Partnering with God in Caring for the Creation is the Central Human Vocation

By Carol Frances Johnston

Partnering with God in caring for the creation isn’t just another issue, rather it is the central human vocation.

The claim that partnering with God in creation care is humanity’s core vocation, is bold but clearly supported in the biblical text. In Genesis, God tells the new human “to serve and guard” the garden. Human beings are created to live in right relationship with God and the rest of creation, and to engage with the rest of creation in partnership with God. This is what the word “dominion” is really all about. God creates human beings (male and female) in God’s image and likeness and gives them dominion over all the animals (Gen 1:26). The intent is that human beings are to act in the “image and likeness” of God, and therefore exercise dominion in imitation of, and obedience to, the way God exercises dominion. God trusts the humans to do this, giving them this unique vocation in partnership with God.

There are two ways we know how God exercises “dominion.” The Bible’s own witness is to God’s creative and sustaining care for the creation that God loves, so that all life thrives together. After each “day” of creation, God “sees” that it is good. Seeing the created other for what it is, and what it is meant to be, is part of dominion. Everyone has experienced how being seen by someone, often a caring teacher or other adult, has helped them see potential in themselves they didn’t know was there. Human partnership with God includes “seeing” others, including the rest of creation, in just this way. It also includes learning how to help God bring out the other’s potential—even when it has nothing to do with direct human benefit. Partnering with God includes enabling other creatures to live lives in accord with their God-given natures. This is underlined in Genesis when God brings the animals to the human, the adam, who is entrusted to name them (Gen 2:20). Naming is a serious act based on knowing and understanding what is named, and the potential therein.

The second way to see how God exercises dominion is to look all around us at God’s creation. What do we see? A planet teeming with a wild profusion of diverse life, all in dynamic interrelationship with each other, all mutually dependent, and all living and dying in a dance of constant development of new potential, decay, renewal, and regeneration. When human beings learn to “see” and understand this diverse creation, they can exercise dominion in true partnership with God, joining in working with the potential that is already there instead of against it, for the sake of the thriving of all of life together.

If the human vocation is to partner with God in seeing to the flourishing of all life together, how did “dominion” become “domination”? The Fall. Partnership depends above all on trust. In the Bible account, Adam and Eve fell out of a relationship of trust when they trusted the words of the serpent instead of the word of God—and they didn’t even try to get God’s side of the story before they ate of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Nor did they ask for forgiveness or how to be restored, but instead tried to hide what they had done. The result was a broken relationship in which human beings cannot trust God, and so also cannot trust other people or God’s creation. Instead of seeing a world of generous abundance, they see the world as a place of scarcity and fear. Instead of trusting their lives to God, they try to secure their own lives by either gaining control of other people and nature, or by submitting to the control of someone perceived as offering protection. This is the deepest meaning of “sin.” It is alienation from God and God’s creation, and the twisting of the power of dominion into attempts at domination. Even the “knowledge of good and evil” has been distorted so that humans have trouble discerning what is good and what is evil. As a result, people thinking they were doing good have done a lot of evil. Instead of learning from and working with creation, they attempt to gain control by working against nature. This has accelerated in the past 300 years, often with good intentions, but with results devastating to life. These insights into the human predicament are all laid out in the first eleven chapters of the Bible. The rest of the Bible is about what God does to restore “right relationships.”

Again and again, God acts to bring human beings back into right relationship with God, each other, and the rest of creation. God calls Abram out of the city of Ur—a city founded on both slavery and exploitation of the land that resulted, ultimately, in making the region a desert. When Abraham’s descendants, through Isaac, fall into slavery in Egypt, God rescues them from the Egyptian Empire, again a place based on both slavery and environmental exploitation. Through Torah law, God establishes a covenant community founded on “right relationships,” through Torah law, in which the people serve God, each other, and the land in which they live so that all may thrive together. God promises that if the people trust the covenant laws, they will prosper and the land will provide for them (Deut 11:13-17).

Central to this covenant is the keeping of Sabbath, in which the people must learn to trust God to provide for them one day out of seven. That trust provides rest and regeneration for themselves, the animals, and the land. The books of Torah are full of specific rules for how to treat animals, strangers, and the land.

Along with the Torah books of law, the wisdom literature shows how human beings are to live in relation to the rest of God’s creation, learning from the “Book of Nature” by asking the animals and plants to tell them about the creator (Job 12:7-10). Even the prophets, which one might assume are solely about social injustice, consistently point to the ways the people fall into “human bloodshed and violence to the earth” (Hab 2:17). Even so, God, through the prophets, not only denounces the injustices, but also announces how God will act to restore the people and the land to right relationships.

The ministry of Jesus restores trust between human beings and God, and thereby also restores right relationships with each other and with the rest of creation—restoring the human vocation. Jesus, in his own exercise of his Lordship and his teaching, is consistently about service to others and the kind of humility that is based on trust in God and God’s creation instead of in one’s own superiority. When Jesus reads in the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19) that he has come to “proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor,” he is invoking the Jubilee Year (Lev 25), in which right relationships are restored for the whole community, including freeing slaves and restoring the land, allowing for regeneration. Jesus shows us how to be true partners with God through restored trust and living in right relationship with God and God’s creation. When he interacts with people, he is constantly showing them how to be restored in every way—bodily, spiritually, and to their communities. Almost everything he does is about restoring right relationships so that all might thrive.

In the rest of the New Testament, there are many ways this restoration is affirmed, but the crucial one is in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul proclaims that: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.” Orthodoxy has always insisted that salvation is all about this reconciliation through Christ of the whole creation, and its ultimate fulfillment that was intended from the very beginning. So the human vocation to partner with God in being “witnesses”—the ones who “see” the potential—and assist God in bringing it about for the thriving of the whole of life until it is fully restored!

How might humans partner with God in the regeneration of life on earth? Human beings, in order to return to their true vocation in partnership with God for the thriving of life, need, above all, to stop trying to dominate life and instead learn from and work with God’s good creation. There is no reason science, technology, agriculture, business, and all other areas of human endeavor can’t make this switch. In fact, it is happening and has even become a movement that is gathering speed and effectiveness. Some of the ways it is happening include the rapid move to green energy, which is developing so quickly it is now cheaper and provides more jobs than fossil fuels. Also green architecture, with recycling of materials and major gains in energy efficiency, is developing quickly. Biomimicry is a new use of the study of nature to find time-tested solutions to manufacturing problems. A great example is a problem early wind turbines had of producing a disturbing noise. Scientists asked where in nature do we see something that moves silently through the air? Answer: owls. They studied owls’ wings and applied their findings to the turbines, and it worked! Most important of all are the moves to Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative Economics, both of which place the dynamic, regenerative power of nature at the center, and which, if widely adopted, can not only stop climate change, but return the earth to the balance God intends.

Question: Where do you see people shifting away from damaging the creation to learning from and working with the sustainable, regenerating creativity of God’s creation?

Carol Frances Johnston is retired from 28 years of teaching environmental theology and ethics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. She is the author of And the Leaves of the Tree are for the Healing of the Nations: Biblical and Theological Foundations for Ecojustice which is available online. A Presbyterian minister, she earned her Ph.D. with John B. Cobb, Jr.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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