What does it mean to be spiritual? It’s a nebulous term that can be understood in a variety of different ways, but typically conjures up a kind of religious/mystical connection.
Ursula King writes:
Some authors feel uneasy with the word ‘spirituality’ or references to ‘the spiritual’ because they may be understood as dualistic notions in contrast to ‘matter’ or ‘the material’, the physical or the world. To some the concept seems a rather abstract and idealized one, too separate from other human concerns. Others prefer the notion of ‘the spiritual’ to that of ‘the religious’ because it is wider, less concrete and less institutionally bound than the latter. Others again consider ‘the spiritual and spirituality as the heart of religion, its very centre, encountered particularly through religious and mystical experience. 
I’m sure we’ve all met people who claim to be “spiritual” rather than religious. I fully agree with King’s perception, especially when it comes to wrestling with what a Christian spirituality looks like.
Sallie McFague cites a definition of spirituality by the 1977 Scottish Churches Council, which I think is completely on point, relevant to our current situation, and desperately needed in our churches.
It defines spirituality as ‘an exploration into what is involved in becoming human,’ and describes ‘becoming human’ as ‘an attempt to grow in sensitivity to self, to others, to the non-human creation, and to God who is within and beyond this totality. 
Christian spirituality generally implies becoming less human. It is unfortunate that the language of struggle and temptation and weakness employed by the Apostle Paul is that of the spirit in contention with the body. It has been the cause of much pain and confusion regarding our bodies, our human identity, and our attention to the physical creation.
I believe that most of our current Christian spirituality and discipleship is focused on becoming more Christlike.
What is wrong with that?
Well, it isn’t possible. Dominant Christianity fails to hold the humanity of Jesus in tension with his divinity in a way that makes Jesus far more divine than human. We operate in a default mode that believes it is safer to make a mistake about the humanity of Jesus than it is to make a mistake about the divinity of Jesus. In this light, our discipleship and obedience to the divine Christ is impeded by our brokenness and our human weakness. Jesus as the Christ cannot be followed because he is not human but divine. Jesus of Nazareth, the Human One, can be followed. What is the difference? Dependence upon the Spirit. The more divine Jesus is the less he is like us, and the less he is dependent upon the Spirit for obedience, love, and healing.
In the dualistic paradigm of spirit/flesh it makes perfect sense that we denigrate our humanity. However, becoming less human is not the answer. On the contrary, the very act of becoming human provided the necessary avenue to imitate, participate in, and relate to God through Jesus. St. Athanasius wrote of divinization that God became human so that humans may become divine. Our spirituality is intimately linked with our humanity.
Through the incarnation, God redefined the vertical relationship between Divine and human to be radically horizontal. We failed to reach God, so God reached out to us. The incarnation ends the competition between spiritual and material, God and humanity, divine and human by blending them together in perfect tension and balance and harmony. Becoming more fully human is becoming more spiritual. The way towards God is not shedding the flesh to make space for greater increase of the Spirit, but by the Spirit integrating with and participating with our flesh, thus transforming it.
Learning to become more fully human (and therefore, more spiritual) requires us to continually look towards Jesus, but also to talk about what and who we are as humans, and what Jesus became when he emptied himself and became one of us. We must wrestle with what it means to bear the image of God, and the identity and responsibility that comes along with that image.
1. King, Ursula. “Spirituality, Society, and Culture.” http://www.theway.org.uk/Back/s073King.pdf
2. McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.
I am a very even-tempered and mildly mannered person. I can get very excited about some things, but I am mostly reserved. I am very hopeful and idealistic. Something I have learned about my personality is that I have a very difficult time pointing out the negative things I see in people or situations. Associated with that difficulty is a repression of my negative emotions––sadness, frustration, anger. It takes a lot to get me worked up, and even then I’m still quite timorous. However, I did get quite worked up over a recent event in the Evangelical world.
Last month at their annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention resolutely criticized the 2011 New International Version Bible translation and has additionally petitioned that LifeWay stores not carry the translation. You can watch the video of this portion of the conference here (24:00 – 36:00). I don’t care about LifeWay, so that decision does not affect me at all. Neither am I naive to not understand that the NIV is the most popular English translation of the Bible and that the 2011 edition offers, according to Christians for Biblical Manhood & Womenhood (CBMW), a whopping 2,766 gender-related translation inaccuracies based on a revision of Grudem and Thacker’s study of the TNIV translation (read their statement here).
The protests made against the 2011 NIV are categorized as follows:
- Changes made from singular to plural (and a few related changes to avoid the use of “He/Him/His”
- Changes made to avoid the word “Father”
- Changes made to avoid the word “Brother,” or to add “Sister”
- Changes made to avoid the word “Man”
- Changes made to avoid the word “Son”
- Changes made to avoid the word “Women”
- Changes made to avoid the phrase “the Jews”
- Changes that lose the nuance of holiness in the term “saints”
- Other changes
The biggest lobby against the translation is that it caters to a feminist reading of particular passages regarding the roles of men and women in the church. That is no big surprise considering that CBMW is producing this critique. I fully expect CBMW to take issue with the renderings that leave female authority open to discussion rather than a conservative translation that closes the discussion. I fully disagree with their conclusions, but I expect nothing else from them (read this for an excellent defense of the egalitarian position). I do, however, take issue with the critique on passages that have rendered the text to be more inclusive, such as “brothers and sisters” or “you” and the replacement of non-gendered pronouns for general statements instead of “he” or “him.” You can read CMBW’s analysis for specific examples.
Taken from CBMW’s statement:
The real controversy is whether to water down or omit details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive.
These revisions in the 2011 NIV display an awareness to the androcentrism of the Bible and attempt to render the text to be inclusive and accessible, and acknowledge the personhood, holiness, and equality of women in the scope of the Gospel and the church. This does not sit well with biblical literalists, who accept the bias towards the male, patriarchal experience of the ancient worlds in which the Bible was constructed as an extension of the inerrancy of Scripture and the validity of such social values for all eternity.
I understand the spectrum of methods in Bible translations (can’t stand the NASB, prefer NRSV and NIV, shocking). Retaining the intent and meaning of a passage is absolutely crucial. I understand that. However, I don’t quite see the meaning of Luke 17:3 being lost by translating it to read, “If your brother or sister sins against you…” It’s a good thing, too, because until now women didn’t have to forgive anyone! Nor did they have to be held accountable for anything. That stuff is just for the brothers.
This type of fear-based rhetoric that sounds an alarm towards against the loss of the integrity of the Scriptures is rooted in a fierce embrace of deeply patriarchal values that are centerfold of Evangelicalism. At the root is the fear that gender-inclusive language will ultimately lead to the removal of patriarchal father-language for God, which will obviously be the unraveling of the entire Gospel and Christianity, in addition to putting Mark Driscoll out of a job. The 2011 NIV didn’t even go near that issue.
