Science in Christian Perspective



"Have Dominion ": The Christian and Natural Resources
George L. Murphy
Wartburg Seminary
Dubuque, Iowa 52001


From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 169.

In recent years both Christians and non-Christians have become increasingly aware that natural resources, including our vital energy resources, are limited. And as serious as this fact is for ourselves and for our descendants, it is only part of our general environmental problem. Considerable discussion has, of course, been devoted to these issues, and theologians have added their views, but it seems clear that some fundamental parts of the problem either have not been recognized or have not been properly put together. Theological reflection on environmental issues has not emphasized sufficiently the unique insights that the Christian tradition can provide.

An adequate understanding of the development and nature of our scientific and technological society is a prerequisite for any serious attempt to deal with the complex problems that face us in connections with the environment and natural resources. We must recognize, then, that Christianity has been largely responsible for the advanced state of our science and technology, and thus for our wealth. But having done that, we must immediately recognize also that wealth has not been given to us merely for our own comfort or welfare. Like the Gospel itself, that gift has been given to us to be shared.

Modern science and technology are, in essential ways, products of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is no accident that scientific understanding and control of the world developed only in a culture informed by that tradition, for only there was a belief in the goodness of an independent creation combined with a firm insistence upon the rationality of the universe. The development of this understanding and control has had many consequences, one of which has been the creation of natural resources. Petroleum, bauxite, uranium and a long list of other materials that we now regard as essential are resources only for a technological society. If industrialized societies did not exist, oil would be of very limited value to any nation possessing it-and, if 8,000 feet underground, would be inaccessible and even unknown. 

To talk about the superiority of western culture today will, of course, make many people unhappy-and rightly so. Such ideas have been horribly misused many times in recent centuries. But we cannot solve our problems by turning from the understanding of the world that the Christian tradition has given us. We should indeed repent for our abuses of power and for our unwillingness to see the good in other traditions, but we must not deny the intellectual tradition that has allowed the human race to conquer diseases and understand the stars. To pretend that Native American or oriental religions can provide as much insight into the structure of the universe as can Christianity is simply to swindle a world that needs to understand the universe in order to survive.

We will not misuse our power to the extent that we recognize that we are creatures, and not the Creator. God, in creating the universe, intended that petroleum and bauxite and uranium would be available to people, as part of His gift in creation. In the same way, the science and technology that allow us to find use for these materials are gifts, parts of the Christian understanding of the world that comes from God's outpouring of Himself in the Incarnation. Our superior understanding of the world is a gift, no more something we can boast of than of our created existence or the salvation Christ has wrought. The superiority is God's.

God does not give us gifts to be used only for ourselves. The Gospel is given to us, not simply so that we may assure ourselves of our salvation, but so that we may proclaim salvation to the world. And the ability to understand and control the world is to be used for all people of the world, whether or not they have adequate intellectual or material resources. Our possession of superior understanding does not license us to exploit the rest of the world in order to maintain our standard of living. Instead, it lays upon us an obligation to share God's gifts with the world, even as the Word of God, Who is the source of our understanding, gave Himself for us, so that we might share in His life.

For as the climax of creation, God created humanity in His image, and the words "Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26) tell us something of what it means for us to have been created in God's image. Through their participation in the Word which gave rationality and understanding, human beings were made able to be God's representatives for the rule of creation. Through His saving work, the Word re-creates that image. It is only through the Word that we are able to "have dominion", and it is only by following the example of the Word in His self-emptying that we will act as God's representatives in the dominion which we exercise.