Wednesday, May 14, 2008
A Lot Lower Than God
It's not difficult during these early days of May to imagine what the Psalmist had in mind when referring to the majesty of God's name in all the earth. I have spent the last few mornings in my back yard just taking in the sights and sounds of the emerging season, making note of all the feathered migrants who are now just finding their way back to the central plains. I'm particularly fond of the Yellow Warblers and the Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. In a landscape slowly pulling itself out of the dull brown coma of winter it's always an exhilarating joy to catch out of the corner of my eye a streak of orange skipping through the air like some fiery pebble across a pond. Then I too have to wonder, what are humans – earth-bound, self-absorbed, and prone to calamity at every turn – that God would be mindful of us? Yet we were made a "little lower than God," we are told, and we have been given dominion over all these remarkable creatures who inhabit our world, "all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea" (Ps. 8:8).
Dominion. The Priestly authors of Genesis 1:1-2:4a certainly chose their words carefully when composing their elegy to God's wondrous acts of creation, and it no doubt suited their purposes at the time. But would that history had been a little more prudent in its subsequent interpretations of this term – what a mess it could have averted. There are many these days who still like the sound of "dominion theology" with its emphasis on returning the care of creation to the faithful whose calling as God's image on earth best suits them for the task of making all the tough decisions about fair use and distribution of resources, but their arguments to this end haven't exactly won me over. As Lynn White, Jr., suggested over forty years ago, "dominion," even in the hands of the most committed Christians, has too often been mistaken for "domination." Add to this the injunction to "subdue the earth," and then toss in a good dose of human greed, and you've got a ready prescription for ecological disaster. Anyone living on the Great Plains, with the Dust Bowl an ever present memory, knows where an avaricious reading of the creation narrative can lead.
Dominion works well as a hoped-for dream, but as our science and technology have succeeded in effectively putting all things under our feet, we need now to ask what the value of this theological concept is for the future of creation itself. Hope and faith were all that were left to the remnant of the Jewish community for whom Genesis 1:1-2:4a was composed, men and women struggling to sing a song of praise to God in a foreign land. By the waters of Babylon they lay down and wept, and for good reason. Their Temple, once the outward sign of God's surest favor toward the people of Israel, had by 587 BCE been completely destroyed by the invading Babylonian army, and now they had to endure the constant doubt and humiliation of being reminded in all things that it was the great god Marduk, not Yahweh, who had finally won the day.
As a new generation of Hebrew children began to grow quite nicely into their adopted culture, parents began to wonder if their traditional customs and beliefs were doomed to fade into obscurity. With Aramaic becoming the language of choice, an entirely new metaphysic of creation began also to enter into Israelite consciousness. How long could God's remnant persist among a people who declared that the moon and the stars were worthy of their praise as celestial deities? Something was needed – in addition to Ezekiel's theatrics, that is – to remind the faithful few that their homeland had not been utterly lost, that the Temple would one day be rebuilt, and most importantly, that Yahweh, who had called Abraham and had brought their ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, was still in control. And as God's name was still majestic in all the earth, so were God's people to remember their original calling as God's image in creation. No doubt they were offered hope in the words that Micah had spoken just two centuries earlier: "And you, O tower of the flock, hill of daughter Zion, to you it shall come, the former dominion shall come…." (Micah 4:8).
When I think of the ludicrous arguments that have been proffered by those who, on the one hand, proclaim their deep reverence and respect for scripture, yet on the other hand insist on reading it through an anachronistic lens, as if it were a science book, I have to wonder just how much time they have devoted to the original context of these words of hope that were sung by God's people in captivity. These verses were originally intended as a statement of faith, a poetic bulwark against the cultural impositions of the Babylonians, and a reminder to all Hebrew children that God's name, and not that of Marduk, was to be praised to the exclusion of all others. The heavens continually proclaim God's glory. Yes, these people along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, our captors, may believe that those bright lights twinkling in the skies at night are immortal souls, but guess what? Our God created them.
