Is environmentalism a spiritual issue? It's a fair question. If one were to look for "Environmental Studies" in a college curriculum, one would search under Science, not Theology. Environmentalism at first glance seems to have a great deal to do with biology, and a great deal to do with politics and the legal system. And yet, few individuals involved in working to preserve nature and the planet would argue that there is something "spiritual" about their work and their motivations, however vaguely that something might be defined.
Such vagueness is not necessarily a bad thing; no one spiritual tradition can (or should) lay claim to owning environmentalism as an issue exclusively under its purview, and no one spiritual tradition should be held responsible for the sad state we find ourselves in today in terms of honoring and protecting Nature.
As an example, Judaism, and subsequently Christianity, have been criticized for what might be a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of Genesis 1:28:
“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.”
"Dominion" implies dominance; does it not also imply responsibility?
In Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, we are told in regard to the above passage that "... these words rather contain a benediction and a promise, than a command, as appears from Genesis 1:22, where the same words are applied to the brute creatures, which are not capable of understanding or obeying a command."
Regarding the word "subdue," The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges calls it, "A strong word, denoting subjugation to power. Man’s authority over the creatures of the earth confers upon him responsibility for the exercise of his powers. Supremacy over the fishes, the birds, and the beasts, will require courage, forethought, skill, observation, and judgement. The blessing, therefore, of 'fruitfulness' is incomplete, until reinforced by the commission so to exercise the faculties as to ensure intellectual growth."
Thus, our supremacy carries with it a supreme responsibility to take care of all of nature - not just "the fishes, the birds, and the beasts," but also the trees, the plants, the oceans, the rivers, the skies, the earth itself - in a manner that would be pleasing to God. We've not done that.
Let's put this another way: if you truly are spiritual, then you must be an environmentalist. There's no way around it. In fact, if you follow the Judeo-Christian belief system, then it's your first order of business, right there at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1, God's very first requirement of you. I'm fairly sure that this requirement to take care of the earth exists in all valid religions.
This doesn't mean that you can't do other things that are also spiritual. You can pray. You can meditate. You can volunteer at a food bank. You can build shelters for the homeless. But if you're doing any of these things and not also engaged in taking care of the earth and all its creatures, then you're missing a point. God certainly wants the hungry to be fed, and the homeless to be sheltered, but God also, clearly and unequivocally, wants the oceans and rivers and lakes and skies and lands to be free of pollutants and contaminants. God doesn't want birds and bees dying in fields because they ingested harmful toxins. And God certainly doesn't want a species - a species He created, let us keep in mind - to go extinct because you want to put up a housing development there.
Searching for a spiritual path? Step outside your door, and get to work saving the planet.
External Links of Interest:
Laudato Si', by Pope Francis
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