The following is an excerpt from my book, Learning the Language of the Fields, which I found to be relevant to the Season of Creation lectionary texts for this week.
When we consider the manner in which Genesis 1-2:4a, the Priestly (P) narrative, God’s creation of the cosmos, and the doctrines that subsequently grew out of it, it is not difficult to see how we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have come to regard ourselves as essentially removed or distinct from the rest of the natural world. The image we are given of the Creator informs and determines the image we have of ourselves, and this account presents a God who creates from a distance, an observer who speaks the cosmos into being and sees that it is good. Nowhere in this description are we given the impression that God “gets God’s hands dirty” in the process, or that the quality and characteristics of creation are known through any tactile or first-hand experience. God does not taste or smell or feel the goodness of the earth in this story; rather, God contemplates it from afar, abstractly, as if surveying that blue-green jewel of a planet that Neil Armstrong first beheld from the moon in 1969. In the Priestly account of creation, God is transcendent, wholly removed, and not to be confused in any way with the natural world.
The Priestly narrative, however, is not the last word on God’s creating activity. Another equally important tradition, the Yahwist account, needs also to be considered. Because of the peculiarities of God’s early work in Eden, one can see why this story has become a favorite among gardeners. God, according to this tradition, is not a speaker of words as much as a planter of seeds. Written during Israel’s Golden Age, most likely under the auspices of King Solomon (c. 950 BCE), the Yahwist narrative (Gen. 2:4b—3:24) features a God who creates not from a distance but with God’s own two hands. This is an account replete with sensuality. Here Yahweh walks through Eden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), a garden that God has planted (Gen. 2:8). God calls out to the creatures there, encountering them face-to-face. But what is most distinctive about this narrative is the manner in which God creates Adam; one cannot help but picture some meticulous gardener, knees in the muck, hands full of rich, wet earth, who is undaunted by the mud on his face as he breathes the breath of life into the form beneath him:
then the LORD God formed man of dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed (Gen. 2:7-8).
The obvious pun in this account is lost in the English translation: “Adam” is a play on the Hebrew word adamah — earth, soil. We might suspect that upon hearing this story the early Hebrews understood very clearly who the original human being was and, consequently, who they were: Adam was an “earth child,” brought into this world in the same manner as all the other creatures who roamed the earth (cf. Gen. 2:19). But what is perhaps most important in this narrative is the complete lack of any reference to humanity as “the image of God,” let alone any affirmation of Adam’s rational proclivities. On the contrary, a strong argument can be made that here we find humans created in “the image of the earth.” Indeed, the only mention of any similarity with the Creator is in the task that Adam is later directed to perform: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15; cf. Gen. 2:8).
Just as the Creator nurtures and tends the garden that he has planted, so must Adam do the same; in this way, Adam “images” God. Thus, we might say that the Yahwist narrative lends credence to the idea that human identity consists not in the ratiocentric imago dei bestowed upon us by tradition, but in a much more eco-centric alternative: humans as imago mundi et dei. Ontologically, we are grounded in the earth, with which we share our being. Ethically, our actions should reflect the work of the Creator — we are “imagers” of God.
It is at this point that we might pause to consider an interpretation of imago dei that has enjoyed particular favor among both Catholic and Protestant theologians since the middle of the twentieth century. As we have seen, the received notion of imago dei tended to place human beings outside or above the created order, and has to some extent perpetuated the image of the ideal human as an autonomous individual who uses his or her cognitive abilities to discern God’s will for creation. The assumption here is that there is some substantive similarity between the Creator and God’s image on earth: as God is self-reflective, so are humans.
The Neo-Orthodox theologian, Karl Barth, took strong exception to this understanding of imago dei. For Barth, the suggestion of any essential affinity between a God who is Wholly Other and creation was, in his estimation, an affront to the Creator. In contrast to Augustine, Aquinas, and others who followed in their footsteps, Barth suggested that the divine nature is, at its most fundamental level, relational; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in and enjoy an effusion of love among each other. In other words, God as Trinity is characterized by both an “I” who can issue a divine call, and a “Thou” who can offer a divine response. This relationality, however, is not simply limited to the Godhead; it can also carry over into relationships with human beings who thereby share in this image of the divine. Thus the encounter that lies at the very core of God’s being can take place on both an intra- and extra-divine level.
