to doubt that. It is very sad that since the year 2000 we have seen a uptick in acreage lost due to fire, especially when one considers the overall number of fires seems to be declining (here are the stats). These fires are, according to scientists, the result of weather shifts which have caused consistent warmer drier weather on the West Coast. These scientists will undoubtedly attribute the conditions to another symptom of human caused climate change; yet many people I know will not believe this fact. Why not? Recently I saw a video clip of the actor and noted Baháʼí follower Rainn Wilson, who suggested the problem was the Bible. His understanding is that people do not believe the climate science and wantonly disregard the earth because they take too seriously Genesis 1:28 ““Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” [NKJV]. His view was that if Genesis had said care for instead of subdue and dominion we would not be fighting the battles we are fighting. I have heard this argument before and I find it somewhat ignorant and needs to be adjusted.
Here is where he is right. Yes, the Bible is often cited by people who deny climate change, saying things like, “God gave us the right to do with the world as we want.” Or, “God will burn up the earth at some point so who cares what we do now.” I readily admit these are positions taken from individual readings of Genesis and Revelation, and I find that upsetting. I do find it infuriating that Christians are among the groups most likely to deny climate science. It is genuinely upsetting to me that the group who says, “all truth is God’s truth” does not want to look for truth in the scientific world. Rather, many will say that climate scientists are just using scare tactics to ensure they have funding, and then cite information put out by scientists paid by oil corporations. I think that many Christians are predisposed to see little reason to care about the the climate and their understanding of the Bible is part of that.
but the question is, do these beliefs actually represent the Bible? Further, is the Bible even the biggest determining factor on a person’s belief about the climate?
Where he is wrong. According to the research the group who is least likely to believe in climate science is Republican men [especially older, white, and rural]. Now obviously, this is because oil companies paid Republicans to cite their climate studies which deny the evidence of climate change and that has filtered into the Republican mainstream. This is an important fact because it is the hinge which is necessary to why I disagree with Mr. Wilson so profoundly. If the demographic least likely to believe in climate science is Republicans we must ask, “is the Bible readings driving the science or is the science driving the Bible reading”? I find that the driving force is the “science” and the Scriptures are only an afterthought. Most (if not all) of the people I interact with will point out the “junk science of climate change” long before they bring up the Bible. And if the person does bring up the Bible it is only anecdotally, “beside doesn’t the Bible say…”. Most Christians are not using the Bible to drive their ideas on climate change, they simply look for support there for already held positions.
How we can move forward. The first reality is to actually read the Bible. A quick study into history will show that though most modern translators hate this, their translations are still dependent on the King James Version. The reason is the King James Version is so ingrained in the collective conscious of English speaking Christians that they grow suspicious when newer translations change things too much, and subsequently do not use those translations. One area in which many newer translations do not seem to want to deviate from good ole King James is in Genesis 1:28 where words like subdue and dominion are still quite commonly used. But are they the best words to use… NO! Yes, Genesis 1:28 is setting humanity up as royalty whose dominion is the earth; and that is where we get into trouble. Think about the translators of the King James Version, who was the patron (yep, the king) so what kind of language would they use, the kind that reinforces the king. What I am saying is that the translators modeled their translation of Genesis 1:28 on their idea of kingship as seen under the monarchy of King James. What rights did James assert, the right to subdue and rule based on his ideas of right and wrong. Thus, almost every popular translation of Genesis since 1611 has based their understanding of Genesis 1:28 on the ideas of the British Crown of that time. [Also think about the fact this was the time when the British Crown was cementing control over large portions of the globe through colonization]. Meaning many people’s ideas of creation care come from the British king’s ideas of how to effectively rule an empire rather than what the Bible actually says.
But, most commentators will disagree with the words subdue and dominion, saying that these are far too harsh for what the Hebrew words actually mean.*
The verbs used here and in verse 28 express the coercive power of the monarch, consonant with the explanation just given for “the image of God.” This power, however, cannot include the license to exploit nature banefully, for the following reasons: the human race is not inherently sovereign, but enjoys its dominion solely by the grace of God. Furthermore, the model of kingship here presupposed is Israelite, according to which, the monarch does not possess unrestrained power and authority; the limits of his rule are carefully defined and circumscribed by divine law, so that kingship is to be exercised with responsibility and is subject to accountability. Moreover, man, the sovereign of nature, is conceived at this stage to be functioning within the context of a “very good” world in which the interrelationships of organisms with their environment and with each other are entirely harmonious and mutually beneficial, an idyllic situation that is clearly illustrated in Isaiah’s vision of the ideal future king (Isa. 11:1–9).Nahum Sarna. Genesis. JPS 12-13
This recognition undermines Mr. Wilson’s view that the Bible condones the destruction of the earth and does not speak of creation care. Reading Genesis 1:28 in its proper context points us toward a direction of serious engagement with Christians who deny the climate science. [I especially like Victor Hamilton’s take that Genesis 1:28 refers to creating a garden– think elaborate garden not simply vegetable garden– , he uses the line “till the soil”.] Understanding that God wants us to care for the earth, we can begin to have conversations asking if certain human activities are truly caring for God’s creation as we are commanded in Genesis 1. In other words we should make the discussion with Christians about the Bible rather than the science. Christians will be more apt to believe the Bible than science so our conversations need to begin with the recognition that King James type ruling had more in common with the snake of Genesis 3 than God and that we must ask how God wants us to care for the earth since it is our primary task. If we are discussing climate science with Christians we must begin with the theology and not the science. We help those people recognize “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;” Psalm 24:1. And if we are called to rule on God’s behalf we must transform the world into God’s paradise not our own. This realization will, I think, open someone up to the concept of creation care and lower their resistance to the science (though science might never be a primary driver of their actions).
* Others who take this position include: Walter Brueggemann Genesis; Victor P. Hamilton. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17; L. Daniel Hawk The Violence of the Biblical God; John Walton Genesis