God didn’t appoint us rulers of Earth, says theologian

Picture of Dr. Elizibeth Johnson


Pope Francis stated: “Each year sees the disappearance of plant and animal species, which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.  Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right!”

There is deadly damage currently being inflicted on the planer. The air, land and water are being polluted, ice caps are melting and species are going extinct. This is all because of human behavior that is rendering our plant unhealthy and unfit as a habitat for life. 

Take extinction as a particularly toxic event. When a species goes extinct, that means there will be no new seeds, no new eggs, no new babies, no new future. It is the death of birth itself for that species. It disappears from the Earth and it will never come back again. 

Before humans appeared, the average rate of extension was one to five per year. The rate now exceeds 1,000 per year. 

“Why have people, that believe their world was created by God, not stepped forward more vigorously to defend it?” asked Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, distinguished professor emerita of theology at Fordham University in New York City.

Johnson, an author or editor of 10 books, spoke April 3 at Detroit Mercy.

Her topic: “Is God’s Charity Broad Enough for Bears?”

Surveys show that ecological care is not high on the list of priorities for people, but it should be.   

“Does God care?” Johnson asked. “Is God’s charity broad enough for bears – for polar bears starving on melting ice flows?  And if so, what difference does it make?”

Johnson called on listeners to embrace a new way of being human that enhances the life of other creatures rather than destroys it.

In this new way of being, we do not see ourselves as a separate species, head of the food chain, with the right to consume everything that we see. But we see ourselves as one splendid universal being, all loved by God, she said.

Johnson noted a few major challenges that keep us from seeing ourselves that way.

The first is that for centuries Western culture has held that human beings stand at the pinnacle of creation with other creatures ranked below us in a certain order.

It’s a “hierarchy of being,” and we are at the top, Johnson said.

The idea is rooted in Greek philosophy, she said. 

“Although God gave the first human couple dominion over the Earth, theologians forgot that humans were appointed as God’s representatives to care for the Earth so that it might flourish,” said Johnson. “Instead, they interpreted dominion as domination, exploiting minerals of the forest, animals and even other human beings.

“This theology was supported by most Christians,” she continued. “There was unbridled exploitation of nature without any protest from the churches until recently.”

Quoting Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, Johnson said that this view is inadequate and wrong.

“Even if we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the scriptures, we must forcefully reject the notion that our ‘being created in God’s image’ and given dominion over the Earth justifies domination over other creatures,” she said. Instead, “we are meant to live in mutual relation with other creatures, sharing together in that one splendid universal communion embraced by the love of God.”

Although it is understood that our distinctiveness is a part of the glory of the world, the truth of the matter requires that we find a new starting point for the interpretation of ourselves, according to Johnson.

But how can we climb down from the tip of the triangle and envision ourselves as apart of the circle of being?

Johnson recommended that we deconstruct the architecture and imagination of our being and reconstruct the feelings of our heart. 

In her lecture Johnson pointed to science as a resource to help us melt away the obstacles of our own imagination. 

“Does science prove that we are at the apex of the triangle or all a part of the circle of life?” she asked.

Being all made up of the same matter – stardust and iron – that makes up the crust of the Earth, Johnson expressed her belief that science proves that we are all a part of the circle of life rather than human beings at the apex of the triangle. 

Lastly, Johnson said that the theory of the hierarchy is not found in the Bible, but that God created the animals, talked directly to the birds and the fish, blessed all the animals and called them good. 

God also watches over them, cares about their wellbeing and their death and even saves them, she said. He saves humans and animals alike. 

Furthermore, creatures respond to this loving kindness by carrying out the call to increase and multiply, thus participating in the ongoing work of creation, she added. They are even called by God to give praise. They have an intrinsic value in God’s eyes, independent of their usefulness to us.

According to biblical philosophy and scientific theory, Johnson said, “Given that we are all created by God (he is the God of all flesh), humans have more in common with the animals than we have that separates us, altogether forming one universal community beloved of God.”

Along with science, she said we should let religious wisdom teach us that we all form one community of creation held in existence by the loving power of God. 

The current destruction of life on Earth makes this an urgent task, because this destruction has the character of deep failing, she offered. 

It is considered to be, according to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, “Profoundly sinful, contradicting the will of the creator, that the world should flourish.”  

Johnson left her audience with spiritual practices that can help us move toward that new way of being human.

One is contemplation, which helps us to be in communion with our natural world. 

Johnson advised that we quiet our minds and so that we might really look and learn to appreciate nature’s astonishment.

She looked to Jesus as an example, who looked upon the natural world with a loving eye and spoke movingly about God’s own care for the wild flowers and the sparrow. 

She looked to Albert Einstein, who suggested the method of contemplation to help us “free ourselves from our egotistic prison by widening our circle of compassion; to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

She recommended asceticism. By that she meant changing selfish practices of consumerism, waste and greed in order to protect life on Earth. 

“Those who are in business can conduct their business practices with an eye to the green bottom line, as well as the red or the black,” said Johnson. “We could observe the sabbath as a genuine day of rest, which is also good for the rest of creation.”   

Institutions can also engage in Earth affirming practice when it comes to heating, cooling, watering and fertilizing the land, she said. They can also choose to use non-toxic products. 

Johnson told listeners, “In trying to live more simply we free ourselves from enslavement and selfish practices that harm other creatures so that we may become life-givers instead.”