If Not Stewards of Creation, What Are We?

What if God didn’t place humans on earth to be stewards of creation? If not stewards, then what is our relationship to the nonhuman creation? These are the central questions addressed by Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care (The Calvin Press, 2019). Using voices and insights of 14 authors from diverse disciplines, this book is filled with fresh ideas and encouragement to help Christians better understand both their place in the world and the many relationships that embed them within God’s good but groaning creation.

Historical Context of “Christian Environmental Stewardship”

The concept of stewardship first appeared in early North American Christianity as a model for faithful tithing. “Stewardship” was expanded in the mid-1900s beyond financial giving to encompass time, talent, and treasure. But the idea that Christians should understand themselves as stewards of creation didn’t arise until after Lynn White, Jr.’s landmark article, “Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” White’s 1967 accusation that the Judeo-Christian emphasis on human dominion over creation was a primary cause of environmental destruction produced thoughtful responses from a number of theologians. They proposed a new paradigm: Christian Environmental Stewardship (CES).

CES was promoted by the book Earthkeeping (Eerdmans, 1980), the goal of which was “to discuss, in a general yet scholarly way, the broad issues surrounding Christian stewardship of natural resources . . .” The authors of Earthkeeping urged Christians to consider themselves caretakers (stewards) who are in charge of resources (the nonhuman creation) that belong to someone else (God). While CES was a welcome and decided improvement over dominion theology, CES has not inspired broad swaths of North American Christianity to take creation care seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, the authors of Beyond Stewardship recognize a number of drawbacks of the CES approach and suggest it is time to consider new ways of understanding our relationship with the nonhuman creation.

Limitations of “Christian Environmental Stewardship”

The introduction to Beyond Stewardship identifies several limitations of the CES paradigm. First, there are no biblical references that instruct human beings to steward the creation. The Hebrew expression translated “steward” appears first in Genesis 43 where it literally means “the man who is over” (ish asher al) or “the man who is over the house.” In the New Testament, the most common Greek work translated as “steward” is oikonomos (Luke 12:42, 1 Corinthians 4:1, 1 Peter 4:10), which means “someone who controls the affairs of a large household.” In these references, “stewardship” does not refer to the responsibility of humans to care for the nonhuman creation.

Scriptural guidance on the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman creation is focused on the ways we are to serve and to protect the nonhuman creation (Genesis 2:15). Servants and protectors of the creation are likely to act quite differently from stewards over creation.

bible open to John on crunchy brown leaves

Second, several authors in Beyond Stewardship point out that Christian Environmental Stewardship can lead to two regrettable separations. The first separation can be seen from Jesus’ parables of stewards, who are depicted as agents in charge of something (a vineyard, laborers, clients, etc.) while the owner is not present. When applied to creation, CES suggests God is separated from and not currently present within the creation, an idea that is inconsistent with the teachings of God’s pervasive immanence within creation.

CES also separates humans from the nonhuman creation. A steward, by definition, cares for something else, thus constructing an agent (the steward) and an object (the nonhuman creation). But human beings are a part of, are embedded within, and have a reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman creation. We are completely and utterly dependent on the nonhuman creation for our well-being. A more balanced anthropology recognizing dependency on, as opposed to separation from, the rest of creation is needed.

hand holding compass over blue lake and mountains

Rethinking, Reimagining, and Reorienting for Moving Beyond

After identifying these and other conceptual and theological limitations of the term “stewardship” as applied to creation care, the authors offer careful articulations of our relationship with nonhuman creation. Recognizing and affirming that human beings are embedded in dependent relationships with the rest of creation, they ask questions about the nature of those relationships. How healthy are those relationships? Are they affirming or degrading? What would reconciled relationships look like? Thoughtful answers emerge from the pages of this book through the insights of diverse scholars, all of whom share a deep passion for a flourishing creation.

Given that Beyond Stewardship is intended to be the start of a conversation, its authors do not settle on a single concept for what comes after stewardship. Indeed, an early chapter emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s audience and using appropriate language for engaging that audience. In other chapters, new language describes the relationship between humans and the nonhuman creation: kinship, place-making, earthkeeping, eschatological stewardship, and symbiotic stewardship. As Beyond Stewardship opens up space for fresh dialogue to build upon and go beyond the Christian Environmental Stewardship paradigm, several themes emerge across the chapters:

  • Lament for environmental degradation that leads to action and reconciliation between human beings and the nonhuman creation
  • De-objectification of the nonhuman creation
  • The need for a more balanced anthropology, recognizing our kinship with the rest of creation
  • Human finitude and the need for humility when pursuing creation care activities
  • The importance of recognizing agency (and the lack thereof) when addressing environmental problems
  • Cultivating a deep sense of gratitude by viewing the nonhuman creation as a gift

Beyond Stewardship came together through two summer workshops in 2018. Chapter authors shared stories, discussed ideas, provided feedback on drafts, and spent time together in community, developing a vision for their work. Their efforts were further integrated by three active listeners who provided feedback on emergent themes, identified connections among the chapters, and helped to focus the writing. As a result, Beyond Stewardship is much more than a collection of isolated essays. While each chapter stands on its own, the volume includes many cross-references and complementary insights.

Written at a 12th grade level, with discussion questions and further reading suggestions for each chapter, Beyond Stewardship will be a valuable companion reader for ecology, environmental science, sustainability, and creation care courses. It will also work well as a primary text for capstone or perspectives courses. Additional resources for classes and small groups include a companion website with visuals for each chapter and a podcast containing interviews with each author. To learn more about Beyond Stewardship and to order a copy, visit http://beyondstewardship.com.

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About the Authors

  • David Paul Warners

    David Paul Warners

    David Paul Warners is professor of biology at Calvin University, teaching classes in botany, biological research, evolution, and restoration ecology. He received an MS from the University of Wisconsin and a PhD from the University of Michigan. With colleague Gail Gunst Heffner, he initiated a campus-based group called Plaster Creek Stewards that works with the broader community to restore health and beauty to the local watershed. Among his recent articles are “Assessing a reconciliation Ecology Approach to Suburban Landscaping: Biodiversity on a College Campus” and “Reconciliation Ecology: A New Paradigm for Advancing Creation Care.”
  • Matthew Kuperus Heun

    Matthew Kuperus Heun

    Matthew Kuperus Heun is professor of engineering at Calvin University. He earned an MS and PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Global Aerospace Corporation. He has been a visiting scholar at the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. His long-term research question is “What is the relationship between energy and the economy when viewed through the lens of sustainability?” In addition to scores of articles, he is lead author of Beyond GDP: National Accounting in the Age of Resource Depletion.
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