Least of all on the minds of the Priestly authors who wrote this text was the question of how, exactly, God pulled this off. Was it six twenty-four-hour days? Was there a Big Bang? Is that what happened when God said 'Let there be light'?" Ludicrous. And I am not too timid to suggest that such questions really come close to blasphemy. Reading the faith-poem of Genesis 1:1-2:4a as a proto-scientific text is like appealing to Robert Frost's "Birches" as a reliable technical manual on the biology of trees.
Interpreting this hymn to God's majesty in its Babylonian context also helps us get a handle on the admittedly aggressive command to "subdue the earth and have dominion," not to mention the injunction to "be fruitful and multiply." A powerless people can hope to be drawn out of their helplessness not only in an earthly way – by somehow getting the upper hand on their enemies, for example – but also in a cosmically significant manner. The latter was in fact the more important of the two. Their dominion over the earth, when it eventually came, would be a final declaration of Yahweh's sovereignty, which was certainly a little worse for the wear after forty years in captivity. So the pertinent question here is, does the dominion referred to in this text really have to do with a human calling to bring all things under our power and command, or is it simply a symbolic affirmation, sung in Sabbath worship, that God's name would once again be praised from Jerusalem and throughout all the earth? What has so often been regarded as history -- that is, an account of what happened "in the beginning" -- may in fact be cosmological prophecy. The former dominion will come.
But it has not come yet. There is no question that "subjugation and domination" of the earth have now won the day, due in part to a none-to-faithful reading of this single text, and helped along in no small measure by the Psalmist's affirmation that we have been made "a little lower than God." It is in a situation like this that I can be thankful for my Reformed roots – extending all the way back to Augustine, and finally to Paul – reminding me that, when I look at the heavens and the work of God's fingers, and then consider what human beings have done to it all, I cannot help but disagree with the Psalmist's hopeful anthropology: we are, in fact, a lot lower than God. We're not even close to how we were originally created. This being the case, I am then led to ask, and with some trepidation, why God would even want to be mindful of us.
I have to wonder how long the earth will continue to sing God's praises – how long it will be before the songbirds stop coming to my back yard due to loss of their winter habitat in South America; how long before the water we all take for granted dries up beneath our feet; how long before the species whose diversity offers the greatest proclamation of God's handiwork become eliminated through genetic modification or sheer extinction. And the question that most haunts me at the present time: how long will we continue to funnel our grain into our suburban assault vehicles at the expense of billions of hungry stomachs around the world? Strange dominion indeed.
Dominion – and the theology that accompanies it, I would add – is really not all it's cracked up to be. What was intended to be an affirmation of the Lord's sovereignty over all creation has become, and will probably continue to be, a theological means for allowing humans to lord it over creation, and with apparent impunity. This was by no means the original intent of this paean to God's faithful work in the world, Genesis 1:1-2:4a. But in our inimitable fallen fashion we have been able to do what would otherwise seem impossible. We have turned a love poem into a science book, and a hymn of faith into a mandate for our own destruction.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. In Lynn White's now-famous essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (1967) he argues quite persuasively that Christianity bears a "huge burden of guilt" for the environmental problems that now face us. His reasons for this claim rest on the "dominion theology" referred to above. Do you think that White has overstated his thesis? What evidence do you have that Christianity is actually an eco-friendly religious tradition?
2. If Christianity is as eco-friendly as some claim, then why do we see the worst environmental problems caused by those countries that are predominantly Christian? Is religion irrelevant here, despite White's claim? What role does capitalism play in this? Are capitalism and Christianity at odds with each other, or in agreement on humanity's right to utilize the earth's resources to maximize profits?
3. Reread the Genesis passage, but this time imagine yourself in the Babylonian context, praising the creative work of a God who seems to have abandoned God's chosen people in a strange land, a sovereign who appears to have been defeated by the Babylonian God Marduk. What insights do you gain from this exercise?