Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stewardship of Nature

Stewardship of God's gifts in the natural world is a multi-faceted duty. It should be approached and implemented with knowledge, perception, and responsibility. Scripture's guidelines include Psalm 8:6-9: "You made him ruler over the works of your hands: you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (NIV). Application of environmental responsibility has proven to be an achievable goal, but not an easy one. It is necessary to study the impact of our actions on both the land and living things. When ignorance, convenience, or profit prevails over wise care, the price may be too high.

Many examples of wildlife management could be cited as encouraging success stories. Others are still debated even as the effects worsen. For instance, at our family's summertime residence in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, we watched three handsome rhododendrons reduced to bare branches by ravenous deer. In the surrounding woods, a well-defined browse line appeared where deer had consumed virtually all the vegetation from ground to shoulder height. Some deer even became indifferent to our presence as we hiked the trails. They appeared scrawny and lacked vigor; even hunters avoided those pathetic specimens. Deer now have few natural predators due to increased human presence. Some vocal public advocates oppose efforts to reduce the deer population even through prudent herd reduction. Vehicle damage and loss of human life from collisions with animals are all too frequent tragedies. Since 1900, the U. S. deer population has increased roughly one hundred-fold.

Debates rage between advocates of herd reduction and those who believe all hunting is cruel. Attitudes toward harvesting animals for food, and sometimes even angling for panfish, have been impacted by such factors as the Disney release of Bambi. The "Bambi syndrome" describes the unfounded public sentimentality over the death of any animal in the wild for any purpose. Extreme environmentalists lobby for unrealistic limits on harvest, sometimes supported by the courts. Add to this the influence of naturalism infecting our culture in which the value of animal life is not distinct from the value of human life created in the image of God. These issues are complex and difficult. Genesis 1:28b says, "Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." The word "rule" must be understood in connection with our best interests; these animals were created for our benefit. Thankfulness for God's provisions and respect for His guidelines must prevail.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tooth and Claw

Bible commentary on nature’s wonders inspires respectful awe for the grandeur and beauty of creation. Other passages pose problematic descriptions for a few readers. For example, some scripture accounts provoke unease when they speak of warfare or retribution. Many cling to idealistic concepts of a “perfect” world: painless, convenient, and free of grief. But such is not the “very good” world God created.

Science educators may have an advantage understanding nature’s complex relationships, whether they relate to dynamic, sometimes destructive weather events, parasitism and disease, or nature’s spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. But there is another of nature’s features which provokes discomfort for some of my friends: the types of food consumed by various creatures in the animal world. Some animals are herbivorous; hardly anyone has a problem with that. Others are omnivorous and do not object to occasional meat with their salad. Finally, we have the carnivores, whose levels of metabolism and energy expenditure demand a high-protein diet. They are called predators.

Let’s examine several explicit scripture passages and how they inform us concerning our God-authored natural world. Psalm 104:21-22 is quite graphic: “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.....they return and lie down in their dens” (NIV). Consider Job 39:27-30: “Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high?....His young ones feast on blood, and where the slain are, there is he.”
There is no question that the death of animals may arouse understandably strong emotions. Some claim that all death results from Adam’s original sin in the garden. Others merely find any death messy and unpleasant. Each of these objections overlooks the thoughtfully conceived big picture of the long-standing operating principles of our world and cosmos. Our universe was designed for a purpose. Although the purpose of individual events may be obscure or seem unfair, scripture reveals that this creation is preparation for the onset of the coming New Creation where the operating rules will be very different.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Eden's Gardener

Let’s reflect on the Garden of Eden into which Adam was placed. I have always been surprised at the brevity of the Bible account contrasted with the overwhelming volume of extra-biblical commentary. One thing seems clear from Genesis 2:15: Adam had work to do as Eden’s gardener. According to various translations, Adam was instructed to work it, tend, dress, keep in order, cultivate, till, and take care of it. He was also given the task of naming the animals. He did so with full knowledge of their unique characteristics. Perhaps this biological cataloguing took a long time. His knowledge seemed to have a foundation in observational skills. Finally, God provided a helper named Eve.

We are not told in Genesis 1-2 that the garden was supernaturally insulated from any death or discomfort. The text, in its brief account, does not make this clear, and may indicate otherwise. The garden, therefore, was not “perfect” as we envision perfection; I cannot imagine that a perfect garden would need working, tending, dressing, cultivating, and tilling. Most people do not think about what may have been happening outside the garden in the worldwide biomes of our home planet. The fossil record of living creatures across our planet clearly shows a flow of successive life forms hundreds of millions of years ago on up to the present. In past posts we have stressed that these millions of years do not imply evolution. Rather, the record of life in the fossil record points to sporadic and sudden major creation events. Therefore, a timeline of millions of years does not imply evolution.

The creation of Adam and Eve and their placement in Eden is not merely a mythical, wishful theological construct. Secular scientists have come to the conclusion that, based on mitochondrial DNA studies, all humans now living descended from one (or a few) women in a single location near northeastern Africa. Likewise, based on Y-chromosomal DNA studies, all humans now living descended from one (or a few) men in a single location near northeastern Africa. The exact date, tens of thousands of years ago, is uncertain, but compared with the wide variety of hominid species of limited ability preceding them, it is certain these modern humans are set apart from earlier hominids by a wide margin. This is based on their advanced cognitive ability, craftsmanship, artistic expression, and religious activity. This affirms the startling verse in Genesis 1:27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (NIV).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Predatory Ecosystems

Attitudes about the death of living creatures are wide-ranging. My young earth friends are convinced that all death and bloodshed in the natural world is a result of Adam’s original sin. This belief is based on a questionable interpretation of Rom. 5:12 and I Cor. 15:21. Those who hold such views find them difficult to reconcile with the reality of complex interrelationships in nature, past and present. The beauty of those interrelationships, properly understood, inspires respectful awe, not sorrow.

