In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. published a provocative article titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” ( Science, 155, March 10, 1967), which suggested that Christianity, especially the command in Genesis 1:28, “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,” (NRSV) was responsible for our current environmental crisis.
Since then, it has become almost a mantra for environmentalists to trace the source of our ecological problems to the Judeo-Christian tradition. David Suzuki, for instance, made a similar argument in “Subdue the Earth,” Part 2 of his television series A Planet for the Taking (CBC, 1985). A Christian environmental major at York University told me that one of the first things she learned in her classes was that Christianity caused the environmental crisis.
How did Genesis 1:28 cause the environmental crisis? The argument being made is that the concept of dominion in Genesis created a human-centred worldview where humanity is given the absolute right to rule and exploit creation as it sees fit. This blank check for humans to use the environment resulted in a lack of respect for the ecology and subsequently justified the rampant destruction of nature for human consumption.
In my previous article ( Comment, June 2004, http://www.wrf.ca/comment/issue/04jun/column4 ), I looked at a biblical approach to the question who am I. In approaching that question, I relied heavily on the biblical teaching in Genesis 1 that we are created “in the image of God.”
But Genesis 1:27, the Imago Dei text, is linked to Genesis 1:28, the dominion text. I suggested in my first article that our identities as human beings are defined by our relationship to God, to each other, and to creation. The linking of verse 28 to verse 27 of Genesis 1 also suggests a similar connection between who am I and where am I.
In this article, I want to explore our relationship to the earth from a reformed Christian perspective, taking into consideration the environmentalist charge against Christianity. In my previous article, I talked about the image of God as a relationship where humanity images God on earth. I also suggested that there is a functional or instrumental angle to being the image of God. A proper relationship to God also entails proper functioning. Our relationship to God is expressed in acts of service, devotion, obedience, and love. The Old Testament concept for capturing this functional aspect of God’s image in us is ruling or dominion.
There is a strong consensus among Old Testament biblical scholars in interpreting the image of God as “the royal function or office of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, given authorized power to share in God’s rule over the earth’s resources and creatures” (see J. Richard Middleton, “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context” in Christian Scholars’ Review, vol. 24, no. 1, September 1994, 8-25; the rest of my biblical interpretation here is based on Middleton’s article). In its historical context, Genesis 1 was launching a critique of the ancient Babylonian mythology and worldview. In the ancient Babylonian worldview, the kings, and by extension the royal elite classes (such as the royal court, the priesthood, and the bureaucracy), were the image of this or that god. The king acted as mediator between the gods and the rest of the world. This, of course, justified and legitimized the king’s rule over the lower classes, especially the peasants and slaves.
In the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, human beings were created from the blood of an executed rebellious god as slave labour to do the dirty work of the gods on the earth. Thus, this mythology reinforced the position of slaves and peasants as lowly labourers. The king and the ruling class are the images of the gods, and therefore, rule on behalf of the gods, while the rest of humankind do what they are created for-menial labour in service to the gods via their images on earth.
Therefore, when Genesis 1 claims that all humankind, both male and female, is created in God’s image, it directly attacks the Babylonian mythology’s hierarchy among humankind. In Genesis, all of humanity is equally in God’s image, from the king to the peasant, from the oldest to the youngest, both male and female. All of us are rulers exercising dominion over the earth. Notice that Genesis 1:28 says nothing about exercising dominion over each other, over other human beings, but only over creation. As opposed to the lowly view of humankind as slaves to the gods, Genesis has an exalted and liberating view of humanity.
Thus the original intent of Genesis was to critique the oppressive, hierarchical worldview of the Babylonian empire (which was very influential in the ancient near east) and to shape ancient Israel’s worldview as one that is different, one that is egalitarian, where no one is naturally a slave or naturally a ruler. We are all, without exception, in the image of God and are called to exercise dominion over creation.
But if the functional aspect of the Imago Dei is dominion or ruling over creation, then does not this support the environmentalists’ accusation that this is the root of all environmental evils? Well, let’s take a closer look at dominion.
The word dominion currently gives us all sorts of negative connotations, such as tyranny, oppression, exploitation, and so on. However, if Genesis sees humankind as ruling on God’s behalf, then it is fair to see how Genesis portrayed God’s own ruling.
In Genesis 1, prior to the creation of humankind, we see God in control, ruling by royal pronouncements (“Let there be . . .,” for example). But God’s rule here is peaceful, not violent. God created the heavens and the earth by simply pronouncing them to be, unlike the Enuma Elish where the heavens and the earth were created from the dismemberment of a rebel monster goddess’s slain body.
The Babylonian myth suggests that the material world is inherently violent, evil, and tragic. The victorious Babylonian gods rule viciously, vindictively, and violently.
In contrast, God’s creation and ruling of the cosmos in Genesis is peaceful, harmonious, and orderly, and the whole creation, rather than the tragic result of conflict, is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This alone should make us think twice about reading exploitation, tyranny, and oppression into dominion or subduing the earth.
In addition, the context of Genesis 2 also undermines the notion of dominion and subduing as exploitation. In Genesis 2:15, God created Adam and “put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” To till and keep a garden is not the same as exploiting and ravaging the earth.
The very vocation of a gardener totally goes against that of exploiting the earth. Good gardeners do their best to make the garden as beautiful as it can be, to bear flowers and fruits, to maintain the health and life of the plants in the garden.
From the larger context of the whole Bible, we also know that God is love (1 John 4:16). As seventeenth-century poet George Herbert puts it: “Love rules his kingdom without a sword.” In other words, God’s loving rule is neither tyrannical nor based on violence or coercion.
