Journalist G.K. Chesterton once quipped (in Orthodoxy), that original sin was "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." Approaching theology, as Karl Barth famously suggested, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, certainly finds the hypothesis of total depravity unfalsified.
Yet by the end of the twentieth century, another fundamental Christian doctrine could be regarded as empirically verified. The placement of the human race in "dominion" over the planet has shown up in study after study of global change–in articles on soil erosion, species extinction, biological invasions, nutrient pollution of water bodies, mercury pollution of global fish stocks, alterations of the global nitrogen cycle, and interference with the climate system.
With the 2007 release of the IPCC climate reports, we saw the first weighty summaries of science where the balance of evidence shifted from more or less plausible models of what the future portends to verifiable actual current impacts of climate change unfolding in real time.
Here’s a fundamental irony: At about the time that the first empirical evidence is accumulating to support the Christian doctrine of dominion–that God has granted to the human race a delegated but effective authority over the planet, as evidenced by our impact on not just local but global environments–you see Christians shrinking back from the doctrine. Several conservative Christians even testified before Congress that they didn’t believe God would create a planet humans could impair–they hypothesized that a wise Creator God would make a world comfortably resilient to human action. They cited Genesis 8 to say that we should doubt any predictions that global warming will exacerbate floods or droughts. They even used the scriptures that God would never again destroy the entire earth by flood to say we shouldn’t worry about the coastal flooding that may accompany global warming!
Not only is such a view at odds with Scripture about dominion, it is at odds with our experience of other parts of the material world. God didn’t create our bodies immune to self-abuse, or to injustice, or to accident. Our bodies, like the planet, are resilient, but within limits. God didn’t give us a child-proofed world. God didn’t make the world a giant bouncy castle, with all sharp objects removed and all hard corners covered in rubber. We have a real dominion, and we can really harm ourselves, one another, and the environmental systems we depend on.
Pope Benedict has even suggested that understanding these environmental limits may be the bridge the Church needs to explain natural law to a secular world: that there are also limits to our freedom in sexual and biological matters that we cross at our peril–in the areas of abortion, divorce, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research.
That said, I’m not a catastrophe theorist like some environmentalists are. I don’t think the human race is going to destroy the entire planet. From my reading of scripture, I think God has reserved for himself the task of concluding this chapter of creation and opening the next one.
Though our dominion over the planet is inevitably corrupted by sin and ignorance, God is his common grace has already restrained our hand. Look at what he’s done in the recent past: he didn’t allow Americans to accidentally destroy their rivers and lakes or to render their air as foul as it could be. His hand of restraint was on us, and by his grace we passed laws and took actions which for a long time actually improved water quality and air quality for most Americans. We did it together, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, when we passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Those were regional and national problems and required national cooperation.
I believe that by his grace he’ll allow us to solve global warming. We can together choose to exercise dominion in a way that restores and protects the poor, God’s other creatures, and the planet itself. Practical Christians understand this and believe that duty, cooperation, compassion, courage, and self-sacrifice are important elements in a creation story that counters the narrative of ignorance and self-interest. We won’t advance the kingdom of God with the erroneous theology that the world is really just an elaborate playroom that God designed and that we can’t influence. For good or for ill, dominion means dominion.