Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship vs. Dominion

Today’s guest post is by Phoebe Cook. Phoebe is from Emigration Canyon near Salt Lake City, where she loved to explore nature growing up. Currently, she’s a Humanities Major, emphasizing in Environmental Studies at Brigham Young University. She likes to spend time cooking, playing folk music, running, and being outside in general.

The traditional Christian environmental ethic has often been pared down to one verse of scripture, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). To any self-respecting environmentalist, these words seem harsh. Christians are being encouraged to overpopulate? What kind of a relationship does the word “subdue” imply? And what about “dominion”?

The words “subdue” and more importantly “dominion” emphasize power over the earth and a view of the earth as property.  In the New Oxford American Dictionary, “dominion” is defined as sovereignty or control (Ehrlich). The idea of “control” as a vital part of man’s relationship with nature suggests a view of the environment as property with which man is free to pursue whatever end he desires. Though initially, the bible may seem to advocate an abusive relationship with the earth, Latter-day Saint scripture moderates the term “dominion” with another term: “stewardship.”

In opposition to the concept of dominion, stewardship carries a more positive connotation.  Its definition entails the care of another’s property especially a large house or estate (Ehrlich).  This version of our relationship with nature relies on the ethic of responsibility.  In Doctrine and Covenants 104:12, LDS scripture illustrates the eternal consequences of stewardship:  “That every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him.”  The stewardship of the environment represented by the LDS theology includes a return and report at the end of our term of service on the earth. This view, in opposition to the connotation of “dominion”-centered relationships, presents the earth as a loan that must be returned to the ultimate judge, it’s very creator, God.

And what are the implications of this world-view? I think they are best summarized in an analogy to the first apartment I rented. The summer had ended and I headed down to Provo with my mom in a car packed full of my earthly belongings. Excited to be back to school and about to live on my own, I got my key and opened the door to my new apartment. Almost immediately, my enthusiasm was squelched by what I saw. The floors were caked in grime and the walls had strange stains on them, one outlet even had a suspicious red stain splattered across it and onto the wall. The day immediately turned into a disappointment and we spent the next several hours painstakingly scrubbing the linoleum to return it to its natural off-white from the original musty gray.

Because we are “renters” on earth, we have a responsibility to return what we are renting in the condition we found it and if we are truly good stewards, we will return it improved from its original condition, cleaner and more beautiful that we found it. Rather than basking in our personal possession, we must be on our toes as we strive to care for our responsibility.