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Building in Good Faith - Green Building Resource for Religious Institutions

Seven Jewish and Christian Theological Principles for Green Building (3)

Human Beings are Embedded Stewards with Unique Responsibilities; Sustainability is a Religious Value.

Humanity - Part of Creation

From one perspective, humanity is one part of creation - mortal like other forms of life. Genesis asserts this with humor and humility, as has been widely recognized. The Hebrew term for humanity - adam - is derived from the term for earth - adamah (Gen. 2:7). "You are dust and to dust you shall return" is more than an effort to teach humility. Biblically, it is physical fact.

The Bible also recognizes humanity as one of many parts of creation, all of which join in the praise of God. Psalm 148 conducts a roll-call of all the different members of the created order joined in a shared praise of God - sun, moon, stars, mountains, hills, birds, animals, sea creatures and more. Humanity is one part of this choir - an important part, but a part nonetheless.

Humanity - Uniquely Responsible for Creation

God blessed them, and 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'

Genesis 1:28

There is another Biblical view of humanity's place in creation. According to Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, human beings alone are made in the divine image, given "dominion," made "just a little beneath the angels." Theologians have made sense of these assertions by writing that humans were put on the earth to act as God's agents or stewards, to actualize God's presence on earth. Compared to the view described above, this second perspective sees humanity in a unique role as a steward, a role requiring the application of humanity's moral character, power, and free will.

Rather than seeing this as a triumphalist assertion which says, "people can do whatever they want to the environment," we interpret it differently. Ecologically, there is no question of the decisive impact of humanity on natural systems; denying human impact on the earth is illusory. However, from a Biblical perspective, being chosen means having increased responsibility, not increased privilege. Combining these Biblical and ecological insights, we suggest that Judaism and Christianity teach that humanity has a fundamental responsibility, given to us by God, to take care of the earth.

Sustainability and Stewardship

It is here that the modern concept of "sustainability" connects most closely with the concept of stewardship. The United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Religious understandings of stewardship share this sense of responsibility to present and future generations of life. For example, in the following passage Deuteronomy states God's concern for multiple generations:

I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the LORD our God, but also with those who are not here with us today.

Deuteronomy 29:14-15

While the concept of sustainability lacks stewardship's religious connotations, it shares the sense that people are responsible to care for the earth, both for present and future generations.

Many religious buildings weaken humanity's sense of stewardship by weakening the relationship between people and the earth. The lack of natural lighting, the use of toxic materials, the siting of buildings without consideration of the needs of the local ecosystem all further an illusion of human separation from the earth, disconnectedness from future generations, and independence from God. These practices undermine our sense of embeddedness in Creation. They make our buildings expressions of our power to exploit rather than to steward.

Green buildings strengthen our identity as stewards through the process of their design, construction and maintenance, through the materials used, and through the increased awareness of the environment which they create in their owners and inhabitants. The religious community needs green religious buildings to remind us that we owe a duty of compassion and care towards the entire community of life - that we are stewards called to sustain the planet.

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