Over the past few years the word “local” has taken on a powerful identity in our increasingly global economic market, dominated by multinationals and ruled by trade organizations that benefit the rich while neglecting the poorest humans, and the also poor Earth. Independent producers of goods and retailers, farmers and regional financial institutions are transforming our concepts of consumerism and pushing us towards embracing and contributing to the local economy. This means supporting independent artisans, farmers, tradespeople, and businesses that are keeping their revenues and tax dollars within the town/city/region, and also supporting other local businesses for their own needs. This creates a cycle of interdependency and a sustainable regionalism that is extremely beneficial to the economy and the earth. This is contrasted with supporting large, national or multinational corporate chains that drain money from your city, are not invested in your region, and are not interested in sustainability and the long-term influences upon the economy and environment, nor with the quality of life their presence adds beyond creating a need and telling people they have the solution for the lowest price.
These concepts correspond quite well to the the categories of “universal church” and “local church.” The universal church being a global market, fairly nebulous, and you don’t like everyone involved but you graciously allow them a place beside you because competition is healthy. The local church is the regional expression (or accident) of the universal category of Church. How does that regional nature affect and influence the local church? Does it at all?
Is the local church a chain store that identifies itself with a larger entity/headquarters rather than identifying itself within its bioregion, its economy, and its community? Is the church establishing local roots? Is the local church worthy of being called “local?” Is the money people give to the church put into local banks/credit unions? Does your church community know what watershed you live in? Does it have a sense of local history? Is there support for local agriculture? Is there resistance to multinationals and large corporations? Is your church supporting foreign missions more than neighborhood and community missions? Does your church offer its building/space for community events? Can the land your church building is on support community gardens to provide fresh vegetables for the poor? What resources can your church community provide to the greater public community?
This is no more than contextualization. However, this goes beyond contextualizing the gospel to philosophical shifts. This is the type of contextualization that embeds itself into a community and becomes a part of its sustainable future. Part of building the kingdom of God in your community is more than adding people to the church, but building healthy and positive futures for your communities, intertwining the peace and justice of the gospel into the every day life of your city. If the church is merely consumed with the bottom line of getting people saved, then it is operating like a national chain.
1. I am not trying to argue against denominations, so this metaphor obviously has its limits. The Lutheran church is currently doing a lot of great work in this area.
Yesterday, NPR ran this article on what seems to be the passing importance of gender, citing both the recent NIV Bible translation, and Canadian infant “Storm” as part of the cultural shifts towards gender neutrality.
As many know, the latest iteration of te NIV bible has gone gender-neutral. In a powerful religious subculture so married to binary gender identification categories and heteronormativity, what does such a move mean for the future of gender within dominant Christianity? Mainline churches have already moved towards greater inclusion and acceptance, but distinctive gender roles and heteronormativity still rule the day within Evangelicalism.
So that we are clear here, sex and gender are two different categories. One’s sex is biological and determined by one’s reproductive organs, whereas gender is not as fixed as one’s biology, but rather an identification and class that one assimilates to (either passively or actively). For the most part, our culture and our systems are designed around binary classifications that include male/female and masculine/feminine. However, biology and identity are not as easy as they seem when they appear on an official form or drop down menu with these two choices.
When we bind ourselves to these binary categories we exclude the biological realities of intersex persons (those with biological characteristics of both sexes). While intersex persons do not make up a large percentage of births, their very existence challenges our cultural concepts of sex and gender as fixed binary categories. What is the church’s response to challenges against male/female classification? If the answer is “deviance,” then I think we need to go back to the drawing board. Because the Bible operates within a binary framework (I’m assuming the closest we see to anything challenging the norm is the Ethiopian eunuch), is there room for other realities in biblical communities? What are the repercussions of answering yes or no? What do our beliefs about gender and sex say about the character of God? What do they say about sexuality and sexual ethics? What role does gender have in the gospel?
Patrick Cheng writes in his recent book, Radical Love:
“For the earliest Christians, coming together as a community was an act of subversion. It was the creation of a radically new ‘family’ or ‘body’ that transcended biological relationships and the established social order. It was a rehearsal for the end times, when the human body, with its physical attributes, would be raised as a spiritual body, or pneumatikos soma. In other words, church was an external community of radical love. That is, the church was a new community that dissolved traditional boundaries that kept people apart such as biological relationships, social class, and physical attributes . . .
As Galatians reminds us, there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. This gathering up of God’s people, regardless of sexuality, gender identity, and other differences, is the work of the Holy Spirit and is a way of returning us to the radical love that was sent by the first person of the Trinity, and the radical love that was recovered by the second person of the Trinity.” 
I’m not so sure that the NIV going gender-neutral is as much a signpost of the end of gender rather than the realization of the Bible’s androcentric tradition. However, there is still much room for inclusion, embrace, and wrestling with difficult parts of scripture and tradition in hopes of moving the gospel forward in love and grace, and growing into communities that reflect the justice, mercy, and peace of God.
1. Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury Books, 2011), 106.
Between my recent crash course in “Big History” in a seminary class and reading Wendell Berry’s Life is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, I have been reflecting on two things: my own lack of knowledge in the realm of science (environmental science, earth science, and biology) and the general disregard for science within evangelicalism because of its bias against creationism. Interdisciplinary work is more common in biblical studies within the categories of sociology and rhetoric, etc., but the hard sciences are not common partners for theology or biblical studies.
Ahh, the spat between science and theology. However, this hits a bit more closely to home than does the earth revolving around the sun. Besides the hermeneutical issues surrounding scientific and literal readings of the early chapters of Genesis and the threat that the Bible might not be telling the truth about how things all got started (in addition to laying down some fine theological groundwork for keeping the Sabbath in light of Israel’s history of slavery and exodus), the trouble for many Christians arises when other writers reference Israel’s myths and even construct belief and practice around them.
Just what is riding on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 and faith in a historical first couple? I heard someone recently say that a good myth is not just true once, but true over and over again. Does losing a pair of historical gardeners and their slithering nemesis make sin, domination, and broken relationships any less real? Does it weaken Christology if there was not an actual Adam that sinned, or does Jesus still repair the brokenness of creation through his life, death, and resurrection? Does Christianity unravel if our understanding of humanity being made in the image of God does not mean what we think it means?
Christianity Today is actually addressing some of these topics in its latest installment. There are two pieces for further reading. Additionally, there is a great article on Religion Dispatches on the topic as well. What are your thoughts?
While reading yesterday I came across the same idea in two very different texts. Given that it was a new idea to me, it gave me pause and is pushing me to engage with the creation accounts of Genesis in a new way.