In God’s own being and sphere there is a counterpart: a genuine but harmonious self-encounter and self-discovery; a free co-existence and co-operation; an open confrontation and reciprocity. Man is the repetition of this divine form of life; its copy and reflection. He is this first in the fact that he is the counterpart of God, the encounter and discovery in God Himself being copied and imitated in God’s relation to man (Church Dogmatics III.2, 185).
For Barth, there is no “analogy of being” (analogia entis) between God and human beings; rather, our claim to be God’s image consists entirely in the fact that we have been graced with the distinction of being a Thou capable of encountering the divine I.
This singularity, however, is not simply a privilege — it has profound ethical implications. Though we share nothing ontologically with God, we are nevertheless obliged to act according to our received understanding of who God is. Like our Creator, we have been given the capacity to enter into relationships with others. We, too, are capable of being an I who may encounter a Thou openly and in a spirit of reciprocity. Conversely, we are also likely to be called by others into meaningful and open relationships. In this way we image God. Barth establishes this assertion on what he calls the "analogy of relation" (analogia relationis). Just as the Godhead is fundamentally relational — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — so must humans also see themselves. We reflect God’s essential nature only when we acknowledge and affirm our most basic need to be related to others, to reach out beyond ourselves in a spirit of love. We are who we are by virtue of these encounters. Indeed, this is at the heart of the two great commandments that Jesus impressed upon all those seeking eternal life: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
But herein lies the rub. Recall the lawyer’s engaging response upon receiving these deceptively simple instructions from the Nazarene: “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29). For Barth, the answer was readily apparent: my neighbor is any Thou with whom I can enter into relationship — that is, any human. For all his innovation in reformulating this doctrine, Barth was not willing to move beyond the divine and human sphere when it came to meaningful relationships. But given the various ecological challenges of our present context, it should be evident that this perspective is just too short-sighted. It certainly does not take into account the very radical nature of Jesus’ compelling reply to the lawyer’s question: the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is less a story about ethics than about theological anthropology.
In first-century Palestine, the lines of the Jewish moral community were very clearly delineated; those who observed the laws of ritual purity and worshiped God in his proper place were not only deemed “good” by virtue of their deeds, they were in many respects recognized as truly human, chosen by God. By contrast, outsiders were not simply bad or immoral on account of their actions; in the eyes of many devout Jews, they were, by their very nature, unclean, even less than human. Jesus’ parable, then, has implications that are easily lost on those of us who see in the Samaritan -- an outsider to Jesus’ culture -- a human who demonstrates his love for another through his acts of kindness. In telling this story, Jesus was making a very deliberate attempt to shatter the conventional wisdom of his day and extend the bounds of the traditional moral community to include aspects of the world “out there,” inhabited by creatures who were not widely regarded as fully human.
Given our current ecological concerns, we would do well not to overlook the centrality of the lawyer’s earnest question: Who is my neighbor? To what Thou may I call out and receive an open and meaningful response, thus affirming my essential humanity as a relational being? Should humans alone populate my moral community, or should I rise to Jesus’ challenge to break through old barriers and encounter this world anew?
As Americans, the land in which we live has long produced tales where humans were regarded merely as plain members of a Great Society, enjoying no special privilege or position of power. Ecologically, we know that we are indeed woven into an intricate web of life that, much to our dismay, regularly refuses to acknowledge our own self-styled importance. Theologically, however, we encounter obstacles to conceiving ourselves as having deep roots in this world, but only as long as we insist on our received understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God. Barth sends us part of the way down the road to recovery by insisting that the notion of imago dei be interpreted by an analogy of relation. I can agree with Barth that humans are called to be imagers of a relational God; my disagreement, however, is with his understanding of where and with whom we are to be doing our "tilling and keeping" (Gen. 2:15).
If we can acknowledge our most basic ontological connection with the earth from which we and all other living creatures were formed — as the Yahwist suggests — we can then effectively begin to address the implications of the lawyer’s question for our present context. My neighbor is any creature who was formed from the dust of the ground and with whom I therefore share my essential being. Ontologically, I am connected with the earth -- I am imago mundi. Ethically, I am called to image God by “serving and preserving” (Gen. 2:15) my neighbors, now broadly defined -- I am imago dei. In short, the “care of souls,” once so narrowly conceived, must now be expanded to include the “care of soils."
Martin Buber on relationality and trees:
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement....
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
... The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it -- only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity (I and Thou, p. 57).