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A bison on its way in the Bialowieza forest in Poland. By Herr stahlhoefer - Own work, Public Domain,

Do passages in the Bible justify cutting down forests?

Like many countries, Poland is pondering the future of its forests. Proponents of logging in ancient woodlands and the removal of protections for trees on private land, including Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, have justified their stance on the basis of the account of creation in the Bible.

The English Standard Version of the relevant passage, Genesis 1:28, states:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’

For some, this appeal to religious scripture may seem a bit odd, but in countries that identify predominantly as Christian, such as Poland, scripture carries serious sociopolitical weight.

But does this interpretation stack up? Does Genesis exhort us to continue, Lorax-like, cutting and cutting until the last tree is felled?

Overpowering nature

The key words from the passage in Genesis are subdue and dominion.

In the original ancient Hebrew text, these words are kabash (כָּבַשׁ), which is commonly translated as “to subdue” or “bring into bondage”, and radah (רָדָה), meaning “to rule over” or “dominate”. Brought together, subdue and dominate would seem to suggest humans overpower the Earth for our own ends.

Scholars of environmental history have certainly levelled this charge at the account of creation found in Genesis.

In 1967, a professor of medieval history, Lynn White junior, penned a famous article arguing that the account of creation in Genesis 1:

not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

According to White, this attitude of human superiority and unbridled domination was at the root of our current ecological crisis.

In his 1994 book, The Domination of Nature, critical scholar William Leiss agreed with White’s view that Genesis was the most important cultural source for the notion of human mastery over nature. But he qualified this by pointing out that Christian doctrine also sought to constrain human behaviour by holding people accountable to God.

A Christian eco-theology

Unsurprisingly, Christian thinkers with environmental sympathies have rejected White’s analysis. Over the past three decades, an alternative eco-theology has emerged, facilitated by initiatives such as the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, and The Earth Bible series.

The theological and philosophical bases for this Christian eco-theology are many and varied, from the life of St Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) to the writings of the late Pope John Paul II (1920-2005). But at its heart lies the recasting of humankind’s relationship with nature from one of unchecked dominion and control, to one of stewardship and responsibility.

In 1986, the Christian Declaration on Nature, part of the multi-denominational Assisi Declarations, succinctly summarised this position:

Most certainly, then, because of the responsibilities which flow from his dual citizenship, man’s dominion cannot be understood as licence to abuse, spoil, squander or destroy what God has made to manifest his glory. That dominion cannot be anything other than a stewardship in symbiosis with all creatures.

In this theology, God the creator has absolute dominion over all creatures. And every irresponsible act of destruction is a transgression against God’s creation.

This theological replacement of dominion with stewardship has been criticised by some scholars as “exegetical cherry picking”; simply finding biblical excerpts that endorse the view of nature as God’s sacred creation and humans as its just stewards.

Pope Francis has rejected notions of humankind’s dominion over nature. Tony Gentile/Reuters

Nevertheless, within the Christian tradition it has been significantly strengthened by Pope Francis’ most recent writings on the environment. In his recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, the Pope responds to the charge that Genesis grants humans the right to exploit the natural world without limits.

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the Earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.

The emphasis on keeping and caring is an important counterpoint to notions of dominion. Francis argues that we are sanctioned to take from the Earth what we need to subsist, but that this should be balanced with preserving the Earth for future generations because:

‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1); to him belongs ‘the earth with all that is within it’ (Dt 10:14).

What does this mean for Polish forests?

There are many ways to interpret a text, and the Book of Genesis is no exception.

A narrow reading of Genesis has, in the past, been used to justify human domination of the natural world. But it’s important for those debating the future of forests in Poland – and everywhere else – to be aware that this historical interpretation has been questioned by scholars and definitely rejected by the Catholic Church.

Not only is a self-granted licence to dominate nature now regarded by the Pope as sinful, such a stance has serious consequences for human society. As Pope Francis states in Laudato Si:

The vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful…

We must therefore question the motives of those who explicitly cling to the outdated view of Genesis. Is it due to an unwavering adherence to scripture, or are there more base drivers of this behaviour?

As Lynn White astutely observed:

It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why they are doing what they want to do, whether they are offering real reasons or merely culturally acceptable reasons.

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