Jacques Ellul in Anarchy and Christianity:
Far from being the universal Commander, the biblical God is above all the Liberator. What is not generally known is that Genesis is not really the first book of the Bible. The Jews regard Exodus as the basic book. They primarily see in God not the universal Creator but their Liberator. The statement is impressive: “I have liberated you from Egypt, the house of bondage” (Ex 13:14; 20:2). In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitsraim, and the meaning of this term is “twofold anguish,” which the rabbis explain as the anguish of living and the anguish of dying. The biblical God is above all the one who liberates us from all bondage, from the anguish of living and the anguish of dying. Each time that he intervenes it is to give us again the air of freedom. The cost is high. And it is through human beings that God discharges this mission, mostly human beings who at first are frightened and refuse, as we see from the many examples of God’s pedagogy. . . [38-39]
Dorothee Soelle in To Work and To Love:
“That God acted with liberating power on behalf of God’s chosen people in a specific historical time and space and under particular circumstances was the decisive factor in the Israelite understanding of God and humanity.” 
“It is in light of the Hebrews’ being freed from oppression by a foreign military superpower that we have to approach the conceptualization of creation in the biblical narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. The Exodus event precedes Jewish faith in creation and its exposition in narrative form.” 
“Biblical faith originated from a historical event of liberation, not from belief in creation.” 
“To return to the roots of the Jewish and Christian tradition means to understand the historical project of liberation carried out in the Exodus, before moving on to the ontological project that God inaugurated in the creation of the universe. Both projects, the historical and the ontological, are aimed at the freedom of the human being, and both projects need human agency . . . 
“The cosmic order as such, without a liberation tradition, does not reconcile slaves and other oppressed peoples, because it cannot empower them to free themselves.” 
“Creation faith is susceptible to the danger of “cheap reconciliation,” whereby we are asked to live as if we did not require freeing from present, unjust orders, as if the presumption of a universal transhistorical order were sufficient in itself for human life, and as if the God of nature had triumphed over the God of history. The oppressed have an epistemological advantage: They wait for a greater God. Creation is not yet finished. Both projects, the historical and the ontological, are aimed at the freedom of the human being, and it is one of the claims of this book that both projects need human agency. Participation in the ontological project of creation––human liberation––is possible only for the Exodus people, who have experienced at least once the liberating empowerment of the source of life. The universal source of life is not endlessly available to us, but, as the Jewish and Christian traditions claim, comes to us through particular historical events.” 
“When there is no memory of liberation, there can be no hope. Turning its back on liberation, creationism dehistoricizes what creation faith really is and reveals nothing of substantial relevance for people’s lives. For creationists, objectively speaking, the whole world has become the Egypt of the oppressor in which even the need for liberation is destroyed. The failure to reveal the truth of creation and its ontological project is matched, in creationism, by the attempt to control people’s lives and thoughts and to weaken their self-determination.” 
How might viewing Genesis 1 and 2 through the lens of the Exodus event and liberation influence your understanding of creation? Of humanity? Of the earth? Of hierarchy and relationships? What are your reactions to reading the creation myths through the lens of liberation?
Moving towards a theology that embraces both oppressed peoples and care for the earth requires the reclamation of trinitarian concepts and language that move us into communities rooted in radical love. Patrick Cheng writes,
The doctrine of the Trinity is a manifestation of God’s radical love because it is an internal community of radical love. That is, the Trinity breaks down a number of categories, including the self and the other. Because God is an internal community within God’s very being, this collapses the usual difference between the self and the other (that is, otherness as being “external” to one’s self). Thus, God consists of both the “self” and the “other.” Indeed, the love among the three persons of the Trinity has been described by the term perichoresis (or circumincessio in Latin), which means an ecstatic dance or interpenetration of the three persons.
The Trinity teaches us that the ontology of God is paradoxically both oneness and relationship. Part of our bearing the image of God is our longing not only towards relationship and community, but towards love. That humanity bears the image of God means that all people experience the intimacy of God through embrace, inclusion, community, and love. John writes that although no one has ever seen God, if we love one another God becomes alive within us, tangible, and made visible (1 John 4:12). The love which we are to imitate is indeed a radical love that is demonstrated in the act of creation. Cheng continues,
I believe that creation can be understood as God’s outpouring of radical love . . .God’s own being is inherently relational. That is, because of God’s three-fold existence, God is already a self-contained community and does not need anything else that is external to Godself. However, God chooses to create the universe–including humanity–as an outpouring of radical love.
Last week I wrote about history/nature dualism, which holds at its core that the natural world exists for the exclusive purpose of human use and enjoyment. This says something about our understanding of ourselves within the universe: we can use and dominate that which is “other” to us.
I am captivated and inspired by the concept of the Trinity containing both “self” and “other” in a radical love relationship.
Our spiraling human patterns of domination begin with the natural world and extend to our own species towards those whom we think are lesser than us, not as economically valuable, or simply “other” than ourselves. Our imitation of trinitarian love requires us to deconstruct hierarchical relationships that promote self over other, rich over poor, male over female, and human over non-human in an attempt to image the radical love of God and make it tangible, real, and present in a broken and hurting world.
1. Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury Books, 2011), 56.
2. Ibid., 62.
Essential to developing an ecologically sensitive theology is the necessity of devising a theology of nature. Richard Bauckham sheds some clarity on the concept of nature and how the word is commonly used. He lays out four common usages of the term ‘nature’: (1) essence, such as employed in Chalcedonian Christology, (2) the entirety of the created or observable world as separate from and distinctly different than God, (3) the world (including humanity) in a pre-fall state, and (4) the observable non-human world with a priority towards the natural environment and its relation to human life.
Inherent within the last usage, Bauckham claims, is a presupposed “distinction between ‘nature’ and humanity, or rather, between nature and culture/human history. Bauckham, as well as Rosemary Ruether, Joseph Sittler, Jurgen Moltmann, Stephen Bouma-Prediger, and Ian Barbour cite the nature/history dualism as ecologically unjust and unfaithful to the biblical witness. Bauckham claims that distinctions made between human culture and nature are false. Bouma-Prediger states simply that the dualism assumes that “history is defined as and limited to human history and thereby set over against nature.” Because of that distinction, Bouma-Prediger asserts that traditional theology has allowed “redemption and grace” to “extend only as far as history, i.e., humanity.” The cosmic scope of the work of Christ is diminished within the the history/nature dualism. Rather, Bouma-Prediger affirms with with Joseph Sittler that such an assumption represents a deep misunderstanding, and that “history must be redefined as inclusive of all being and nature must be reconceived as inclusive of human being.” He continues,
These revisions are fully compatible with the claim that Christianity is a historical religion. Indeed they more accurately capture the comprehensive biblical vision of the redemption of bodies, of grace for a groaning creation, and of shalom for all of God’s creatures.
An ecological perspective (for more on this, see my earlier post St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 3) implores us to reconsider the categories of history and nature that are typically mutually exclusive and posit humanity as both different from and over and above the natural world. Humanity must be conceived as a part of nature, thus drawing nature into the realm of history. From this point we can go proceed in either of two directions: the image of God or human dominion in Genesis 1:28. For our purposes here, I’d like to focus upon the imago Dei.
