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.