Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Let them have dominion...

            After this Sunday’s service at the Episcopal Chaplaincy, we spent a good deal of time talking about what it means to interpret the Bible and particularly in how such interpretation directly impacts our sense of who we are, both as individuals and as human beings. These sorts of questions are nowhere more crucial than when we are engaging the topic of our current series: the world as God’s creation.

As an example, the majority of airtime in American discussions of creation have tended to revolve around debates about evolution and creationism. When forming this series, we were incredibly conscious of this preoccupation, to the point that we almost entitled our series Creation, not Creationism rather than In the Beginning. What I believe is notable about such debates is that they rarely involve a careful interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, often reflecting little serious inquiry about both the original context of the Genesis narrative and other creation accounts in the Bible and how such narratives have been appropriated theologically by Christians before the modern period.

But, as I mentioned before, we are emphatically not addressing these concerns. Rather, we’ve been asking questions about what a robust theology of creation has to do with our spiritual life, our relationships with other human beings and the whole of creation, and (this week) how creation theology informs our understanding of all human action in the world, negative and positive.

Allow me to address in my remaining space this last concern, namely, the question of how human beings are called to act in the world, particularly in positive ways. While there are many entry points for this topic, I am going to relate the question to two passages from the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1 and Psalm 72. I’m utilizing these passages because I think they both demonstrate what human beings are called to do and point out what that ‘doing’ ought to look like.

Genesis 1, perhaps the most famous creation account, reaches its climax with the creation of human beings. God is portrayed as saying, “Let us make the human as our image, in our likeness, and let them have dominion” over all creation. This passage has received a great deal of criticism in the past couple decades, with the rise of environmentalism but also with the rise of various critiques of Christian theology and its historic (and ongoing) influence in Western culture. The idea in Genesis of humans ruling or having dominion over creation is sometimes seen as the ideological source for the destructive exploitation of the resources of the earth and of the labor of other human beings.  Other, putatively more harmonious relationships are often envisaged in its place.

However, I think we must allow this idea (have dominion) to be tempered by its context in the passage and in the entirety of the Scriptures. Human beings, after all, are made in the image of God, the one who has structured the earth harmoniously that life might exist and flourish (“be fruitful and multiply”). Genesis 1 itself would militate against the idea of an exploitative dominion. Other biblical accounts of human dominion would as well.

Take Psalm 72. When speaking of the King of Israel this hymnic text envisages a universal dominion but also a supremely beneficial dominion. To rule over the whole earth as a truly human being will result in the flourishing of creation and will bring about justice and prosperity for all humanity, rather than accomplishing the desolation of the earth and the exploitation of the others’ labor.

Of course, what does this tell us? In its most basic form, for interpreting our Scriptures and for understanding Christian theology, it lets us know that we must be careful not to allow some features of one text to overshadow the full ramifications of the whole text and of the whole body of Christian teaching and spirituality. More importantly, though, we can begin to see the practical angle of a robust theology of creation. We are acting most fully, most entirely “as the image of God” not simply by exercising “dominion” over the earth but when doing so in a way that leads to the proper protection and safety of the whole creation. We are most like God when we work for justice and help bring about the flourishing of every other creature. Our life’s work, in the words of Psalm 72, is to:

Come down like rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth.

In other words, we exercise dominion and are “as the image of God” by engaging in work that brings benefit to others. This idea has a wide application, and I hope you will think about it throughout this week. I imagine that many of you reading this blog are attempting to engage in such work, whether it is through your studies, through volunteer activities, or through your future careers.

And, I hope, you can begin thinking of your work as this: the very purpose for which God created you.

Zack Guiliano
Kellogg Fellow 

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