Bauckham states that the writer of Genesis 1 sees humanity as “one of the land animals, created on the sixth day,” yet makes a distinction between them in 1:28, while the writer of Genesis 2 envisions both Adam and the animals as “created out of the ground,” invoking images of God designing clay figures. He claims that in the second creation account nothing distinguishes Adam from the animals. Bauckham alludes to a lack of clarity regarding the intention of Genesis 2:7 to imply that Adam directly received the breath of life from God.
Even if this detail does indicate Adam’s special status in God’s sight, it indicates nothing about human nature which distinguishes it from the animals. However received, the same divine breath animates all things . . .the Old Testament seems to draw no hard line of distinction between human nature and the animals.
Anna Case-Winters would agree with Bauckham, and states, “there is an unbroken continuity with the rest of nature; separation is a false report on reality . . .we are nature.” Traditionally, human dominion is connected to being created in the image of God, based on a hierarchical pattern of creation. On the connection between dominion and creation in the image of God, Bauckham claims that it does not refer “to the dominion itself, but to whatever characteristics of human nature make human beings capable of this dominion.” So instead of Genesis 1:26-28 being read as building dominion into the fabric of creation, with humans ontologically superior to the natural world, Bauckham insists that the writer of Genesis 1 is
starting from the empirical observation that human beings are the dominant species on earth, and providing a theological interpretation of this; that God in creation intended human beings to be the dominant species on earth and intended them to exercise their dominion as [God’s] viceregents, responsible to [God].
Anna Case-Winters offers a critique on the common conceptualizing of the imago dei in regards to theological approaches that seek to firmly establish the imago dei as “what distinguishes the human being from nature,” and what sets humanity over and above nature. When theology is performed in such a manner, she claims,
one suspects an agenda designed to establish human rights to rule and exploit the rest of nature. I think the whole approach to the imago dei needs to be reconsidered. Our present habits of thought have led to separatism and anthropocentrism, which have proven both untenable and dangerous.
For Case-Winters, the preferred approach is rather to draw distinctions around the contributions which “human beings may make to the rest of creation.”
Whether we think of the image of God in terms of intrinsic capacities such as reason/ rationality or the quality of our living in relationship, these admit of more and less and could be seen as placing the human being on a continuum rather than in absolute distinction.
Employing distinctions between human history and nature and excluding nature from history and history from nature has practical/ethical implications as well as influences upon our theology. These two categories must be reimagined in order to create an ecological theology that contains an ethos of love, care, and equality among life. Stephen Bouma-Prediger has summarized five arguments from Rosemary Ruether that highlight the problems of the history/nature dualism and why it ought to be rejected:
1) this dualism is false because the natural world is historical in its own right; 2) this dualism is false because the natural world is indelibly affected by human agency and thus a part of human history; 3) this dualism is false because, as corporeal, humans are embedded in the natural order; 4) this dualism has led to disastrous consequences since it has sanctioned various forms of exploitation; 5) this dualism conflicts with the biblical emphasis on a single all-embracing covenant.
How do the two different accounts of creation influence your understanding of humanity, non-human life, and ethic towards creation? How do you understand the imago dei in relation to the rest of creation?
1.Bauckham, Richard. (1986). “First Steps to a Theology of Nature.” The Evangelical Quarterly, 58 no.3, 229.
3.Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995), 272.
10.Case-Winters, Anna. “Rethinking the Image of God.” Zygon 39 no. 4 (December 2004), 815.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table as I try to reflect on the momentous event that happened this week. I do not have a nationalistic or patriotic bone in my body. I did not personally lose any loved ones on September 11, 2001, nor did I lose any loved ones in the ensuing war. I am a pacifist. I am white, middle-class, well-educated, and I do not know suffering first hand. For these reasons, and probably others as well, I can find it difficult to construct deeply empathetic feelings when great tragedies occur. I can look upon an earthquake, or a tsunami, or hunger, or slavery, and feel saddened and upset, but because of my status and my residence within the locus imperium, I can take comfort in knowing that I can continue my life unaffected. Part of my own journey lies in dismantling my indifference and discovering ways in which my own status, wealth, and privilege can be used for goodness, equality, and justice, rather than for comfort.
I assume this indifference is true for the majority of Christians living in the United States. Our popular theology reveals this reality. The American narrative, deeply intertwined with Protestantism, reflects themes of election, exodus, and promise. God is on our side. Stir into the batter interpretations of Romans 13 that implore Christians to obey, support, and be subject to governing authorities, and we are left with a confidence that the directions that our nation takes are surely ordained by God at some macro level.
I’d like to posit two things, neither of which are new by any stretch of the imagination. The first is this: unless dominant Christianity adopts a theology that appropriately deals with suffering it will be bankrupt in its ability to deal with oppression and poverty, both asking the questions and searching for the answers as to why people are oppressed and poor, and what roles we knowingly or unknowingly play in perpetuating unjust systems. Wrapped up within a theology that appropriately deals with suffering is the notion of justice and exactly whose side God really is on. I feel quite confident in looking at our nation’s imperialism, military-industrial complex/disease (I’ll stop at those two) and say that God is not on our side. To be perfectly clear, this means that God is not responsible for, nor is God the cause of suffering in the world. Rather, when women, children, men, and the earth suffer, God suffers with them.
The second thing is this: God cares about this world. Much of Christianity theologically affirms a balance between the immanence and transcendence of God, but completely eliminates such a balance in worship and practice. Lurking behind the heavy emphasis on God’s transcendence is spirit/matter dualism and the subjugation of the lowly physical to the holy spiritual. There is so much to be said about the damage this has done, but for our purposes here, in removing God from within all of life we have desacralized creation and allowed ourselves to desacralize people who are different than us, destroying both. More than desacralizing our ‘enemies,’ we have made enemies out of our sisters and brothers. In light of this, we must allow the incarnation to teach us that God values all life, broadening our scope of both the incarnation and the atonement to include the breadth of creation.
Therefore, must affirm that God is on the side of life. When lives are taken it should grieve us. It should grieve me. As many other bloggers have expressed this week, rejoice is never the Christian response in the face of death. Justice is not served when life is taken. Rather, justice is served when life is redeemed, renewed, valued, and invigorated. Justice is served when schools and hospitals are rebuilt, when communities are restored, when gunfire ceases, and when weapons of mass destruction (ours) are dismantled. Justice and death are not related, but justice and life most certainly are. When we believe this, our theology changes and our actions then change.
Two particular responses to this week’s events are worth sharing. The first is from Miroslav Volf, and the second is from D.W. Horstkoetter writing for The Other Journal.
The words of the poet Andrea Gibson are gut-wrenchingly apt as we recognize that the death of one man will not eradicate violence, terrorism, death, oppression. We are far from peace, but I hope with all of my being that there is life and justice and peace in the way of Jesus.
(Posted by Peter Garcia)
For the past twenty years, Eastern Orthodoxy has been carving out a place for itself within the ecological movement. Its leaders and prominent theological voices are calling for great change within the way Christianity views humanity and the earth and the implications of the Created-creature divide.