If humanity images God in being God’s agents to rule and have dominion over creation, then it must be seen as a dominion that is loving, harmonious, caring, and nurturing. We rule on God’s behalf, not in place of God. We are more like caretakers of the world because the world belongs not to us but to God. To read dominion (and subduing) as giving humanity carte blanche freedom to do whatever it thinks best with creation is to misread dominion in Genesis 1.
However, this is not to deny that, historically, Christians, and even Christian theology, had been guilty of being complicit in and of providing justification for the rape of the environment. But I would argue that this is not caused by the vision that Genesis 1:27-28 sets forth. Rather, it is in misreading Genesis and in contradiction of the biblical vision that Christians had been guilty of environmental exploitation. Furthermore, one can also point to the fact that the ravaging of the earth did not really take off until the rise of the Industrial Revolution where it was not Genesis 1 but rather the Enlightenment’s “man is the measure of all things” that dominated the European mindset.
Because of Christianity’s tarnished history on this matter, it’s important to lay out a Christian theological vision of creation and of our relationship to it that better captures the emphasis of Genesis 1. Here’s a brief outline of a theology of creation.
The Bible says that we live in a reality that is created by God. Everything that exists, physical or spiritual, exists because God brought it into being. God not only created all things but also sustains them. This means that the whole universe is in some way dependent on God to continue existing and functioning. We can say that the world is created as being-in-relationship with God. Being somehow related to God is part of the basic make-up of the world. All things in creation are beings-in-relationship to each other and to God.
This being-in-relationship is not characterized by a fusion or union of things; it is not as if each individual thing in reality is like a drop of water in an ocean. Neither is it like a beach with pebbles of sand lying next to each other; being-in-relationship means more than mere proximity. It means that each individual unit in reality is interdependent on each other and on God (God is the only one not dependent on anything else). It is like a spider’s web: each strand is uniquely individual yet all are related to other strands and affect each other.
The Bible also says that the world and everything in it was created good. This material world we live in, our bodies, our bodily desires and needs, including the need for sex and food, are good things. These good things in God’s creation are to be enjoyed and respected. We do not need to shy away from them.
It is wrong to think that any particular thing in creation is purely bad. All things were good at the beginning when God created them. Nature and the living environment with all its creatures are good. This physical world, our physical bodies, is good.
The world, therefore, as God created it, is very good.
God created humankind; we too are creatures, part of creation. Genesis 2 tells the story of how Adam, the representative human, was created “from the dust of the ground” (2:7). This suggests that we are intrinsically related to the creation or the environment. We are made of the same “stuff” as the earth. We are tied to it. We cannot survive apart from the earth.
Being-in-relationship with creation is also a fundamental part of our humanity, of what makes us human. Although we are beings-in-relationship with both God and creation, our relationship to God is the first and foremost link. Our relation to God is the basis for our relation to creation, as it is God who created both creation and us and established that bond between the two of us.
Unlike creation, God does not need us. God can sever ties with both creation and us and still be perfectly God. But neither creation nor us can disrupt our relationships to God or to each other without dismantling what makes us human or creature.
We are subordinate to God, but, in relation to creation, God placed us in a position of authority. God commanded us to “have dominion” over creation (Genesis 1:28).
Dominion does not mean that we can exploit creation in any way we like. Rather, dominion means we have a duty to explore, develop, and enjoy nature’s potentials in kind, responsible, and loving ways. Stewardship may be a more palatable term to use instead of dominion to capture our relationship to creation.
All our relationships are defined by love, a love that privileges the interests of others over self-interest. Thus, just as God exercises his authority over us in love, we exercise our stewardship authority over creation in loving ways.
God created us to find our fulfilment in loving communion with Him, with each other, and with creation. To be truly human is to have harmonious being-with God, humans, and creation.
So what are some of the implications of this theology? Besides the obvious call to be environmentally friendly and to promote environmental sustainability, how does this biblical view affect us? Let me list only three, among many, implications for you.
First, we live in a meaningful world. The world that God created is not a cold, scary, unfriendly place. Rather, the world is our home to which we are intrinsically connected, a home that is originally harmonious and orderly. Therefore, we cannot hold the view that nature is our enemy or that nature is inherently in conflict with us, something that we need to tame and conquer. Instead, we need to see that to promote the welfare of creation is also to promote our own welfare. We need to be at home with creation.
Second, we live in a world that is a creature, like us, and not divine. Furthermore, we are placed as God’s stewards over creation. This means that we cannot also hold the view that places environmental rights over human rights, so to speak. We cannot worship the environment nor can we abdicate our authority over the environment because our authority as stewards comes from God, not from ourselves. Just as we need creation to sustain us, creation needs us to perform our role as stewards in order for creation to flourish. Of course, creation does not need us to ravage and exploit it; that is not what a good steward does.
Third, having a right relationship with the created world helps us to be fully human. Just as a distortion in our relationship to God distorts our humanity, so too a distortion in our relationship to creation distorts us. To delight in creation, to enjoy and to work in the fields, to cultivate the earth, to get our hands dirty, these are not things that make us less spiritual. They do not make us less human. On the contrary, they contribute to our human-ness. Being connected to the earth is not a lower form of life than, say, computer software wizardry. Being earthly is pleasing to God and God-glorifying.
Our modern culture with its highly technological society has distanced us, even alienated us, from creation. We no longer have a connection to the land, to a home in a healthy way. We are increasingly feeling homeless, like nomads in the world-transient beings that don’t feel they belong anywhere.
I will explore the root cause of this alienation in my next article when I approach the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”