In order to accept the paradigm of “No Death before the Fall,” it is necessary to reject mountains of scientific evidence that (a) Earth as a solid body is several billion years old; (b) Earth’s first sudden burst of complex life--dozens of phyla--appeared at the “Cambrian Explosion” 540 million years ago; and (c) the complex Cambrian ecosystem was composed of many detailed food chains. In other words, it was based on widespread predation. More explicitly, it was based on the deaths of billions of creatures who gave their own lives to supply nourishment and energy to predators higher up on the food chain. On Planet Earth, the concept of sin was not an issue 540 million years before the creation of Adam.

Let’s consider other conceptual difficulties resulting from adherence to belief in a 6000 year old earth. High in the Canadian Rockies, thousands of feet above sea level, a famous rock formation called the Burgess shale preserves a fossil record of an ancient, predation-based ecosystem. Even the soft parts of those Cambrian creatures are fossilized in stunning detail. Similar rock layers are found in widely scattered locations around the world. Young earth believers assert that tens of thousands of species of Cambrian creatures died and were buried in sediment only after Adam sinned. In addition, they maintain that those fossil-bearing rock layers were elevated thousands of feet above sea level in historic times. Tectonic events of this magnitude would have been associated with earthquakes and other upheavals far beyond the imagination of the most creative science fiction writer. Earth’s geological record does not manifest faults of this degree, nor does recorded human history tell the story of such events.

Some people imagine a perfect world where even animals do not die. Our 2nd Law of Thermodynamics world could not operate this way. The marvelous food chains of our highly integrated ecosystem, past and present, are a signature of a loving Creator who designed our world with purpose and provided for its creatures. This planet may not match our image of a “perfect” world. But we would be better advised to accept God’s own description of His world: God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1:31).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Man's Designer World

Our unusually strange recent weather has prompted me to speak further on the subject of weather disasters. In the last month, Earth has been convulsed by several well publicized natural calamities resulting in great loss of life and property damage. Commentators often try to explain such events, sometimes claiming they are God’s retribution. Let’s return to the Old Testament book of Job, famous for its insightful nature commentary.

The Bible is not a science textbook. But where it speaks about events in the natural realm, it is descriptively and scientifically accurate. Nature lovers rejoice at the majestic, even fearful passages in Job 36-41 in which weather events on earth are described with observational and poetic precision--thunder and lightning, mighty downpours, tempests, torrents, and frozen water bodies. These events and many others are governed by the “laws of heaven” (Job 38:33 NIV). Under this governance, earth is a dynamic and wonder-filled place. Some object to such events having a degree of dynamism sometimes resulting in discomfort, distress, or tragedy. While this is understandable, we may wonder whether such people, if granted the controlling role, would eliminate all harsh cold snaps and heat waves, windstorms, floods, earthquakes, and a variety of other events without understanding their broader place in the scheme of things. As a resident of the Midwest, I understand such desires better in the past six months, having endured this winter’s 90 inches of snow, more than 20 inches of rain flooding this area since April Fool’s day, and the relentlessly frequent tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, not to mention the actual events. I am even cheered by our local nursery’s offering of drought-resistant plants for the summer!

Our effort to maintain proper perspective includes the following reminders. This earth (and its weather) supports the existence of 6.6 billion people. Food production and medical care have risen dramatically with man’s ability to apply biotechnology. High yielding, genetically engineered hybrids with disease, drought, insect, and spoilage resistance were barely an agriculturalist’s dream a century ago. Disasters of weather, hunger, disease, and poverty are often functions of population density, shoddy building codes, and poor location resulting from unwise planning by authorities. Humanity wants control of its destiny, but God often receives blame for the harmful results.

Tragic losses from various natural disasters sometimes strike painfully close to home. We would rather have a “perfect” world. Realistically, we could ask, “What would man’s ‘perfect’ world be like?” It is important to realize that God, the Master Designer, had a purpose for creating our world just as it exists. We do not always understand that purpose, but would our human “designer world” be better if created by man, for man?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why Would God...?

How many times have we heard friends ask “Why would God…?" I recently heard a very effective sermon on the situation of Old Testament character Job and its application for us. The upside of asking such a question is the tacit admission that God is sovereign and He is in control, always a difficult truth to perceive. People often attempt to construct a God of their own liking. We like to make pronouncements on what God should or should not do.

There are many things in our world which evoke strong emotions apart from the gift of beloved family or friends. Our sense of health and well-being, the emotional attachments we have, even fascination for the mystical charm and grandeur of the world of nature--these can all be disrupted by injury, disease, death, or a violent weather episode. There is no rational way to persuade anyone of the ultimate good of any of these events. Job’s loss of virtually everything he held dear caused him to consider the meaning of multiple tragic events. Job, his friends, and finally God Himself helped clarify his perspective.

From the human point of view, no one would be more justified than Job in questioning God’s goodness, His care, or even His ultimate wisdom. His children died, his possessions were destroyed, and disease wracked his body. Acute pain and self-loathing were real. But in the face of all of this he said, “May the name of the Lord be praised" (Job 1:20) and he “did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing" (Job 1:22). The traditional cliché "the patience of Job" seems inadequate to summarize the spectrum of lessons he learned.

Later, after discussions with his friends, he realized anew, as stated by Elihu, that “If it were his (God's) intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust (Job 34:14-15). Finally, in the book’s last direct quote from Job’s mouth, he said “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

What about recent cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and other disasters? Our efforts to explain such tragedies are woefully inadequate. We often miss the big picture. In our weakness and ignorance, we may request a world with no pain, no discomfort, no sorrow. That would focus on the narrow picture. We may simply need to express, as did Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5 NIV).