Two themes show up a lot in modern Orthodox writings about the environment and humanity’s place within it. The first one is an understanding of the universe as a sacrament, and the second is an understanding of humanity as priests of creation.
Below is an excerpt from a paper I recently wrote in which I explored some of the theological themes of modern Eastern Orthodoxy that give it an ecological vision. This section addresses these two themes. What are your thoughts on the understanding of creation as a sacrament? What are its implications for daily life and for worship? Given that Evangelicalism contains zero to very little understanding of sacrament, are these themes helpful in propelling dominant Christianity into a more ecological theology?
If you are interested in what Eastern Orthodoxy has to say about these issues, look up the works of Elizabeth Theokritoff, John Zizioulas, John Chryssavgis, Kallistos Ware, and Patriarch Bartholomew I. I have been deeply impressed by these individuals. The love they have for God, humanity, and the creation is vibrant and expressed so poetically. We have much to learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Anthropocentrism: the problem or the solution?
One of the most central features of Christianity’s entrance into the ecological conversation is the examination of its anthropocentric cosmology. The anthropocentrism derived from Christian thought and tradition––a point of attack for Lynn White Jr.––is believed to drive a wedge between matter and spirit, support dualism, and embed a strongly hierarchical view of creation that situates humanity over and above all other life. This in turn instills a utilitarian approach towards the natural world, with little duty or responsibility to actively seek its benefit and sustenance.
However, Patriarch Bartholomew intentionally upholds and seeks to redeem anthropocentrism by appealing to humanity’s privileged relationship to God in creation. In a 2002 address, he told his listeners, “We believe that the human person constitutes the crown of creation,” and that, “We believe that the natural creation is a gift from God, entrusted to humanity as its governor, provider, steward, and priest,” appealing to the agrarian calling to work and preserve the creation.
The metaphor of humanity as priest of creation, popular among Bartholomew, Chryssavgis, and Theokritoff, is prominently employed by John Zizioulas, who attempts to release the concept of ‘priesthood’ from the pejorative and instead infuse it with “the characteristic of ‘offering’ in the sense of opening up particular beings to a transcending relatedness with the ‘other’ – an idea more or less corresponding to that of love in its deepest sense.” Here we are again drawn into the concept of creation as sacrament. In this framework, the created world and humanity are not in “opposition to each other, in antagonism, but in positive relatedness.” Expanding on what it means for humanity to be priests of creation, Zizioulas offers that it begins with recognizing that “creation does not belong to us, but to God, who is its only ‘owner’. By so doing we believe that creation is brought into relation with God and not only is it treated with the reverence which befits what belongs to God, but it is also liberated from its natural limitations and transformed into a bearer of life.” 
Critiquing the assumption that God requires “human mediation in order to enjoy and love non-human creation, Crina Gschwandtner is “not as convinced as most other Orthodox writers that this notion of human priesthood of creation really relieves all the problems of anthropocentrism.” 
However, in spite of all the talk of anthropocentrism, Bartholomew does not feel that it is anthropocentrism which poses the greatest threat, but rather “anthropomonism, that is, the exclusive emphasis on and isolation of humanity at the expense and detriment of the natural environment,” precisely because “nature is related to people and people to nature.” The deflection of pejorative connotations from anthropocentrism onto anthropomonism allows the preservation of anthropocentrism as a redemptive ideal to be upheld in the Orthodox tradition. For Bartholomew, the inspiration for Christian earthkeeping is “human-centered, just as in fact all of creation is anthropocentric.” He continues, appealing to Christian tradition, that “the world was created for the sake of humankind and that everything is regulated so as to contribute to our survival,” and where creation is out of step with humanity’s flourishing is evidence of “the consequence of our revolt against the harmony of God, which brought with it a partial revolt of nature against our rule over it.” 
Within Eastern Orthodoxy, however, regardless of one’s understanding of humanity’s status within the created order, it is crucial to hold the conviction that the entire world is a sacrament. This sacramental view of the material world leads one towards a life of asceticism, the praxis emerging from the embodiment of these perspectives. An “ascetic ethos” grounds Eastern Orthodoxy in its values, giving it the legs it needs to walk softly on the earth as it seeks to lead its faithful in the care of the earth.
1. John Chryssavgis, ed. Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans), 313.
2. John Zizioulas, “Priest of Creation,” in Environmental Stewardship, ed. R.J. Berry (New York: T&T Clark International), 274.
4. Ibid., 289.
5. Crina Gschwandtner, “Orthodox ecological theology: Bartholomew I and Orthodox contributions to the ecological debate,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 10, no. 2 (August 2010): 138.
6. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 19.
7. Ibid., 314. In the same 2002 address, Bartholomew stated that humanity “preferred to pursue independence, resulting in the creation of a new order and different pattern within the natural environment – commonly referred to as anthropocentrism, but more properly identified as anthropomonism.”
8. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 251.
10. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 45-47. Patriarch Bartholomew lists an ascetic ethos alongside a eucharistic ethos and a liturgical ethos as three pillars that uphold the ecological vision of Orthodox faith and practice.
Two weeks ago I wrote on my engagement with Job via Brown’s The Ethos of the Cosmos (read Part 1 here). I left off with Job envisioning an undoing of creation in an imaginative peeling back the layers of reality to reveal the chaos into which God spoke and brought forth life and order (see Job 3). On the other side of Job’s reality he sees equality. Gone are the social stratifications, inequalities, and powerful systems that separate people into spheres of worth by gender, class and race. Job sees glimpses of a new reality, new social and familial structures–he sees something radically different than the patriarchy he is exclusively familiar with.
When Job finally has his chance to duke it out with Yahweh, something completely unexpected happens. Yahweh invites Job into the wild. Job is assaulted with a whirlwind of questions about an assortment of undomesticated animals, through which Yahweh ultimately points to the fact that every last one of them is dependent upon the Divine. Contrasted to Adam, Job is brought before the wild animals rather than the other way around. Job is, figuratively, in their territory. Job has left the safety of civilization and community and comfort and is introduced to a vast array of nonhuman life.
Job learns that beyond the scope of civilization and order and human life is a world that God cares for deeply. The distinctions between civilized and uncivilized melt before Job, as Yahweh is revealed to have created all and therefore value all. Brown notes that “Job comes to see that he is a child of God as much as all these creatures are shown to be nurtured and set free by Yahweh” (Brown, 376). These creatures exist and thrive entirely outside of and independent from humanity. “The outer limits of creation,” Brown says, “serve double duty for Job by deconstructing and restoring his character” (Brown, 377). Brown makes the observation that not once during Job’s introduction to the wild do any of the creatures “bless or praise their Maker”; there lacks any mention of “wild animals rendering due honor to God as a consequence of divinely rendered care, in contrast to the exilic prophet’s vision of the transformed desert (Isa 43:20). Nature does not praise God, in contrast to its role in the psalms of praise” (Brown, 377) . The wild and uncivilized realm of oxen and onagers and lions and ravens is the landscape of Job’s discipleship journey. “Rather than praising God, Job comes to a clearer perception of God and, consequently, of himself” (Brown, 377). After Job’s pride has been thoroughly dismantled, he has new eyes to see the world as Yahweh sees it. The value, worth, autonomy and independence of the natural and uncivilized world under the creative hand of Yahweh levels prior hierarchical distinctions between created beings. Bringing Job to the furthest outposts of creation where Behemoth and Leviathan play around chaos’ border, Yahweh teaches Job that all life, all people, all things are good, and very good. “These denizens of the margins are ultimately for Job symbols laden with the power to reorient his praxis within the community to which he must return” (Brown, 379).
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5-6)
Job returns home a different man. He no longer sees himself at the top of a chain of power, but as an integral link in a community of partner relationships rather than subject-object relationships. Job begins this new example within his own family by extending an inheritance to his three daughters “along with their brothers” (42:15). The sapiential tradition that once dominated Job’s ethic fades upon discovering that “the ethic of merit and retribution has no home in the wild . . .Now it has lost its pride of place in Job’s own home, so his new conduct indicates. Servility too is banished from the hearth: distinctly lacking in the epilogue is any mention of the numerous slaves in Job’s household” (Brown, 379).
Yahweh answers Job’s undoing of creation by thrusting Job into an alternately uncivilized world, certainly a chaotic realm for a person of means such as Job. As a result, Job sees that the structured inequality and stratification and distinctions of patriarchal culture are socially constructed. Job realizes that he is as much created and cared for and dependent upon the functioning of the biosphere as the ostrich, the donkey, and the lion. This realization leads to a new relationship with both the earth and its inhabitants. The question of who is Job’s neighbor sits at the center of his experience.
A part of our calling to realize the kingdom of God here on earth, proclaiming good news to the poor, restoring freedom, and lifting oppression, lies within our ability to sense our place within creation and seek equality and peace within our reality. Domination and anthropocentrism do not fit into this equation. We must find new ways to relate to one another and to the earth.
I’ve been swamped with reading and writing this week as I am two weeks from the close of my semester. Suffice it to say that I’ll finish my discussion on Job and equality next week.
In the mean time, I was really stoked to come across this last week. A company in my town is turning plastics into fuel on the cheap. It doesn’t necessarily address our dependence on foreign oil, but it is still remarkable and something that can possibly lead towards more sustainable communities.
I’ve been reading a lot of statements and articles from the Eastern Orthodox tradition regarding the care for the environment. This one by Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff is a pretty good representation of where the tradition currently stands. Thoughts?
The Book of Job has been a text that I’ve never really known how to approach, and have always been confused and troubled by. William P. Brown offers a phenomenal commentary on the poetic tale of Job in The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible. Brown shows how the relationship between Job and Yahweh radically confronts the wisdom tradition and critiques the privileged patriarchy that Job so piously identifies himself with. The supposedly righteous Job losing everything flies in the face of ancient wisdom teachings. This is a good thing! Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Proverbs. While there is genuinely good advice and truth to be found in its wisdom, it presupposes a cosmic/divine submission to the implementation of moral and ethical aphorisms; it is wisdom in a vacuum. The issue of injustice is greater than my personal adherence to the maxims of Proverbs. My facing adversity, failure, and hardships are not results of my failure to live up to a particular standard of moral or spiritual conduct. Likewise, the oppression endured by millions around the world is not a result of their failure to live up to a moral or spiritual standard. And conversely, the success, health, good fortune, and abundance that we enjoy in the West and Global North is also not the result of our righteousness, spiritual fervor, and ability to carve out a moral society that reflects biblical values. The connections between wealth, success, and divine blessing are deeply woven into the cosmology ancient Judaism and other Near East religions as well.
Enter Job. Here is a person of incredible means who is in want of nothing, and believes he doing everything right. Brown writes,
Befitting his eminence, Job is a man of unprecedented blessing, hard evidence for the satan to challenge Yahweh (1:10). In the satan’s own words, Job’s possessions have ‘broken out over’ or ‘overrun’ the land. As Job’s wealth has transgressed the land, as it were, so Yahweh has violated all sense of equity in favoring Job (Brown, 321).
Job’s identity lies within his righteousness, wealth, status, and piety. The wisdom tradition says that Job has done everything correctly, yet Job does not reap the benefits of blessing and wealth. Job becomes the archetype of privilege, blessing, and wealth lost. Job is now caught in poverty, desperation, and confusion, and has come to become who he detests. Rather than losing his status, Job curses his existence and would rather see a massive reversal and undoing of creation than to be on the bottom of society, sitting on an “ash heap, bereft of the trappings of patriarchy: ownership, honor, and stature” (321). Job’s new situation is a destructive threat to his worldview, as he now believes himself to be a “victim of God’s abusive whim (7:12-15; 9:17-19, 30-32; 10:16-17)” (322). Carrying on the imagery of his own undoing, Job “envisions existence in Sheol as one that encompasses all walks of life, both great and small . . .Social divisions are erased, and the inhabitants of Sheol enjoy the eternal blessings of freedom . . .Job, one the wielder of wealth, can now identify with those who forever have lacked material means” (323).
It is only in this realm of Sheol that Job sees a veritable equity. Princes and slaves are side by side; the “small and the great” together (3:19). Job’s worldview, preoccupied with wealth, status, blessing, and stratification, cannot imagine this equality in reality. Job finds liberation within his call for cosmic undoing. His imagined chaos frees him from the shackles of his unjust reality. However, it is not simply a selfish freedom. The liberating chaos of his imagination levels all. Brown notes,
Chaos serves to erase all form and structure associated with life and community on this side of existence. For Job, this is indeed salutary, even liberating. Chaos has paved the way to freedom; it packs a revolutionary wallop. As the subversive instrument that disrupts and breaks down the cosmos, chaos ushers in new possibilities of social existence. The ancient sages long equated social upheaval with cosmic upheaval (324). 
Job is exploring the other side of structure and the other side of patriarchy and sees an equality. The opposite of structure and order is chaos. Because patriarchy and governance is associated with structure and order, envisioning egalitarianism and radical equality is equated with chaos and anarchy. Equality becomes an enemy of structure and order. The sacrifice of power is too great and too threatening to yield to any new social, familial, ecclesial, or political order on this side of life. Appealing to the equality in which we stand before God but not seeking to implement and live out that equality “on earth as it is in heaven” is a result of the love of power that thrives on comfortable structure and order.
Only in death can Job reside in such a community of equals, one so radical in its orientation that only predatory chaos can clear away the cosmic clutter and set the stage for a new morphology of community. Only in the land of the dead, stripped of all stratification, can freedom and equality reign, so Job imagines. The dissolution of the cosmic community is ultimately its rehabilitation (324).
Rehabilitation, discipleship, and restoration next week.
Brown, William P. The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
A major component in the eco-theology discussion is Christian anthropology and the ordering of humanity within the cosmos; human relationship and positioning to God and to the universe.
Ivone Gebara responds to the question, “What are you proposing when you say we must change the anthropological basis upon which Christianity is built?”
I suggest that we must first change our image of men and women within the cosmos. And when we change that image, our image of God changes. Any image of God is nothing more than the image of the experience or the understanding we have of ourselves. We must re-situate the human within –not above – the cosmos. This is diametrically opposed to a Christian anthropology that insists humanity is ‘Lord of Creation’ ordered by the Creator to ‘increase and dominate the Earth.’ In the current anthropology, the human’s right to dominate, control, and posses has been legitimized by the Creator and thus becomes part of human nature, pre-established – and therefore impossible to change. 
A few weeks ago I briefly detailed the hierarchical ordering of the cosmos derived from the creation poem in Genesis. Classical theism is dependent upon this structure, but is this anthropology one that is essential to Christianity? Is this a framework that is biblically consistent?
Here are two options for reconfiguring our anthropological situation into more linear renderings:
Humanity Animal life Nature
2. Humanity Animal life God Nature
The first still maintains the God-World transcendence of classical theism. The second, something of an incarnational anthropology, brings God into the center of the world, intimately involving God with the ebb and flow of creation. What implications do both of these renderings present?
The second rendering moves beyond an emphasis on God’s transcendence from the world and places God within the world, necessarily deconstructing the dualist separation between matter and spirit. However, as Gebaras states, this can only occur through egalitarianism. Gender is the paradigm through which our anthropology shifts or remains the same.
How does the classic hierarchical structure compare to the more linear structures vis-a-vis the stewardship of creation? Does the classic structure import an ethical responsibility for the care of all of life? Can gender-equality be assumed within the hierarchical structure without radical reconstruction?
 Gebara, Ivone. “Ecofeminism and Panentheism,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology. Edited by Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre (Lanham: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 210-11.
May we realize that they live not for us alone
but for themselves and for thee,
and that they love the sweetness of life.
-St. Basil, 4th Century
The largely unexamined view of creation that exists within much of Evangelicalism is that nonhuman creatures and the rest of creation do not have intrinsic value, but derive their value from human usage. This view towards creation goes hand in hand with traditional theism’s understanding of the dominion language of Genesis 1, and the hierarchical divides outlined in Part 2 of this series. In his book, For the Beauty of the Earth, Steven Bouma-Prediger examines seven realms of ecological thought on a continuum ranging from the “Conservation Movement” to the opposite end in the “Deep Ecology” movement (which we will look at another time). It is my presumption that the “Conservation Movement” is the prevailing position of Evangelicalism. It is also my presumption that faithfulness to God and to the earth requires Christianity to move beyond this realm of “Conservation,” the basic outline of which Bouma-Prediger states thusly:
“Nonhuman creatures do not have intrinsic value. Their value is derived exclusively from their usefulness for humans––trees are for lumber, water for human consumption, the prairie for grazing cattle. The natural world is valuable only as a means of serving human interests. The scope of what is morally considerable is relatively small––only humans count morally, and usually only humans here and now.” 
What are your thoughts and reactions to this position? Do you see it reflected within the Christian community today? Does this position seem too human-centered? Also, do you see it as a biblical position? The questions raised by this ethic are: What is the value of a tree? Of a wetland? A mountain? A spider? Do they have value? If so, how much value do they possess and at what point does the human community sacrifice its power for something nonhuman?
I purposefully made quite a jump from exploring the intrinsic value of nonhuman life to the competing interests between human and nonhuman life. That logical jump is firmly rooted within the anthropocentric view of creation espoused by the “Conservation Movement,” assuming that valuing nonhuman life is a slippery slope towards the impediment to human progress and growth.
When we begin to examine these questions from just outside of our traditional Western (and dualistic) worldviews, we can evaluate them in a new light. Recognizing the influence of modern science on the way we think, we often fail to process the individual entities listed above within their ecological contexts. They remain isolated and examined within the realm of substance. Stated another way, we fail to comprehend the relations that each of these entities engage in because we tend to extract individuals and valuate them apart from the community they exist in. John Cobb asserts that,
“The effort to study things in abstraction from their relations is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is that things exist as independent entities and only incedentally are related to one another. This is the misunderstanding that lies at the base of the materialistic view of nature (which is shared by both the dualistic and the materialistic worldviews).” 
Cobb joins in the critique of Western dualism and its difficulty in viewing things in relation to one another. The relational vision of all creation proposed here is what is precisely what is meant by the term ecology. Ecology deals explicitly with relationships within ecosystems. Everything is in relationship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Once we remove objects, people, animals, or other components of creation from their relational context, we strip them of life. Relationship is the language of creation. Therefore, developing an ecological theology is in a sense, to borrow from St. Basil, part of enlarging our “sense of fellowship.” This requires a shift from our understanding of nature and creation as the backdrop for human history to an understanding of nature and creation as intimately and indispensably related to human history.
As we finish our look at this ecologically minded poem from St. Basil, his final stanza places an intrinsic value on the nonhuman community. His hope is wrapped up in a vision of an earth community that embraces all of life, eschews dominion as domination, and sees all of creation as possessing great worth because it was made by the hand of God. Animals, plants, and the earth exists not for humanity alone, but for all of life in a great web of relationship. Throughout history many prominent theological voices have proclaimed the beauty of creation as witness to God’s glory. This is not merely an aesthetic beauty experienced upon creation as it is pleasing to the human eye, but the inherent beauty in the systems and cycles of creation that occur in transcendence to human experience and participation. This is nothing new or radical. However, the implications of recapturing an inclusion of the greater earth community (human and nonhuman life) within our enlarged sense of fellowship requires a shift in not only our environmental ethics, but also our political ethics, and our economic ethics as well.
Our attendance to the world’s current environmental situation is deeply connected to both our theologies of creation and anthropology. These prophetic words of St. Basil that we have explored over the past three weeks speak arguably more loudly to us today than to their original audience. Over the past three weeks, Basil has been the avenue through which I have laid down some statements, ideas, and thoughts that I am currently seeking to work out and explore in my own personal academic and spiritual journey. I feel that these issues of ecology are deeply important to the Church today as it seeks to curate hope in a world desperately seeking purpose, community, and answers. They are also intimately tied to our views of God, the Incarnation, and the restoration we hope for in Jesus, which makes wrestling with an ecological theology even more important for us today.
Dialogue, feedback, criticism, and amens are welcomed and encouraged. Thanks for reading.
1. Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 128.
2. Cobb, John B. “Ecology, Science, and Religion: Toward a Postmodern Worldview,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology. Edited by Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre (Lanham: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 241.
We remember with shame that in the past
we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty
so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song,
has been a groan of travail.
This second stanza from the poem of our Cappadocian father, St. Basil, is one of repentance, humility, and vision for a better reality. Before continuing the exegesis of St. Basil’s poem where I left off last week, I’d like to share a little bit of the perspectives from which I am writing. One of the major threads that has woven itself into our theology – and which I wish to unravel and deconstruct – is dualism. Its absorption into Christianity has much to do with our Western thought processes of either/or instead of being able to hold a both/and in tension and embrace mystery and paradox within our faith. The most prominent way in which dualism manifests itself is the separation between the spiritual and material. The blending of the spiritual and material to form the adam from the adama in Genesis 2 presents us with a wild pattern for creation that ultimately finds its culmination in the Incarnation. Secondly, our dualism also locks us into limited metaphors for God. None of our language for God is completely adequate, nor can our metaphors and images of God be taken literally in ways that bind God because they all break down at one point or another. Thirdly, because of this dualism, Christianity has prescribed an anthropocentrism that sharply divides between human and non-human based on an understanding of the imago Dei as located within the human soul and equated with rationality. Recognizing and breaking free from these dualistic tendencies allows us to enter into paradox in a way that enables us to see God, creation, and ourselves afresh–enabling us to see God in all people and in all things, and in ourselves as well.
Returning to St.Basil’s poem, we are confronted with the notion of the “high dominion of humankind.” Bound up in this language of Genesis 1 are the dual ideas of privileged relationship and tremendous responsibility. It’s striking to imagine what St. Basil meant by such ruthless cruelty in his pre-Industrial Age, fourth-century context while we read from our own twenty-first century era of ecological unrest and strife.
The first chapter of Genesis is our source for this dominion language.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God 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. (Gen 1.27-28 NRSV)
This notion has been the justification for centuries of harm to the earth, to animals, and to other humans in the name of Christianity. The misinterpretation of this dominion language is a result of our previously mentioned dualism. “Dominion” has not been tempered by servanthood. Basil aptly laments that humanity actively silences the song, life, and fecundity of the earth, God’s creation. Dominion has been understood to mean ours for the taking, for our benefit, power to manipulate, absolute sovereignty over. While these concepts do speak to dominion, they fail to capture the fullness of dominion. They promote ownership without responsibility; leading without serving; consuming and not refilling. Those are not the traits of healthy, fulfilling relationships. Our understanding of dominion has been constructed outside of the Gospel. For God, dominion entailed not strength and power, but weakness and servanthood. It meant becoming human. The incarnation–the blending of the material and the spiritual says something about God, and it says something about the way in which we live our lives in reflection of God. A dominion that is not lived out through a servanthood that tracks with God the worth, value, and beauty of the creation is illegitimate and has failed to enter into the radical reversal of the Gospel: everyone and everything matters.
Our vision of dominion establishes a hierarchy from creation that denies that everyone and everything matters. It looks like this:
This hierarchy plays out in the following ways. Closeness to God is about spirituality, which means becoming less human and more divine so as to escape the physical obstructions that stand between us and God. God is understood to be intimately close to humans, but not intimately close to the rest of creation. Male is over and above female. Male and female both are over and above the animals. The feminist critique recognizes a line between Male and Female, denoting Female association with nature and maternal processes within non-human life, dividing the hierarchy between God and Male, and the rest of creation. Animals sit below humans. Lastly, the earth – consisting of all non-animal life – sits at the bottom of this hierarchy. With such sharp separations between humanity and the earth, and between the earth and God, we lose a sense of God within all of creation. Dualism yields separation, and separation results in enmity. This separation and enmity has caused us to remove God from the very foundational elements of creation, life, and sustainability: arable soil, adama. When we remove God from something or someone, it doesn’t matter what we do to it, or him, or her. Is God present in the dirt? Is God the dirt (which is different than asking “is the dirt God?”)? What are your reactions to these notions?
Is this observed hierarchy God’s construction? The biblical authors’ constructions? Genesis 3 is often appealed to as the source for this hierarchy vis-a-vis the fall, but here is the question we must ask ourselves: is this hierarchy prescriptive or descriptive. Is this the way things will be ordered in a fallen world in which sin is chief? Or is it a description of how humanity fails to live in proper relationship to one another, to God, and to creation, from which we strive to evolve?
Basil sees that the self-sustaining and self-regulating fecundity with which God has created is being systematically interrupted by dominion. Within the framework I have outlined, dominion and fellowship are in opposition. Our fellowship is limited by anthropocentrism, preventing us from seeing God alive and present within non-human creation. This desacralizes both human and non-human life, rendering us unable to see the thread of God stitching all of life together within creation’s interdependent ecosystems.
Given the global consequences of our disassociation with creation, removal of God from creation, and subsequent abuses of nature, it is our responsibility to reconcile dominion and fellowship if we wish to be faithful to the earth, to humanity, and to God. We must come to realize that there is no environmental injustice that is not also a social injustice, that is not also painful to God.
As part of my academic and spiritual pursuits, I am deeply interested in reconciling a care for creation within a faith tradition that has generally ventured beyond negligence and into the realm of disdain for nature. There is much tension within popular Christianity regarding the ecological movement and the church’s involvement in environmental issues. It is my goal to explore and wrestle with our understandings of scripture, our relation to creation, God’s relation to creation, and how the synthesis of the three influences our theology, actions, and our understanding of the Gospel in light of ecological concerns.
I’d like to commence my blogging on GCM with a poem by St. Basil that exudes a deep care for creation, both human and non-human. This poem will serve as a foundation for exploring our relationships to God, to creation, and to ourselves–the stuff of the Gospel.
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things,our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail.
May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life
At the heart of Basil’s first stanza is a deep reflection upon the ministry and work of Jesus. An enlarged sense of fellowship marked the experience of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The socio-economic and purity barriers that dominated Jesus’ first century Jewish experience in an occupied state are torn down by Jesus’ ethic of inclusion and “enlarged sense of fellowship.” Nowhere else is this more richly displayed than in the healing stories and meal pericopes which exemplify non-judgment and inclusion into deep hospitality, communion, and life sharing.
In the second half of this first stanza, Basil humbly asserts the equality of life amongst human and non-human creatures. He says that our home is their home, too. We share the common space of the earth with a vast amount of non-human creatures. Humanity inhabits less than 2% of the earth’s surface. Considering that there are roughly 1.7 million identified differing species living on the planet (this number includes both animal and plant species), it could be more accurately said that they share the earth with us.
The relationships envisioned by this first part of St. Basil’s poem redefine conceptions of our separation from the rest of creation by challenging himself to not simply experience and benefit from creation, but to relate to it. This can be conceived in terms of shifting our understandings of our relationships to all of life–human and non-human–away from I-It patterns and into an I-Thou paradigm. This is the relational model of the Gospel.
If we can humbly redefine our place within the created order (read: rethink our understanding of what dominion means in terms of theology and praxis; more on this next week) to that of sisters and brothers, servants and keepers, shepherds and shepherdesses, then does our call to love our neighbors extend to the broader earth community? Through this we can image God in the reconciliation of all things spoken of in the rich Colossian poem (1:15-29).
We’ll continue with St. Basil’s poem next week.